'Freedom of speech' is not a license to be nasty: opinion

In the right hands, social media can be a powerful tool for good, but when misused it becomes a weapon that leaves deep scars upon a community.

Take the story about Michelle Roworth as an example of the positive force these new millennium networks have in our lives. In years gone by there would no doubt have been fundraisers and charity balls to help raise money for this young family, but nothing like the $15,000 that came flooding in just days after the online campaign was launched.

While no amount of money can remove the pain and fear of a shock cancer diagnosis, it can help ease the stress of paying the bills back home for a worried husband and father.

However, the fickle winds of social media blow both ways and as the Roworths enjoy an outpouring of love and support, the organisers of Illuminate Wagga have found themselves in the firing line.

Billed as a community event in the same vein as Sydney’s wildly-popular Vivid festival, Illuminate promised to be a “beacon of light” with “mind-blowing light installations and projections” for thousands of locals and visitors. But critical punters were quick to lay the boot in after Saturday night’s showing, calling the inaugural event an “embarrassment” to the city.

Perhaps Illuminate over-promised what it could deliver, but it’s worth keeping in mind it was a community event run by volunteers. Even with a $10 entry fee, there’s no way Illuminate could pull in anywhere close to the $8 million Sydney spends on Vivid each year. 

Sadly, it’s far easier for keyboard warriors to vent their spleen all over social media than it is for them to roll up their sleeves and help put something like Illuminate together. And the fleeting sense of satisfaction at “having their say” is outlasted by the hurt felt by those volunteers who simply tried to make something beautiful.

We’ve lost great community organisations and events because of a lack of volunteers and it’s little wonder when you read some of the vitriol that’s been spewed all over Facebook.

Why would you stick your hand up when there are hundreds of faceless nobodies prepared to slap it down again?

Free speech is one thing, but venomous criticism is something else entirely. Hopefully the volunteers will ignore the nastiness and try again, remembering that the critics are often lost to history.