No Comment

Now well into in the fifth year of writing a column, I have long since quit reading the comments section except on very rare occasions. Nowadays I look at the responses maybe one time in twenty, if that -- and then usually because an editor suggests it is necessary.

From those brief excursions, it is clear that people do often expect reply, or at least a certain amount of my attention. In a couple of cases, it even appears that commentators are under the impression that we are engaged in some kind of long-term dialogue. This belief is....well, to put it one way, interesting.

Of course, there are intelligent criticisms, and sometimes even flattering remarks. But that doesn't make a priority to look at the comments more than two or three times a year. There is just too much else to do, and the benefit-to-dismay ratio is not encouraging.

To be candid about it, I am paid to write the column and that's that. My full obligation is met once the editors have sent it along for publication. (If somebody wanted to send me money via PayPal to read their comments, then maybe we could come to some arrangement on a case-by-case basis.)
All of this come to mind, of course, on the occasion of an article in the new issue of the Times magazine. As a general characterization of the phenomenon, many of its points seem very apt, but it stops short of considering how this "interactivity" (however faux) affects the writing process. There is a dissertation to be done on this question; maybe one already has been.

The most striking thing about the emergence of online comments, to go by my own experience, is that it has grown much harder to trust the reader. You become conscious that it is impossible to say X so clearly that the reader will not insist that you are saying the exact opposite of X. It is not heartening.

You want to take a certain level of attention, intelligence, and good faith as a given. You don't want to have to posit this continuously and with effort, through an act of will.

Unfortunately it now seems necessary to make a firm distinction between the imagined and the empirical audiences. My intended reader is smarter than I am, and I really don't want to waste her time. The actually existing audience -- at any given moment -- may or may not be in that league. But the most generous possible approach is to ignore the evidence one way or the other.
April 26, 2009 11:59 AM | | Comments (12)



Scott, this post of yours allows comments. Should I feel myself entitled to post one?

Sure -- for some reason my attitude is completely different about this blog. I wonder if other people who are both writers and bloggers have experienced the same sense of the activities being distinct in that way.

My pet theory is that comments are governed by something like Gresham's law, where bad comments drive out good. The crappier the comments, the less reason you have to say anything worthwhile. So, the more reasoned (and attentive) responses are withheld.

If most writers and readers (as suggested by the Times piece) ignore comments, why aren't more comment sections shut down?

Quite right about the equivalent of Gresham's law being in effect. Nobody wants to feel like they are joining a chorus of braying jackasses, even to sing counterpoint.

As for why the comments sections survive -- well, people literally come up to me at conferences and ask that ahout IHE, since discussion there often seems dominated by a few tireless, persistent, and quite dim people who bring nothing to the discussion of anything and who in some cases are not "inside higher ed" but rather "inside rooms lined with aluminum foil."

There is a long answer and a short one, and having just been clobbered with a mild flu, I am not up for giving the long one. The short version is that there seems to be a consensus among the business folk that comments sections drive up traffic. "Yes, among idiots," you may respond, and I will not argue. But a hit is a hit, and it means another set of eyeballs delivered to advertisers.

Seems to me this is a case of size mattering, no? Better for a small blog with a coterie of regular and intelligent commenters to hit big than the Times to slap a comment box on an article and let anyone who stumbles across it to air their grievances. (Seems to me the test case for this would be Pharyngula, where heavy-handedness by both P.Z. and his regulars keeps the signal-to-noise ratio sane.)

Thanks for the explanation of why sites keep their comment systems. Probably part of the increased traffic is the reloads necessary to check & see if anybody has responded to what you posted.

Another phenomenon I've noticed is that groups tend to congregate. The SF Chronicle's website ( has comments, and they float 3 of them to the article's page. Almost exclusively, the comments are right wing drivel, often racist or borderline. I don't why this is,
but the right wing loves to hang out there.

I do wonder if the commentators, as you call them, would stop posting if they knew the author wasn't listening. I'm not sure they would; I think that they exist in their own world.

Finally, in reference to the Times article, while I tend to think that online comments are pretty appalling, is it such a bad thing that Applebaum is getting criticized? The article seems to assume that she, at least, should be above criticism for ... what reasons exactly? That she won a Pulitzer prize? That she was a Thatcherite but is now an Obama supporter? Mostly, I suspect, because she is a harsh critic of America's official enemies.

Interestingly, out here on the prairie, this same discussion was recently sparked by the decision of the local city glossy (D magazine) to disable the comments section on its popular, snarky blog, Frontburner -- until as such time the parent publication pays to install a comment- moderating system. In a bit of a co-inkydink, Virginia Heffernan also brought up the issue of Web comments killing good journalism in her most recent NYTimes Sunday magazine column.

Ironically, the Gresham's Law of online comments means that these avalanches of snidery are not simply distracting; they destroy even the illusion of conversation or exchange. Which, after all, is supposed to be the Web’s highly vaunted, interactive advantage over traditional media.

One final point worth noting that Heffernan didn't (and no one else has, so far): the potential for a libel suit that nasty comments represent. I'm sure the media company lawyers have considered this. I suspect most bloggers don't have to worry because they have no money. Then again, there probably are people who'd willingly file a lawsuit just to shut down a website as a punitive measure and not as a means to a payoff.

But oh, speaking hypothetically, how much might a blogger charge for responding to a comment? Does pertinence cost more? What about a button that you can click on, "hold the bile"?

At IHE, comments are moderated so that libel doesn't occur. Other than that, the bar is kept very low indeed. The same is true of comments at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The quality of discourse appears about the same.

Actually, it was while working at the Chronicle that I first ever paid any attention to comments. They were never even slightly better than what happens at IHE, but for some reason people make a bigger deal out of it when talking about the more innovative publication.

I would charge $600 (paid up front) to agree to read three comments by a given subscriber. Slight discount for bulk contract. That does not mean I would respond. For that, a client should expect to pay three to ten times as much, depending on cogency, readability and (where appropriate) DSM classification.

While we're in the (imaginary) revenue-enhancement business of charging people for online responses, we could institute fines for particularly dim responses. I will accept the first fine for not noticing that you already cited the Heffernan article. My lame excuse: I thought your post stopped on the first page with the PayPal suggestion, didn't notice that it continued after the jump.

I saw the comedian Paul Mooney recently, taping a cable special. He had — as many good comedians do — the perfect squelcher when some backtalk interrupted his show.

“See now,” he said. “I blame Oprah for this. She made people think they were important.”

I don't know what to think of this.

At first I was annoyed with Scott's apparently cavalier attitude about his audience. It seemed, well, unworthy of the supposedly democratic ethos of online writing and, worse perhaps, overly candid with regard to the consumer framework in which he works. I makes me feel, a bit, as a reader that Scott doesn't give a rat's ass about us. I mean, I'm a McLemee groupie and he's telling me he doesn't give a shit. Welcome to the land of rock star public intellectualism. :(

But I suppose my positive reaction to comments, in general, has a lot to do with the fact that U.S.I.H. hasn't attracted a bunch of nonsensical, ideological drivel. And most of my posts at H&E, while I was active there (now on hiatus), received comments deserving of engagement. I'm operating on a level that's different by both degree and kind.

I guess the difference here is that I run and work with free sites: I'm not (yet) paid for my occasional musings. And not all online writing is the same, even if the line between intelligent blogging and online article writings is sometimes quite thin. Were I in Scott's shoes I'd expect remuneration. - TL

I hear you, Tim, and am certainly not happy with being forced into this corner. No rock star am I, nor was this my initial approach.

When the column started, I made a point to read all the comments. And the comment sections of some places online are places where real discussion does still take place. What proved discouraging -- and, yes, disgusting -- was to find that spaces I expected to be part of a Habermasian public sphere ended up being outposts of the Laschian culture of narcissism.

At some point you have to have a filter. If a trusted person tells me that a given comment is really intelligent, or makes an important criticism of what I've written, that is worth knowing. But there are only so many hours in the day, and the forms of ignorant ranting tend not to be all that various.


Thanks for the reply. I'm glad you read my comment as I intended it: reaction plus sympathy for your plight. And of course you're no rock star public intellectual, even if you might get enough hits these days, courtesy of your thoughtful IHE pieces, for Posner to include in a future revision of his book on PIs. :)

BTW: Nice line on Habermasian vs. Laschian public sphere reactions.

You should come to our USIH conference this fall---as a roving reporter if nothing else. My junk to be presented there may not be worthy, but we'll have plenty of prominent folks at CUNY/GC/CfH for entertainment. I'll e-mail you the update of our participants.

My apologies for plugging you here.

- TL

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This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on April 26, 2009 11:59 AM.

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