You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything


How does commentary affect the world around us?

Virgin Commenter Brutally Attacked… by NPR Listeners?

In this NPR All Songs Considered post about Weezer, one brave soul was driven to comment on the internet for what might be the first time ever. In response to ASC producer Robin Hilton’s ruminations about never developing the affection for the band Weezer in the same way that other folks of his generation seemed to, “Katie” opined:

Of all the drivel on the Internet, nothing has managed to get under my skin quite enough for me to post a comment until now. So congratulations on that, first of all.

The snarky opener: common for comments, but productive? For Katie would go on to be excoriated by the next three commenters for a factual slip-up: she lamented the loss of the wrong band member (Brian Bell vs. Matt Sharp) in her comment, undermining her authority as a Weezer superfan.

Did Katie’s comment, which was well-thought-out and contained a valid point, deserve to be trashed in this way? All the folks who nitpicked about the band member’s name ignored Katie’s larger message, a plea for the contextualization of Weezer: sure, the band’s current album (the red album) might sound good on its own, but when compared to the group’s history, it’s just subpar. Later on, a few commenters commended Katie for her point, but did the three initial negative reactions discourage Katie from commenting forever?

Comments are no less flame-prone and troll-friendly than the rest of the internet. It’s interesting, then, that Twitter replies don’t seem to have acquired quite the vicious overtones of anonymous comments. Is this because most Twitter accounts are so directly linked to the actual identity of the user, and it seems therefore like an actual human interaction rather than an anonymized debate focused on the issue, rather than the people involved? Or perhaps it’s that character limit: when you have less room, you’re less likely to waste it on a useless attack on someone else? Finally, could it be the increased visibility–i.e., everyone who follows you will see your cruel comment and identify it with you immediately?

Regardless of the reason, it does seem that the Twitterfication–and perhaps accompanying identification–of commentary has led to more reasoned, conversational-type exchanges. It’s a positive development in online commentary, and deserves to be encouraged–perhaps due to greater standardization of online presence?

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary

Social Relevance in Search

Back before the internet, the main ways to find out about stuff were to look in books or to ask people. For more serious, academic topics, you might turn to books—encyclopedias if you were in a hurry. But for everyday recommendations, you might just ask somebody: where’s the best brunch in Brookline, what dry cleaners should I go to? You didn’t have Google, Yelp, Chowhound, or other similar services to help you out.

Now it’s starting to feel like search—parts of it, at least—is coming full circle. On ReadWriteWeb, Brynn Evans discusses social relevancy in search, wondering about the best way to achieve it. Several obstacles are explored: imperfect access to information (your social search tools will not have access to information from everyone you want to get information from), varying levels of expertise (an attorney doesn’t always want her friends’ “opinions” on a law; rather, she might be more interested in professional perspectives on it), and so on.

Evans creates a continuum, from active search to passive discovery. On the continuum, in this order, RWW identifies the following: friends and following, taste neighbors, friends-of-friends, experts and influencers, and “the crowd.” That is, social aspects matter more when search is more active. If you’re in the “market,” so to speak, for a new dry cleaner’s, you will ask your friends in addition to perhaps searching online. But if you are satisfied with your existing service you will not seek out a new one, and only passively file away (probably to be forgotten) information you come across about dry cleaners.

One interesting aspect of the search-discovery continuum that Evans proposes is that social media can be woven throughout it. There’s no necessary distinction between social and non-social search; rather, the distinction is between the level of urgency/necessity of the search. Additionally, it’s possible to flip the proposed continuum: it’s easy to imagine situations in which you’re actively searching for something that you want an expert opinion on, rather than that of your friend. If you need legal advice, for example, you’re probably not going to tweet about it—or you might, but you’ll ultimately go with your lawyer’s response rather than your best friend’s.

I think the takeaway from Evans’ continuum and the notion of social search in general is that social information—of which we have so much now, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, and the like—is going to be continually important in search. From the proposed Wikia Search (a user-powered search engine where users could “vote” on results) to retweets of important or popular information, there are many approaches to take to social search. The apparent demise of Wikia Search is unfortunate, but computerized algorithms will not continue to be the status quo of search. The algorithms should be adjusted to take into account human input and ratings. Human response—even in the form of blog/article comments, too long neglected as sources of information—must be calibrated in some way. This will change the search game and SEO for good, but it will also—hopefully—make better information easier to access.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Too Temporary? Why Comments May Not Be All They’re Cracked Up To Be

Commentary is crucial, but it can also be ephemeral. There have been numerous instances of late–Iran elections/Neda, Farrah Fawcett’s death (quickly usurped by Michael Jackson’s death), Walter Cronkite’s death, and so on–that have attracted huge numbers of online comments or, specifically, tweets. However, what’s the power of that commentary, if it’s not harnessed? Does it just fade away and become irrelevant? Or could there be something to tracking and talking about it in more detail?

ReadWriteWeb recently analyzed Iran commentary, attempting to put the commentary into specific groups. Clusters are identified around Ahmadinejad, Khameni, Basij, and other topics; RWW says the research indicates comments moved “from a dispute over the election process involving Ahmadinejad (shown in pink) to a dispute over authority involving the supreme leader Khamenei (shown in red).”

This kind of comment compartmentalization could potentially be valuable. Right now, Twitter can tell us trending topics–but there are more and more services developing that tell you even more about said topics. Some of these come in the form of group-based services (such as Tweetizen) that allow you to form a group of topics that might interest you, while others report data ranging from number of tweets on topics to what those topics actually mean (a godsend for those confused by acronyms that rise to the top of the trends). Tweets, more then blog comments–probably primarily because of their more standardized form and platform–are easily analyzed for content and meaning.

Not only that, they are easily shared. Perhaps one of the best, or at least favorite (for many folks), features of Twitter is the ability to “retweet” tweets that users find funny, informative, or just plain interesting. In retweeting, a comment (in the form of a tweet) gains additional influence and shelf life. In theory (though not often in practice), a phenomenal tweet’s significance could linger on indefinitely as it is retweeted by person after person who finds the information important. In practice, retweets spread surprisingly rapidly, likely due to the very instantaneous nature of Twitter.

As RWW puts it, “Twitter allows these social structures to become data structures by means of the ‘RT’ convention. And this in turn allows us to perform extremely powerful computations on the social structures that underlie the flow of information.” Analysis of tweets may seem inane, but it may actually be the future. The power of Twitter is the power of analysis–and the analysis of data is just as important as the sharing of it.

Filed under: Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

Aaron Barlow, The Rise of the Blogosphere: Online Publishing as Pamphlets

In The Rise of the Blogosphere, Aaron Barlow draws many parallels between the distribution of political pamphlets in the days of the founding fathers and the creation of blogs. He touches on the commercialization of journalism in between, noting that the original political pamphlets–the printed precedessors of newspapers–were extremely partisan, and that neutrality or reporting “just the facts” (or, worse, being “fair and balanced”) weren’t goals of these first “blogs on paper,” if you will. The aims of these pamphlets were to spread information but also to get people to take sides.

Barlow underscores Lovink-type arguments about the proletarian power of blogs, emphasizing their role in undermining major media conglomerates. But he also emphasizes that blogs are a further evolution of something that evolved out of something much more like blogs than what newspapers have become, proving, essentially, that there is no correct definition of “news” and that our current conception of journalism is one based largely on a professionalization of an amateur genre. When that professionalization can no longer make a professional wage, when its institutions fail, isn’t it time to return to the roots of news, however amateurish those roots may be?

Barlow explicitly compares Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist Papers to bloggers, noting of these and similar papers or pamphlets that “like blogs, these were not stories resulting from active news gathering.. but were ‘about’ something that had already appeared—something that was, in fact, already well known” (Barlow 33). Existing news organizations complain about bloggers reporting stories that have already been broken, but that’s part of what all news outlets do–report and re-report the same story. (Check five major news websites right now. Chances are all of them have at least two or three of the same stories on the front page–many, many more if they’re sites in the same general geographic area.) Barlow stresses that public journalism–his term for what much of the blogosphere does–“rejects balance” and the idea that journalists are “stenographers” merely presenting notes.

As Barlow suggests, the point of journalism should not just be merely to inform but to engage. Thus Barlow’s argument is, essentially, a call for commentary: a call for stories to be something that will provoke discussion. Many newspaper stories do provoke discussion, but it is often not productive. Commenters “hijack” threads to promote their own (in Massachusetts, often anti-tax / anti-government) agendas, disagree with the story (which is, most often, factual and thus incapable of being “disagreed” with), offer attacks on the journalist or the people in the story, or engage in all manner of other unproductive commentary.

Thus we can, again, question these commenters’ motivations. Why are they saying what they’re saying, and for whom? Is it part of their own trajectory of idea development, or merely a way to get attention? Commentary in response to news often seems to be the latter. Why is that, and how can it be fixed?

Filed under: Commentary

Talking a Lot… for Whom?

In keeping with this blog’s title, I now turn to pondering the question of audience–for blog comments, not blog posts. Blog posts tend to have an at least somewhat identifiable audience–the blogger’s friends, or community members, or enthusiasts of the topic being blogged about, whether that’s politics, video games, knitting, or what have you. Blogs usually have names, about pages, and bloggers with bios, such that it’s relatively easy to figure out something about the blogs/bloggers and their motivations.

But what about commenters? What are their motivations–for commenting, specifically, not for reading? Some of them may be truly interested in learning about the topic at hand, and are commenting to ask questions or make suggestions about it. Some may actually be knowledgeable about the topic at hand, and sharing information that the blogger didn’t reveal in the original post. But others–many others, it often seems–are just freaking jerks and morons.

These folks are the inspiration for the title of this blog, and the folks who give commentary a bad name. These are the folks whose comments consist of ‘first,’ ‘furst,’ ‘fist,’ ‘fust,’ ‘first!!!!1!!!,’ and other variations on the regrettable first, and most often do not show up in anywhere near the first spot. (First stopped being funny or clever the first time it was done, to be clear.) These are the folks whose comments consist of ‘lol,’ ‘omg,’ ‘wtf,’ or other acronyms. These are the folks who are not saying anything.

Recently, I read some of Peter Elbow‘s thoughts on writing for audiences and for the self. Bloggers have, in some sense, an audience-even if it’s an audience of one. But commenters have a less defined audience. Not everyone reads the comments on a blog post–sometimes even the blogger doesn’t have the time or the inclination to read such comments, much less respond. Elbow makes the point that writing for the self, without regard to audience, can be an important gesture in learning just what it is you’re trying to say.

I have found this to be the case for myself on may occasions, some involving blogging. On occasion I’ll draft a blog post, even publish it, and only hours later figure out what I was actually trying to say. The great benefit of the internet is that I can then go back to that blog post and edit it, or comment on it, to reveal the point I eventually figured out I was making. And sometimes commentary works the same way. From time to time I’ll be really bothered or struck by a blog post, and begin drafting a comment, only to realize that I don’t really understand what it is that’s bothering me. Many times it takes several drafts of a comment–written mostly for myself, not the blog audience–to come to understand what I’m really saying.

This often occurs for me at Feministe, a feminist blog that I enjoy reading but am not always sure how to respond to. I often respond to posts with some degree of indignation toward the racist or sexist injustices described therein, but there’s often something about the “right on! those people suck!” attitude of the commenters that bothers me. I think it sometimes seems that the site’s commenters–not necessarily the bloggers themselves–make it seem like there is a feminist doctrine that must be upheld in all actions, blog comments included, and cannot be questioned in any way. Since feminism itself is about questioning the patriarchy (at least to some extent, or in my mind), it always seems odd that there should be only “one way” to approach it. In drafting comments (I do draft and rewrite comments; perhaps I’m the only person on the internet so dedicated) on Feministe, it often takes me several tries to figure out what I want to say, vs. what I think the audience may want to hear. Sometimes I never quite understand exactly what I’m objecting to–but at least I’m thinking about it.

More on the audience for comments (if there is any) soon, I hope–I think it may prove to be a key issue.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary

Deleting Books: How What You Buy Can Not Be Yours

In a very “publishing” moment (mostly because it makes so little sense), Amazon allowed some vendors to sell copies of ebooks it (the vendor, not Amazon) didn’t have the rights to. When the lack of copyright was discovered, Amazon deleted the books from a number of user accounts. The company also credited those accounts, fortunately, but the Kindle users deprived of their content (irony of ironies, two Orwell books: 1984 and Animal Farm). Setting aside the Orwellian nature of Amazon’s actions here, this opens up a number of questions about online publishing and accompanying commentary. First, this situation proves that publishers–not users/readers, creators, or commenters–still have all the clout, because they have all the legal rights (i.e., copyright). Orwell is no longer with us, but he does seem like the type who’d support having as many folks as possible appreciate his books, copyright be damned–particularly after the books have been earning money for more than sixty years.

Times commenters voice a variety of opinions on the event from “Already purchased ebooks residing on consumers’ Kindles should have been left alone” to I would love to see a class action lawsuit against Amazon and the Publishers to put a stop to this practice immediately. They can’t pull this stunt with a physical book so why should they be able to pull it with a digital book.”

Kindle-owning commenters report that Amazon did not detail the issue with the titles, calling it only “a problem”–total doublespeak, huh? Anger aside, the fact remains that, for now, the publishers hold the power, not the people. That’s not the way it should be. And, ironically enough, the content in question is already on Google Books for the reading. So why do the original publisher and Amazon have so much power here? What kind of access, exactly, are they attempting to block? It’s clear that the publisher has nothing to offer but content (which we’ve established is already available elsewhere), and Amazon has nothing to offer but the Kindle. Can online commentary reverse the curse of media hegemony and come up with an open source system for reading–and maybe even adding/commenting? It remains to be seen, but I hope so. The bigwigs certainly aren’t handling their power very well.

[via Consumerist and NYT. This apparently happened, briefly, with Harry Potter as well.]

Filed under: Content

The Death of the Comment; The Rise of the Tweet: What Does It Say About Us?

ReadWriteWeb has a new piece on the “death of the comment” and the rise of integrated alternative response forms: tweets, videos, images, links, and the like, all connected with original content through tools like Disqus or Echo.

The advent of alternatives to traditional comments is certainly relevant and not unexpected. However, don’t these unique ways of responding count as commentary as well? A RWW commenter (ha!) asserts that “Comments are still more insightful than tweets, which provide very little added info other than the link (140 ch. limit).” I tend to agree that long- or free-form comments have the potential to provide greater value than short tweets. However, one of the greatest assets of Twitter is its visibility. If tweets can function to make discussions (complete with comments, potentially) known to a wider audience–many of whom may have their own comments or tweets to make in response–then Twitter is a tool that truly furthers commentary in an important way, even as it morphs the form of that commentary.

In a sense, online commentary is a realization of Pierre Levy’s collective intelligences. None of us would know even a fraction of what we know now if not for the information-sharing ability of the web. Merely accessing information, though, is only the first step. It takes intelligence–first individualized, then later collective/collaborative–to make that information worthwhile. The semantic web is, in a sense, the ultimate form of collective intelligence, not even requiring a “collective” to create it. At the same time, however, it’s also a completely depersonalized “intelligence” or set of information analysis capacities.

Would we prefer our information processed by computers or commented on by humans? The future is definitely going to involve a combination of the two factors. Which one will be emphasized may depend on the types of technology developed and the ways in which they are used and shared by individuals. Collective intelligence aside, we can at least safely assert that comments on posts about the death of the comment are the ultimate form of irony.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Twitter

How Zero Comments–or No Response–Undermines Online Potentiality

“The unanswered email is the most significant one,” Geert Lovink proposes in Zero Comments, and I would venture that he’s right. Why? Because not to answer is as big of a statement as to answer, and perhaps even more: it is a judgment on the original email’s very existence, rendering it useless. Why send an email–or any form of communication–if not to get a response? When a missive does not produce the desired results, it’s a sign that the system of communication has broken down, resulting in a lack of communication, or at least one-way communication. This is a particular problem in systems like email, which are presumably intended to be two way.

Lovink extends this concept from emails to ideas, saying “You can have as many ideas as you want, but this does not mean they will translate into a resource.” Just as an email does not translate into communication unless it is responded to or acted upon, ideas are not useful unless they are not only communicated, but also understood, in ways that allow them to act as resources for others. The point of an idea is not to be had: it is to be shared, applied, and used to create even more new ideas.

Unfortunately, as with email, there are more ideas out there than anyone can manage to process correctly, comfortably, or competently. I suggested previously that comment-based community might be the answer to the excess of emails and ideas: only with the help of others can we manage to make sense of the information overload that suffocates us.

At the same time as we are overwhelmed with emails and ideas, so too are we overwhelmed with connections. Lovink observes: “It is impressive but useless to know that your social network puts you in connection with 371,558 ‘friends.’ At that point, friends are simply an effect of a network, not its constituent relations.” Likewise it’s useless to send/receive 300,000 emails or form 300,000 ideas if those messages cannot be processed and used by someone–no, not just someone, the right person. The semantic web and the improved automated data analysis capabilities associated with this may help overcome this disparity of messages and comprehension, but for now many messages are still useless unless received and understood by others.

As Lovink says, “the danger is ghettoization and deadening routines.” We cannot become bogged down in a world of excessive emails, ideas, “friends,” or even comments. We need to pare these inputs down or invent better ways of processing them in order for them to become useful. We need to use, not just create. Remix culture is part of this use–but we need more remixing of ideas, not just media.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary

Linked Data, Not Linked People?

In an interview with ReadWriteWeb (part two here), Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the internet!) discusses the semantic web, data mapping, and linking data points. This technology is definitely an important first step in making use of the immense, even overwhelming, amount of information and ideas that I’ve already mentioned on this blog. But it is not the end point. No matter how impressive the technology, its results still need to be processable and usable by humans. The interview also touches on government data and the importance of accessibility of data–in any format. On that note, Berners-Lee comments on the importance of the search engines’ adoption of RDFa, which he sees as a very positive development that may be key in increasing information accessibility.

Berners-Lee also recognizes the need for different ways to access data: “…there are lots of different ways that people need to be able to look at data. You need to be able to browse through it piece by piece, exploring the world of data. You need to be able to look for patterns of particular things that have happened.” The semantic web is not just about providing one way to access data, it’s about providing the best tools to find and analyze data. Berners-Lee makes an important point about the difference between generic and specific data interfaces. A generic interface is necessary for finding the right type of information; a specific interface is needed in order to properly analyze a specific type of data (books vs. chromosomes, for example).

Could comments count as data? Currently, comments sometimes return in search results, and you can even subscribe to comment feeds by RSS, but comments are not necessarily something that you can search specifically as a type of data. I know that I’ve sometimes read insightful comments that I would like to be able to find later, but I’m more easily able to access the comments through searches for the material of the original article. What if we could more easily find out what others thought–not necessarily product reviews (which are pretty easy to locate), but actual ideas? Could, someday, data automatically “comment” on other data, contextualizing and expanding on its significance? Or will data be able to “query itself” and find associated data, which its own information can then comment on? It may be a way off, but it may also be the future.

Filed under: Uncategorized

More Notes on Zero Comments: Community Power

What I found most interesting and troubling about Geert Lovink’s Zero Comments was probably its near-complete lack of emphasis on actual commentary (guess the “zero” in the title should have tipped me off?). The book talks a lot about the concept of online communities and the capabilities of blogs, but often stops short of analyzing specific commentary. Still, the work contains valuable observations about the power of online communities and the potential for their future applications.

My previous post touched on the power of blogging to poke holes in the existing media hegemony. At the same time, though, Lovink proposes that blogging is a deeply cynical endeavor, perhaps because of its strange dual status as a revolutionary force and a representative of the (online) establishment. In Lovink’s words, “blogging and social networks have become the hegemonic modes of internet use.” From the perspective of anyone entrenched in an online community, blogging is no longer revolutionary. Businesses are blogging, government agencies are blogging–heck, your mom might be on Facebook. Compared to the entrenched print media, online media is still new, but compared to the speed of technology, blogging is old. It’s the establishment.

So, Lovink says, with this dual identity comes a form of cynicism bordering on nihilism. We’ve come to take our online freedom for granted, and as such use it in too-trivial ways. “Blogs are primarily used as a tool to manage the self,” Lovink asserts, and in so doing perhaps they separate the self from the community of larger ideas that are present–indeed, enabled–by online publishing and interaction.

What’s the next step, then? I’d venture it’s the use of commentary and online interaction to remove blogs from the shackles of selfdom and place them in a larger context. Lovink quotes Axel Bruns as saying, “I blog, therefore I watch.” Perhaps, now, we need people to say “I comment, therefore I create change.” There’s already so much content online that we don’t need to create more, we need to make better use of what we have, to connect people with the information they seek and, more importantly, with other people seeking–or even producing–that information. Commentary and community are the tools to do this, and to undermine the individualized cynicism of the lurker online.

Filed under: Commentary, Content

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July 2009
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