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

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

Wrap-Up: Commentary on My Commentary on Commentary…

Well, that’s meta-commentary if I’ve ever heard of it! Anyway, it’s almost the end of the summer and time to wrap up what I’m doing on commentary here. I think I’ve explored a lot of avenues and come up with a lot of ideas: not necessarily anything conclusive, but a lot of paths to follow further.

The first and most important conclusion that I want to stress is that online commentary both is and affects publishing. It is publishing in the sense that it “makes public” information that would otherwise remain private. In doing so, commentary (ideally) affects more than the commenter and the person being responded to. The unique nature of commentary on the internet allows it to be read by an unlimited number of people with varying levels of connection to the topic at hand. An astute comment can educate and inspire others; a negative or uninformed comment can motivate others to help educate. Admittedly, online commentary doesn’t give rise to enlightenment: but it can, and should. Publishers should review comments and tweets not only to see how people are responding to their books, but also what people are talking about. What people say gives a great deal of insight into what they’re interested in–and what people are interested in is what books should be published on.

The second lesson is that commentary connects. I started the blog lamenting that publishing CEOs don’t think about connecting with the right people, quoting Richard Nash: “The CEOs [of publishing companies] seem to think they’re not in the media business at all, but in a B2B business, where meeting with B&N and Amazon and a few independent booksellers constitutes doing business.” Online commentary has turned publishing–and other businesses–into a B2P (business-to-person) setup, or even P2P (peer-to-peer), or A2P (author-to-person/peer) setup. Plenty of authors are blogging or tweeting and creating relationships with their readers well outside the traditional publishing realm. Publishing companies cannot control that, nor should they try to: they must tap into it. As the Ithaka report on university publishing and other sources point out, reader commentary can even be incorporated into books, upending Andrew Keen’s pompous denigration of the idea that readers’ ideas should have any effect on important works. To the contrary, publications as important as the Economist allow reader commentary. Additionally, I created some connections through this blog: people whose blogs I directly addressed and linked to immediately came to my blog and responded to me. That’s direct, instant evidence that commentary connects.

Another point is that comments are both useless and not useless if not used. This seems contradictory (and, technically, is), but commentary is an important part of the process of figuring out what you think. By encouraging more commentary, we can encourage people to think more (and perhaps even differently, averting Cass Sunstein’s fear of self-perpetuating beliefs). In the process of creating commentary, people will not only learn, but may also (even if accidentally) teach others. This should be the ultimate goal of commentary: to be used by commenters and comment readers alike, for a learning experience, and the launching point for further conversation. Commenters who have a different, more self-serving motivation are not participating in true commentary with the potential to change the world–and change minds.

A common theme in discussing comments is that they are comments are sometimes just stupid and mean. It’s true. And because of that, the art of analyzing commentary includes determining what to weed out. Not everything that’s said is important or interesting–but much of it is. As I have suggested, the Twitterfication of commentary–knowing exactly who “follows” you and checks out what you have to say, and seeing what (if anything) they have to say about it–might be crucial in ensuring more informed commentary. As long as you can anonymously blather bullshit, you have no accountability. But when people know who you are, what you’re saying and so on–then you’re screwed when you screw up. As Clay Shirky asserts, “the internet… adds group forming as a possibility, not just person-to-person connections.” When everyone can see what you say, you become more accountable. And as accountability increases, the quality of commentary will as well.

Blogging itself is not a necessarily a revolution. In fact, it’s even a bit self-centered. But the exchange of ideas that blogging, Twitter, and other online communication enables is revolutionary. Hopefully contrary to Cass Sunstein’s fear that this exchange will result in further polarization of existing beliefs, perhaps we can go toward Clay Shirky’s hope that everyone’s collective participation will overthrow existing authority and develop its own direction?

As powerful as commentary is, there are many questions that remain unanswered. First, who is liable for commentary–the commenter or the platform allowing it? Thus far the focus has been on the commenter, but websites may step toward censorship if they fear that users might get them in trouble. This bordered on happening with a Flickr user whose questions got his account deleted from the Flickr system. As publishers’ fear about losing royalties to unauthorized use of copyrighted material grow and grow, they may become more and more concerned with ownership of commentary. This is the wrong response. Commentary isn’t “owned,” it’s shared, by definition. So what’s the best way to use it? As much as possible is the initial answer.

Importantly, linking people may not be the only purpose of commentary. If the inventor of the internet has his way, we may be linking data with commentary as well. Evaluative actions like tags and reviews are in a sense meta-comments: evaluative data that can be used to inform others about an item’s worth. When better ways are found to use this data-about-data, online commentary will be solidified as the basis of a lot of what we “know” and can find out online. Data about commentary will become more and more useful over time, not only for thoughtful academic pursuits but also–and perhaps more predominantly–for marketing pursuits. Once a marketer figures out that you fit a certain user profile, they’ll be spamming you with replies and direct messages all day long. But like Shirky hopes, “the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial.” When marketers are in your face, you can get right back in their face, calling companies out on their shortcomings. And everyone will be able to see.

The final word? Commentary can’t just continue to exist as itself. It needs to be connected into a resource that enables more than just its own ideas. It must enable connection, education, and the ability to access relevant information–in the form of original content or commentary–about something. Commentary is no longer at the margins: it’s crucial to everything we do. It’s a remix of what’s come before. In that sense, it tells us both where we are and where we came from: an important duality. What you say about what others say may not yet tell us who you are (though it can model your Twitter personality), but eventually it will tell us a lot–if not all–about you.

I want to close by making what may be simultaneously an obvious and a revolutionary statement: commentary is the future of (social, if I want to qualify it) search, and potentially even publishing. Commentary is the future of finding everything we need online, and responding to what is already online. Algorithms can only go so far without the human input that comes in the form of commentary: data showing what people think about other data. Without this data, the original data is less useful. Whoever or whatever can figure out how to best take advantage of all the commentary out there about everything else will be at the forefront of the future of the internet, the semantic web, social search, whatever you want to call it. Now that everyone’s found their voice, it’s time to start listening.

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Filed under: Commentary

Tweets are Comments: Are Tags?

I’ve expanded the definition of commentary exponentially as I continue to write about it. In some ways, nearly everything can be viewed as a comment. A tweet is a comment, if sometimes an inane one. A comment on a blog post is an inane one, even if it promotes something different from the original post’s agenda. A comment is anything that says something, has a point of view. And a comment must be published to be meaningful. In order for your commentary to have an effect, it has to be public. And perhaps more importantly, it has to be read–by others, who will comment in return. Unlike Ian Shapira’s hope for unremitting, unresponsive adulation, any good work should invite commentary, conflict, and debate. If we’re not putting it up for discussion, we shouldn’t be putting it out there.

In his influential book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky uses Flickr as an example of hands-off collaboration, made possible by tagging. He describes how easy it is to find images of a particular item or event on Flickr, in contrast to how hard it would be to specifically contract people to take such pictures. By removing the need for organization and simply giving users tools to organize themselves, Flickr made it possible for people to access images in new ways. Most of Flickr’s functionality is based on tagging: from the original photographer, not necessarily other users. If anyone could tag, would the tagging lose its functionality, or become even more interesting?

A tag, then, is a comment. It adds value. It makes a judgment about something. It expresses an opinion. In that sense, a review is also a tag or a comment. Lawrence Lessig, writing in Remix, agrees that “Tagging thus added a layer of meaning to RW [read/write] content. The more tags, the more useful and significant they become… As they add meaning to content, these tools also enable collaboration… As the reader “writes” with tags or votes, the importance of the original writing changes.” Stars in a review “tag” an item as good or bad; the text of the review offers further commentary. Even “likes” on Facebook have taken over comments. Instead of writing on a friend’s wall or writing something about a friend’s status update, you can just click a button to show that you “like” what your friend has said or done.

Is everything a comment these days? Maybe. Commentary is breaking down into a variety of forms. This is not necessarily bad, just different. We have more ways than ever to respond to something. What’s important is responding at all.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Do Your Tweets Model You?

In Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte talks about the need to “model” his sister-in-law so he can buy her a present. In Remix, Lawrence Lessig mentions how Amazon can best model his purchasing habits, thanks to all the information they have about him. Now, there’s Twanalyst, which can tell you all about you based on your tweets.

It’s somewhat scarily accurate. The report for my personal Twitter account nails my personality as “likeable, inquisitive, cautious,” and calls my style “chatty” and “coherent” (wonder what it takes to be labeled incoherent!). I’m called a WRITER, which may be because I am one, or because I say I’m one in my personality. Either way, it’s relatively on par with reality (or so I’d like to think).

What does the service have to say about the Twitter account for Bostonist, the website about Boston that I help run? Bostonist’s personality is “renowned, sociable, vain” and our style is “chatty, academic.” (Is it chatty because I write so many of the posts?) We are identified as a ROBOT. The Bostonist Twitter account is primarily just a feed of our blog posts, so that makes sense. I am interested in our “renowned, sociable, vain” personality though. Are we renowned because we have so many followers (only about 1500, but more than many Twitter accounts)? Because we get retweeted a decent amount? Or is the retweeting what makes us sociable? Finally, “Vain” is perhaps the most interesting comment… does it stem from US not retweeting other content often (we don’t)? From our “royal we” writing style (which doesn’t usually come through in the tweeted content, I don’t think)? I’m not sure. Regardless, an interesting outcome.

Finally… what does the Twanalyst have to say about the Twitter feed of THIS blog? Well, it’s a little disappointing. My “talking” personality is “ordinary, sociable, cautious”–basically a blend of Bostonist and my personal account, but with “ordinary” thrown in. Ordinary is never a word you want applied to you! My style is “quiet, academic,” which makes sense. I am identified as a ROBOT which is true because the Twitter account is just a feed of the blog.

So it seems that automated personality analysis can have something to say about what we say on Twitter, and at least some of it is reasonably accurate. But what can it really be used for, other than telling us some things we probably already knew? Could it be used to connect people with similar personalities? Is that even a good idea, since “opposites attract” and all? Twanalyst in particular seems to be in beginning stages, but I think that “metatweets” containing information about what your tweets mean and what demographic your tweets peg you as will become valuable, particularly for advertisers. So, careful what you tweet… they’ll know what brands you’re looking for!

Filed under: Uncategorized

Remix Culture: Remix as Commentary

In discussing commentary, I’ve focused mostly on blog comments and tweets thus far. These are the most obvious, and perhaps the most common, forms that commentary takes online. But there are a lot of other online activities that could be considered commentary as well. Videos, for one. Photoshopped pieces, for another. Tags, reviews, and “likes” or “diggs” for a few more. I’ll address all these in turn, but for now would like to focus on multimedia works as instances of “remix culture,” which allows people to take what’s already been done/said/thought and add their own perspective. That’s pretty much the definition of commentary.

To me, commentary at its best should be about remix: creating your own spin on an issue. It shouldn’t merely be evaluative, agreeing with or critiquing the original content, though that’s certainly valid. It shouldn’t just add new information, although that can be helpful. What it should do is take the conversation a step further, “remixing” the original idea with new ideas, and in so doing creating a new perspective that owes a debt to what it was remixed from.

Who gets paid for a remix–the remixer, or the originators of the remixed content, or both? It’s a fine line to walk. Take these music video that quite literally “remix” parts of faces to create fascinating new content. Does everyone who appears in the video deserve to get paid for it? Should they be paid each time the video’s played? What’s the ideal economic structure for collage of this nature?

Maybe there is none. Maybe the point should be to play, to remix, to create: to comment. The role of the “publishing” industry in the future, perhaps, will not be to copyright that content but to supply the channels that make it possible. It’s getting harder and harder to copyright content. The mode in which it’s created may not necessarily be copyrightable but it can, perhaps, be owned.

In Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Lawrence Lessig writes of “the freedom to quote.” When does quoting become “using”? Isn’t a quote a form of usage? So why, he asks, is excerpting a paragraph from a written work in making an argument about (also a “comment on”) that work less okay than using part of a music track to make a new one?

Remix is commentary. Commentary is creativity. It shouldn’t be falsely limited or discouraged.

Filed under: Blogs

Retweeting: The Ultimate Comment Compliment?

Regular online comments can sometimes be responded to: occasionally some blog systems allow users to “reply” to previous comments, or commenters simply take it upon themselves to respond to an earlier remark. But Twitter makes commenting on other comments much simpler and more direct. It even provides you with an easy, simple way to include the original comment in your comment. That’s the retweet.

A retweet is just that: a re-posting of another user’s tweet. It’s usually prefaced with RT (for retweet) and includes the @handle of the original commenter (Twitter user). If space allows, someone may insert their own commentary in a retweet, but 140 characters can be a bit tight for that. Still, the retweet is the ultimate comment: a comment on someone else’s comment. A meta-comment, if you will. But it packs a lot of information into 140 characters, including links to the original comment, the name of the original commenter and the retweeter, not to mention what’s actually being said.

This retweet phenomenon has become an amazing way of sharing relevant information quickly. Not everyone can follow everyone on Twitter–there are too many millions of folks to keep track of–but there seems to be almost a “six degrees of separation” phenomenon wherein any popular tweet can get to you pretty easily and remarkably fast. Thus the retweet as comment is almost less a “comment” than a platform for spreading information. It’s not just about the initial idea, it’s about the ease with which it spreads.

There are a number of ways to look at retweeted material. One is to check out the most retweeted people on Twitter. Are these people experts in their field? Do they have the most followers? Are they tweeting on popular topics? What is it about their commentary that makes it spread?

MrZand, a math teacher from Washington DC with a mere 500 followers, is currently on the top 10 retweeted folks according to Retweetrank. Why is this? He tweets often, and many of his tweets are about the topical Iran elections, and the unfortunate killing of a woman named Neda in them. Perhaps it’s being topical that makes you retweeted?

Maybe not. ZnaTrainer posts mostly inane quotations about love and smiling. Arguably topical at all times, but being perpetually topical is almost like not being topical at all. Yet she’s in the Retweet Top 10. Deservedly?

One attribute that almost everyone in the RTT10 has in common: they retweet others’ tweets a lot. Gotta play the game to win the game, right? Perhaps the takeaway message is, the more active you are on Twitter and the broader the audience to which your tweets have relevance, the more you can be retweeted.

Filed under: Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

Advertisers Have Entirely the Wrong Idea (Yet Again)

Publishers of websites are considering more intrusive advertising, such as video ads you can’t just click through. The thought is to make the internet more like TV: “It’s a similar type of user-interruption experience as a commercial in the middle of a TV show,” says one brilliant ad exec. This won’t work, however, because the internet is NOT TV–and that’s what’s so great about it. The interactivity, the potential for feedback: people go online to engage, they go to TV to veg out. Ads that can’t be avoided online will annoy users; I, personally, might consciously choose not to buy a product that messes up my internet experience with intrusive ads.

The only reason publishers are freaking out about online advertising is that the internet has finally given them the technology to actually know what their ads accomplish. The answer? Very little. It’s impossible to measure how many people see a billboard or print ad. (It’s possible to estimate how many people travel a highway or read a paper, but it’s difficult to say how many of those notice or care about ads. Even Google’s new billboards are somewhat odd: how can you click a link on a billboard?) But when you have metrics for your website, it’s painfully easy to see how few people click through. And not only can we not look at ads online, we can also block them altogether in many cases. There’s a reason that browsers have pop-up blockers and Firefox has adblock: people don’t want to see ads.

When will corporations learn this? When will the time-honored “advertising budgets” be spent in better ways, perhaps by providing special deals to loyal customers, referral fees for people who bring their friends over, and other innovative techniques? Maybe a site’s biggest commenter gets a 5% discount (hello, massive commentary!). Maybe someone who wins a contest based on site content gets a prize. But the ad execs’ thought process is just wrong. “If you want to move share over from TV, which is still the biggest ad marketplace, you better look like TV more than a newspaper,” another exec commented. I don’t mean to say that advertising can’t ever work. But I do think it’s dangerous to think about the web as TV OR a newspaper. It’s an entirely different medium and needs to be treated as such by advertisers, content creators, and users alike. Otherwise it will never realize its great potential.

Filed under: Business Models, Content

WaPo vs. Gawker: Commentary in Action

Ah, my favorite website gets in a tussle again! I love reading Gawker, often just as much for the comments as the content. It’s one of the snarkier sites on the internet, as well as one of the few sites where the readers keep up with the writers in terms of witticisms. I feel like the quality of the commentary has declined a bit as the site has become more popular, but maybe that’s just a personal perception.

Regardless, Gawker has pissed off many people–who respond in the comments, or sometimes in articles of their own. To get linkified for a moment: Ian Shapira wrote an article about business coach Anne Loehr for the Washington Post, Gakwer mocked Loehr’s job, and Shapira got mad. Initially, Shapira was actually pleased he had been covered in Gawker: it brought more traffic to his article and to the WaPo in general. But then an editor instigated thoughts of theft in Shapira’s mind.

Did Gawker “steal” Shapira’s content? Of course not. It excerpted it, giving credit to the source. And most of what Gawker excerpted were quotations from the subject of Shapira’s article–not anything Shapira said himself. Shapira objects to Gawker’s actions largely by chronicling the amount of work he put into the article: hours doing research, attending one of Loehr’s sessions, talking to Loehr, transcribing various conversations, not to mention writing the actual piece. It does sound like it took lots of effort.

But that doesn’t mean Gawker stole anything. The blog never claimed to have originated the content. They credited repeatedly with links to the story, and sourced the story to the Washington Post at the end (Shapira’s name was never mentioned, but did he really write that story expecting to be showered with personal accolades?). There was no “theft” involved. Nor does Gawker’s response negate Shapira’s work. In fact, it’s a credit to it: if not for Gawker, thousands of people wouldn’t have heard of Shapira, or the subject of his article.

Another odd aspect of the situation is how long it took Shapira to respond. Shapira’s original article appeared on July 8. Gawker responded on July 9. But Shapira didn’t get back to the debate until July 31 (Gawker responded to that article on August 3.) What was the reason for the delay? Did Shapira have to spend several hours interviewing himself and transcribing the results? Or was it just another grab for Gawker traffic (one that most likely worked very well)?

But perhaps the oddest aspect of the situation is Shapira’s apparent underlying assumption that journalism is worth doing for the work itself. He emphasizes the reporting he put into the piece, but never mentions what he expected to come out of it. If you’re going to research and write an article on a topic, aren’t you doing that for the purpose of getting a response? Shouldn’t the point be to invite commentary, even if it’s critical (of your subject, not you)? Perhaps due to the greater difficulty of commentary in the past–i.e., letters to the editor, screened BY editors who assigned stories, being the main form of newspaper “commentary”–newspapers seem to be having a tough time finding the best way to invite reactions to their stories. But in the end, a Gawker commenter put it best: “How dare people talk about the story I wrote?”

Copyright and credit are important. But so is the free exchange of ideas. If newspapers and related services want to charge for public domain ideas, or prevent people from commenting on their stories, they deserve to fail.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary

Nobody Wants to Dial Telephones: Does Anyone Want to Read Comments?

Yesterday, I lamented the marginalia of commentary, the lack of impact that most comments tend to have. It seems possible that commentary could do so much for us: instigate debate, give rise to new ideas, realize the full potential of the internet. But it doesn’t, at least not in most cases.

To determine why that is, maybe we can investigate the purpose of comments. I referred yesterday to the definition of “comment,” which involves explaining or criticizing an idea. Online comments can certainly do this. But due to their location online, in a space where everyone can see and respond, they seem to take on another dimension: of participating in a conversation.

But what if not every commenter wants to do this? Well, would-be commenters certainly have options: they can email the author instead. They can bring up the subject with a friend in person. They can make a phone call. They can write about it on their own blogs. Nobody has to comment.

In Being Digital, a book from the days before Google and Twitter (hard to remember those, huh?) Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab posits that nobody wants to dial a telephone; people just want to reach people. So do people really want to comment? Perhaps not–they just want to reach people.

So what are some alternatives to traditional online commentary? Twitter replies have become a popular one, enabling folks to show that they read and appreciated (or didn’t appreciate) something without investing the time to craft a lengthy comment. Twitter also offers the opportunity to reply directly to a person/article/idea, or to send your response only to your followers (or anyone else who happens to find your words, perhaps due to a search or a retweet). As with Negroponte’s telephone analogy, no one necessarily wants to Tweet, exactly–but people do want to connect. Twitter has become another, often effective, way for people to do this.

The telephone analogy could be taken further. The telephone reaches out, directly, to someone specific. (In so doing, it’s often annoying: it’s kind of nice that you can instant message with multiple folks at once, while we still haven’t really figured out how to multi-task with phone conversations, except for perhaps in conference calls.) The thing about Twitter–the thing that comments in general really lack–is its directness. But, like instant messaging, you can essentially be “direct” with a lot of people at once. You’re not stuck Tweeting at only one person for a while. You can Tweet in multiple directions, on multiple topics, in the space of just 140, 280, 420, or more characters.

It seems, then, that the directionality–the intended recipient–of commentary might matter just as much as the content of it. What is the best way to target comments? Should all comments be shared? People complain about oversharing on Twitter, but there’s an easy way to combat that: don’t follow such folks. In this sense, Twitter’s other revolutionary capability is that its directionality is multidirectional. Not only can you send a message to somebody, that person can choose whether to receive it and how to respond to it. Additionally, other people can see that message, and respond, but with the knowledge that the message/comment was directed in a specific way. And, most importantly, and unlike phone conversations or even instant messages, people can ignore you. A bummer if they do, but that in itself sends a message.

Thus Twitter appears simple, but it really contains a number of important capabilities that were missing from online communication, or present in different and unintegrated ways. By putting together public, targeted conversations with the ability to choose modes of responding, Twitter has opened up a whole new form of commentary online. And it’s not that we want to Twitter: it’s that we want to reach people AND let others know who we are reaching. That’s really something important, and something that it was harder to do before this tool.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

De- and Re-marginalization Of Marginalia

In his recent Kindle lament, Nicholson Baker described how, in Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring,”

the fetching illustrations by Lorenz of a greylag goose and its goslings walking out from the middle of a paragraph and down the right margin are separated from the text—the marginalia has been demarginalized

In other words, the Kindle’s format removes illustrations from their rightful place within a text. But is that really a problem? Is the main point of these images to augment the text, to decorate, or to create a meaning of their own? Might not some new perspective be gained from the distancing of text and image?

The Kindle and devices like it even have remarkable potential to make images much more than marginalia. They could become videos, interactive features: actually watch ducklings follow Lorenz instead of see them frozen at a moment in time. It’s an evolution from traditional books, surely, but is it lamentable? Or might we not learn more from new technologies used in different ways?

A twist on the use of new technology to demarginalize marginalia involves a return to the Talmud: that book made of marginalia, literally constructed of commentary from rabbis created over years and years. Rabbis comment on each other’s works in the Talmud in ways very different from the ways in which we comment on items online. The commentary is serious, well-studied, and lasting, not ephemeral.

Thus we can see that ephemerality is not an inherent feature of commentary: to the contrary, Talmudic commentary is central to Jewish law and even in a sense constitutes it. The process of exchange and evolution over time is crucial to the ideas expressed in the Talmud.

Writing on the relationship between the Talmud and the internet, Jonathan Rosen compares the vastness of the Talmud–itself only a small portion of the many texts integral to Judaism–to the vastness of the internet:

when I look at a complete set of the Talmud.. my heart, along with my brain, begins to sink. Of course, I can get that same sinking feeling looking at the Sunday New York Times or entering the domesticated galaxy of cyberspace. Too much! I want to shout… I fear, with my limited skills, I won’t even be able to navigate my way to a solid patch of the past on which to drop anchor so that I can hold up under future assaults of information.

Perhaps this is part of the problem online. The Talmud is clearly and visibly textually anchored to something historical, even when it also incorporates later commentary. As Rosen marvels, it’s amazing that “a conversation that began two thousand years ago is still going on in pretty much unbroken form.” Everything online, by contrast, is amazingly ephemeral. Nothing is fixed. A website can be put up or taken down instantly. Comments and posts can be created, erased,

So why can’t online commentary come to occupy a similar space? Of course, no one would expect online comments to become central to any kind of thought or theory. But why don’t they at least try a little harder? Even on an intelligent site (with intelligent in the very title), the Economist’s More Intelligent Life, a reasonably intelligent article on novelists recovering from alcoholism receives mostly nitpicky comments aimed at one small factual error in the article (similar nitpicking happened on a post at NPR).

Once that error was first pointed out by one commenter, why did others feel the need to correct it, too? Was the point to make their voices heard? But why, when they had nothing original to say? Part of the point of the Talmud is to expand on what has already been said, to clarify, to refine, perhaps to improve. Online, the tendency seems to be to repeat, complain, devolve. People’s ideas are not appreciated or analyzed, just criticized for irrelevant inaccuracies. It’s as though one typo renders all intelligence moot. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t. So why do people behave that way?

Similarly, a nicely researched post on TechCrunch that profiles a number of female entrepreneurs in the tech sphere has been appreciated with an all-important comment on how “hawt” one of the women is. No comments on what the women are doing, the nature of their work, just an empty observation about something irrelevant to the topic.

Perhaps, like Google’s email goggles, all comments should have an “Are you sure you want to post this?” message pop-up when “submit” is hit. Better, the commenter could be asked, “Does this really contribute anything to the exchange?” The definition of comment describes the word as “a note explaining, illustrating, or criticizing the meaning of a writing.” If you don’t explain, illustrate, or (intelligently) criticize, why comment?

Much has been made of whether newspapers should “allow” comments on articles, particularly articles about crimes and other sensitive topics. Perhaps the issue should not be whether newspapers should regulate commentary but how commenters can regulate themselves, contributing only when they truly have something to say. Otherwise, they’re just talking a lot, not saying anything, and adding to a vast morass of marginalia that will never have the impact that it could.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary