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.