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

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

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

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

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

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

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

Is The Economist a Blog?

A new article by Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic seems to be theorizing that The Economist, as a collection of ruminations on previously-reported information, constitutes a blog. Its blogginess, Hirschorn seems to be saying, is what distinguishes The Economist and its success from struggling newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek:

By repositioning themselves as repositories of commentary and long-form reporting—much like this magazine, it’s worth noting, which has never delivered impressive profit margins—the American newsweeklies are going away from precisely the thing that has propelled The Economist’s rise: its status as a humble digest, with a consistent authorial voice, that covers absolutely everything that you need to be informed about. (Tellingly, the very lo-fi digest The Week, which has copped The Economist’s attitude without any real reporting or analysis at all, is thriving as well.)

Somewhat oddly, perhaps, Hirschorn goes on to posit that the very magazine that “covers absolutely everything” is simultaneously a niche publication, while Time and Newsweek are not:

General-interest is out; niche is in. The irony, as restaurateurs and club-owners and sneaker companies and Facebook and Martha Stewart know—and as The Economist demonstrates, week in and week out—is that niche is sometimes the smartest way to take over the world.

There seem to be a number of problematic points in the article, perhaps the main being the tension between digest/blog and niche. Doesn’t a digest, by definition, contain a broad body of information? How, then, is that reconciled with the alternative presentation of The Economist as “niche”? Perhaps it’s not the contents themselves that are niche, but their target audience–but then, again, the point of the article is to present the magazine as popular, not limited in scope. A conundrum.

The other interesting part of the problem has to do with The Economist as blog. I’d counter that The Economist (its print version, at least) lacks two important features of blogs: links and commentary. But of course, The Economist has a web site with its share of blogs. How does the web site differ in popularity and purpose from the magazine? What sets apart the print version from the interactive online community? I’ll look at some commentary tomorrow to find out!

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary

Could Daily Me Become a Daily We?

Cass Sunstein’s Republic 2.0 discusses ways to make the internet a forum for engaged discussion. But it begins with a critique of the Daily Me, or an independently created newspaper that could be customized to an individual’s preferences (sort of like Time’s new Mine, which some people actually like). Sunstein worries that, when people select what views they’re exposed to, they’ll choose only or mostly sites that reinforce their views: a liberal might subscribe to DailyKos and Mother Jones, while a conservative might stick to LGF and the National Review. In so doing, Sunstein posits, folks ensure that they’ll only hear (see) viewpoints that reinforce their own, leading to further polarization of such viewpoints, and an increased sense of being “right.” After all, if everyone you read agrees with you, how can you be wrong?

As Sunstein says in his book, “it is precisely the people most likely to filter out opposing views who most need to hear such views” (p. 63). True–but what better place for them to hear (see) such views than online? Indeed, DailyMe.com already offers a DailyWe section, featuring the most-read news on the site. Google Reader allows you to view items shared by your Gmail contacts–often just hilarious links to lolcats, but sometimes more substantive content. The internet is the ultimate forum for interaction, and it is not necessarily guaranteed to be polarized. Additionally, Sunstein laments that, according to a study of online commentary, “only a quarter of cross-ideological posts involve genuine substantive discussion” (149). But this doesn’t mean that substantive discussion is not generated within posts of a specific ideology, or that readers of alternate ideologies haven’t been urged into new forms of thinking by mere contact with differing opinions.

Often it’s difficult to truly engage with new ideas right away, but even just being exposed to them is a worthwhile outcome. The internet makes that more possible than almost any technology. Rather than lament the internet’s existence, it should be exploited as an opportunity for cross-pollination. Google Reader sharing is one way to do that. Twitter–not yet big when Sunstein wrote Republic 2.0–is another. You may disagree with a link posted on Twitter or shared on your Google Reader, but at least you’ve been exposed to it–something that seems much less likely in an internet-free world. So while the internet has the potential to increase polarization, it also has the potential to be a tool to combat it, through sharing tools other than direct commentary. I’ll be looking for some more examples of this over the summer!

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Twitter

Tweeting a Lot

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