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

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

Homelessness Meets Privilege at SXSWi

Yesterday, I attended Leslie Cochran’s memorial service in Austin. Though the weekend had been rainy and cold leading up to Sunday, the sky turned blue and the sun began warming the city just hours before the memorial. On the shores of Town Lake, Leslie was remembered for his loving nature and willingness to help others. Leslie’s sister described him as embodying the spirit of Christ with his unflagging generosity. His eccentricities, which attracted so much attention, were only a side note. The memorial focused primarily on his humanity, flawed at it was–his erratic behavior, alcoholism, and stubbornness were remembered in addition to his generosity. People sang and cheered for Leslie. Biodegradable balloons (pictured) with messages to Leslie were released to heaven along with the shout, “heaven just got a lot more weird.” The community spirit of the event showed what I love about Austin: it is an unconditionally accepting, fundamentally odd place.

Today, I woke up to Twitterific discussions of the “Homeless Hotspots” available at SXSW Interactive (SXSWi). The project equips homeless people with 4G wireless hotspots and sends them out into the wilds of SXSWi to find people in need of a data connection. The suggested payment is $2 for 15 minutes of 4G access. The criticism of the project centers on whether it truly helps the homeless participants in a sustainable way, as well as whether it’s respectful to them as people. The criticism is fairly well founded, and I (like others) have a particular problem with the fact that the shirts say “I am a 4G hotspot” rather than “I have a 4G hotspot,” which takes away a degree of humanity from the hotspot providers.

Given this criticism, however, it’s striking that only two of the many pieces of coverage on the issue I’ve checked so far seem to have actually talked to any of the people participating in the project. Most journalists went straight to the project organizers, not the participants, bystepping the people the whole thing is about. I’m really disappointed in this lack of engagement, because it means that coverage of the issue is perpetuating the very de-humanization it purports to oppose–we (myself included) are talking about homeless people in the abstract, rather than actually engaging with them as people. That’s the truly sad thing.

At Leslie’s memorial, I started thinking of him as an entrepreneur of sorts. I guess I’d had the idea in my mind previously, to some extent (thanks to those refrigerator magnets, which I do in fact own) but the juxtaposition of his memorial service to SXSWi brought the comparison into starker relief. Standing in the gravel listening to Leslie’s friends speak, I tried to imagine Leslie giving a keynote at SXSWi. Would he be taken seriously, or reduced to a caricature? Would people be capable of accepting that a homeless person might have something to teach them–something worth a $600 badge price? I can’t see it happening, nor do I necessarily think it should–Leslie was not a technology expert (to my knowledge). But he did clearly understand something about engaging with people, a topic that seems to be at the heart of SXSWi today.

The kerfluffle about Homeless Hotspots is reminiscent of the controversy regarding (Stop) Kony 2012. Both controversies involve well-intentioned but marketing-centric efforts to help people. Both efforts have been criticized for failing to address underlying issues. Even the criticism of both efforts has the potential to further increase knowledge about important social issues, and that awareness is a good thing. But it’s not good to not get your information right, nor is it good for marketing campaigns–or journalistic coverage–to gloss over the actual voices and identities of the people involved in an event.

I think part of the negative reaction to Homeless Hotspots comes from the notion that it’s somehow insulting for for homeless people to provide access to 4G technology, being that it’s something they may not have consistent access to themselves. But many of homeless people have cell phones, if not consistent ways to charge them. And this type of reaction even has a faint scent of privilege: what do those homeless people have to do with my 4G network? I don’t think anyone actually believes anything like this, of course, but it seems to be at least a minor feeling in the discussion. I liked Danny Page’s suggestion that programs teach programming to provide sustainable skills, not just provide temporary employment. But anything is better than nothing, and anything that gets people advocating for the homeless–not just talking about them–is better than nothing.

In Twitter cofounder Biz Stone’s SXSWi keynote this afternoon, he suggested that marketing is the new philanthropy, which felt false to me. Marketing has the (potentially unfair) reputation of being self-promotional, about a product rather than a person or cause; marketing has the tendency to gloss over facts in favor of hyperbole. It’s too sanitized; it’s not real enough. But Stone also called for people to be creative, embrace failure, ask questions, and develop empathy, and it’s hard to argue with any of these directives. The last is especially relevant in this context. But I hope that when people leave Austin, they also remember the people who literally aren’t connected. The people who provide the hotspots, not use them. The people without jobs, much less badges; without homes, much less without 4G access. Say what you will about the Homeless Hotspots experiment, it’s accomplished one thing I’ve definitely never seen before: a discussion of homeless people at SXSW.

All I can think of at this point is an image described at Leslie’s memorial service yesterday. Leslie was staying with a friend, who bought him a denim apron to use while house cleaning. The friend returned home to find Leslie on her porch, naked except for the apron. I think SXSWi has found itself a little naked today, its privilege exposed, but I hope the conference can use the opportunity to learn, grow, and do some good for people in need. As Leslie’s friend Liz suggested yesterday, “Just say ‘Hi.'” Greet homeless people. Greet non-homeless people. Talk to others as people–not hotspots. Not homeless people. Not startup founders. Not people in need. Just as people, who have something interesting to say and are willing to listen to you.
I pledge to say hi to homeless people from now on, and to donate to a homeless organization in my area when I return from Austin. If every single person who discussed the Homeless Hotspots controversy does the same, it will have done at least some good.

Filed under: Commentary,

The Plagiarist’s Tale: Cool Commentary or Rampant Ripoff?

A recent New Yorker article covers the rise and fall of a “writer” who published numerous pieces of work that he’d cobbled together from other texts. While this sort of intertextuality might be rewarded when revealed, this “writer’s” downfall was his unwillingness to disclose his sources–his temerity, even, in pretending that he had authored what he’d stolen.

This almost completely plagiarized work was to be published (as an original) by big-name NYC house Little, Brown before the secret identities of its sentences were uncovered. Appropriately enough, the plagiarized work was a spy novel of sorts, and there are (at least) two mysteries here:

  • Why, if publishing is so important (or important at all), is a huge and highly regarded publishing house capable of putting work in front of a series of individuals (agent, editors, marketers, publicists) without recognizing blatant plagiarism evident to internet commenters?
  • What do we call the work of this “writer” who didn’t really write but instead rearranged existing content in an interesting way

You might answer the second question with “curation,” a word that’s frequently tossed around the echoey hallways of the internet as a “profession” of sorts that involves borrowing/excerpting/stealing content from other sources and repurposing it or running it in full on other sites, primarily with the intent of attracting traffic to that site rather than the originating one. Great curation creates great sites (aldaily being one of my favorites) where you can go and explore many little bits of things to see which little bit entices you to read the whole.

Is that, in a sense, what this plagiarized spy novel could have been–a way to turn readers on to obscure thriller writers of the past, shutting down the modern monotonous mystery machine in favor of getting people into libraries, used bookstores, or deeper into ebook content? Perhaps so, if it had been labeled and marketed as such. But perhaps our society isn’t yet ready for such a thing, for a “writer” who just moves around bits of other people’s work (that’s what an editor does, right?) and puts them together in the best possible way.

That type of work, in a sense, may be even harder than creating something from scratch. It requires more finesse, more tightness, more assurance that each disparate piece you’ve grabbed makes a convincing contribution to the whole.

In his essay “Ecstasy of Influence,” writer Jonathan Lethem assembled insights on writerly influence using almost exclusively the words of other writers. In response to the case of the plagiarized mystery novel, Lethem told the New Yorker that such work “is not a lazy man’s game. As someone who sort of did this, it’s an immense amount of work.” Lethem eventually turned his own borrowed essay into a book of essays. What if the “writer” of the spy novel had done the same, and credited each element? Perhaps he’d then be an anthologizer, not an author (though he’s still not the latter, and not really either).

Who knows. But the nature of the internet or the nature of modern society or both of these elements as well as many other elements are combining to turn much of our work into something more collaborative than it used to be. I feel like I was “raised” as a creative writer, to respect the identity and autonomy of the author, and to struggle to create things entirely my own. And I still do this, in some contexts. But in a professional context, almost everything I’ve worked on has featured a large element of collaboration. I’m not necessarily comfortable calling a proposal or a document “mine” when it was edited and contributed to by several others, even if I may have written the majority of the content, or assembled and edited the full document. Who owns such works?

Pair programming is a common practice for developers, and creating content in pairs is more and more often being proposed as an effective way to quickly come up with something creative and effective. So is our society killing the author, or merely reshaping conceptions of authorial identity? I’m not sure yet, but I’d like to move this blog’s scope a bit broader to incorporate that question as well as the question of commentary.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary,

Likes, Checkins as Forms of Commentary

Since my last posts here, I wonder whether online (or even mobile) commentary has degenerated from true comments to “likes,” “RT”s, and “+1″s (or even “This.”es). “Liking” (I’ll use the Facebook term for simplicity’s sake, but I’m including all other systems’ equivalents here, too) is the most mundane (weak, perhaps) form of commentary, essentially saying “I agree, this is good, I have nothing to add.” It’s a way to align yourself with the sentiments (or people) you like without going to the effort of explaining your alignment.

This isn’t to say that to retweet, like, or +1 something is bad, just that it’s not enough. Do you hesitate to “like” something posted by Facebook friends (or Google+ folks) you’re not actually close to? Does a “like” become a substitute for not having talked to a good friend for a while? When we are using our feedback buttons to navigate relationships rather than ideas, we should explore our motivation. So next time you feel compelled to click “like,” think about whether you actually have something to say. If so, say it. If not, maybe take a moment and think of something smart–not to show off, but if because you truly “like” something, you should probably like it enough to provide a thoughtful response.

Somewhat relatedly, I recently encountered an article that claims only about 30% of online users are interested in location-based mobile checkins like those offered by Foursquare, Gowalla, and similar services. However, more than 50% are interested in using their phones to get to stores, use coupons, and look up product information. If we view checkins as (weak) comments–essentially, indications that people “like” a place because they are there–the somewhat more tepid interest in checking in vs. saving money may suggest that more users are primarily interested in mobile phones for their functional rather than commentary purposes.

At the same time, we’ve commonly seen venues resort to promoting Foursquare checkins with special deals for mayors or even just any old schmuck who checks in. This essentially rewards people for their visible–to friends/acquaintances as potential customers–positive “commentary” on a venue as a worthwhile place to be. But when that commentary is subsidized, is it still valid? And is relationship-motivated commentary (liking your friends’ posts just because you like them as people) any less subsidized or more valid?

Ultimately, is a deal-motivated checkin the ultimate bastardization of our consumerist society, creating a world where we only do things because we’re rewarded? I hope we haven’t fallen that far–but sometimes I’m not sure.

Filed under: Commentary, Facebook, Foursquare, Google+

The Body As Commentary

I’m updating this thing sporadically only, because (in tribute to the talking heads) I’d rather only post when I have something to say. Anyway, I’m currently watching the Werner Herzog documentary Wheel of Time, which tracks Buddhist pilgrims migrating to Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Some of the pilgrims come thousands of miles in journeys that last several years, in part because they perform prostrations every step or two. In one scene in the film, pilgrims prostrating themselves along a mountain path are surpassed by people who are simply walking.

The contrast between the two figures’ progression made for a clear demonstration of the body as commentary. In each case, the individuals being filmed are traveling toward a particular destination. By enacting that travel in different forms, however, each individual makes a statement–comments on–the purpose of his or her journey. For some devotees, it’s not enough just to travel to Bodhgaya; the journey itself must take on a special form, realized through physical action that provides a comment on the actor’s religious dedication.

It’s hard to translate the body to the online realm: after all, one of the most egalitarian features of the internet, in a way, is that it disembodies all of us. At the same time, however, this can send us in search of an embodiment for the people or ideas we meet online, envisioning how people enact their beliefs in a physical realm. And at another extreme, many people make their physical selves highly visible online, providing extensive photo albums of their activities or fashions, offering additional information about what matters to the individual in question.

Our selves, then, comment on our priorities to some extent: the fashionista’s polished presentation, the runner’s lean arms, the bodybuilder’s impossibly thick thighs. And then, the rest of us, perhaps letting the body make another comment: that we are concerned, primarily, with something other than how we appear, but leaving that “something” undefined.

Filed under: Commentary

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.

Filed under: Commentary

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

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

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

Tweeting a Lot

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