Would you believe anything this person says?

Would you believe anything this person says?

When we talk about the possibility of blogs replacing newspapers, we tend to pay a lot of attention to the anxieties surrounding the anonymity of bloggers. They just don’t seem to have the credentials that someone being backed by the New York Times has. There’s a lot to discuss in this issue, but I want to draw attention to one point that I don’t often see brought up (though I’m sure someone’s talking about it.). The thing that worries me almost more about the transition from print to digital media is the ability for people to comment on whatever they read. Though blogs have long been considered a dialogue, newspapers and magazines have started attaching comments feeds to their articles, allowing for instant discussion. But comment feeds rarely actually encourage discussion that does not degenerate into flame wars, name-calling, and the other weapons called upon in net drama.

As any net veteran will tell you, you cannot win an argument on the internet. But can you even have a discussion on the internet?

In her article “Lowest Comment Denominator,” freelance writer Laura Nathan encouraged feminists to abandon using the comments feeds on blog and news article as discussion forums in favor of email or even in person discussion of the articles with friends. This seemingly Luddite response comes from her rather astute observation that “commenting has been around for a decade now, and it still hasn’t advanced the conversation about feminism—or anything else for that matter” (pg. 45, Bitch Magazine: Fall 2008: “Loud”). As much as I hate to say it, she has an excellent point. I really love getting comments here on FtCM, and I love reading other blogs, but, for the most part, reading comments pages gives me headaches of epic proportions.

Of course, this isn’t always the case, and I do feel a little guilty for making commenters who do think carefully about the comments they write out of this post for the most part.  Don’t worry–I know they exist.

If you’re at all interested in the discussion of the future of journalism, I would recommend checking out Nathan’s article, which addresses, albeit briefly, some of the common ways comment feeds degrade journalism, such as the way internet culture thrives on provoking others and the ability of commenters or even the bloggers themselves to create sock puppet accounts (fake accounts) in an attempt to make it seem like more people agree with them. But I’ve got another reason why comment feeds, particularly on news articles, don’t seem to help discussion any: comment feeds completely eliminate context.

One of the first things any writer considers before beginning a piece is their audience (and if they will accept the fact that I like using 3rd-person plural pronouns as a gender-neutral 3rd-person singular). I know this sounds banal and obvious, but it’s so taken-for-granted that we almost forget about it. Thinking about whom you write for means that you consider your audience’s context: their education (Is it specialized? Do they expect you to use certain jargon?), their background, their concerns. It shows consideration and respect for them, not to metion that having a sense of what your audience expects changes everything about how you write from your tone to what you discuss. It’s essential.

But you can’t do this properly on the internet. Its vastness erases context. Even though I do have some sense of which sorts of people read my blog, I constantly find out that websites like Stumbleupon, or random Google searches for such random terms as “castration” or “what happened to the Nostalgia chick?” bring people outside of my predicted audience to my site. I’m not complaining (I mean, thinking hard enough about it, I realize that the writers of centuries past didn’t consider us as their audience either,) but it does mean that people read me out of the context I’ve created on FtCM, and sometimes without me predicting them as part of my audience.

In the end, this does not really affect the way I blog; like any other writer, I eventually just have to pick an audience and stick with it. Published writers go through a similar context-erasing ordeal (they can’t predict who will pick up their books!), unless they’ve been published by a specialty press. I do still consider audience when I write and make an effort to account for the fact that not everyone reading this blog comes from the same background that I do. I like to think that most bloggers do this, and I know that a good journalist does too, whether their article goes in a paper or on the net.

Though we tend to think of commenting as being intimately tied up with blogging, it actually works in a different way. A quality blog or a news blog worth reading will have articles that are written with care, or at least some effort. Comments, on the other hand,  are often gut reactions, written without fully realizing the implications of their words nor with thought given to the types of people who may be reading the comment. When I comment on a feminist blog, I expect people to be familiar with certain concepts. If I go to a slightly larger blog, even one that considers itself progressive, I don’t know if its readers come from the same feminist context. I cannot expect them to be familiar with terms such as “rape culture” that are well-defined and easily understood within the context of the feminist community. If I write with the expectation that people already know the lingo or already accept certain precepts as true, I run the risk of alienating people who might otherwise be sympathetic to my ideas and causing others to make terrible assumptions about what I’m actually trying to say. Ignoring who my audience only serves to undermine my point and hinders discussion.

The other danger lies in the ability of commenters to erase their own context. This is less of an issue for bloggers because even if they are fairly tight-lipped with personal details, they create a context for themselves with their blogging history. Eventually, if a commenter comments at a blog long enough, they will gain a context of sorts, but in a vast sea of comments it’s difficult to keep track of an individual, unless they’re on a small blog that has created a community of regular commenters.

Writing outside of a context might mean that whatever you say can’t get traced back to you (which has been oft blamed for viciousness on the internet,) but it also means that readers do not have a context within which to judge your claims. Again, this is a simple point, but it can have a huge effect on the direction of discussion. For example, if I’m reading a book on physics, and the book tells me that its author works at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC,) I know that, at least in the realm of particle physics, she has some authority to speak on the subject. Therefore, if I am looking at the comments feed for a Scientific American blog article, and see a person make a claim that contradicts what I read in the book, I’m probably going to ignore the comment. It doesn’t matter if the comment I read was written by a physicist working within the same field who has found actual evidence to bring the theories of the author of the book into question. I don’t know that from a comments thread. And, beyond that, I have no reason to trust that information coming from a comments thread, even if the commenter were to reveal my identity.

Ultimately, everyone who writes on the internet now, bloggers and commenters alike, faces the obstacle of having internet culture as their context. Internet culture, as it stands, has an attitude rather similar to such characters as The Joker (ala The Dark Knight): Why so serious? (sorry, sorry. I couldn’t help it!)  Anyone who has ever gotten upset over a comment made on the internet will probably have received a slew of responses to the effect of, “Why are you taking this so seriously! It’s just the internet!” or “Why do you care what people you don’t even know think?” (If you play with the logic of that third statement long enough, you start to wonder why anyone has a conversation on the internet ever, if it’s just a bunch of people they don’t know spouting opinions.) The internet has gained the reputation of being a land of informational anarchy, of communication via macro, and of people venting their anger. It is a land of verbal vigilantes who thrive on “educating” people that they consider to be stupid of their own stupidity. If this is the base-line context we write in on the internet, then I do not blame anyone dubious of its usefulness as an informational or, almost more importantly, discussion forum.

I’m not sure I want to pronounce a death sentence on the internet’s possibilities for discussion on issues. The internet is a useful organizing tool, an equalizing tool, and often offers a public stage for people whose voices are often ignored by mainstream publications for reasons of gender, race, class, and sexuality.  And, again, I don’t want to forget the fact that there are people who comment thoughtfully, or at least make an effort to. I always hesitate to portray the internet as a wasteland, even if it sometimes feels that way. Nothing’s that simple.

But the fact remains that whenever we read, and particularly whenever we read anything on the internet, we cannot stop questioning. We cannot stop thinking critically about people’s motivations, backgrounds, and contexts for commenting.

And now, in a fit of paradoxical glee, I invite you to comment on this article. ;)