On the current On the Media, Bob Garfield launches into a screed on those who launch into screeds in online comments. He quotes Gawker — Gawker! — getting on his high-horse about comments. He talks with This American Life’s Ira Glass about why he got rid of comments on his site. But then he asks Glass something so leading — Garfield only tells about about his question but unfortunately does not reveal it to us — that Glass loses his constant cool for a moment in a rousing defense of vox pop. And then, for balance, Garfield has on a newspaper editor who — amen to this — says she thought we were way past this debate as she explains the value she gets from comments.
But here’s the kicker: Garfield finishes off telling us about comments to his Ad Age review of a commercial deemed to be offensive to gays because Mr. T makes fun of a race-walker for being the shame of the man race. Some commenters then ridiculed Garfield’s opinion and so he lashes out at them from his radio pulpit, calling them every bit as bad as race baiters in Der Sturmer.
Now we know that the law of online discussions is that they will inevitably descend until someone plays the Nazi card (Godwin’s law: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”) So here’s Garfield decrying the civility of comments — in a discussion about them that has gone on way too long — himself bringing the discussion to its lowest ebb, resorting to reductio ad Hitlerum.
Can he see the irony?
While we’re at it, there’s considerable irony in Gawker getting sniffy about comments, considering that Gawker is regularly blamed for lowering standards of journalism, conversation, and civilization. Indeed, I was the one who argued with founder Nick Denton way back in Gawker’s diaper days telling him that he needed to add comments. He resisted because he didn’t want to hoi with the polloi. He’s snotty. He’s British. But he did finally add them because he wanted traffic. Unenlightened self-interest. Comments bring him lots of traffic and revenue and notoriety.
At least we know that Denton gets the irony. He’s British.
So are comments destroying civilization? The reason this argument is so damned tired is that we all know who the assholes are and where they hang out and we know how to step around them and their smelly shopping carts. I don’t need Garfield, Gawker, or newspaper editors to protect me from them. The nannies’ obsession comes, I think, from the media and news worldview that led them to believe that they were able to package the world neatly every day in a beautiful box with a bow on top. Now that we can suddenly hear more voices, it upsets them as schmutz does Felix Ungar. The world isn’t just out of their control now but it’s messy.
But I’ve argued that we’re looking at commenting the wrong way. We spend so much of our time playing wack-a-mole with the dirty little creatures who dig up the garden that we miss the fruits and flowers. It is far more productive to curate the good people and good comments — whether they occur under an article or, better yet, via links — than it is to obsessively try to clean up life, which can’t help but be messy.
The tsk-tskers treat the web as if it is a media property and they judge it by its worst: Look what that nasty web is doing to our civilization! But, of course, that’s as silly as judging publishing by the worst of what is published. It’s even more wrong because the internet is not media — no matter how much media people insist on seeing the web in their image. Instead it is, as Doc Searls points out, a place where we talk. Walk by any streetcorner on the way to the theater and there’s a good chance you will hear stupid, illiterate, nasty things before you hear smart, well-written things. Time for a neutron bomb? No, you keep walking.
So now feel free to comment on my comments on Garfield’s and Gawker’s comments on comments. Or keep walking. Your choice.
: LATER: In the comments, Garfield responds; Jay Rosen asks to hear the question Garfield asked Glass; Doc Searls talks about the evolution of conversational tools. And on his blog, Derek Powazek responds to Garfield on the differences in comment systems and communities.