Posts about interactivity

Dear Bob,

You caused a lot of discussion in your OtM piece about comments — and that discussion itself — in the comments on WNYC’s blog, in the comments on mine, and in blogs elsewhere — is an object lesson in the value of the conversation online.

Look at who is trying to help you understand that conversation while also trying to improve it:

Derek Powazek agrees with you — as we all do — that some comments are bad and so he shares considerable wisdom about how to give a community the care and feeding it needs and deserves.

Doc Searls, a coauthor of the seminal Cluetrain Manifesto and a teacher from whom I have learned more about the essence of the internet (hint: it’s not a medium) than most anyone, is delivering a history lesson with perspective on the growth of communities. “We need to remember that the Web is still new. It’s about three seconds after the Big Bang and all we have is a few light elements, no galaxies, and a lot of heat,” he said.

ComcastScott (a vice-president, I learn) — whom I suspect you inspired to join the conversation with your own not-very-temperately named — gives an eloquent defense of the value of listening.

Kevin Marks is a preeminent architect of community online; he was the technology genius behind Technorati — which enables the distributed conversation (and where you can follow the conversation around you here) — and is now writing Google’s gospel on the social. On his blog, he took the time to discuss what communities need and how they are structured, sharing the smarts of many other people who a great deal of experience in the field.

Tish Grier, who has been a leader in local communities I’ve been involved with, also tells hosts what they need to bring to assure civility.

Aaron Barnhart – who, like you, covers media — explains how he handles commenters who don’t like him.

The conversation on your blog is really quite incredible with some legitimate questions for Ira Glass.

I know you didn’t like my own observation of irony in your report. Fine, dismiss that as just another damned comment.

But note well, my friend, that all of these people are speaking to you with intelligence, experience, generosity, and civility. You know what’s missing? Two things: First, the sort of nasty comments your own piece decries. And second: You.

Bob, the best way to learn about the conversation online is to join in. That doesn’t mean just defending yourself against my wisecrack (though even in that, I shared links to my experience, perspective, and lessons with communities). It means engaging in the ideas there, bringing your journalism to the conversation: ask questions, ask for examples, challenge ideas, seek clarification. Learn. That’s what these conversations enable and the conversation around your piece is the best proof of it.

So when it’s time to report the reaction to your piece, I suggest that you not just read one comment — that’s so letter-to-the-editorish of you. Instead, leap into this conversation, draw on the generous sharing of knowledge and viewpoints of people in it, take lessons away, and share those.

Your friend,


Comments on comments on comments

Ah, irony.

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.

Thinking big

A friend told me to go to the Washington Post home page immediately and when I did, here’s what I saw:

BigThink promo

Pleasant surprise for the morning. This is the fruit of BigThink’s partnership with the Post, adding quality video interviews with smart people (present company and excerpt excepted).

I’ve been impressed with BigThink and its founders. I see it as a video version of Comment Is Free or Huffington Post. They’ve managed to get an impressive list of interviewees and the format is compelling.

Here‘s the video on WaPo. For readers of this blog, there’s not much new from me. And if you can bear it, here’s more blather.

How they do it is kinda cool: You sit in a closet staring at a teleprompter but rather than text there, you see the face of your interviewer.

Cause and effect in a two-dimensional world

I got an email from someone writing about the suicide of an adman and those who say that nasty blog comments about him had a role in it. The question to me was the ethical responsibility of bloggers regarding their comments. My response:

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First, I think you’re making a leap that is, unfortunately, frequently made when it comes to media and tragedy: the implied causality of song lyrics or a game or a movie and, say, a young person’s act of homicide or suicide. The implication is that there was nothing else wrong in this person’s life that may have caused this tragedy and that it could somehow be brought on by one song or scene and that that media is wrong or even evil. Clearly, that’s absurd — and offensive. It’s convenient to try to find such an easy cause and an easy answer. But it is shallow and dangerous to not look deeper.

I don’t know anything about this case beyond what I’ve read in stone-skipping-water news stories. But I would caution against making this same presumption here. In doing so, you’d also be indicting and convicting the commenters in a serious act. This is a tragedy and I imagine there are more causes than we can see, just as there will be more effects than we can see.

So please don’t be quick to condemn interaction online on the basis of this one tragedy. One effect of that would be to dismiss and devalue so much of the good that comes from the ability of everyone to speak today.

As for a blogger’s — or publisher’s — responsibility regarding comments: That is up to them. Under Section 230, a publisher is not legally responsible for content not created by them. That was necessary to insure an open forum for dialog and as a nation we are privileged to have it; it is our online First Amendment. I know you’re asking another question: the ethics of it. I don’t think there is a blanket rule. I say on my blog that I will kill comments that are patently offensive in their use of hate speech or in personal attacks. I’ve been attacked often in my own comments, of course, and I’ve killed only a few of those; I’m more likely to kill comments attacking others, but even then, there’ve not been many. Part of the problem is that there is a falling bar on the definition of offensiveness; we live in an age of offense and political correctness when someone can be offended by anything said and someone can insist that that speech should be silenced. There’s danger there. In a free democracy and an open market, we must value open discussion and the exchange of views and ideas. So who’s to say what goes too far? There is clearly no one standard.

Now, of course, I’m not defending gratuitous and anonymous attacks on people. I value civility in my blog comments and in the forums I used to run for publishers. I ran operations to kill the worst of those comments. And the communities were grateful for that effort. But I also would have fought any effort to take some number of comments or some event attributed to them to shut down all that discussion. That, too, would be a tragedy.

I urge you not to fall into the media trap of making this a simple cause-and-effect story. Note well this from the New York Times story on the event:But a colleague and friend of Mr. Tilley’s, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “There’s no way you or I will know why he did this, but it’s certainly not because of blogs.”

“I know it bothered him,” the colleague said, referring to the public criticism. “However, he was very intelligent, with lots of talents and skills, and this was not his whole life. Pointing to blogging and the media just trivializes a man whose life was not trivial.”

On the Media: Open up

I’m a fan and loyal listener of On the Media. They devoted their entire show this week to the fate and future of the book and though it had plenty of good segments, I was frustrated listening to it because I knew of other interviews I wish they’d done that I could have suggested — if only they’d asked.

And so it struck me that On the Media should open up the process of making its show. When they decide to make an entire episode about one media topic — which I encourage to forestall the show’s slide into becoming just another politics and public affairs show — why shouldn’t they tell the audience — media-savvy, by definition — and ask them who they know and what they want to know. They could tell us what they’re thinking of making and we could beat that. If the BBC can publish its rundown for a daily news show to ask for input, why can’t OtM?

I would have told them about the Institute for the Future of the Book, which is doing fascinating work about not only the form of the book but the process of writing. I would have suggested that they report more about the new benefits being digital brings to books — being searchable, linkable, lasting. I might have liked to have heard a debate about John Updike’s screed against digital at the booksellers’ convention a year ago. I could have sent them lots of links about all this (and I’m not pushing to be interviewed myself… though it has been awhile). I know that many members of their audience would have had more more good suggestions.

OtM did invite listener participation. They asked us to submit 12-word novels and they read the 12 best. They were amazed at the response; that should tell them something. They asked us to design their T-shirt. And that’s cute. But it’s just a tad — albeit unintentionally — condescending: ‘Go play there, listeners, but we won’t let you in to affect the real show.’

I’m not blaming OtM’s crew. They’re operating under habit, the way it has been done forever, the only way it could be done, before the internet. But if any show should shake things up and change the way a show is made, shouldn’t it be this one?

Brian Lehrer’s public-radio show is mobilizing its audience to report. I’d like to see show’s enable their audiences to create.