I started quite a firestorm about four years ago when I observed in a magazine I edited that there was a blogger who I read religiously despite the fact that he was "pretty much a nobody" in the communication business.
I meant for people to focus on the reasons that I read this guy regularly despite his lack of status and readership reach. Instead, predictably enough, everyone focused on the term "nobody," and I was nibbled half to death by a dozen or more bloggers, who saw themselves as aggrieved "nobodies" too, standing up for the trufula trees.
I tried to dismiss what ensued as a tempest in a teapot, but when you're in the teapot, it feels like a hell of a storm.
And now I try to think of the thing as a kind of online accident that couldn't happen today because bloggers are more reconciled to their niche status. Besides, I'm writing on a blog, so if you're a nobody, I'm a nobody too!
But it was last week when I read a story in The New York Times about anonymous online commenters. And I waited until this week to say what I think about it: I that people who comment on online stories are all anonymous, or might as well be. Anonymous, and utterly unheard. An online commenter to a big-media online story is—dare I say it again?!—a nobody.
For any comment to make any impact in the comments section of an online article, the commenter has to have some agreed-upon status among the rest of the readership. At a niche blog, that's easy: Commenters at Writing Boots, for example, have automatic status simply because they read Writing Boots, which means we all see them as fellow travelers. Many of them have further status because they are professional communicators. And then I and the other Writing Boots readers confer yet more status upon commenters when we acknowledge their posts and engage them in further conversation, the content of which is an essential part of the experience of the blog. And then we slowly get to know one another, as regulars, and it's "I wonder what Kristen's take is going to be," or "uh oh, wait until Robert sees this."
By utter contrast, think of hundreds and hundreds of people who comment on articles in The New York Times: They are not members of any particular community; all they have in common with one another is that they are readers of the English language. Unless they identify themselves as real experts on the subject they are discussing (in hopes that people will believe that the dean of the Harvard Business School is wasting his time commenting on NYTimes.com), they have no status there either. They are not even writers of published letters to the editor, who get credibility because an editor chose their opinion out of hundreds of others. Almost never does the writer of the original article acknowledge readers' comments. And because there are so many commenters, there is no familiarity; everyone is a stranger to everyone else.
It seems cruel to say: But the thousands and thousands and maybe millions of habitual commenters on articles on mainstream media websites are deluded believers that their opinion counts for anything more than one, added to a comment count.
Try to imagine hearing someone say, "You know, I changed my thinking on healthcare after I read a comment in a discussion of a newspaper article. It came from a fellow named 'tooldude,' and he said something I'll never forget …."
Never happen. I don't care if tooldude wrote like Oscar Wilde: Nobody would ever remember a thing he wrote, and he'd be better off shouting at the TV news, because then at least then his wife and kids would hear him.