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.
Robert J Holland, ABC says
As a fellow nobody, I agree with you on this one, David. It’s all part of the current culture that bestows newsworthy and noteworthy status to anyone who inhales oxygen.
I see it as part of the reality-TV phenomenon, in which a nobody with no particular talent or other distinguishing trait becomes The Situation and is deemed worthy of occupying a slot on the morning news shows before 7:30 a.m.
We’re in the midst of a populist movement where mass media are concerned. It isn’t very pretty.
David Murray says
Well, “The Situation” does have a hilarious name.
But yes, you’re right; in Public Speaking, the great new Scorsese profile of Fran Lebowitz, she says the problem is:
“Too much democracy in the culture, not enough democracy in the society.”
And from the documentary, it’s clear that she is more worried about the over-democratic culture than the under-democratic society.
Yossi Mandel says
Self-validation through online commenting. “I comment, therefore I exist.” It may be a form of self-expression similar to the characters of peopleofwalmart.com.
Mike Brice says
I wish online comments had to be verified like in the past when they would actually call you before placing your letter in the opinion page.
Now, except for a small group of blogs and forums where I know or know of the people, I don’t pay attention to people like tooldude. If you can’t put your real name on something, you shouldn’t say it or post it. That drives me crazy.
David Murray says
Agreed, Mike, but the point I’m making is that it doesn’t matter if it’s tooldude or Mike Brice or David Murray commenting at Time.com: If you’re one of a couple hundred comments and nobody has ever heard of you, no one is going to read you and they won’t remember you even if they do.
And yet every Huffington Post item draws 1,700 comments if it draws one.
Who are these poor people? And: No wonder they feel ignored. They ARE ignored!
Allison Wood says
Okay, here’s Allison’s take on this:
As a writer, when I am inspired to comment on a story or post, I take as much care to craft that response as I do when I have a paid assignment. Every chance I get to write, especially when that writing voices my own opinion, is a chance to polish my craft as a persuasion peddler.
For those who aren’t pro writers (the other 99.9% of commenters), I can only assume that they want their voices to be heard as well. I would bet it doesn’t matter as much to them whether anyone reads it, as much as the fact that their name is up there in the comments section, trailing after the pack of words they let loose on the post. I agree with Yossi – it’s a form of self-validation. And, believe it or not, I actually have retained some of the comments I’ve read by “nobodies.” There are some smart people out there who aren’t professional writers, whose wisdom I happen to stumble on occasionally. For that I’m grateful.
Of course, there are comments and then there is nonsense. If you’re talking about the people who can’t spell or organize a coherent thought, then all bets are off. I don’t think there are enough years left on my life span to figure them out. And I’ve got better things to comment on.
Tom Keefe says
When I’ve felt passionate about sharing my opinion or experience, I haven’t cared that my comment would be, for example, the 486th comment buried deep in the comment section of a Roger Ebert post.
Sometimes I was hoping for a moment of recognition. Sometimes I was offering some side of an issue that wasn’t being addressed.
Sometimes others responded to my comment, and it made a small difference in the discussion.
Kind of like my work in corporate America.
David Murray says
Well, the Ebert site is a little different, Tom, because Roger appears to read every comment. And, he’s beloved by his audience, so we love each other and we love him. So there’s a real community there, even if it’s a pretty big one.
We make only a little difference in this world, even when we do spend our energies wisely. So I’m suggesting that we ought to spend them wisely.
I don’t have much to contribute here, other than to say that I agree with David’s perspective on this topic.
If it makes you happy and like you’ve made a contribution that feels right, then by all means go ahead and comment on an online story that already has hundreds of comments. So long as you understand that it’s highly unlikely anyone other than you will note your contribution.
I personally get much more out of participating on sites – as David notes – where there is an established community of people I know and who know me. I want reactions if I’m going to comment somewhere.
Although, depending on the topic, I will admit to occasionally reading some [certainly not hundreds, but some] of the comments posted, to get a sense of the reactions and the proportions of response to that particular topic as a point of interest.