Salon’s Gary Kayima has written a thoughtful, well-written (if somewhat long) piece examining how the outpouring of public commentary is affecting writers’ relationships with their readers. Also, make sure to browse through the comments.
Some highlights from his article:
“All of us — writers and editors and readers alike — are still struggling to get used to this cacophonous cornucopia of communication. It is a brave new world, filled with beautiful minds and nasty Calibans and everything in between. Its benefits are undeniable. But it has some downsides, too — not all of them obvious.”
“The information revolution has set off a million car bombs of random knowledge at once, spraying info fragments through the marketplace of ideas.”
“Formality? The context of online communication is more like being in your car in a traffic jam than sitting across a table from someone and having a talk — and it’s easy to flip somebody off through a rolled-up window.”
“Nasty and ignorant letters affect the reader, too. A few ugly or stupid comments in a discussion thread have a disproportionate impact. Like drops of iodine in a glass of water, they discolor the whole discussion and scare more thoughtful commentators away.”
“Forget the word “elite”: In our laudable all-American haste to trash bogus royalty, let’s not forget there’s a completely different category. It’s called professionalism.”
Thankfully, Kayima does not simply tear into message board users and does concede that certain controls can better the situation. For instance, Slashdot has a tiered system for weighing users’ contributions. Lifehacker requires you to ask nicely. Wikipedia has its own complex system and hierarchy of users.
Many in the online news industry agree that story comments, while excellent to have, often result in simple-minded, often boorish spleen-venting and do not constitute a true online community. Personally, I am not even slightly loathe to nuke a message board if the conversation takes an offensive or disgusting turn, particularly when it involves someone’s death.
However, through user blogs and other innovative tools, I believe it’s possible to elevate the conversation to something that is even more useful for both writer and reader.