The Wisdom of the Great Unwashed

I came across this comment on some article on the Observer’s website. The article was about Pelosi’s supposed support for Obama (the main reasons being, she was the highest-ranking democrat that opposed the war authorization, and she doesn’t want the superdelegates of overturn the “will of the voters”)And then this, from “Marianne”: “well, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the over 60 year olds voting for clinton aren’t going to be around for that many more elections.”

I know that this is some form of the We’re Young and Hip, and you all are Old News argument that the obamabots proliferate. But it’s one that I hadn’t heard before, that the pragmatic thing for the Democratic Party to do is focus on the next generation of democratic voters. The Boomers are going to start dying, and the attitudes of twenty-somethings nationwide are being shaped right fucking now with this election. There won’t be another one like it for a half a century – if ’68 was the year that the boomers had their “rebellion”, then 2008 is the year that generation 2.0 woke the fuck up from its stupor.

I guess I was taken aback by Marianne because comments generally depress me with their small mindedness and just plain stupidity. (Not that I don’t read them just to shake my head) But that being said, I don’t want to come off like, wow, there’s someone out there who’s not an idiot! (and Marianne’s comment wasn’t THAT insightful, either.) But Marianne got me thinking about web comments in general.

I’m frustrated every time the Steven Levitt or Stanley Fish or Jack Cafferty or Neal Conan says something like, gee you know, it’s amazing. Sometimes the comments on our blogs are really intelligent!

It doesn’t frustrate me because I think that those MSM assholes don’t respect us 2.0’ers.

By and large, comments on blogs, youtube, the times website, politico – they’re not just partisan or mean spirited, they often seem to lack any attempt at persuasion. If you don’t agree with me, “ur a fuckwad”. Oh ok, NOW I see “ur” point.

And it’s probably not this way because the people commenting on blogs are assholes and don’t respect other people. I’d bet in other circumstances, they’re perfectly respectful and polite.

I can think of three sorts of reasons that webcomments are the way they are (if you can think of more, please comment):

The standard reasoning is that on the internets, you’re anonymous. There aren’t any of the standard consequences of letting people know how *really* feel, like there are in face-to-face situations. I’m sure this plays a part.

A second reason may be that, even when you’re not anonymous, like on facebook, or on sites that require a real name, the reaction to your comment is delayed. You can spew your outrageous Hitler comparisons and you don’t get the immediate negative feedback that you would in a live conversation.

(on a related note, I think this is why people flirt with text messages – its fast enough for instant gratification, but staggered enough that you can be “more daring” and say things you never would in an email, a letter, even a note passed in class.)

But lately, I’ve been thinking of a third reason that comments might be the way that they are – precisely because they are “comments”.

They are always subordinate to the main article. We here at Ishum speak with the voice of authority, and poor sebastion bach is like a peasant at court. But over at his house, the tables are turned.

I think that this holds even when the commenters are really negative about the post in question (and not just each other, which is by far the most common kind of negative comments – stop comment on comment crime!). See almost any post on on Ben Smith’s blog. He is constantly getting flamed for being a (not-so crypto-) hillary partisan. These accusations always seem like some act of rebellion, or speaking truth to power, or in any case, petulance.

I mean, you’re the ones who are reading Ben Smith in the first place, right? He’s not reading your blog, that’s for sure. So there’s a power dynamic there.

Andrew Sullivan doesn’t allow commenting on his blog, and I think that it’s great that way. Readers email him instead, and I think that does two things to improve the feedback process. First of all, the comments can’t devolve into your standard “faggot!”/”bigot!” intra-commenter stupidity – all the comments are to the blogger himself. And secondly, an email is a peer-to-peer style of communication. (or at least, it’s dependent on the power relationship between the two individuals themselves, and not on the form of communication. You’d be more deferent writing to a congressman than he would be to you. Probably.)

Even if the “reader responses” box in Andrew’s email box is treated with suspicion (the way CNN treats its “you, the audience” and NPR its “the listener”) he probably treats it with more respect than just some stupid comment on his blog.

Andrew will then feature reader responses on his blog, in the exact same “blockquote” format that he quotes from the sources he comments on normally. Formally, Maureen Dowd’s pontifications are given the same weight as “marianne’s” would.

And since it’s better integrated than an All Things Considered-style “letters” segment, or even a “letter to the editor” section in a magazine, I think it’s a good model for web interactivity. We’d adopt it here at IShum, but we’re just begging for any reader comments whatsoever, so there’s no filter.

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