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July 28, 2008

Blogs and the Power of Commenters


The Politico ran a story the other day about a subject that is a very large part of political discourse these days, despite rarely if ever getting any media attention: The role of blog commenters.


The story, by reporter Daniel Libit, was written on the occasion of the stalwart left-wing blog The Daily Kos celebrating its 20 millionth comment. It discussed how, in this Web 2.0 world, more and more newspapers and magazines, as well as blogs, are adding comment sections to their stories.


As with most forms of discourse, the proliferation of commenting has had positive and negative effects. Just as there are millions of blogs, there are likely tens of millions of commenters, so it is ridiculous to paint them all with one brush. But that hasn't stopped many from doing so anyway, including such vocal blog-haters as Bill O'Reilly and Buzz Bissinger.


Usually, comments by bloggers only make the mainstream news when a partisan of one political side is cherry-picking crazy comments from the bowels of a blog in order to paint that comment as the institutional opinion of that web site or the entire left (or right), for that matter. And of course, many of those doing the criticizing have never read a blog in their life, nor do they know the difference between a blog post and a comment.


Should blogs be held responsible for what their commenters write? Unless what they're writing is illegal terrorist threats, say, or libel, or disclosure of personal information I don't see how they are.


Because one of the thousands of Huffington Post commenters one day calls for the death of President Bush, does this make Arianna Huffington analogous to a Nazi, as O'Reilly has said? Is it the responsibility of all liberals, Barack Obama on down, to condemn this immediately? No, of course not.


Webmasters and bloggers should do whatever they can to ensure that illegal material is deleted expeditiously. Approving comments for my company's web site, as a matter of fact, is part of my day job. But too much of a delay in getting rid of such material especially sites that get in the five or six figures of comments per day should not be considered an indication that those in charge of the site agree with it.


There are smart blogs with very smart commenters, and smart blogs with not-so-smart commenters, and not-so-smart blogs with both. In the sports blogosphere, for whatever reason, it seems the highest-quality sites tend to have smart, stimulating comment sections, although ESPN.com's comment threads are almost universally a festival of idiocy.


As with blogs themselves, it is up to the reader to separate the wheat from the chaff, and decide on their own where they can find smart, stimulating commentary. In my experience, I've become good friends with several people either from them becoming frequent commenters on my blog, or me doing so on theirs.


At its best, blog comment sections are places where intelligent people can have informed, reasoned debate about the issues of day, on everything from the election to movies to whether or not the Yankees need another relief pitcher. At their worst, comment sections are wars between the simultaneously uniformed and hostile, or simply echo chambers in which 300 or 400 people in a row agree on everything.


Comments can also be quite predictable. On Philly.com, the homepage of Philadelphia's two daily newspapers, you can guarantee that every single comment thread for a story about crime, within the first 10 comments, will eventually devolve into racial slurs, while any thread about sports, also within the first 10 comments, will eventually be about local owners being too cheap to win.


Indeed, in the worst places blog commenters can resemble talk radio callers, only without the moderation or the reserve. YouTube, for whatever reason, seems to have viciously racist comments on its videos at most times.


The longtime blogger and the current editor of Wonkette, Ken Layne, was likely referring to the latter in the Politico story, when he said that "nobody would tolerate if, at the end of Meet the Press, if a bunch of weirdos stormed the studio and started screaming weird racist stuff. They'd call the police."


As with all media, when considering blog comments it is best to judge them on their own terms, site by site or even thread by thread.


2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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