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July 28, 2008
Blogs and the Power of Commenters
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.
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