I was innocently cruising our site the other night when I noticed that the same person, the aforementioned Ed Weems, had left several comments on the site. At first, like an a total naif, I was excited because a comment left means that someone actually read one of our columns. But, my excitement quickly dwindled when I got a look at his sarcastic remarks about the three columns that he had commented on [the tally is now up to seven]. Look, I wont sugarcoat things, clearly Ed isn't a fan of The Word, and the truth is that's OK. It's just something I have to get used to.
Within the realm of the Internet, leaving a comment is one of the few ways that people react in a meaningful way. Yeah sure, you can have a conversation with your friends or whatever, but there's something different that the Internet provides in terms of directing your thoughts at the purveyors of the sentiment that has rubbed you so wrong. You can't have a real life conversation with the Schlesingers, with David Remnick, with Joan Walsh. You'll never have their undivided attention for real, but you can approximate it with a comment. With a mom-and-pop shop of a web mag like ours, however, you definitely get our undivided attention. And that's the way it should be; we don't occupy the same space that the New York Times or the New Yorker does, not even the space Salon does, though it too lives in the ether of cyberspace. In accordance with that, people shouldn't leave long-winded and elaborate comments on our pieces, like a conventional newspaper's letters to the editor. They can and should be brief and direct. It is, after all, the way of the interweb.
But it's not always as easy as that. Comment threads take on lives of their own, and very quickly things can degenerate into hate-filled diatribes with little to no connection to what the article in question was about. People begin to make comments on the comments of other readers and the whole thing spirals out of control. Here lies the real idiosyncrasy of the idea of comments in the first place, you're not really leaving a comment for the author as criticism or critique, it's instead a war between readers. Commentors battle back and forth and their discussion divorces from the original article because, while I can't know if the authors read comments left on their articles or not, it's plain to see that very few reply back, or do so regularly. Which is to say, there's little reason to pose a question for the author of the piece; it's easier to get a dialogue going with the other people reading. Just look at the thread left in the wake of Stuff White People Like #85, a column regarding the Wire. 935 responses, very few of which discuss the show even remotely, and not one remark by blog author Christian Lander. Or, take a look at any article written by ESPN's Scoop Jackson or Jemele Hill, columnists so universally ragged on that commentors seemingly haven't even read the article when they make their comments.
I guess the question that commenting and the Internet offers us the chance to talk about is what is the relationship, really, between author and readership. I wonder how Christian Lander felt looking at the comments pile up on his post. I'm sure the swell of pride was short-lived, he'd already gotten his book deal by that point, and I wonder if he even bothered to read through them all. If it were my blog, though, I would have been pretty annoyed to tell you the truth. Yes, people read and reacted and that, in theory, is good. But barely any of those people responded to what Lander wrote. They had something on their mind, they had their ax to grind, and here was just another opportunity to launch into their well-practiced spiel. You could tell how deeply embedded these people's positions were, you knew that Lander's post really had nothing to do with it. If it were me, I don't think I would be too happy knowing that people had taken my post, my whole blog really, and used it to further their own posturing and self-aggrandizing. Of course, I'm sure the book deal got Lander through the night.
But, here at Steve's Word, we're not getting nearly a thousand responses to our columns and we're certainly not getting book deals. And I don't mean to suggest that Ed Weems' comments were in any way a twisting of what the comment feature is supposed to be. In fact, Ed replied directly and succinctly each time he posted. I applaud him for that. And that's pretty much the case for anyone who's ever commented on a Steve's Word piece, for the most part. The ridiculously long and no longer on point comment thread is a bridge we've yet to cross over here, and if it ever happens, I'm sure there will be many an Internet philosophy discussion about it at our HQ. No, for us right now, the issue is a more simple one.
The issue is that, at least for me, this is the first time in my life that I actually give a crap about what other people have to say. As someone who generally believes himself to be the smartest person in the room no matter what that room might be (some hyperbole employed here), I usually don't care that much. People don't generally assume this about me, since I often let folks I don't know well prattle on and on about something that they have entirely misread or thought out quite poorly, but that's because I'm socially gracious, or at least I try to be. But the comment issue has really changed that. I care what people think, and I eagerly want to know their reaction. I never thought I would see the day when I would clamor for what could be read as the approval of others. But, only in this specific forum, of course, and there's something very precipitous at play here. Even approval must be displayed properly. Which is to say, friends who tell me that they liked a column but didn't bother to comment on it are dead to me.
It's a difficult thing to admit that one cares so much about the opinion of strangers. There is part of that sentiment constantly at play within the mind of anyone creative; one doesn't express entirely for their own eyes, no matter what they say. Expressions press outward, and if that expression doesn't reach someone else's eyes or ears then it exists in a vacuum, clearly the fastest and easiest way to be totally irrelevant. Expression in the Internet age differs greatly in this respect because the feedback is instantaneous and direct. And it is also highly necessary. Without it, the whole things slips into becoming an exercise. And I hate to exercise.
I guess what it really means is that I need Ed Weems, maybe more than he needs me, maybe the same amount. And so this is really a plea to him. Ed, please let me know how much you hated my column. Please tell me how crappy it was, how gay I am, how much of an insufferable douche bag. I implore you. *Author's note, June 2009. The Ed Weems of this column is not the Ed Weems of Venture Management Inc and NC State University.
Come on, Eldrick.