19 April 2010

The not so great era of online media.

I've taken to almost completely ignoring comments left on newspaper articles, youtube videos, etc. They're beyond useless. The concept is great: open up the articles for immediate and unlimited commentary. Unlike the traditional letters to the editor (which still exist of course), these comments can appear seconds after the article has been posted (and by seconds, I mean, quite literally, that many comments appear to be made without any sort of knowledge of the originating article), and you don't have to worry about column space. Additionally, in keeping with the fine internet age, we can all comment without attaching any of our real names (yes, I know, my entire blog is based on that premise...but at least I put some thought into my posts).

Essentially, these comment spaces have become nothing more than arenas for confrontation between two blandly predictable opposing camps. Very little thought is required to anticipate the content of the comments section -- far from liberating, they are in fact constricting. No one takes any sort of time to read an argument, so very few people take time to write one. Instead it's invective, sound bites garnered from talk radio, and rehashed political party talking points. Additionally, for all the complaining the right wing does about the Washington Post, and the threats that "they'll never read that rag again" or "no one reads the Post anymore" or some such bullshit, the right wing loons are clearly reading the Post.

It's my belief that right wing loons (for instance, the Freepers -- and I follow long-standing policy of not providing links to racist or fascist organizations) actually see it as their mission to patrol message boards of prominent media outlets and swamp the comment pages with their own irrational arguments and position statements. It could very well be that the left does the same, but I haven't seen it (unless the conversation has been pushed so far right that you have to define "left" with the idea that the government has the right to exist).

However, the Post isn't the best place to see this insanity at work, because it's too mainstream (not used in the bogeyman sense that critics on right and left seem to deploy it, but rather in the "general audience" sense). The best place to look for this phenomenon is on the comment pages of specialty media outlets, like The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle (which can be nefariously abbreviated to "CHE," showing off, I'm sure, its true socialist leanings) is a leader in its field, but its field is very small. You don't see back issues sitting around the dentist's office, like you might see Car and Driver or Sports Illustrated or Ladies Home Journal. The Chronicle is aimed at highly educated people (and administrators) who work at or with institutions of higher education, and its content therefore concerns such earthshaking issues as graduation rates at community colleges, bad writing and bad thinking, and a police raid on a student newspaper. Now these are important issues and they do touch at times on larger cultural hot buttons, but so also does the latest research in physics deal with important issues that have ramifications for our larger culture -- yet the pages of the Journal of Applied Physics do not overflow with fools arguing that Obama/Hitler/Stalin has threatened to eat all the children of white gun-toting patriots (OK, first I exaggerate, and second, the Journal of Applied Physics, like most scholarly journals, doesn't have a comments section).

Getting back to my point, I'm convinced that Freepers or some organization much like the Freepers trolls the CHE boards spouting off nonsense. I'm not suggesting that there's a policy decision anywhere saying, "let's assign five people to watch over Board X"; I simply think that a few members probably see it as their mission in life to bring their level of ignorance to the higher education community.

As an example, I cite "adamreed," on a comment left on Mark Bauerlein's "Brainstorm" column (for those who don't know Mark Bauerlein, he's a right-leaning professor at Emory with whom I don't agree much if at all, but who at least employs rational argumentation):

24. adamreed - April 16, 2010 at 02:57 pm

Oh delicious irony: A man who directs the re-distribution of property taken from its creators as taxes, by the most uncivil of means, extortion at gunpoint, lectures his victims about "civility." Who needs The Onion when we have propaganda?

"adamreed" is commenting on the current NEH "civility tour" that Bauerlein objects to. To sum up Bauerlein's argument, the lead objection (which we should also read, if we were Freudians, as the "manifest content") is that the civility tour oversteps NEH's jurisdiction and mission, while the real objection is that NEH Chair Leach is "politicizing" the NEH in ways Bauerlein doesn't like (interesting conclusion, given the Lynne Cheney years of hyper-politicization). But back to "adamreed," who apparently objects to taxation and believes he's being extorted at gunpoint to pay his taxes. He obviously has either not read Thoreau or simply didn't understand him.

Whether you agree with Bauerlein or not about Leach's civility tour (and it seems Bauerlein most likely objects more to the content of Leach's speeches and not the tour itself, despite his initial argument), it's clearly not something "adamreed" even knows how to engage with. So instead of offering a useful commentary either in keeping with the column itself or the 23 comments that precede his, he offers his soundbite libertarian objection to taxes and the canard that Obama is a socialist (again exposing his ignorance of either Obama's policies or the definition of socialism...I'm not sure which).

There are other gems in the comment section for this particular Bauerlein column, but this post is already too long as it is. The bottom line (and believe it or not the "adamreed" comment was downright coherent as opposed to others I've read on that site) is that tools like "adamreed" certainly aren't reading the Chronicle because they are involved in higher education; they're actually pretty much incapable of maintaining a straight line of reasoning or supporting their sound bite arguments. So what the hell is "adamreed" doing reading this somewhat esoteric weekly, and more importantly, what motivates someone to insert themselves into arguments that they have no ability to follow? It'd be just as silly for me to jump on the JAMA website and opine on the latest medical research.


Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com said...

Comment anonymity has generated a decade of racist rhetoric on the websites of formerly-respected newspapers.



cs said...

Yeah, that's pretty much it. Nice link. Online discourse disinhibition is pervasive.