Comment writer as flapping tongue crab

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I want to write better. Over the last five (five!) years of writing comment pieces, I’ve learned to write more effectively, but a lot of it is about learning to fill a small frame (500-800 words) quickly (sometimes, the hour-long lunch break from my office job). This is a skill, and it’s one acquired by much practice; but it’s a skill that can only be developed in its own interests.

I can get quicker, I can learn to hit the right phrase first time, I can craft the rhetorical devices and structural tics that shelter my spots of ignorance from scrutiny. But however good I get at writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour, I will still be writing 600-word reactive comment pieces in an hour.

The online comment writer is often in the role of debunker. Debunking is a thing of long standing and some usefulness, but the thing about the debunker is, they always need something to debunk: the debunker is parasitic on the thing they claim to oppose. And because the debunker inevitably repeats the claims they ostensibly wish to invalidate, the debunker become a very specific sort of parasite: you become the crustacean that replaces a fish’s tongue, living on the host’s blood while flapping away in its service.

If you debunk (say) misogyny over and over, what you also do is replicate that misogyny for the purposes of debunking. (This is an observation borrowed from Kenneth Burke.) There are times when comment writers appear to seek out the most obnoxious figures for the purposes of making them a foil; there are times when I’ve done this, and there are times when a ridiculous person is the best way of ridiculing a ridiculous idea. And yet, if all you do is elevate the ridiculous and bad without celebrating the good and the interesting, ultimately you are living within and on the thing you purport to hate.

The problem is that a successful comment piece needs a readership, and there are few writers who can deliver that readership on their own – I am not one. There are some outlets that have a broad and tolerant audience who will give consideration to a piece that sets its own terms. But in general, most pieces that traffic well do so by entering an argument that has already established the terms of its controversy. This is not a criticism: this is good editorial sense. But it does mean that as a writer, you can end up responding reflexively and unreflectively if you’re not careful.

The Raging Bull image of a face reeling from the impact of a fist is thrilling to see, but comment writing can feel a little like putting your head in the way of the swinging glove on a weekly basis: take the blow and show the shiner to the crowd. Boxers might get better at taking punches, but they rarely get cleverer from their time in the ring, and sometimes I fear that this is the fate of the reactive comment writer. Your recoil grows more dramatic as your brain grows more pulpy. Online comment writers give the appearance of being scrappers, but I wonder how many ever land an actually damaging blow on an opponent.

I hope I have not yet become the flapping tongue-crab or the mat-crashing middleweight. I hope that when I write, I add something to the store of kindness and curiosity and humour in the world, that my brain is not pulped, and that this hour’s work will turn in at a satisfactory 600.

Photo by University of Salford, used under Creative Commons

“I do not think it means what you think it means”: valuing comments

This is not a comment...

Google’s Sidewiki project shows that commenting is a valuable part of the online environment – but do the people who invite comment always understand how they should interpret this sort of feedback? A pseudonymous local freesheet editor (blogging as “Blunt”) puts on a triumphant display of error as he abuses his readers for commenting on all the wrong pages (the “chod” he refers to is an earlier assault on PRs):

I am both upset and disturbed for the fact my chod got more comments than a recent tale on my newspaper’s website (unique users = many 1,000s a month) about a scrote getting just three years for kicking someone to death outside a pub.

It got more comments than a story about a kid getting run over by a drink driver who walked free from court on a technicality.

More comments than a council’s decision to evict five OAPs from the homes their families grew up in. The homes they thought they would live in until they died.

More reaction than our campaign to save a kid dying from leukaemia.

In the last two days more than a quarter of the total readership of my blog has come on to read and comment on what is, in essence, a load of made-up shit written by a self righteous, opinionated idiot.

Is this what really gets us riled? Is this the future of news? Why do you really give a shit? You don’t even know who I am.

Welcome to the internet’s world of meaningless shat [sic] and massive indifference.

Play The Game, “Fact versus fiction”

The comments on the PR piece continue the argument that Blunt comes out with: some come from offended PRs, some from sympathetic hacks, others from people who agree with the sentiment but take issue with the extremity. It’s a discussion, in which each participant is addressing an individual – the author of the original post.

A news story doesn’t offer the same incentive for response. The reader might feel appalled, outraged or supportive – but none of those emotions are likely to inspire a debate about the piece of reporting. They all come under the category of “reinforcing” in Tom Ewing’s taxonomy of reactions to information: “praising it without adding to it, sharing it, ‘liking’ it on Facebook or Tumblr, recommending it, etc.”

The opinions on the PR blog post are generally “refining” or “rejecting” Blunt’s characterisation of the journo/PR condition. And the preference for commenters to contribute to an argumentative blog post rather than a news story is explained by Ewing, in a summary of what he considers the best vehicle for the different types of reaction he describes:

“If pushed I’d say that you should reinforce via networks (sharing stuff), refine at the original site of the information (commenting), and reject by creating a new site of information (your own blog post).”

Blackbeard Blog, “Reinforce, refine, reject”

In other words, it would be inappropriate for the readers of Blunt’s newspaper to comment when they have the option of sharing this information instead.

What’s slightly alarming is that this shows the way in which a newspaper editor can mistake both the nature of the information he’s supplying through his paper, and the reactions of his audience – whom he apparently holds in contempt on the basis of his own confusion. If he doesn’t understand online communications, how can he make his product work for online consumers? And is Blunt representative of editors generally assuming that comments on a story are a good measure of its value to readers? Given the eagerness of news portals to encourage people to have their say – he’s probably not alone.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by suburbanslice, used under Creative Commons.

Newspaper classifieds: don’t blame the internet (but it’s still not good)

The Media Business classifieds graphThe Media Business online classifieds bar chart

Graphs taken from The Media Business

Newspapers might be having trouble retaining their classified advertising, but Robert G Pickard on The Media Business blog reckons that’s not solely down to internet competition, and nor is it certainly fatal. He offers two graphs (above, using data from Newspaper Association of America and the Internet Advertising Bureau) to prove his point:

The Internet certainly is taking some money from newspapers, but it isn’t the worst culprit. The real competitor is direct mail and home delivery advertising that have taken much preprint and display advertising from newspapers in recent decades by delivering better household reach. That was compounded by the significant reduction in the number of large retailers in the late 1990s and 2000s. The development of the recession in 2007 and 2008 is currently playing a major role because newspaper advertising—especially classifieds—is more strongly affected by recessions than other types of advertising. But recessions come and go and there is no reason to believe that an advertising recovery will not accompany an improvement in the economy. […]

The end for newspapers is not in sight and those who think that the $50 billion industry is going to collapse and disappear within a year or two because of Internet advertising are just not paying attention close enough attention to what is really happening across media industries.

Robert G Pickard, The Media Business, “The poor connection between internet advertising and newspaper woes”

Measuring the market value isn’t an especially good way to judge the effect of online competition on print ad spending: an online listing is cheaper than one in a newspaper, so every customer who deserts print for the internet will only take a small portion of their advertising spend with them. And while Pickard is correct when he says it’s not just the internet squeezing advertising away from print, it still seems to take a mighty squint to get these figures looking good for newspapers.

Classified advertising revenue for newspapers continues to plummet dramatically according to both graphs – whether or not that revenue is being diverted to online services, newspapers still aren’t getting it, and publications who have formerly relied on their small ads can’t depend on getting them back when the recession is through.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

Paying for it

The headlines and comment pages are still full of Mr Smith’s misjudged evening in. If it was purely outrage over a public servant playing the expenses system, then Jacqui Smith’s demise should have been confirmed by the second home. But the home secretary’s husband expensed porn, and porn is embarrassing and discrediting. When we’re watching the headlines rather than writing them, it’s always fun to point to the other business interests of the Express‘s parent company. “Dirty Desmond floated up to his current ‘status’ on a sea of pornographic effluent”, says this blogger.

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The biggest shock isn’t that Mr Smith watched porn, or even that he haplessly charged his entertainment to the public purse: it’s that he paid for it at all. Why didn’t he just sting the Commons for a laptop and download his erotica for nothing? Like the rest of the culture industry, pornography is anxious about what the internet is doing to its business model: illegal downloading is part of it, but so is competition from freely-distributed amateur product. “The barrier to get into the industry is so low: you need a video camera and a couple of people who will have sex,” points out Paul Fishbein, a professional observer of the adult film industry.

Pornography has always helped to drive changes in media: the availability of porn on VHS was instrumental in bringing entertainment out of the theatres and into the home, and pornography expanded rapidly online, with sites like YouPorn and XTube working on the free-content model and aiming to make profit out of adverts. But while pornography has been good at delivering viewers (YouPorn claimed 15 million unique visitors in May 2007), how to turn hits into money has been less obvious: “It doesn’t make any sense! They’re giving porn away. You can’t make money on this”, says Steve Hirsch of porn giants Vivid.

The fact that I can read Hirsch’s quote for free in a full-text version of an article from a magazine I’ve never bought suggests that it’s not just the porn industry struggling with the trade off between easy distribution and vanishing profits. The internet changes the value of information enormously. A digital copy is less expensive to make than a paper or disc version, so consumers can reasonably expect downloaded product to be cheaper; the ease of digital sharing means that a relatively large number of people are going to be obtaining the product for free anyway (although it’s impossible to quantify gains and losses through free downloading); it’s easier to get your product to consumers, but then it’s also easier for competitors to do the same.

And those competitors might not even be professionals. They might be totally happy to do for free what previous operations have charged for. They might even do it better in some ways. Here’s Greta Christina – porn writer, sex columnist, and not shy of paying for what she enjoys – explaining why the personals on Craig’s List are one of her favourite sources of fantasy material. So if the porn industry – an industry specialising in opportunistic profit-making – hasn’t found a reliable way to turn hits into coin, what is the rest of the media planning on doing? The newspapers should be holding up Mr Smith as a hero for becoming the (involuntary) public face of paying for it. Or at least, getting someone else to pay for it.