On Monday, I wrote a column for Quick (now published) satirizing our idiocy in the comments section of blogs and news articles. The premise was that even in the face of world destruction, we will still snipe, snark, and snarl pettily at each other because, basically, we suck. It was fortuitous timing for the column because D Magazine’s Frontburner on Tuesday became the first to pull the plug on the “everybody gets to be their own micro-columnist” movement.
Some time ago,
the media became obsessed with “empowering” the viewer, reader, listener, and stroking their ego with their “you are the star” attitude. “We want to hear what you think, America. Send us an email or post on our forum.” This pandering to the ego was a great marketing ploy. “User generated content“ seemed like a win-win at the time. Users would do the erstwhile work of the content producers for free and then traffic your site to see themselves on stage. But there was one major problem with the model. People suck when they have nothing to lose. That is the thing that makes Youtube great and comments threads intolerable.
The Dallas Morning News comments section is the worst example of what happens when everyone is allowed to publish their mental diarrhea. If you read the comments after an article or blog post, you know what I am talking about. It devolves so quickly you wish your ancestors had remained monkeys- at least the shit-slinging back then was more honest. You walk away asking “wow, are people really this mean and petty?” Yes, they are. I think even good people have been surprised how quickly they can get sucked into the vortex of fucktardom.
People on the internet can’t govern themselves. There is a reason why lottery winners and child stars start searching for rock bottom the moment they hit the top- humans aren’t built for sudden change, and the frustrated ego can’t handle the sudden power of having an audience.
It is very intoxicating at first because everyone can be Dorothy Parker in 140 characters or less. You can be witty without the need to sustain it. Negativity is the best way to insulate the ego, so you criticize everything, and pretty soon, everyone, in every forum, sounds like he’s trying out for Gawker. It is good for web traffic because each commenter checks back over and over to see if anyone has responded to the cool pile he left in the toilet, but it is bad for the product. Magazines should get back to being magazines, and newspapers shouldn’t feel responsible to host a writers karaoke after every story.
It is not just the commenters’ fault. Editors of newsblogs and forums realized early on commenters weren’t that interested in Serious Civic Discussion as much as they were interested in becoming warriors in the World of Wordcraft, but the Editors had web traffic to keep up, and their dirty little secret was that they needed to keep eyeballs coming back to the wreck for one more gander at the carnage, so websites merely began hosting verbal cockfighting. Plus, editors are people too and they got a thrill in the quantity of posts regardless of their quality. Writers and editors are not used to the instant gratification that, say, talk radio enjoys, so they became intoxicated with the instant gratification of immediate feedback. In Frontburner’s case, the primary failure is probably with the editors. They should have edited the people who couldn’t edit themselves, because that is what editors do. You don’t spend years building a brand only to let anybody with a IP address and a grin hijack your platform.
When it comes to publishing, the level of stupidity goes up when the barrier to entry goes down. Kudos to Frontburner for breaking the cycle and having the guts to risk initial traffic loss in order to improve the product in the long run.
I am sure there are many who will dismiss my take with “well, look who it’s coming from.” I confess, I work on talk radio, which is an admittedly vulgar medium, and I work at one of the most controversial stations in the market. We throw around all kinds of snark, judgements, and bad taste, but we do have the accountability of being PAID to do it. If our bosses don’t like it, they have the right and responsibility to turn our comments off. In my case, it would probably be a moral relief.