Sunday, January 19, 2014

Internet Discussion I

The Internet presents an enticing face, leaving you with the impression that you can communicate with all sorts of like-minded people or engage in extended discussion with others who may or may not agree with you. In my experience, this is hardly the case. My perception is that it has become a gratification magnet that has been shaped by the profit motive, and it causes participants to become more isolated, with diminished social skills that render society less cohesive than it once was.

There are commercial sites that allow you to rate products, which can be helpful even if you never communicate directly with anyone. And there are forums that provide useful information on a wide variety of topics, along with chitchat. Many people have blogs like this one - much more carefully designed than mine in most cases - which nobody reads. There is some chat on gaming websites, but they are often breeding grounds for hostility and rudeness. And then there are the social media websites, which I'd rather not think about. One would not expect a lot of depth of discussion on the sites mentioned here, although there is always the potential for it. On the whole they tend to be trite.

I have found some value in the websites of idea-oriented publications. However, their inherent design tends to limit how involved a user might become. They all seem to be set up to highlight their lead articles, and any discussion is relegated to a comments section which is almost always unsatisfactory for one reason or another. Major websites such as The New York Times simply post too many comments, rendering the section unreadable. They have attempted to winnow them down by recommending a few of the many, but there is still no discussion, mainly just statements of agreement, mentions of related ideas, etc., in the recommended comments.

One would expect a little more from the highbrow publications, but they're not much better. Rather than too many comments, they often have none. The ability to comment on comments does add a dimension that used to give me cause for optimism, but it no longer does. Here I sense the differing motives of the various stakeholders in the process. The publications are mainly interested in promoting their publication or increasing advertising revenue, or both.  This means that the authors of the lead articles are carefully selected and ideally they will appear smart and ahead of the pack. Thus there is no point to a lot of discussion that might diminish perceptions of their authors.  The authors themselves are generally working to fulfill the terms of their financial agreements with the publishers, which makes them complicit with the publishers. The instances I have seen of authors engaging in discussion with commenters are extremely rare. I suppose if commenters were well-known pubic figures, the publications and authors might welcome them, but that is not the way the system is currently set up and it rarely occurs. Even if it did occur more frequently, it would probably have the effect of further marginalizing the man-on-the-street commenter. We are already "the little people," if I may borrow a phrase from the late Leona Helmsley.

That leaves the commenters themselves. Who are they? On the whole they seem to be well-read people who have reacted to an article for one reason or another. Unfortunately, it is of no interest that they liked an article, which is about all they ever say. Sometimes there is a small amount of back-and-forth between commenters that can be interesting, but it seems that people soon stop reading them, and then the articles along with the comments are consigned to oblivion, with no one giving them a second thought. My impression from being a web commenter for about 8 years is that most people are not interested in ideas or tolerant of those that are different from their own. The Internet is hardly a marketplace of ideas.

Where does this leave me? Writing this blog. These are things that I simply want to go on record as having said. But most likely oblivion is the destination here too.

1 comment:

  1. Not oblivion in the short term that is for certain. I am just starting to read thru your blog and am hooked…thank you…Teresa


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