Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality, once kindly said — I guess — that I often use when thinking about or speaking about online journalism: “Information is alienated experience.” A blog post from one of my students at UNC has done a nice job recording an anecdote from the 2010 Online News Association conference that I think brings into focus the role of comments as form of alienated shared experiences.
Michelle Cerulli, a second-year MA student, told me this story and I encouraged her to blog about it. The short version is this: While attending a session about article comments, she watched a mild-mannered man use Twitter to quietly excoriate one of the speakers. This man didn’t stand up and confront or question the speaker in person. Instead he used this virtual soapbox to disagree with her — in what Michelle described to me as incredibly rude terms — about the role of comments on online news articles.
What was his beef with NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard? She was saying that online comments tended to be more vitriolic than you hear in “the real world.” His words on Twitter said that Shepard was wrong. But his behavior said that she was dead on. And, according to Michelle, he appeared to be oblivious to the irony.
And while this story so far might seem to some a perfect set-up for a conclusion in which I rail against online comments, that’s not where I’m heading. Online comments are important because it is there that our collective id gets revealed. Many of us reveal in anonymous or pseudonymous comments our fears and hopes n ways that most of us would deny if we were ever confronted with them. Online comments show how us — or at least some non-representative sample of us — experience the world in a way that we alienated from ourselves and the polite company around us.
And that unfiltered id — that alienated experience — is a happy hunting ground for a reporter who hopes to more clearly explain to his readers our increasingly complicated and interconnected world. The problem with comments is not that they are mean. The problem is that there are too few people mining them for hidden hopes and fears and too few people willing to patiently ask probing questions of the crowd.
More and more news organizations are hiring “social media producers.” I hope they’re given the challenge of not just distributing the news to the crowd, but also diving into it and finding individuals who are able to articulate why they’re much more scared, angry or jealous than they are willing to admit in a room full of their peers.