Comments as a social medium

A little while ago, a posting by Bill Poser (on the word snarge) on Language Log branched off into a totally unexpected direction: out of the blue, a commenter asked a technical question about font display. There was then an exchange of several comments about this matter (which had nothing visible to do with snarge), and eventually the original commenter got an apparently helpful answer to the query.

For a moment, I was baffled, but then I saw that the commenter who started all this was thinking of the comments section of blogs as just another “social medium”, like newsgroups (especially unmoderated ones), mailing lists (especially unmoderated ones), Facebook, and so on. So the commenter led off with “Argh I have a problem somebody here should be able to solve in a jiffy”.

In these other venues, writers are welcome to introduce topics that are unrelated, or very distantly related, to previous postings. They’re engaged in loose conversations in public space. Some of these spaces have purposes or themes, but people who write in these spaces are generally tolerant of some kinds of messages that are off-purpose, especially if they come from “regulars” in the space.

I’ve long been reading and writing on the newsgroup soc.motss (officially for lgbt folks and their friends, and about matters of interest to them) and on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society. The former often strays far afield: people will write about the the pleasures and trials of their lives, ask for advice (what car should I buy?, what newsreader should I use?, and so on), and point to potentially interesting or amusing things (like this video of Widor’s famous Toccata as played by the Trondheim Akkordion Ensemble), even if these are not obviously lgbt-related. Computers and music are frequent topics, and discussions of grammar and usage are not uncommon.

ADS-L is more focused, but  there’s still some latitude in what people can write about without others objecting.

Then there’s Facebook, where overall there’s no restriction on topic, beyond “decency” restrictions imposed by Facebook. (soc.motss and ADS-L have no restrictions on topic or language.) There are, of course, Facebook “groups”, some of which are more like Usenet newsgroups.

Blogs are all over the map, though the clear intention of bloggers is that comments should be tied to the postings they are attached to. Bloggers have the ability to disable comments entirely, to ruthlessly delete comments that are off-topic or abusive, and so on. Some bloggers earnestly reply to almost all comments, others respond to most on-topic and well-intentioned comments, some pick comments they think they can reply to usefully, and still others seem to pay no attention to comments at all.

The comments sections of most blogs are in fact far removed from conversations, far removed from being ordinary social media. Commenters routinely use “handles” — which, in principle, are supposed to be tied to real names and e-addresses, at least for the bloggers, but often are forged — so that bloggers and commenters often have no idea who they’re “talking to”. Partly as a consequence of this, commenters are sometimes astonishingly vicious, in ways that most people simply wouldn’t accept in actual social spaces. [I was recently taken aback to read comments on a couple of Paul Mulshine’s postings about matters of grammar and usage. Mulshine’s blog is mostly about politics from a New Jersey perspective and the combination of this topic with pronouncements on grammar and usage seem to have been toxic. Along the way, Mulshine cited me (on Language Log), so one commenter then referred to me as “a drunken Stanford professor”. My first guess was that drunken here was intended as an appositive rather than a restrictive (or “intersective”) modifier, conveying that Stanford professors in general are drunks, but perhaps the writer’s intention was only to suggest that I must have been drunk when I posted on “not a word” claims. But maybe it was just intended as a generic insult; asshole might have done just as well. (Professors don’t get much respect on the net. In fact, a fair number of people seem to think it’s their duty to take professors down a peg.)]

A lot of blogging software doesn’t thread comments, and an extraordinary number of people seem not to appreciate this, so that if they follow up on something they’ve just read, they assume other readers can supply the context. This results in hard-to-interpret deictic expressions (this, that, you, in particular) and things like “Wonderful/Awful idea/post!”, unconnected to anything visible. For blog postings with lots of comments, I’ve simply given up on trying to figure out who’s responding to who on what topic and I refuse to read the stuff at all, because it’s neither like conversation (where you have lots of clues about these matters) nor like published exchanges of opinion (where you’re obliged to supply such clues in writing).

I would have posted this  to Language Log, but I know from experience that any attempt on my part to talk about good posting practice there would simply have generated objections (in comments and e-mail) about my ignorance of the way things really work on the web/net, my arrogance in proposing to “censor” other people’s writing, and the “hypocrisy” of my espousing what some label a “descriptivist” position with respect to linguistic variants while offering advice about some aspects of language use. The Language Loggers have posted on that last point many times, but without much effect (no doubt because new readers are always appearing, and postings vanish into history anyway); I’ll try to take another bash at it here sometime soon.

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