Friday, January 15, 2010

No, Comment

Six months ago the Boston Globe ran an op-ed by someone named Douglas Bailey entitled 'Got a comment? Keep it to yourself.' The piece takes the position that comment posting functionality should be removed from online newspapers in order to restore 'journalism's dignity', lost, according to Bailey, when newspapers started making their content available online for free, thus devaluing it. Not surprisingly, this article has collected 193 comments, 191 of them within the first five days it was on line. Nearly every sentence Bailey wrote, it seems, is graced with a reader reaction. One commenter advises him to 'Keep his op-ed to himself.' A November late addition declares 'Reading the comments section is the BEST part of the article,' which sums up the view of many.

I made a stab at reading all 193 comments -- starting with the ones that received the highest reader ratings. I didn't make it through everything. Somebody (or some spam filter) must have, however, since there are notes where certain comments have been censored 'We removed archie-skip's comment.' The filterer was not, however, Bailey himself, who begins his final paragraph with, 'By the way, don’t bother posting any comments directed to me when this article appears on the Web. I won’t see them.'

What do I have in common with Douglas Bailey? Well, I won't see your comments. In fact, you can't make comments here, I have the comment functionality turned off. At times -- especially around deadlines -- I don't visit my blog for weeks at a time. For this reason, I can't spam filter and I also can't react fast enough to start a meaningful dialogue.

A lot of commenters overlooked Bailey's final sentence which read, 'If you really have something interesting to say, I’ll find you.' By turning off the comments on this blog, I am in a sense, saying the same thing.

If we believe that the Internet should be a place where opinions are expressed and exchanged, where we go to meet in circles of friends, fellow hobbyists, professional colleagues, compatriots, fellow humans, where we learn from each other, hash out the issues, forge consensus, if we want that sort of dialogue on the Internet, then Bailey's casual, 'I'll find you' represents a real challenge. Effectively, he is pushing the whole burden of supporting the dialogue onto, yes, well, right, search.

One might argue, that pieces of information get linked up in ways other than search. But type-into-search-box is the basic search gesture and our browsing, retrieval, exploring, generally amusing ourselves on the Internet behavior relies on this gesture and on the variations we bring to it. Linking things in other ways is non-trivial. Bailey's article ran ran ten days after it was published in the IHT ( under the title 'Do not comment on this article' This is where I originally read it. The New York Times published two reader reactions on their site...but it is quite tricky to get from these reactions back to the original piece. You need search. I executed a couple of rounds of type-into-search-box and found it at the Boston Globe...without even thinking about it.

I guess, I am not too concerned about reliance on search to perpetuate the dialogue in this blog. The "you" reading this blog is mostly my future self, and she can comment without needing comment functionality.

But more generally, we should reflect more often on the responsibility of writers and commenters to not only express their opinions, but express them in a way that they can be found and can be associated with the larger dialogue to which they contribute. Organizing discussions around specific articles, however, might not be the answer. Surely, the issue is important enough to sustain serious debate for more than the five days that Douglas Bailey drew serious volumes of deserves a life of its own independent from the specific article. Afterall, someone might still have something to say about it six months later.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Get out and pull

Thu, Jan 7, 2010 at 4:45 AM I received an e-mail from the Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch train service. After greeting me by name, the mail went on to read, Door het winterweer zijn er meer treinen defect. Dat heeft gevolgen voor de dienstregeling. (Eng. 'Because of the winter weather more trains are out of service. This has consequences for the train schedules.') Of course, I appreciate the personalized warning and it would have been critical if I had needed to travel by train yesterday.

For me, this incident was an example of how information technology does help us as a society to be more efficient, cost-effective and perhaps even kinder to the environment. But now that the Nederlandse Spoorwegen has the possibility to broadcast a wide, personal warning and forestall hoards of cold and angry passengers on the platforms, doesn't that make it economic for them to operate on an even thinner margin--i.e., have even less resources on hand that they can swing into action in the case of weather emergencies? It's a slippery slope downwards to being in an even worse position to handle emergency situations. Are things more efficient, or have we just found another balance to inefficiency?

A little personalized knowledge is a dangerous thing. The 4:45 AM mail is, of course, going to be forwarded to bosses across the country -- I'm not coming in, or I'm going to be late today. Half the trains might still be running -- but is there any guaranteed that only half the train riding workforce has now flips into snow-day mode? The Nederlandse Spoorwegen is saving itself from weather problems with its information spreading, but it could actually be amplifying the weather problems for other sectors. What to do? I am certainly not going to advocate the fully personalized approach: The Nederlandse Spoorwegen knows every individuals's contribution to the overall economy and then only warns the less essential members away from trying to take the train on days that less trains are running. Perhaps I could live with the following 4:45 AM mail: 'Good Morning! We think that you want to go to Amsterdam this morning, if you leave the house in one hour there will be a train to Amsterdam picking you up on Platform 1 when you arrive at the station.' I suppose it would be most effective if the message was sent directly to my alarm clock.

But maybe we're not really moving towards putting our schedules entirely in the hands of the Nederlandse Spoorwegen. The final sentence of the 4:45 AM mail is perhaps the most important one: Kijk voor meer informatie op (Eng. 'Visit for more information.) The mail is not warning me off -- what it is is a gentle information push that is inviting me to go out and search for my own information and to make my own decision. There's something you might need to try to find out today, it says. It pushes me to go pull. It tells me that I might just have an information need.

The responsibility of search is to be able to respond in a flexible manner to searchers that have been moved to search by a prompted information need. But maybe my search system should be on the look out for me and be responsible for sending the 4:45 AM mail as well. The Nederlandse Spoorwegen could then attend to its business of getting all of the trains running again on schedule. They wouldn't have to even mention it, and we'd all be willing to get out and pull.