The comments territory under any YouTube video is an unlighted playground with shards of glass for sliding boards and a ball-pit full of barbed wire. There is no “thumbs-down” or dislike button available on Facebook, for obvious reasons. Comments are certainly allowed, and often the prevailing rhetorical mode is insult and injury.
Twitter may as well be one big dislike button sometimes. Not in my experience so far, except for two or three times. Each one of these is etched in my co-dependent memory, however.
When I started publishing on WordPress a year an a half ago, I wondered: What will it be like to have my work exposed to a comments section?
In the 1990s, when I wrote for a weekly newspaper, I rarely learned which articles or columns were actually read.
I covered school sports, which has a couple of rules: Cram in the names of every participant on the field and even every bench sitter, without mentioning the bench. (Unless the bench was locally made and recently delivered to the school, in which case it was a good idea to include the names of the lumberyard and the furniture maker along with a quote about its fine bench-y comfort from someone sitting on it.) When both schools are local, simultaneously downplay and up-play the final score. Describe good performances from both sides. Cram in a few more names: the coaches, the refs, some of those in attendance.
A compliment from a reader of one of those articles was a thank you from a parent purchasing an extra copy to send to the grandparents—if I ran into the parent at the grocery store while they were at that moment purchasing that extra copy.
I also had a humor column (guess its name) and I once wrote something controversial in it. Now, this was done out of an idiotic frustration that I felt from my perceived lack of feedback. “How do I know what people think?” I said to no one out loud, and so I put on my explorer costume and ventured forth without leaving my desk to find out. If I had said it out loud, my editor probably would have dissuaded me from the attempt.
My column was on page 4, and on page 3 was a weekly column written by an elderly man who had spent a lifetime in newspapers, local newspapers; his entire four-decade-long career had been spent in the same county we were covering. It is possible that he had written something about every single building in the county, their predecessors and replacements, and a few articles about the best of our open fields.
Not one piece of mail had come into the newspaper office about my column, even when I had requested feedback from readers, but there was a letter every single week about the old man’s column. “He should retire already” or “May he never quit” were the only two themes, but one of these two letters arrived every week.
(He passed away about 15 years ago, and the newspaper, which I had by then left, continued to run his columns as a weekly “Best of …” tribute; I am certain the paper still received the “He should retire” and “May he never quit” letters for years.)
But I was the target of no such letters and I envied the old man his passionate readership. The one time that I wrote something controversial, controversy followed: Our music columnist used his own weekly space to rebut my column and publicly declare that not only had he not ever read me but he was going to continue to not read me, which seemed to me to be a neat trick. He did not send a letter to the editor; instead he wasted his own column inches to disagree with me. I told him, in person, in my job as assistant editor, that we still needed his music review that week and we would run the complaint in the letters section, which needed a letter as we had received not even one that week. (Not even one of the letters regarding the old columnist.) He insisted on using his space to not review music in that issue, though.
That was the 1990s and the effort one makes in writing a letter, placing it in an envelope, investing in a stamp, placing it on the envelope, and mailing it to the correct address is a Herculean one when it is compared to the ease with which someone can type an unpleasant comment on a video or article. For some reason, every computer comes with a keyboard. Online, everyone is a potential Banksy.
That has not been my experience with The Gad About Town, not yet anyway. I have been thinking about this a lot recently. When someone clicks “like” on a piece, their real face appears or an image they choose to represent their image appears, which, for me anyway, builds a sense of community. It is like running into the same faces at the water cooler every morning. Also, on my site and a lot of the ones I read, the comments are praise and encouragement; there are a lot of “do more of this” type of comments and not many (or any) “don’t do that again” comments. And no graffiti.
It occurs to me that we are all volunteers here and each one of us is getting paid $0.00 per century to share our thoughts. There is no reason to do anything other than encourage one another; when I need an ego-crushing tear-down, I suppose I can request that on Twitter and there will be volunteers, because quite a few unprofessional critics make themselves available every hour of every day there.
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A portion of this appeared in October in “Message in a Bottle.”
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