A blog discussion about my article drew 82 responses. After reading all of them, I forgot what I'd written about in the first place
Like nearly everyone else, newspaper columnists have had their lives altered by the Internet. The first big change in my own life came 16 years ago when I discovered to my horror that a Web-connected columnist who gets a fact wrong will almost certainly hear about it from helpful readers no later than 8 a. m. on the day of publication. This, while unwelcome at first, did more for my professional conscience than anything since the copy editor who used to scream my last name across the entire sports department whenever, as an 18-year-old scribe, I made a spelling mistake in my story.
As e-mail became popular in the mid-1990s, letters from readers grew more interesting and far more numerous than those I had received in the pre-Internet era. Lately, the National Post's comment-section blog (www.fullcomment.com) -- where my op-ed articles are posted -- has brought more surprises. The responses that readers post on the blog (they appear online directly below the story that stirred their interest) can number several dozen in an hour. Over a day or more, several hundred might appear. Columnists who are egotistical or insecure can check often to read the latest. The more patient can wait a couple of days, then read them all in one batch. (Those who claim not to read them fall in the same category as actors who say they ignore their reviews.)
Blog responses aren't at all like traditional letters to the editor. The "commenters" (a popular term now) take an intimate, familiar tone. At times, when reading them, I feel as if I've blundered into a gathering of irascible friends. I sense that some commenters, with pseudonyms such as Sassylassie, Nath_BC and Rectificatif, are part of a community, and familiar to one another. They often bicker among themselves, like old married folks. They make sharp, knowing cracks and occasionally stray beyond the limits of civilized discourse. "Whatever works for you, F--ktwaddle," wrote one of my commenters to another.
But they can also be remarkably high-toned. Talking about broadcasting, they lift discussion of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to a level that will surprise many of its inmates. "Let the CBC get back to Socratic discussions with a meaningful premise and allow the listener to form their own conclusions," one commenter argued. To which another replied, "Nobody at the CBC has ever heard of Socrates. The CBC thinks philosophy began with Jean-Jacques Rousseau."
Commenters don't limit themselves to discussing the particular article that aroused their interest. In fact, nothing limits them. One reader tells us of complaints from his wife: "She thinks I 'flog the blog' too much." He thinks she's probably right.
No topic, however far it strays from the original piece, gets excluded. A discussion of Islamic government can quickly turn into an argument about International Women's Day, a dispute over the different meanings of "imply" and "infer," a claim that men hate shopping--or a disquisition on the nature of truth. Sometimes, a commenter, dreaming of coherence, suggests they return to the original point, which they sometimes do, reluctantly. The other day, a discussion ran out after I'd read 82 responses to a 750-word piece. Even I had trouble remembering what I'd written in the first place.
Many posts are notable for their brevity ("Hear! Hear!") but some go on for 1,000 words. The longer pieces often have a good deal to say. I loved reading the 811 words (that would be 61 words longer than my column) by a woman about her experience teaching in Turkey. ("The reality even today is that most of the Muslims in the non-Western world cannot read their own holy books. They rely to a terrifying extent on the nearest imam to tell them what God is saying.") She's not the first to suggest that Islam needs its own Martin Luther.
This week, Salon.com has an article, "Stop the Internet, I want to get off!," in which Rebecca Traister says she's so burdened by e-mailing, surfing and browsing that she's installed a program, called Freedom, to save her from herself. Designed by a University of North Carolina graduate student, Freedom disables a Mac computer's networking functions (I. e., no Internet) for a preset period of time. It claims that "Freedom enforces freedom."
While I sympathize with Traister's feeling of suffocation-by-computer, I've had just the opposite feeling. I feel like the man who has been poor and rich and is here to tell us that rich is better. A veteran of the pre-Internet era and a user of the Net for a decade and a half, I've formed a firm opinion: Net is way better.