How does the untamed torrent of online reader feedback affect writers?

January 30, 2007 | By | 2 Replies More

Here’s a long and thoughtful article by Gary Kamiya on Salon, titled “The Readers Strike Back.” The article is as long as it is thoughtful.

Kamiay brings out the many ways in which unedited, immediate and intense reader feedback (especially at newspapers & e-zines) affects writers and their craft.  Here’s the before and after snapshot: 

[T]he newly vocal masses contain not only thoughtful and respectful readers but also large numbers of fools, knaves, blowhards and nuts. Moreover — and this is a crucial point — the percentage of letter writers who are fools, knaves, blowhards and nuts has exponentially increased. In the old stamped-letter days, the difficulty of writing in weeded out more of these types; letters tended to be somewhat more thoughtful, and letter writers usually adhered to certain conventions of etiquette and decorum governing communications between reader and writer. Not forelock-tugging subservience to their betters, but simple courtesy. There was a tacit acknowledgment of the implicit contract between writer and reader, one characterized by at least a modicum of idealization and respect on both sides. I don’t want to exaggerate this — certainly there were plenty of ad hominem and intemperate letters back then. But having edited several magazines in the print-only era, I can say that there were far, far fewer. Perhaps the unseen presence of an editor, the slightly formal nature of writing a “letter to the editor,” led readers to be on their better behavior.

Now, in the glorious days of “disintermediation,” when writing a letter or posting a blog is as easy as banging away on a keyboard for a few seconds and clicking “Send,” that contract has been trashed. Formality? The context of online communication is more like being in your car in a traffic jam than sitting across a table from someone and having a talk — and it’s easy to flip somebody off through a rolled-up window. As a result, the kind of people who are prone to flipping others off, braying obscenities and ranting pointlessly are disproportionately represented in online letters sections and reader blogs.

The article makes the point that the “worst online abuse is directed at writers who make themselves vulnerable by revealing intimate things about their lives.”  Kamiya quotes Salon writer Laura Miller: “If you write something revealing, people mob up and become predatory.”  This tendency toward abuse illustrates that online writing is (like so many other important things) subject to the “the tragedy of the commons.”  

The benefits of all of the writer feedback are many, but these benefits need to be weighed against the greatest danger: creative paralysis experienced by the writers.   

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Category: Language, Media, Psychology Cognition, Writing

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Scholar says:

    In the case of blogs, I find that the reader's responses are insightful, accessible, and (occasionally) relevant. Upon typing a response, the reader actually becomes a "writer".

    Ironically, at this point the *original writer* becomes a reader. The feedback surely does affect future writing. Seems simple on the surface, but once I read/hear/see/experience anything, I find it difficult to disregard or forget. In fact, sometimes the harder you try to forget something (like a gruesome image) the more it sticks in your head.

    Although in my experience, this phenomena can be mitigated with practice. Sort of like how when I drive my car, I don't think much about the pollution coming out of the tailpipe.

  2. Cleptomanx says:

    I can see the congestion of ever increasing rhetoric and insipid comments choking out the actually beneficial responses a writer can receive when writing a post/article/story, what have you… but many times the unintelligible posts are very short, like "you suck", "what a load of crap" or something more abrasive but still as dismissable. You can easily get through these to get to the more thoughtful and well written posts.

    It's true that the old stamped letter days made for a more discriminating cross section of entries because of the time and effort one had to make to actually send it in, but almost invariably it also produced very similar types of writers (mostly the retired folks that actually had the time and interest in taking up such hobbies). But, them's the breaks buddy. More accessibility=hereing more of the idiots.

    Although, when it comes to the mutual respect of reader and writer, I'm sure that the issue lies in the eyes of the beholder. On many occassions I've used less than "respectable" language in order to get points across or basically try to slap some sense into a discussion, but it doesn't mean I respect an individual any less. It's basically just another tactic that can be used (and often misused) in a debate, argument, discussion or conversation. I would say that it's disrespectful if a person would say, "you're an asshole" right off the bat without first taking the time to actually form a decent argument… or at least backup the statement afterwards in some way. Like, "God! You're such an Asshole for saying (insert text here) without even taking into account the repercussions of such a statement…etc, etc"

    Really it depends on the person. If it's a writer of some significance who's been in the business for a while and feels that this miscellaneous poster hasn't the experience to say such things to him… then I blame the writer for taking it badly because they have gotten used to a certain prestige or level above others because of their perceived stature.

    Sort of like a lowly priest telling off the pope. It would be a "how dare you!" kind of reaction. The internet allows for all of us to have (somewhat) equal footing and I'm getting the feeling that some established people may not like this, thus causing an argument about decorum and rules of engagement and such things.

    That kind of thing still occurs, but usually people on the internet don't really stand on pomp and circumstance. You might as well say that writing letters was the old wushu with it's form over function and the internet is jeet kune do where you say "screw tradition" and just use what works even if it means to bite the guy's leg. So, be like water my friend… be like water 🙂

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