John Klossner

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Talking ourselves to death

As part of my research for editorial cartoons, I like to read feedback forums. Getting opinions from nonprofessional voices often gives me an interesting point or unique take on a subject. Also, many letters are short and make quick, singular points – this translates well to cartoons.

In the print world this used to mean perusing the letters-to-the-editor sections of newspapers and magazines. These sections now seem quaint with their three to four entries on a topic that, by the time you read the letter, is at least several days old and often written by a professional in that particular topic who is essentially writing a responding op-ed piece. No, if you want the gut reactions in this world, you head to the online "comments" sections.

When they first appeared on the electronic scene, the comments sections were a rich source for information and ideas. There were fewer filters for a reader to get through with their thoughts, and electronic space allowed for more entries. But there has been a slow devolution in the comments sections. I can look through hundreds and hundreds of entries without finding any point other than a partisan brain spasm. In the words of Stuart McLean, the host of the CBC radio show Vinyl Cafe puts it, "That's the wonderful thing about e-mail; you can write without thinking." Or, as one of my friends put it, "even the people I agree with sound stupid."

I blame the Web 2.0 world. So many outlets have been created via social networks, wikis, etc. that all of the folks capable of making well-reasoned insights have their own blogs or sites, leaving them unavailable, or uninterested, in participating in comments sections. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, in the future, everyone will have a blog. That future is here, and the comments sections of the world are left in the hands of the two dozen people who haven't been able to wrangle a blog gig yet.

In the traditional, physical social gathering places – the diners, the gyms, the barber shops, the sports bars, the coffee shops, the salons, the book clubs, et. al., – discussions often included knee jerk, quick statements that didn't involve a lot of thought. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - people need a place to express their emotions, and we can't all be think tank eloquent. The beauty of the physical space discussions, though, was that in order to participate in them you had to have something either worthwhile to say or entertaining to listen to. A couple "leaders" often emerged in these forums and steered the discussion by making the majority of comments or by discouraging those comments that weren't enlightening or entertaining. Online forums don't allow for these editors to do their thing, resulting in knee-jerk comment after knee-jerk comment, with accompanying responses, to proliferate. It makes one think that a NYAAH NYAAH! button on the keyboard isn't too far off.

My small Maine town created a Web site/chat room featuring local news and events. In the first several months of the site's existence, the discussion quickly devolved into a series of name calling and partisan accusations, with only a handful of people involved. The moderator of the site instituted one rule – all comments had to have a name with them, no more anonymous or alias postings. Since that change, the comments section has thrived and the volume of postings hasn't decreased. I don't know if this would work on a stage larger than the 7,500 population of my community, but it is worth noting.

Was the Open Government Dialogue a success? It depends on the definition of success, doesn't it? I imagine the creators of the OGD assumed there would be a learning curve, so they must have been anticipating some reactions and alterations being necessary. I have to admit being impressed by the effort – there must be so many people with expertise in these areas that issuing an open invitation to the world at large probably wasn't enthusiastically greeted in all corners. (How'd you like to be the lucky intern whose job it is to read all the OGD entries? You'd be re-thinking your decision not to join the Peace Corps.) I would also think they probably expected that there would be at a point where they would have to eliminate a high percentage of the suggestions. Would the Open Government Dialogue be considered a success if, after months of process, they only found one useful suggestion?

Open Government Dialogue

Posted by John Klossner on Jul 24, 2009 at 12:18 PM


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