Not that long ago, the written word was bound to print and paper.
In those not-so-distant days, I had to undertake an elaborate, multistep process to voice my discontent when I read something infuriating in a newspaper or magazine. This sequence included many intricate hassles — like buying stamps, looking up addresses, and licking envelopes. I would limp through the whole ordeal, knowing it full well to be an exercise in futility. At the end, an editor or manager — someone who invariably ok’d the original story/article in the first place — would surely look at my ranting and wonder why such drivel should be allowed to insult their subscriber base.
My indignant rebuttal would land in a pile of similar complaints, destined for the landfill of rejected letters to the editor.
The reader responses that did get published were, however, often much more articulate and insightful than my submissions. Editors were (usually and often) interested in both sides of the story, but they were the vanguards of polemic quality. Editors were the self-determined gatekeepers of the collective IQ. They saw that publishing every single grievance would produce an entire issue of negativity. They weighed the gripes and objections, and then made subjective decisions on the basis of their guiding values and the interests of their advertisers. Long before ‘curation’ was a buzzword in the digital space, virtually everything was curated: the messages of ‘comment sections’ were unilaterally controlled.
Let me be clear: my point here is not that things were either better or worse back then. That is a debate for another time. What I find compelling is how discourse is different now. The contrarian now has virtually no obstacles separating their immediate reactions from the eyeballs of the public. Trolls, as we call them now, once only annoyed an editor’s personal assistant, but now they are one click away from the top of our newsfeeds. And to complicate the matter, the difference between a ‘troll’ and an ‘passionate, ardent defender of common sense’ seems to be in the eye (or ideology) of the beholder.
The editorial wall of yesteryear forced certain parameters on civic discourse. In order to have a shot at being heard, you had to argue coherently enough to convince a moderator to amplify your opinion. There was no guarantee your thoughts would ever see the light of day, so there was a compelling incentive to exercise some planning, organization, and forethought in your response.
The published comment has lost its prestige. Today, anyone who cares enough to attach a few syllables together can be a commenter. We no longer rely on editors for relevance, but on algorithms that track the engagement that a comment has with other commenters. On one hand, this new openness smacks of democratic equality, and we celebrate the opportunity for every voice to be heard. On the other hand, have we only replaced the dictatorial regime of editors for the tyranny of the majority?
Anecdotally, the more open online dialogue becomes, the more it seems to shift from reasoned arguments to expressions of opinion and conviction. Both have value in their own right, and both are integral to social discourse as a whole. The question is a matter of balance. But in practical terms: how should we design the systems that serve as the platforms of our social discourse?
Here is a working hypothesis: the more urgently technology incentivizes us to respond to a proposition, the more we rely on our own heuristics. Less time does not promote deeper thought. Today, when you are compelled to comment right away, ask yourself, “How would I respond to this differently if I had to invest the time and effort to get an envelope and a stamp?”