Plenty of chaff, but where's the wheat?
Tom Lehrer theorized once that “the reason most folk songs are so terrible is that they were written by the people,” proceeding to demonstrate how “My Darling Clementine” could have been written by Mozart or Gilbert and Sullivan. Great stuff.
I think of that remark when enthusiasts gush about the Internet’s opening up the discussion of everything to everybody and the “unmediated” connection between writer and reader on the Web. I wonder who has time for all that.
Take blogging, for example. My estimable colleague Elizabeth Large has a sizable audience for her blog on dining, and the comments section is notable for freewheeling — and entertaining — responses. The Sandbox, as her core commenters refer to themselves, is a remarkably self-policing group. People who blunder in and make insulting remarks are quickly reproached and discouraged from repeating rude behavior. But that seems exceptional.
My esteemed colleague David Zurawik has generated considerable popularity in just a few weeks with his blog on television. He, too, has attracted commenters. His are not self-policing. You look at 150 or 300 comments on one of his analyses of coverage of the presidential election, more than half of which are variations on “Hey, you suck,” and you wonder who has time for this. Who has the inclination, and the patience, to winnow ignorant or ad hominem comments to get at a handful of thoughtful and informed ones?
Don’t jump to a conclusion that I am necessarily trying to squelch free expression or knocking “citizen journalism” or attempting to define journalists as a caste of gatekeepers. I’m fully aware that there are many non-journalists who are putting up literate and informed material on the Internet, and I am painfully aware of journalism’s deficiencies. (Just yesterday I turned my undergraduate students loose on a front-page story from The Sun a little while back, and they savaged it as ill-focused, ineptly organized and uninformative. They were right.)
I am just wondering how all of this is supposed to sort out. Writers, in addition to researching and writing articles, are expected to put in how much time responding to readers in “unmediated” exchanges? (I’m months behind in personal correspondence; are you better off?) And readers? They are supposed to spend how much time sifting through articles and blog posts and comments, filtering out the dreck? Is there to be little or no role for editors, for people who clarify and organize material for the convenience of the reader?
At the moment, it looks as if we’re pretty much hunter-gatherers, and I wonder how long it will take us to get agriculture.