The readers strike back

Massive online feedback has rocked writers and changed journalism forever. This brave new world is filled with beautiful minds and nasty Calibans and everything in between. Its benefits are undeniable. But do they outweigh its insidious effects?

Published January 30, 2007 1:14PM (EST)

You, gentle and not-so-gentle readers, have been on my mind lately. You vast and invisible online throng, slouched in front of thousands of computer monitors, have done something revolutionary. You have forever altered the relationship between writer and audience. The Internet has turned what was once primarily a one-way communication into a dialogue -- or maybe a melee. From a cultural perspective, the new democracy of voices online is a wonderful thing. But writers have an odd and ambiguous relationship with their readers, and the reader revolution is having massive consequences we can't even foresee. Writers are being pulled, or lured, down from their solitary perches and into the madding throng. This has opened useful debate and made writers accountable. But it has also thrown open the gate to creeps, narcissists and wannabe Byrons who threaten to damage the fragile, half-permeable membrane writers use to keep the world from being too much with them.

This is all brand new. Until the Internet came along, actual readers barely dented a writer's consciousness. Before the whole world got wired, the only way readers could respond to a piece was by writing a letter to the editor, or (much less frequently) to the author, putting it in a stamped envelope, and sticking it in a mailbox. As a result, the number of letters was a tiny fraction of what it is in the age of e-mail. And that number was further diminished by an editor who trimmed the few selected letters to meet space considerations and winnowed out the cranks. An article might have been read by 10,000 people, but the writer never knew it. A dozen letters constituted a deluge.

Most writers have a love-hate relationship with reader mail. I'm no exception. When I started out, back in the snail-mail days, I looked eagerly forward to getting letters -- as long as they compared my prose to Stendhal's. However, I was quickly disabused of the dream that I was destined to be the literary version of Santa Claus. For every letter that compared my prose to Stendhal's, there were 10 that were the epistolary equivalent of a decaying vegetable, hurled with unerring accuracy at my cranium. (Actually, since no one was ever deluded enough to compare my prose to Stendhal's, the ratio was even worse.) This would have bummed me out, but there weren't enough letters, good or bad, to affect me one way or the other. Since there was no evidence that I had any readers -- and considering some of the publications I wrote for, that may have been true -- I was able to put my audience pretty much out of my mind.

Then Al Gore invented the Internet and everything changed. Pieces that in the olden days would have garnered five or six letters suddenly inspired more commentary than a rerun of "Gilligan's Island" in a cultural studies class. The floodgates opened, and in charged the masses -- some filled with fulsome praise, others waving scimitars and dragging siege machinery into place, others ranting about their ex-wives.

For its part, Salon has thrown in its lot, for better and worse, with reader democracy. Until about 15 months ago, readers could post comments only by e-mail, and Salon editors culled the most interesting and representative ones -- in effect, a compromise between the restrictive old print approach and the open-the-floodgates Web one. No more. Now readers can post letters directly and they go up on the site unedited. (We do remove posts that contain gratuitous insults, ad hominem attacks, obscenities and the like.)

Like most sites that have gone to an open letters forum, we wanted to democratize, to showcase all the letters we receive. We also did it because we wanted to attract more readers. Online journalism is a highly competitive business. Major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are competing with popular blogs like Daily Kos and established Web sites like Salon for readers. Salon editor in chief Joan Walsh says, "We talked for years about how to get the great letters from readers we all had in our in boxes onto the site and finally set out to do it. But clearly there was also the influence of the blogosphere, where readers expect to participate in the conversation and respond to posts and articles themselves. And we wanted to increase our page views, reader participation and loyalty. Readers come back now not just to see what else we've posted on Salon, but to see what other letter writers have said about their letter."

Salon's new letters policy is a tiny part of a larger online trend toward massive reader feedback. All of us -- writers and editors and readers alike -- are still struggling to get used to this cacophonous cornucopia of communication. It is a brave new world, filled with beautiful minds and nasty Calibans and everything in between. Its benefits are undeniable. But it has some downsides, too -- not all of them obvious.

Let's start with the good news. Ideas and perspectives that never found an outlet before are now shouted from every corner that has a phone line and a computer. This has rocked the journalistic world. The violent uprising of the previously voiceless plebeians has disturbed the perfumed slumber of media gatekeepers, forcing journalists to immediately correct glaring mistakes or abandon insupportable positions. One well-known example was the brouhaha at the Washington Post over its Jack Abramoff coverage, when readers posting on the Post's blog forced ombudsman Deborah Howell to admit that her assertion that Abramoff had "directed' contributions to both parties" -- implying that the Abramoff scandal was bipartisan -- was a mistake. The Post, whose initial response to the attacks on Howell was to shut down its blog on the grounds that many attacks were abusive, later, to its credit, restored the blog.

And, of course, there has been an explosion of expertise. The information revolution has set off a million car bombs of random knowledge at once, spraying info fragments through the marketplace of ideas. Sometimes it feels as if the Internet has turned the whole country, indeed the whole world, into a virtual New York City, a dense, antimatter-like place where within any four-block grid there are hundreds of people who know more about Miles Davis or Linux or Giorgio de Chirico or the Ruy Lopez opening or Peyton Manning's attack on the two-deep zone than you do. (As a starry-eyed provincial, I like to think of New York this way, even though it's probably an illusion.)

The reader revolution has also provided an unprecedented snapshot of America. Anyone who surfs the Web looks out over democratic vistas that Walt Whitman could only imagine. The switchboard is lit up and behind each light is a real human being whose opinions and interests can now be heard by all. Is this a good thing? It depends on whether your commitment to democracy, transparency and openness outweighs your desire not to be flooded with noise about Paris Hilton, Brazilian bikini waxing and the profiles on MySpace.

In some ways, this debate, and indeed the larger argument about the reader revolution, recapitulates venerable debates, which go back to the ancient Greeks, about the virtues of democracy versus aristocracy and oligarchy. This is an age of massive feedback, but it's hard to deny that the collective American mind, now that its amp is turned up to 11, sounds a lot like Mötley Crüe.

For a writer, this huge, suddenly vocal audience has some significant advantages. For one thing, it serves as an enormous fact-checker. If you make a mistake in a piece, some eagle-eyed reader will let you know, often within minutes. But a far more important effect of the reader revolution is that it has forced writers to immediately deal with substantive arguments and critique. Like most writers who publish a lot online, I've written pieces that a letter writer has sliced up so surgically, with such superior logic and style, that I began searching furtively for a "do over" button on my computer. And the sheer quantity of even less sophisticated arguments, like water poured onto a leaky roof, reveal a piece's weak points. Many writers have told me about extraordinary e-mail exchanges with readers that sometimes develop into ongoing relationships.

At its best, then, the active audience sharpens thinking and advances the discussion. Even when not at its best, it gives a valuable sense of the range of perspectives that are out there -- at least in the possibly skewed demographic of those who write letters online.

And, of course, for a writer there is the guilty narcissistic pleasure, which can become an addiction, of wallowing in what other people have to say about you. If you have a blog, as New York Times media writer David Carr noted recently, this temptation is even more powerful. In the Balzacian -- some would say baboonlike -- game of status-affirmation that we are all tempted to play from time to time, the number of letters you get, blogs that deal with you, or the number of times your name comes up on Google is an index of higher rank.

These are some of the good, or at least furtively pleasurable, aspects of the reader revolution. But there are also a number of bad ones. And like an iceberg, the bulk of them may be below the surface.

First, and most obviously, is the reality that the 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. A friend of mine once commented, apropos of drivers who festoon the bumpers of their cars with stickers announcing their political and philosophical beliefs, "I am not interested in the opinions of my fellow motorists." Reading some online discussions, I know exactly what he meant.

The letters pages of Salon, like every other online magazine that doesn't filter its posts, is a classic spaghetti western -- the good, the bad and a really heavy dose of Eli Wallach. To pull out only one of thousands of possible examples, let's look at a particularly egregious discussion that followed an article by Lori Leibovich about the Yaskulka family of New York, whose father lost his mother on 9/11, and their painful struggle to overcome depression and put their lives back together. A number of readers criticized Salon for running the piece, arguing that it placed 9/11 victims on a pedestal and played into Bush's 9/11-is-sacred agenda. But several went further, criticizing the family itself. "Seems like all they are doing is letting the past rule them," wrote "SR." "They seem to be unwilling or unable to get past it. That's not 'recovery' it's 'wallowing.'" Another writer, "EM," criticized "these showy displays of forced grief" and commented, "The Yaskulkas would probably benefit from focusing more on their futures and less on their past losses, too."

Other readers jumped in to express outrage at these responses. One wrote that "for others to think that they have the moral right to judge and ridicule a grieving family's coping methods is absolutely disgusting. It makes me so furious that I'm surprised that I can even sit here and type this. Another poster who expressed similar anger to this situation, wrote, "'Christ, we're horrid.' I completely agree. Human nature at its finest." In the end, the family's mother responded herself, writing, "Judge us if you will ... We were not asked by to be the 'Poster Family' for 9/11. We were asked how we are doing 5 years later. We are doing the best we can."

That other readers came to the defense of the Yaskulkas, and Louise Yaskulka responded, shows that letters forums can be self-correcting. But they are not always self-correcting: Sometimes the trolls drive everyone else out. In any case, the damage had been done. This example shows that online, nothing -- not even a grieving family -- is off-limits. Why should it be? An anonymous posting is a communication without consequence. Want to tell someone who lost their mom that they're not grieving the right way? Step right up! They'll never know who you are.

What should be noted about the Yaskulka comments is that, removed from their context as responses to an article about real people, in a forum where those people are sure to read them, they are legitimate. People are at liberty to judge others, and do so all the time, even regarding matters as intimate as grieving. We've all played amateur psychologist in private about people we know, and writers pronounce judgment on public figures all the time. What made this discussion different, and what many readers rightfully found offensive, is that it was a public discussion of a deeply private matter -- the very definition of callousness. But the letter writers who criticized the Yaskulkas clearly did not see the family as being private anymore: Because they were the subjects of an online story, they were fair game.

The fact is that anyone who posts anything on the Internet is opening himself or herself up to every conceivable response -- from thoughtful comments to irrelevant ramblings to savage personal attacks. And, in a dynamic unique to discussion threads, those responses have a logic of their own, one that often has far less to do with the piece ostensibly being discussed than with the posters' obsessions and their quarrels with each other. A thread that starts out reading like an exchange in the New York Review of Books quickly degenerates into a brawl on "The Jerry Springer Show."

Open letter forums create and abet an insider-ish mentality where a certain species of poster can flaunt their egos and sense of superiority. These worthies may see themselves as keen-witted literary arbiters, but in fact they more closely resemble the extras who play outraged townspeople in low-budget vampire movies, oafs in lederhosen milling around angrily and waving burning torches. Besotted with their petty power and egging each other on, they often gang up on a single demonized writer. And if you happen to be that writer, you'd better have a really thick skin -- or have learned to stop reading your mail and Googling yourself.

The problem is, it's very hard for writers, who want to be read and want to know what readers are saying about them, to ignore letters or blogs about themselves. "Practically every writer I know has gone through the mill with this," says Salon senior writer Laura Miller. "Blogs, often written by idiots, are bad-mouthing you. You go through this cycle where you get interested, then you get angry, then you just stop reading them." But as Miller points out, even nasty comments are addictive. "There's a great Trollope quote from 'Phineas Finn': 'But who is there that abstains from reading that which is printed in abuse of himself?'"

Miller, who says the tendency of discussion threads to degenerate is an example of "the tragedy of the commons," believes that the worst online abuse is directed at writers who make themselves vulnerable by revealing intimate things about their lives. "I don't think people who write stuff like that should read their letters," Miller says. "If you write something revealing, people mob up and become predatory." Miller attributes this to a rampant cultural self-righteousness: "It's like a virus in society -- the policing of norms." As every online editor knows, pieces about child-rearing, sexual mores and the like provoke remarkably virulent outbursts of reader self-righteousness.

Novelist and former Salon columnist Ayelet Waldman is a case in point: Her pieces about child-rearing and sexuality caused a group of readers to become angrily obsessed with her. "For some reason there's a tendency for the very worst of people to be expressed online," Waldman says. "I've done it myself -- I once wrote something really snarky about a writer, and I got back a very thoughtful and hurt letter from them, and I felt really bad."

Waldman no longer Googles herself or reads reader letters. "From early on I realized that their bile said much more about them than about me," she says. "But inevitably, despite yourself, that viciousness does affect you. It makes me feel bad about myself, and I try to avoid things that make me feel bad about myself. It's too bad because I've also had amazing experiences online -- connecting with women who have lost children, things that have helped me as human being."

Waldman sums it up succinctly: "The entire blogosphere is a first draft."

It should be noted that some of these attacks have an ugly misogynistic aspect. At Salon, but I believe not just at Salon, a disproportionate number of nasty posts are directed at women writers. Often, the letter writers delight in using cutesy nicknames to belittle women authors, a tactic seldom used against male writers. It's hard to say whether this is a result of the tendency of women to write more personal essays than men, or simple misogyny (though many of the abusive posters are themselves female).

It's easy to say writers should just ignore these letters, but it isn't so easy to do it. For one thing, it isn't as if the posts are all simply cretinous vomitings by mouth-breathers; often they make some more or less legitimate point, then launch into their ugly attacks. And the relentless viciousness of the attacks -- a phenomenon that never existed on the same scale before the Internet -- is profoundly demoralizing to writers: They can make their job miserable and affect their writing. "In the old days, the mail had a completely different tenor," says Salon staff writer Rebecca Traister. "Even the hate mail was pretty well thought-out. But this has become about creating a spectacle of hate that everyone will notice. I did laugh at it for a long time. But to open yourself up to it every single time, to wake up at night imagining how someone is going to take what you have written and turn it into a personal attack on you -- it wears away at you." Traister adds, "I cannot say that it does not affect my writing."

Nasty and ignorant letters affect the reader, too. A few ugly or stupid comments in a discussion thread have a disproportionate impact. Like drops of iodine in a glass of water, they discolor the whole discussion and scare more thoughtful commentators away. They also degrade the image of a publication's readership: Several Salon contributors and staffers have complained to me that our open letters policy leaves the impression that our readership is much stupider and coarser than it really is.

The larger issue, however, is the effect of massive feedback itself -- not just abusive feedback, or dumb comments on blogs, but all of it -- on writers. Here we approach the ambiguous heart of the issue. It's ambiguous because a writer's relationship with the imagined readership is itself inherently unstable. Writing is an unstable, hybrid form of communication, at once a soliloquy and a conversation. And the sudden onslaught of responding readers has profoundly changed that relationship, in ways that may improve the communal, two-way aspects of writing but may damage its intimate, meditative and one-way nature. Writers may begin questioning themselves, anticipating criticism, internalizing external pressures -- all things that can be positive but that can also lead to creative paralysis.

Of course, different kinds of writing are more autonomous than others. At one extreme, there is literary fiction. Fiction writers do not aim to communicate facts, make an argument or convince anyone of anything; indeed, it is questionable whether fiction is a "communication" in the sense that a conversation is at all. At the other extreme is a straight "just the facts, ma'am" news story, in which all voice and point of view have been excised. All other kinds of journalistic writing fall somewhere in between.

Fiction writers are not exposed to as much online feedback as journalists, but they too are exposed. And some fiction writers are beginning to register this in their work. In Richard Powers' latest novel, "The Echo Maker," one of the main characters is a neurologist and writer whose recent books have been criticized. Looking at comments about him on Amazon, he thinks: "Somehow, when he wasn't looking, private thought gave way to perpetual group ratings. The age of personal reflection was over. From now on, everything would be haggled out in public feedback brawls."

For his part, Powers seems to welcome the age of "public feedback brawls" -- at least as they affect his work. "What's liberating is my books are being talked about by a lot of people in a lot of different forums, from esoteric literary quarterlies to blogs," he said in an interview with Salon's Kevin Berger in the Los Angeles Times. "It's now possible to feel that you're just part of a conversation that's veering and weaving all the time. In a way, it parallels the issues in 'The Echo Maker.' We want to believe the self is a single and a solid thing. But we need to stop thinking about the self as a kind of solid art sculpture and start thinking of it as a river, flowing and changing. Maybe many years ago, I had the idea that a book had an innate quality and was a solid, identifiable monument of unchanging value. But it's clear to me that books, like people, are works in progress. They are constantly being transformed."

But Powers' view of fiction as constantly in flux is probably not shared by most novelists, who are more apt to see their creations as immutable objects, "artifices of eternity" like Yeats' golden bird in "Sailing to Byzantium." In one sense, this sense of fiction as autonomous shields it from the reader revolution -- but it also leaves it potentially open to being undercut, whittled away. If all the cultural noise and audience feedback are about either nonfiction or the more blatantly attention-getting elements in fiction, will fiction writers have an incentive to stop dreaming?

Journalism is inherently more communicative, information-driven and dialogic than fiction -- but not entirely so. As a result, the reader revolution has left journalists in a complicated position. They need to respond to their critics more than fiction writers do -- but they, too, sometimes need earplugs.

The most obvious danger, for a journalist, is that he or she will respond to criticism by avoiding certain subjects or pulling punches. Except in cases of reader abuse, this is the journalist's problem, not the readers'. A writer privileged enough to publish has to be thick-skinned to accept fair criticism, no matter how harsh. Bloggers' denunciation of the "imperial media" can be overblown and paranoid, but it's legitimate to expect journalists to accept criticism. Once you write something and send it out into the world, you don't own it anymore: You offered it to the reader, and the reader has the right to respond as he or she wants. Before the Internet, it was easy for a journalist to behave like a sniper, rising furtively out of a foxhole, firing off a shot, then ducking back down to safety. Now, people are shooting back, and it's a bit much for the sniper to complain. The tale of New Republic critic Lee Siegel, who was so enraged by his online detractors that he adopted a pseudonym, went into the comments section of his blog and began slurring his critics and praising himself, is cautionary. (Siegel was suspended from writing for TNR.)

But in reality, journalists are human beings who range from bomb-throwing tough guys to tenderhearted wimps. And the reader revolution has definitely made it harder for the wimps. If you want to write polemically about a subject that people feel passionately about, you'd better be ready for a rumble. Whether this is a good development or not is unclear: It's good that journalists can't hide as easily, but there are probably some great stories that introverted writers are less likely to do now.

However, the real danger posed by the reader revolution is subtler. As writing becomes more of a dialogue and less of a soliloquy, the risk is that it will flatten out. That the new ideals of consensus and saturated information will replace the old ones of creativity and individuality -- what Powers called "the age of personal reflection." A different but equally problematic outcome is also possible: That pugnacity and contentiousness will become the supreme writerly virtues, and journalism will become a gladiatorial enterprise. Again, there is nothing wrong with either rational consensus or pugnacity. But they should not be the only flowers growing in the literary garden.

Someone might ask, why should massive audience feedback threaten creativity? After all, none of those millions of readers, no matter how nasty or hyperrational, have the power to prevent a writer from choosing a subject. I think there are several reasons.

First, writers are increasingly rewarded for provoking noise. The more responses you get, the more impact you have, the more money you make for your publication, and the more editors will reward you. But getting a lot of letters is not necessarily a good sign: It sometimes just means that you pushed an obvious button. It's easier to bitch than praise. Some of the best pieces -- the most thoroughly investigated, clearly argued, beautifully written -- generate very few letters. The reader revolution extends the power of the market into literature and journalism. And disciples of Adam Smith notwithstanding, capitalism is a very equivocal patron of the arts. Just ask our new goddesses, Britney and J.Lo.

Second, writers are sensitive plants. It's hard to find a good ivory tower these days. If Montaigne were alive today, he might be just another hyperactive blogger.

There is no easy answer to this problem. The Wikipedia model of journalism, in which a vast community of readers functions as a self-correcting machine, is an incredibly powerful development, and much of it is positive. Who would return to the days when dictatorial journalists handed down pronouncements ex cathedra? There's an old New Yorker cartoon in which a Führer-like figure, standing onstage in front of a huge "Triumph of the Will" crowd, says, "I think I may say, without fear of contradiction..." That pretty much sums up the elite media's relation with its audience before the Internet. We all need to be contradicted when we're wrong -- and we're all wrong a lot. The Führer is dead -- long live the people!

And yet, it's too easy simply to celebrate the downfall of the elite media and glory in the toppling of the gatekeepers. Yes, they -- we -- could and can be smug and arrogant. Yes, we should be summoned to account when we screw up. And yes, the online revolution has made it easier to do that. But to be part of an elite doesn't mean you're divinely anointed. It simply means you have some aptitude for what you do and have spent years learning to do it, and so you're probably better at it than most people. Not smarter, not a better human being -- just better at your craft. This is true of football players, surgeons, chefs and auto mechanics -- why shouldn't it be true of journalists as well? Forget the word "elite": In our laudable all-American haste to trash bogus royalty, let's not forget there's a completely different category. It's called professionalism.

And it isn't all about right and wrong, anyway. It's about poetry. It's about cadences and music and allusion and metaphor, about words that someone spends hours weighing until they balance perfectly. A world without soliloquies, without idiosyncratic essays, without pieces that don't know where they're going, without unanswerable questions, without language that bravely stands on its own like a tree or a Coltrane note, would be a barren one. It would be hyperbolic to claim that the reader revolution, one of the great advances in human history, is hurling us into that world. But it would be myopic not to recognize the danger signs.

Publications will doubtless come up with ways to filter the reader dreck. (At Salon, we have a few simple changes in the works.) But the new paradigm is here to stay. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the newly vocal audience learns to respect the implicit, always fragile contract between writer and reader. For a writer, that contract simply means trying to do your best. It means bringing honesty, hard work, knowledge and passion to what you write -- and expecting that your readers will approach your work in the same spirit. "Write with blood," Nietzsche's Zarathustra proclaimed, "and you will experience that blood is spirit." The ultimate elitist, Nietzsche dismissed his readers outright: "Whoever knows the reader will henceforth do nothing for the reader. Another century of readers -- and the spirit itself will stink." Nietzsche's wounded and grandiose pronouncement, as usual, contains a grain of truth. Writing is extremely hard work, and it exposes the writer to the world. No one expects the reader to work as hard as the writer did. But the pell-mell rush of information flooding across a million screens has made it too easy for readers to forget that the info-byte they just swallowed was a handcrafted object.

Pro athletes have a saying: "Respect the game." It may be too much to expect the mouse-wielding masses to embrace that credo. But a little respect would go a long way to restoring the heft of the written word, its shape and dignity. And in an age of weightless information, that would be good for readers and writers alike.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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