Earlier this summer, as part of a master’s program at Emerson College, Kerry Skemp began blogging and tweeting about online commentary (i.e., comments left on websites or tweets) and its role in the future of publishing. The resultant blog, You’re Talking a Lot, but You’re Not Saying Anything, is filled with rich observations. For anyone who hasn’t been following all along, Skemp recently summed up the lessons learned with the ultimate “meta-commentary” post: “Commentary on My Commentary on Commentary.”
The distillation is fascinating stuff: a vision of online commentary that rebuffs proverbial complaints of commenters-as-trolls-and-idiots and slays simplistic traffic-building stratagems. “Online commentary both is and affects publishing,” Skemp writes. “It is publishing in the sense that it ‘makes public’ information that would otherwise remain private. In doing so, commentary (ideally) affects more than the commenter and the person being responded to.
“The unique nature of commentary on the internet allows it to be read by an unlimited number of people with varying levels of connection to the topic at hand. An astute comment can educate and inspire others; a negative or uninformed comment can motivate others to help educate. Admittedly, online commentary doesn’t give rise to enlightenment: but it can, and should.”
Finding enlightenment in a comment field might seem a bit farfetched, but Skemp backs up the claim with savvy observations that will be interesting to track as online comment infrastructure evolves. The presence of nasty (or self-serving) commenters, for example, means that “the art of commentary includes determining what to weed out,” a.k.a., a dose of media literacy. Additionally the “Twitterfication of commentary”—knowing who’s reading what you publish—injects accountability into the system, eliminating the anonymity under which bad manners and cheap shots flourish.
But more than commentary shifting toward more refined discourse, Skemp ultimately sees it functioning as a sort of super-discourse. “Commentary is the future of . . . search, and potentially even publishing,” she writes. “Commentary is the future of finding everything we need online, and responding to what is already online. Algorithms can only go so far without the human input that comes in the form of commentary: data showing what people think about other data.”