Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Can Possibly Be More Interesting Than This Article?

Australia's Channel 2, the government funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), used to host a show called "Backchat". Viewers were invited to submit their opinions about ABC broadcasts beamed into their televisions and radios. If what the viewer or listener had to say was current enough, witty, or clever, part of their submissions would be quoted on-air.

Backchat, aired twice a week, was a ten-minute segment that filled the gap between 9.20pm and 9.30pm; the concept was brilliant. Viewers got a thrill when the best parts of their letters were read out for all the nation to hear. The interesting thing about it was that there were often multiple comments on the same topic, giving a theme to that day's Backchat. The ABC had found a way to seem accountable to the public and, at the same time, attract viewers to their television station.

Aside from the novelty of having your words read out and your name displayed on television, the idea was not that much different from one newspapers have used since time immemorial - letters to the editor. The intrinsic problem with these letters and with Backchat is that it is difficult to hold a conversation. For starters, there is an obvious issue of time-delay. Furthermore, published submissions are often heavily edited. Also, editors filter out those submissions that tried to carry on the conversation for too long, especially if the issue has passed some arbitrary used-by-date.

The Internet has given an (almost unedited) voice to the public. Talkbacks and comments on news articles and blogs enable almost anyone to instantly share their opinion with the world. The commenting system on countless websites stimulate conversation and debate among people with similar interests. These modern-day Backchats have given rise to a freedom of expression that was, until now, heavily moderated by those with vested interests in what is published and what is not.

Clever authors provide just enough controversial material to provoke discussion. The best authors are those that include themselves in the ensuing debate, throwing themselves into the fray and engaging in intelligent conversation. This shows the readers that authors care about them and it is also a thrill for commenters when they can actually join the author (the "expert") in near-real-time conversation about the topic in the article.

The side-effect is that weaker authors fail to give their own opinions, or heavily qualify their opinions, so as to protect themselves from those who disagree. Some authors disengage completely from the article once it has been published, leaving the unwashed hordes to fight it out amongst themselves. Occasionally, authors goad readers into commenting, baiting them with statements that are bound to get their dander up. This only serves to increase their hit count and the perceived popularity of their blog, but does not necessarily add to the greater wisdom of the world. For example, it is easy to score cheap points by writing anything that slightly suggests that Apple is better than Windows or vice-versa.

I am often disappointed if an article has few comments because, trolls and flamers aside; sometimes the comments to an article are more entertaining than the article itself.


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