Have you ever commented at the end of an online news story or blog post? I have, and then almost always wondered why I did so. A few of the comments I received on my latest column in Advertising Age this week got me thinking even more about the entire shebang.

My conclusion is that not only is it a waste of time most of the time, but it actually denigrates if not wholly blows up the very idea of conversation.

I know why we do it. We all want to be heard, and online tech gives us the chance to add our two-cents to just about anything. There’s no price of admission other than an Internet connection and a willingness to post. No rules, no criteria, no judgments or any requirements for participation unless the site wants a registration in order to spam you with marketing later on.

But that means most comment strings end up becoming mutually reinforcing echo chambers for the most nutty comments, at best, or ugly, muddy fist-fights more often than not. Only the most passionate or opinionated get involved, which could be why the resulting back-and-forth tends toward extreme positions.

We take this stuff for granted now that we’re past the Social Media Revolution, but have you checked out what it looks like lately? Just go visit the comment string on your favorite news or opinion site and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s not just stupid but downright scary. Of course there are exceptions but the general rule is that comments are angry, combative, personal, and regularly pretty ignorant. Especially the public ones.

Is there some self governance or inherent wisdom in crowds? Maybe some mechanism kicks in to make broad, usually anonymous aggregations of statements orderly, thoughtful, and responsible?

Nope. Most online comment trails are linear lists of declarations, nothing more.

It’s as if our capacity to listen and discuss has decreased just as our ability to talk has increased. The spotlight of public exposure seems to encourage people to be mean while reinforcing their obstinate convictions.

My latest Advertising Age column exhibited as much, though again a few of the comments were very thoughtful (and raised points I’d never even considered). One comment dissed me for not crediting Apple with running ads featuring famous people in the “Think Different” campaign (which I had and, by the way, worked on when I was working for Apple in the late 1990s). Then another comment commented on that mischaracterization, and at least one Tweet echoed the same mistake. One post dissed me for failing to mention stars in other Apple spots over the years, even though I’d stated clearly that I knew it had done so. Another comment simply insulted me for trying to make a point, let alone succeeding or failing at it. And one accused me of having a problem with Apple overall.

Conversation? Not by a long shot.

Maybe it’s a length thing. We’ve conditioned consumers (and ourselves) to be incapable of making or understanding statements that require more than a sentence or two to communicate. Brief is now a synonym for better or right, so any nuanced topic is going to be suspect from the get-go. The problem is that every and any topic beyond the simple facts like air temperature or wind direction is nuanced. Life is nuanced, not just business.

But online comments don’t encourage or reward nuance. They also don’t recognize it. They’re blunt, crude instruments for expressing blips and burps of emotion. It’s structural. My point about Apple is stupid. I’m stupid. Whatever.

Again, I’m making a broad generalization, and doing so at risk of losing anybody conditioned to only sense short, specific statements. I just wish there were better and more robust/common forums for real conversation. I don’t think we’ve cracked the code on how to deliver them. In regard to my essay, I thought the the really interesting  conversation would have been about Apple’s strategy with voice I/O (since I just read yesterday that its rumored to be coming on the next iPad). Could the Siri spots be an attempt to get us talking about voice?

I think we should talk more about how we talk online.

Original post: baskinbrand.com/?p=611

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/angryjuliemonday/6327390166/