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2007 07 23
The Meaning of Moderation I

Toronto’s Globe & Mail used to be respectable. Staid, stolid, lacking frivolity or lustre. Dull, dreary – not even rousing when contrary.

It was no entertainment, reading the Globe back when it was so dull. But it sure was respectable.

Still is. Entirely respectable, reading the Globe. No longer dull, though. Not the on-line version, at least. On-line, the Globe sparks live as wires. Lively as wired gets.

What happened? No discernible change in editorial policy or turning all tabloid or anything different about the writing, either. Not anything readers might read. Same old dull, dull, dull. What happened was everything readers could write. So that now there’s not a single dull moment left to be found on-line at the Globe. Not since the reader commentary feature was introduced.

Terrific feature. For readers commenting on Globe articles, almost anything goes. Almost. Most commentary remains semi-moderated, but that seems more designed to conforming minimal civility than toeing editorial party lines. Not quite free for all – but far less constraining than getting through to and putting up with talk-radio hosts. Or attempts at crafting letters to editors so spectacular as to see the dark of print.

Great feature for the Globe. In contrast to the BBC, for instance – where they wring their collective necks how to restore honesty and audience trust. Since apparently British audiences have not grown as inured to the BBC slandering the Queen for fun or profit as to the BBC’s more general trending to audience deception. No need for all that at Toronto’s Globe & Mail. No need to go making news – instead of honestly reporting news. Because, at least on-line, it’s been hopping at the Globe. Ever since the reader commentary feature was introduced, things at the Globe have been hopping, buzzing and flipping. Like rabbits, flies or bees and fish. Whether in or out of water. Respectively.

Great feature for everyone. Not like some vested salon catering geriatric bourgeois gentry. More like a free for all. Almost anything goes. Liberating media from power elites. Inflating Toronto public spheres. Genuinely enhancing our democracy. Giving us some genuine say in our lives. Not just more of the same misrepresenting and false representing by incompetent corrupt elites.

Or so it initially seemed. When comments started out thoughtful, informative and somewhat limited numerically. When comments were at all moderate. It was great. Engaging with Globe articles – just for starters. Just for the facts. Then turning to reader commentary. Not only for more obscure, less well confirmed or reported facts. For interpretation and representative debating concerning significance of facts reported. To explore the meaning of whatever facts the Globe had fit to print.

So it seemed. That when it came to exploring meaning and significance, reader commentaries elaborated and quite astonishingly enhanced on articles. While the Globe seeding mostly just facts was fine and proper as ought have been. Since propagating particular editorial slant so easily turns against journalistic integrity. Which is fine for the rest – spewing propaganda, making news and instigating headlining sensations. But not for Toronto’s good, decent, boring Globe & Mail.

Worked brilliantly well on-line. The way the Globe turned so much spinning, slanting and signifying over to readers. The unabashed way Globe readers responded, contributing enthusiastic insight. Thus did Toronto’s Globe & Mail, sacrificing few jots of journalistic integrity, turn more vital than most sensational organs of propaganda masquerading as legitimate news combined.
Got exciting. The way things went branching, slanting and spinning all over. How all that spinning was not so much by Globe writers. But rather by Globe readers. By whom it was just great. Because individual readers spinning all over the place assemble public spheres. Because genuine self-representing by individuals opens society to increasing possibilities of genuine democracy. Because the possibilities of society are nowhere near as limited by means of production as by production of meaning.
There are some, of course, that grow inordinately excited with any possibility of consensus rooting in the voice of the people. Any glimmer of consensus not ploughed or manufactured by coercion. Particularly on-line, where, away from most typical coercing, self-representing has a hope.

The excitement over possibilities of consensus and more genuine democracy is not for love of truth. Democracy, regardless how genuine, guarantees no truth. The excitement is about how legitimating self-representing consenting shields and delivers us from utmost errors. Regardless whether such errors get induced at gun-point or procured by false representation. That’s the excitement. For hatred of eternally repeated coercive errors, not for love of truth. That’s where such excitement with online discourse possibilities of self-representing consenting came from – way back in 1996:
In time the voice of the people will begin arriving at consensus on the Internet. From the Internet, the consensus will spill to the streets. Government will ignore that consensus at cost of losing step with the people. This is a cost greater than government can deficit finance. It is the cost of public bankruptcy at a time when the credibility dollar is suffering hyper-deflation… [T]he voice of the people on the Internet is our best hope for genuine democratization… [N]either public bodies nor the judiciary speak for the people. The people speak for the people – and now, finally, the people are finding their voice. And if Internet evolution manages to avoid the meteoric strike of public intervention we may yet wake to a new morning; a morning on which the notion of democracy revolving about personal self-representation disturbs us no more than the Darwinian or Copernican heresies.
Isn’t that’s too far out, though? Too far fetching? All them pies in the sky won’t get landing in our mouths all by their own selves. Like – hoping for genuine democracy enhancing consensus ever emerging from on-line discussion boards? If pies had wings, would they flock in flight?

Too far out. Some problems are of only trivial sort – like discussion boards at the Globe seeming so capriciously managed. The way articles are only sometimes opened to commenting – and there’s no sensible criterion apparently determining when. And then, when articles are open to commenting, there’s no telling how long. Some remain open several days. Others remain open several minutes. No telling which. For instance, the first comment on one July 20th article was posted at 1:08 AM EDT. The fifth and last comment posted on that article before commenting was closed? 1:19 AM EDT. Further, even when commentaries remain open throughout, they get closed and discarded from the site right along with their associated articles. Both commentaries and associated articles do remain accessible to archival perusal – but not to any sort of reader input. Nor does any attempt appear made at threading issues across articles through time. Like points of light at night in the sky, the discourse remains forever disconnected – frozen in time.

These problems are of only trivial sort. The Globe could always cease managing discussion boards so capriciously. Also, conceivably, third parties might pick up where the Globe leaves off. Third parties carrying sufficiently hot torches for more genuine democracy. For consensus assembling prospects of self-representative on-line discourse. Torches hot enough to thaw discarded frozen discourse into potent rivers. Flowing whether calm or raging to some vast awaiting future ocean of consensus.

But there’s far more serious problems gainsaying utopian possibilities of online discourse. The very relative anonymity defying traditional systems of coercion thoroughly inflames irresponsibility. Erupts irresponsibility so epidemic as to degrade the medium no less than any given message. Irresponsibility variously manifesting in trolling everything from newsgroups to commentary right here at Reading Toronto; or in such scamming as we’ve all too likely encountered by now. And one problem likely to prove particularly insurmountable now becomes increasingly apparent in context of Globe & Mail commentaries. More apparent, perhaps, than this problem ever seemed at other Internet forums, discussion boards – even newsgroups. Rather startling, too, coming largely from our Toronto Canadian readership.

Extremism. Might be the worst problem with utopian possibilities of online discourse. Because, as is becoming apparent online at the Globe, the more popular commenting an article grows, the more degraded by extremism commentary gets.

Might not have been so startling to find extremism most excessive at discussions pertaining anything Middle Eastern – touching on cultures clashing. But nothing Middle Eastern generates either the most commentary – or the worst degrading extremism. Not even close. Both numerically and for excessive extremism, it’s a distant second. The Middle East typically generates up to two hundred comments. At most. Not so with commentary pertaining any partisan Canadian issues. Emphatically not so when associated articles mention P.M. Harper by name. For when articles do, comments easily torrent numerically over four or even five hundred.

The shock isn’t that partisan Canadian issues generate more commentary than the Middle East. The shock is that commentary generated by partisan Canadian issues so easily turns more extreme. Partisan extremism easily excessive as any in the U.S. – and just absurd coming from Canadians. Potentially damaging to our representative and relatively democratic way of life. Terminally damaging whatever possibilities of our discourse leading to more genuine, self-representing democracy.

Looked like a little hope glimmered. Seemed that way for a while, online at the Globe. Some hope germinating consensus in online discourse. When comments started out thoughtful, informative and somewhat limited numerically. When commenting was even at all self-moderating. But, with rising extremism, hope went out as if there’d been no possibility of light. Might there be? Any hope encouraging (self) moderation and ever defeating extremism. Might be. But we must first discover some meaning of moderation – in order to even distinguish it from the sort of extremism we Canadians can so well do without.

This was the first of a 2 part mini-series. As a needed break from the longer Culture & Multiculture series. Second part to follow shortly.

[Peter Fruchter is a part-time faculty member in the Division of Humanities at York University. He writes about the nature of truth (and truths of nature). North America is his third continent.

['Globe lies' image by Uncleweed and used via Creative Commons.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 07/23 at 03:10 PM

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