Let Us Entertain You

I was curious about what the commenters at Cartoon Brew thought about Wall-E. While I was there, I was drawn into reading a much-commented upon entry about one of the writers for Kung-Fu Panda, and a blog entry he had made about how much he disliked working on the film and working for Jeffrey Katzenberg.

About midway through the comments, the original blog writer, Dan Harmon, makes an appearance. I found his comments really interesting, and I think they speak powerfully about the evolving nature of blogging as a whole.

I’m going to quote the whole comment below.

You guys cut and pasted excerpts from a post in a forum where I talk to people who are there to read what I wrote, where I frequently express my personal feelings about my work and say horrible things about myself. You made something that already existed in its full context, one click away, into your own “article” by adding mocking editorial about how stupid I am for not understanding the obvious fact that because an animated film involves drawing, it’s always written last. You gave it the headline “Dan Harmon talks a bunch of shit about Jeffrey Katzenberg” to draw web traffic, and your readers follow this bit of reporting with a bunch of comments about how my experience as a writer in an animation factory is meaningless because I didn’t enjoy it and because my imdb entry contains silly titles of videos I make for my own fulfillment instead of money. And you hate public ranting. And ungrateful, unprofessional people.

What do you guys like? Cartoons and journalism? Cartoons and prudence? Fairness? Restraint? Order? Justice? Love?

You know, the more you do this to people who say things, the less and less is going to get said, and you’re going to have to hunt harder and harder for the next guy to entertain you with his unpunished foibles. You kind of finished me up, here. I’ve been saying things on the internet for 15 years, and this is the first hint I’ve gotten that I should think twice before I say anything. And I’m taking the hint, believe me. Sorry to either waste your time and/or make your day with my failings.

I’ve made it clear that I think some of the biggest critics of online writing are exaggerated in their complaints, or that they are completely unreflective about failings in the pre-Internet norms that governed public debate, cultural criticism, and opinion journalism.

However, I think Harmon’s right that there are some problems with the evolving norms of interblog writing and commentary. All weblogs tend over time to create small communities of readers, some of them active commenters, some just lurkers. As those communities evolve, they tend towards stronger and stronger feedback loops of sentiment and opinion that in turn often shapes what is said in the main body of any weblog. This is good in some ways: blogs which are about everything, or about nothing in particular, are both hard to read and hard to maintain. It is bad in other ways. I know I’ve given up on participating in the comments at several academic blogs where I feel the main author isn’t really interested in discussion and where the loyalist commenters are likely to abuse anyone that they see as being a critic of the author. It feels too much like being a party-crasher.

The real problem, however, is what Harmon describes, which is an accelerating disincentive to be honest, to disclose, to take risks in what we post, for fear that we will end up fodder at someone else’s blog where we actually care about what that audience thinks. It’s not that disturbing to be misquoted or mocked at a weblog whose audience is completely outside your own interests or communities: being called a “neo-Stalinist” for criticizing a badly written report was simply amusing. But Harmon, for example, obviously does care and should care what some of the commenters at Cartoon Brew think of him, and so I think he’s right to be frustrated by the waving of rhetorical torches and pitchforks that commences in the comments to the original post. I think Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi do a great job with Cartoon Brew in general, I should add. But the original post in this case certainly did “cue” the hostility in the comments to follow.

Blogging as a whole depends upon honesty and it depends on people being willing to create content that interests the rest of us as readers. If the scale starts to tip to the point where bloggers in general start to find it to be more trouble than it’s worth to start original conversations, to provide raw material, to disclose selectively, to host a salon, then the form as a whole will go fallow, leaving behind a desert of sanitized public-relations promotions and crumb-feeding from the table of the mainstream media.

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6 Responses to Let Us Entertain You

  1. I was a bit surprised about the Harmon thing. I’d read his comments (on his own blog) two or three weeks ago. Don’t remember exactly how I came to them, either a direct link from the Brew or a two or three links away from the Brew. I thought his comments were interesting and reasonable. So I was surprised at the way the Brew set him up this time around.

    OTOH, as you know, the animation blogosphere has been having running battles about scripts vs. story boards and their importance in the process. Maybe we’re in for yet another skirmish.

  2. Jmayhew says:

    Harmon was not really misquoted, was he? The excerpts from what he said were long enough so that their effect was really quite close to that in the original context. Now it seems like he not only doesn’t know how cartoons are made, but also doesn’t know how the internet works. He thinks he gets to control the context in which his words are read. Maybe he won’t get hired by the next hollywood producer who isn’t too keen on being criticized, but that’s pretty much his own doing.

  3. It’s kind of a tragedy-of-the-commons situation–the opportunistic over-exploitation of candor. My feeling is that unless it’s purely self-serving, there’s some generosity in every act of candor, even when it’s also foolish or obnoxious. But it makes for such a tempting target. I suspect there’s a close inverse relationship between curiosity and the tendency to treat honesty like Harmon’s as an opportunity to get out the “rhetorical torches and pitchforks.” The curious reaction is “why is this person saying this and what does it mean about…” as opposed to “what kind of dope would say that.” One of the more discouraging things about teaching undergraduates is that it often seems like genuine free-ranging curiosity is more the exception than the rule. So we’re probably stuck with the dynamic in cyberspace and people will just learn to keep their shields up or be anonymous.

    There must be smarter and better ways to handle comments than treating them as a free-speech wild west, filtering out only the blatantly offensive or off-topic. The comment threads can contribute quite a bit to the character and impact of a blog, so it seems to me that bloggers should take more responsibility for their tone. It’s not obvious how that could be done in practice, especially for high-traffic sites where moderating or reacting to every comment would be an onerous job. But to not at least step in now and then and counter some of the dumb things people say (even people who are on your side of a debate) is to cater to dumb people–and they start to collect. A while back I wrote about my one dip into the Volokh Conspiracy, looking at a post that made a point of distinguishing bloggers from commenters–a distinction that I find questionable in general, and when I got to the comments on the post it seemed self-serving, too. The knee-jerk mentality was no credit to a blog written by law professors (the thread about Harmon is, by comparison, the soul of urbanity). And the post itself was like a comment in a multi-blog comment thread that was also locked in the kind of feedback loop you describe.

    It’s fascinating to see the fault lines of an unfamiliar genre, though. Scripts vs. story boards? It seems to have some of the moral overtones that serialism vs. tonality used to have not so long ago for composers, except the tension is across a division of labor. So maybe it’s more like a struggle between composers and lyricists over whether the words or music comes first, except that’s not a contentious issue. But then songwriting isn’t such an drawn-out expensive industrial process. Definitely something to think about next time I watch Spongbob with one of my daughters.

  4. Speaking of dumb, I sound pretty dumb seeming to question the obvious difference between bloggers and commenters. In the context of the post I was criticizing the distinction is questionable, and in general a blog is not just the blogger’s posts, especially if it collects a distinctive “commentariat.”

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think this is nicely put, Robert–that what we should be trying to encourage is “free-ranging curiosity”. So on first encounter with someone else’s candor, you want to say, “Who is this person, and why is he saying what he’s saying”, rather than “What a maroon”.

  6. Doug says:

    “rather than ‘What a maroon.'”

    Depends on how good your Bugs Bunny impression is…

    At any rate, TNH is your friend on thinking about maintaining good conversations. Proverbial money quote: “Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting that your front yard will automatically turn itself into a garden.”

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