more comments needed?

Bob Stein writes:

People are very resistant to leaving comments in a public space. There was a much more extensive discussion of this draft on the private Read 2.0 listserve than what you see in the public CommentPress version. i begged people on the listserve to post their comments on the public version, but with few exceptions no one was willing. The really sad thing from my pov is that by refusing to join the discussion in CommentPress, people deprived themselves of the opportunity to experience category 4 social reading first hand. I am very respectful of many of the people on the read 2.0 list and would have loved to have had their first-hand reactions to the experience of engaging in the close-reading of an online document with people whose views they value.

But of course, as we all know from experience, only some “people are very resistant to leaving comments in a public space.” Many others feel no resistance at all, and comment freely without any thought intervening between the impulse and the typing. The problem is that the people who ought to be resistant flow freely, and the ones who ought not be resistant stay away. And might there not be some causal connection between the two? When, two or three years ago, the comment threads at The American Scene began to be taken over by trolls, I got emails from several smart people who had formerly been regular commenters there who told me that they weren’t going to be commenting any more because they felt that it was like taking a swim in a cesspool.

That said, I don’t think the presence (real or anticipated) of trolls is the problem with quiet pages on CommentPress sites. Rather, something like the opposite. When I see a draft of a substantial article or book on CommentPress, I feel that I owe that work a thorough reading and a careful response — and I don’t always have time for that. A quick and casual response doesn’t seem appropriate, so I tell myself I’ll come back later when I have time to read more carefully and formulate my response more precisely — but often I don’t find time to do that. A quick response would probably be better than no response at all, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it would be.

Maybe I should make a New Year’s resolution to comment more often on CommentPress sites. . . .

marginal technology

Via Adam Keiper, my editor here at The New Atlantis, I see this fascinating story about . . . well, several things, but primarily about the efforts of Bob Stein — founder of the Voyager Company and then, more recently, the Institute for the Future of the Book — to create more deeper and more meaningful communities of reading. Virtual communities, that is: Stein says, “This is the billion-dollar question, How do you model [an online] conversation, a real conversation, among a large number of people?” He’s trying to achieve this primarily through CommentPress, which is basically a celebration of marginalia. (Here’s a long, scholarly article on CommentPress by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.) How you feel about this project may largely depend on how you feel about actual marginalia. When you check out a library book, or peruse a used book, that has commentary in the margins, are you disgusted or intrigued? My default position is disgust, but I think that’s largely because most marginal commentary is not especially intelligent. It also tends to be sloppy — Can't you people underline more neatly? Please! — and intermittent. More often than not it starts out boldly but peters out altogether after a few pages. Of course, if you know and are interested in the person writing in those margins the situation is wholly different. People used to lend books to the poet Coleridge so they could get them back with the great man’s annotations, which they typically found more interesting that the books themselves. When I was writing my biography of C. S. Lewis I took great delight in looking through volumes he had owned to see what he had written in the margins. In that case also it was what the other writers had prompted Lewis to think that intrigued me. The margins were what mattered to me; the text itself was, to my mind, . . . well, marginal. At least for that moment. The question I have about CommentPress, then, is this: Where does it direct our attention? Is it about illuminating the books under discussion? Or are the books there instrumentally, to serve as prompts for community-building? I suppose this will vary from case to case, but Bob Stein’s remarks suggest that the real goal is to connect people, with books as means to that end. Which is not a problem, as far as I’m concerned; that’s a worthy use for books.