Thursday, July 8th, 2010

From the Comments: Mansplaining the Currency of Outrage

MAN TALKUnsurprisingly, people had a lot to say about feminism and The Daily Show and Jezebel and Emily Gould and the attention economy yesterday. One very, very long comment came late in the game!

It read, in part:

The "summary of Gould's article as 'y'all are just jealous' is facile to the point of being misleading. Ironically though, it serves as a perfect metaphor for exactly the kind of manipulative junk that makes the whole Jezebel cardboard cutout so distasteful, as Jez then went beyond the pale with a post that accused Gould of impugning their 'reporting.' No such thing actually occurred though, as (to cadge a term from old timey philosophy) Gould didn't point a finger at the form of their argument but rather at the substance that it was made of. There wasn't an accusation of poor reporting but just an accusation of a sort of emotional purpose behind that reporting. Just as at no point did Gould accuse the Jezebel writers of being jealous and catty, she said that they were encouraging those feelings in the online community, that they were unconsciously pointing people in that direction…. Marx used to say that money was simply fetishized power-that it was a talisman that represented something, and for the Jez community that fetishized currency actually is outrage and righteousness."

[Ed. Note: Further commenters, however, go on to note the currency of outrage is widely accepted at all of today's best Internet boutiques! That, as Emily pointed out, it's not proprietary to Jezebel.

Also, then this commenter goes on to talk about: "But Jezebel doesn't actually police that voice, or educate women, or pretend to debate any sort of truths which encompass any world that involves the 49% of the rest of us that apparently make up the female-mashing machine that is human existence." Which, ack! Anyway, I couldn't let this go by without qualifying, sorry! -c.]

95 Comments / Post A Comment

Next week, Cathy goes on vacation.


Art Yucko (#1,321)

@CHL, unrelated: Pete and I are scheming some sort of KC commenter meetup (haha, all 3 of us right) in 2 weeks. Stay tuned.

BadUncle (#153)

What's the market in convertible outrage derivatives?

Mindpowered (#948)

$0.0000001 per inchoate post.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I'm short your umbrage.

Tyler Coates (#451)

None of this would have happened if women weren't so emotional.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Or if they were funny.

"currency of outrage." HAH. More like "boredom."

Yea… not meant to be a reply.

BadUncle (#153)

I'm outraged by your imprecision.

Like you are not used to it by now.

Also, can you be a dear and import over here all the comments that were posted after I stopped reading that yesterday? Thanks, hon.

The percentage of Jezebel readers who comment is less than 1%.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Since you're on record with this, Lindsay, can you share how you're able to determine that? It isn't argument, it's curiosity.

numbersix (#85)

Your very own Tea Party!

NinetyNine (#98)

[I just fucking give up. There's a reply below.]

Signed, Gopher was easier than WP.

That's the number I came up with/discovered one day for myself when some forgotten post I wrote for Jez caused what I felt was outsize outrage in the comments. I did the math and realized that it was only a very vocal minority who thought I was "slut-shaming" or "mind-snarking," or whatever it was, and not a representation of the site's readers as a whole. I'm "on record" with it as far as I went to the site and looked at the openly provided numbers and did some math, but if it's fuzzy anyone is welcome to correct me. Though, looking at the site right this second, it actually seems like I could say as low as "less than 0.5%"

KarenUhOh (#19)

Don't these sites–and, lord God, GawkerMedia MUST track this–have a # on the total commenter IDs?

I know this place seems to be currently representing something in the 5000s or so, but I am really a dorky dope at computing how you run that against the number of [discrete] individuals who actually open and read a particular post.

And thanks for answering.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Though presumably not everyone who thought you were shame-snarking actually commented, fwiw.

Peter Feld (#79)

I don't think it is necessary to have exact stats to know that the number of people who comment on pretty much any website is inevitably a miniscule and completely unrepresentative percentage of the readers.

Also consider that, of people who might be defined as "commenters," 10% of the people generate 90% of the content.

Most critically, this small percentage is in no way representative of the larger audience. The psychology of highly engaged readers with a strong motivation to express themselves publicly is categorically different than the mindset of people who simply read casually and go on with their lives (which, hard or easy to imagine, is nearly everyone).

This means:
– you cannot hope to know what Jezebel readers think by reading the comments
– you cannot know what most people who listen to Rush Limbaugh or Joe Scarborough think by listening to their callers
– you cannot gauge what newspaper readers think by reading letters to the editor
– elected officials who analyze their mail or phone calls to see what their constituents think are very likely to be misled
– you cannot know what Twitter users think or care about (let alone the larger population) by analyzing tweets or (god help us) "trending topics."
– etc., etc., etc.

All user-generated content is almost inevitably unrepresentative of any larger population or audience. This is true whether the commenters (or, active commenters) are 0.05% of the audience, 0.5%, or 5% or larger – it's not necessary to nail down the exact number.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Peter, that sounds eminently reasonable, and there's a high percentage you're right.

But there's a piece or two missing, which is why I'll remain unsure, slightly skeptical, and open to further persuasion.

As if anyone CARED.

mishaps (#5,779)

Whether it's true or not for Jezebel, that's about right, as a general rule of thumb. 90% lurk, about 9% comment very occasionally (hi there!) and under 2% produce most of the "user-generated content" on these fine interwebs. I first learned this when Yahoo published stats a long while back, and every discussion board or comments site I've been involved in creating or running fit the model too.

To sum up: the lurkers may actually support you in email.

NinetyNine (#98)

True top to bottom. Since you were involved in the physical side of data gathering (cover testing), what are your thoughts on the visual prominence of comments? There are some technical issues (reloads, HTML and Perl and JS in general) why that is (if there was an elegant way to get them off the single page view but tightly integrate them and make it easy to use, I'm sure we would have seen it) but there has to be a 'importance' component to how comments threads look (in quantity of comments, and even size). GM qualifies 'heat' on both PVs and how quickly comments are generated. And people are probably spend more time on a page with a long comment thread than one that is short if they are interested in the topic (given how quick bounce rates really are, getting someone to stay on a page for 40 seconds has to be a big win for a rich media buy)

I don't think anyone is claiming correspondence between how the varying constituencies think, only what the role of that middleware (commenters) is in shaping tone of the site. Editors and publishers uses phrases that couch the role of commenters in a way that downplays their significance while building tools (FB and Twitter integration, more elaborate comment systems) that emphasize the significance.

Peter Feld (#79)

I haven't studied all the comment display issues you are asking about. I love comments as long as they are taken for what they are (a select community – best case scenario – or unfiltered backwash on many news sites or youtube) and not as "market research."

I think Gawker is smart to flip it and put the most recent at the top, it seems to open up discussion and incentivize people to continue commenting after there are already a bunch, as opposed to rewarding whoever comes first.

missdelite (#625)

@Peter Feld: I don't think it is necessary to have exact stats to know that the number of people who comment on pretty much any website is inevitably a miniscule and completely unrepresentative percentage of the readers.

This plays into the concept of the "silent majority", a term oftentimes used to dismiss the opinion of a lone renegade, as in: what this person thinks ultimately doesn't hold water because he/she doesn't speak for the rest of us, and – as we all know – there's power in numbers.

But who are "us"? If the majority remains silent, how is it possible to categorize their opinion? Of course, silence implies collusion: if you don't speak up, it's because you're happy with the status quo. A state of affairs that – BTW – honours the needs of segments of the population to the detriment of others. And so it's left up to a minority of objectors to fuel debate and somehow instigate change that levels the playing field.

Ask yourself this: Where would society be without its big mouths? Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Rosa Parks – none of these people were content to stand on the sidelines and spectate/"lurk" (I'm assuming you see value in the contributions they left behind). The monumental courage it took for them to stand ahead of the pack can't be underestimated. They obviously felt it necessary to voice their opinion in the face of great opposition because to remain silent would've been an offense to their true nature.

Instead of dismissing the "miniscule" number of opinions expressed on websites as "underepresentative", I challenge you to investigate why some people are driven to speak up when most aren't. The results, I'm sure, would bring to light an aspect of the human condition that's worthy of celebration rather than being swept under the rug.

missdelite (#625)

ETA: Instead of dismissing the "miniscule" number of opinions expressed on websites as "unrepresentative",…

It's absolutely true that commenters are a very small minority of readers.

But on the flip side… commenters are also community.

One of my original schemes around here was building out way more sophisticated commenter pages. Commenters seize ownership of a site, and they should be able to make themselves at home in a few ways. Why not? These are people who are choosing to make this a home on the Internet, and they should be invited in, and given their own spaces–spaces which aren't contingent on other people's "posts."

But also I believe that comments should be visually devalued somewhat on most sites.

LolCait (#460)

Choire, you need to be clearer in telling me what I'm supposed to think about this.


Tyler Coates (#451)

I think it's worth another post!

Abe Sauer (#148)

I think that post should be of Munn actually ON the daily show which…. well, maybe we should prepare for the outrage over her being let go because… ouch
Now who's going to reap the pageviews over the Daily show's asian problem?

KarenUhOh (#19)

Yes: We need more posts, on this Jezebel/Daily Show doohickey.

While we're at it, let's have posts on doo and hickeys, as well.

Also, also, can we start talking about token womanism in the blogo-industrial complex yet?

Let me warm up for you: What are the demographics of the other Nick Denton properties?

What's the Outrage-to-Horniness exchange rate?

I do not want to out who Jeremy is/was on Gawker. But I will say that he is Canadian and I adore him.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

@Booksy: is he even commenting there anymore? I don't recall seeing him in quite awhile.

I will not confirm nor deny, and I don't comment on Gawker anymore.

Moff (#28)

Oh, good Lord, it's right in his login/URL.

Okay I'm bad at this comment system.

Clearly you aren't supposed to look there.

Also, that's a whole other part of my life. This is my respectable face. That's my recreational face. Never the twain shall meet. Except in my…. face?? Although I really never said anything I wouldn't stand behind, I'm admittedly more outrage-prone and jerkish as an anonymo.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

This is very Wizard of Oz-ish. Can someone close the curtain, please?

Moff (#28)

Welcome to nonymity, dude. It's pretty much like anonymity, except sometimes you think twice before making a Dakota Fanning joke. And then you register a new account and make it anyway.

Moff (#28)

(Maybe it's just "nymity"? "Nymness"?)

katiebakes (#32)

What about emo? Peeps always struck me as pretty emo.

@Moff: I tried to add to his glamour and mystery, you underminer!

Moff (#28)

@BL: We could start a rumor that he wears an eyepatch?

@Moff: That's actually how I always pictured Peeps!

Oh I wear one. But not where you think.

Is it a whispering eyepatch?

Holy balls, I was right.

cherrispryte (#444)

This is not helping the "please for the love of Cheesus make this all go away" campaign I started last night.

Art Yucko (#1,321)


Wrapitup (#975)

Jezebel treats objects like women, man.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

I'll suck your cock for a thousand dollars.

Wrapitup (#975)

Are you offering yourself to me as a young trophy wife, in the parlance of our times?

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

Well yes, but you should know: I owe money all over town, including to known pornographers.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I'm just gonna' go to a cash machine.

Wrapitup (#975)

Kevin: OMG new shit comes to light!
Abe: Yeah, good thinking. You can't watch or you have to pay a hundred.

paco (#2,190)

Still, it is funny that Gould is accusing Jezebel of pagebaiting with outrage, etc.

Also, the comment quoted above in the post is college-seminar-speak nonsense. This sentence does not make any sense: "Marx used to say that money was simply fetishized power-that it was a talisman that represented something, and for the Jez community that fetishized currency actually is outrage and righteousness."

So what does "outrage and righteousness" "represent"? Yes, it sounds good to throw in a gratuitous reference to Marx – FANCY! – but it's usually more helpful if you have some idea at all what you are talking about. Unfortunately, the person who wrote the quoted comment did not.

paco (#2,190)

EDIT: … what do "outrage and righteousness" "represent"?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

That statement makes perfect sense to me. I guess you could change "represented something" to "represented status and power"? But then your diction is getting repetitive.

Point being, he is stating that outrage and righteousness represent status and power in the Jez community. I'm not familiar enough with their commenters to say whether he's right or not, but I'm pretty sure that's what he means.

paco (#2,190)

Umm, exactly? Money obviously is a representation. It is nothing else. Outrage and righteousness don't "represent" anything. They are not stand-ins for anything, they are not promissory notes for anything, they are not arbitrary symbols upon which a particular community agrees to bestow a fungible value.

This is why I say that the quoted comment is gussied up fancy-talk drivel. Many here seem easily impressed when someone hauls out faintly (or poorly) remembered bits from some old Verso paperback.

But I recognize that this is nitpicking and all pretty much besides the point. Back to the fight fight fight!

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Ehhh, I would disagree with you there. Outrage can definitely be a status symbol in some circles; look at the punk movement or the tea party. It doesn't mean that some of those people aren't genuinely outraged, just that when it becomes a sign of authenticity or authority, it can become artificially amplified.

paco (#2,190)

Our disagreement boils down to the meaning of "represent". Won't be resolved here. But a useful discussion, nonetheless.

NinetyNine (#98)

Well, she could have just emailed Jess, or one of the comment wranglers. I doubt the info is that proprietary (try yourself!).

Or the back of the virtual envelope makes it pretty easy:

The Awl has about 6,200 register commenters, and about 125,000 comments. Since we know a small sliver clocked way over than 20 comments, it's pretty easy to post that half of the commenters have left 1 or less comments ever.

The Awl has 330,000 uniques (Quantcast). So half of 6,200 is 3,100, which means the The Awl's commenting community is about 1% of it's readership. I would hazard this metric holds true for any site with over 100K uniques (does that point up an issue with web metrics in general? Maybe — different bar, different night plz).

For Jez, Lindsay is probably overstating it — given their uniques, the commenting community is less than 0.1%.

So the brief discussion about the role of commenters is curious through this lens. Because comments eat up page space, bandwidth and overhead (code, curation, etc.). If the commenting community is less than 1% of an average site, and every editor from here to Tuvalu says commenters are worthless, why do they consume so much of the site's resources? On one hand, you've got Dash saying 'Don't be distracted by commenter's and on the other, you have a page design that says COMMENTING IS EVERYTHING.

Slate used to shunt commenters off to the Fray, which affirms the oft stated position of editors. But now they have a commenting system.

Clearly I don't have a conclusion. But the put your hands over your ears approach to saying commenters are worthless is either denial or worse.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I think the idea is that while commenters alone aren't enough to drive revenues, they do drive traffic through word-of-mouth.

Is "curation" the new "moderation?"

NinetyNine (#98)

That might be the idea — but every time you see Nick on record on commenters, you hear 'commenters can't drive editorial.' But commenters drive traffic? I mean, anyone who reads a Denton memo about his audience (or been lectured on the proper way to comment) and still wants to be his paperboy is a fool of a certain order. That many other sites parrot this position seems to speak to a certain kind of editorial professionalism (er, snobbery) that led makes letters to the editors sections smaller and smaller.

Ironically, the ur-Blog that spawned all the relationships that made Gawker possible is really just one big commenting community. Ask Choire his MeFi number. Go ahead. I'm sure he has it memorized.

I'm not at all saying commenters are worthless, but if you just write for the commenters, anticipating their every possible negative reaction, you won't be able to write anything at all. Whatever that is, it's the absolute polar opposite of outrage-baiting or comment-baiting. I don't know if everyone has that philosophy, but I don't really know how you could get anything done without some version of it.

NinetyNine (#98)

But isn't that just 'good writing'? Much of blogging is analogous to opinion writing, and we see as much hackery and pandering there. I know that some of the hand slapping has to do with sites with good commenting communities getting stale or repetitive or nasty. Maybe I'm conspiracy mongering, but I feel like there are some people (who aren't A.J. or Will) who would argue that Deadspin would be exactly what it is today if they didn't have comments. Which I think is utter bullshit. What Will did with and for his commenters (and how he moderated/curated) made it possible, because he's a good writer and editor. Maybe I just feel like there's a little miserliness about how short the two way street is painted.

And there's segment of editorial — not here, or even in Emily's piece, but is some of the oddly hostile posts/memos from Nick (I know! Oddly hostile?) that seems to resent the notion that commenters are part of a cycle that feeds back into the editorial identity of a site. Good editors and writers aren't threatened by this, but when a publisher or managing editor goes out of their way to decree the relationships between writers and commenters only reads to me as 'we can't get better writers, so we have to tell everyone how to behave'.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I didn't see this when I wrote my reply to LR above. But:

Comments ARE content. They may be worthwhile, worthless, or worth a wee something. I've been trying forever to get a straight answer to that, and either nobody wants to take it on, or no one really knows.

I've waxed and waned over the years between extremes, given my heavy investment in the role. The best I've come up with is that we serve a function akin to callers on talk radio–they aren't the show, but they can prove mighty entertaining, or totally asinine, depending on how the momentum shifts or dies.

I can read these "metrics" till the cows comment home, but I don't think they answer the question.

NinetyNine (#98)

I largely agree with you — but I think comments are worth more than phone-ins, if only because the the durability/long tail (AIIIEEEE!) nature of web content — and that some commenters put more effort into comments than call-ins.

Talk Radio is a very repetitive narrative, with 'memes' such as they are, recycling far more quickly. And since you can't document effectively, there is no real ability to cross reference (or convert the content into another medium — books, etc.).

I don't think comments have a large one-to-one correspondence to revenue dollars. Where it gets fuzzy is things like DUAN. Who named DUAN? Will or a commenter? Will noticed it was happening, but it pretty much was a commenter driven activity. But as a site builds gimme content meme (Bear videos, etc), it lessens the editorial load, which, for a good site, frees up writers to shine now that they only have to generate X less Y posts per day, or for a site maybe less concerned with really high quality to reduce editorial costs by having interns or part timers do the mechanical posts (comb listings for open house posts!) and reduce staff.

In that case, the readers of the site are directly impacting ROI. How to reward that? I dunno. Increasing freelancer budgets — maybe incenting people to submit post ideas that are editorial light but pay a royalty ($2 every time some runs 'Open Caption'). I don't know that every commenter wants to be a writer. But I also don't think it's fair to assume that commenters should get no more than a pat on the head.

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

For what it's worth, this is the only content-curating site I frequent in part because of a creepysad internet crush on the commentariat.

michelledean (#5,900)

Basically I think we can all agree that sometimes writers of all kinds are not properly responsible about what they put out there. Jezebel/Gawker/everybody else, being a part of the world we live in, occasionally have this problem, and it can be magnified by editorial direction, though in this case I blame, as in all things, Mr. Denton, rather than people like Anna Holmes, or any of the writers at Jezebel or Broadsheet or anywhere else. But then I don't think that Denton much cares about journalistic responsibility. Maybe that's okay.

In any event making it a girl thing is, in my humble opinion, kinda hogwash.

Also, I kind of think that sometimes, it might be okay for there to be spaces where men's voices are not automatically met with women's curtsies. Could it be that sometimes women just disagree with you because they find you incorrect on principle/ill-informed on substance? This is a crazy idea of mine, I know.

Also, it is my newly-formed opinion that commenters are worthless. (That's a joke. Or an attempt at one. Feminists aren't good at that shit, as we know.)

It sounds like you're trying to satisfy everyone with this comment (except Nick Denton). That's so like a…

sbma44 (#2,565)

Aside from excusing the writers entirely, I agree with all that you've said. What makes this situation seem unique to me, and I think to other well-meaning guys, is that we understand feminism to be an important social project — one that's ongoing, and which we often fail to do our part to support. Seeing it invoked in ways that seem kind of capricious can be a little frightening, because it makes that project — which we already don't always understand but are trying to support — seem schizophrenic and confusing. The fact that skeptical male voices are often not welcome in the supporting conversations (for understandable and defensible reasons, I hasten to add) makes it all the more terrifying.

Someone will probably say that it's not feminists' job to make sure I remain emotionally and intellectually comfortable, and they'll certainly be right. But it does seem like calling for a two-minute hate on Olivia Munn calls for a little more care than, say, Gizmodo calling a two minute hate on Steve Ballmer. Using Stuff that Matters to fuel a quasi-entertainment effort is tricky.

michelledean (#5,900)

Nuance does tend to satisfy everyone. Or so I've learned in the last 24 hours!

Canadian, that was the word i was looking for.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

sbma44 has great points. Even feminist-supportive guys usually engage in activities that are male-dominated, whether they are sports or video games or rock bands or whatever. That doesn't mean they wouldn't love to see more women in these traditional boys' clubs, or that they don't work in some ways to make them friendlier environments.

Seeing Stewart take heat because his show doesn't have many female correspondents could make an ordinary guy feel like he's going to be labeled sexist because his garage band or his Superbowl party or his Steam friends list has nothing close to gender parity. We don't want to be lumped in with Augusta golf clubs, you know what I mean?

michelledean (#5,900)

I think that you've more or less nailed the problem, sbma44. This is why I said to some other commenter yesterday that I don't tend to go for blunt "this is sexist" language, at least when I know the people reading are dudes, because much like white people are, above all, afraid of being called racists, men who are not total neanderthals are afraid of being called sexists. Which means that quite a bit of structure sits around and keeps working against women, or against people of colour, often both, because the men involved are more concerned about what they're being called than what's actually going on. Which is basically precisely what Jon did here. I mean, hard to parse four or five words, but he did sort of seem wounded that anyone would think he was a sexist prick.

I actually, true story, was on an elliptical next to him once, and I would agree he seemed quite charming! (Also he did a funny walk up to it that I will never forget.) He seemed like he would be fun to talk to and he wasn't yelling at all the women in sight. That still doesn't mean that anything he does can't, however accidentally, reinforce certain exclusionary structures.

Clearly you aren't supposed to look there.

Also, that's a whole other part of my life. This is my respectable face. That's my recreational face. Never the twain shall meet. Although I really never said anything I wouldn't stand behind, I'm admittedly more outrage-prone and jerkish as an anonymo.

Except…. in my.. face?

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Cho is all rubbing his hands together going "yesssss more reloads" right now, from how I understand blogging to work.

roboloki (#1,724)

i can only speak for myself and i am an outsider to the outsiders. i do not have a blog and i have no desire to begin a blog. i am not a professional writer (unless charts count) and i do not wish to be a professional writer. even though i can't recall what brought me to the awl (i think i searched "transvestive dancing monkey" in the hopes that dick cheney or karl rove would pop up, but i can't be sure because, well, blackouts have that effect on one's memory) but i was enthralled with the writing, i found the layout simple and refreshing (but not that god damn auto-refreshing gypsy curse) and i found the phantasmagoria of topics to be perfectly suited to my tastes (or lack thereof). what got me to return, become a stalker and eventually a complete addict was the commenters. they are generally funny as hell, play well together and do research so i don't have to. i now pollute the comment pool in the hopes that osmosis will make me smart, funny and pretty.

LolCait (#460)

These guys had a really interesting opinion on the matter.

HiredGoons (#603)

What did I miss? I was out shopping.

saythatscool (#101)

Some Wizard of Oz references, Peeps wears an eyepatch and was raised by lesbians, you know, the usual.

dikwad (#2,308)

LOL broads.

HiredGoons (#603)

^everything about that is perfect.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Performance Commenting!

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