Friday, April 11, 2008

Nine Hundred and Twenty Five Comments about Cannonballs on the Side of a Road

Sometimes when I read the NYTimes I come across rather unique situations in online interaction that remind me of the richness of interaction within the walls of online NYT. Errol Morris' NYT blog post--Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg (Part 1)--the opening salvo of a complex discussion on Roger Fenton's "Valley of the Shadow of Death" photographs (yes, *that* "valley of the shadow of death"--Charge of the Light Brigade...)





I had no idea there were 19th century photographs of this particular place, let alone that one of the photographs was more than likely staged for dramatic effect (see the second one with the clearly displayed cannonballs). Then again, I'm not an aficionado of photography....

My preferred leisure-time intellectual pursuit (some may call it "leisure time mental masturbation) is usually on film, and it was Morris' post on continuity breaks in film, whether and why we notice them or not, and the phrase "Play it again, Sam" that got me actually looking at his blog (yes, it was Woody Allen, not the flashbacks in the film, that make us remember that phrase vs. the original....)but I digress...

Thing is, there were 925 comments to Morris' post on the Fenton photographs. There's no interaction from Morris--as there really isn't any need for additional interaction on his part. The people leaving those 925 comments are genuinely interested not just in what Morris is saying about the Fenton photos, but are sharing expertise.

It is not that they are necessarily formal "experts"--although some may be. But it's that they have something to share, something to say, some "expertise"....

There is much criticism that blogging is bringing about a multitude of "experts" on this or that. Yet I think this is a false notion, as it isn't about the ego-driven ideal of being THE EXPERT. Even Morris isn't the sole "expert" on these photos. He never presents himself that way. What he does is share thoughts, discussions with others about photos, quotes from books. What he does in this essay--the kind of essay that blog format can easily carry--is share with others who aren't sitting in a classroom, and inviting them to share what they know as well.

It is an invitation to conversation. Not an expert pontification.

As I sat listening to E.L. Doctorow the other night at a lecture he gave at Western New England College, I got to longing for intellectual discussion and academia, and thinking how, unless you position yourself correctly in the right social circles, intellectual discussion can be hard to come by in the workaday world. Inside, I long for a place where I can indulge in the kinds of dialogue that many folks call "mental masturbation"--and that makes me very happy when that "mental masturbation" is about film.

Maybe there are others who long to--or just like to--share their thoughts and knowledge, expert or not, on things like the Fenton photos....

925 comments on some photographs that lots of people don't even know about.. That's a lot of people who want to share thoughts, opinions, expertise. Maybe it's not that sharing these thoughts will lead to being considered an expert. Perhaps there is something in sharing expertise for the pure joy of connecting to others and not to be the sole expert that is, in part, why a heady essay like Morris's could gather up 925 comments.

And why there might be enough people interested in posting 925 comments in the first place.

Andrew Keen likes to bemoan the loss of the expert due to fragmentation of culture on happening because of the Internet. And while in some ways there is a fracturing of common cultural experience, there are also pockets where folks who may have felt isolated can gather and share experience. They do not have to be experts--and maybe it's the idea of the expert that's a construct going by the wayside--but they can be a rarefied group of people who gather just for the sheer joy of discussion....discussion that doesn't prove a point or change the world. Discussion that is stimulating, beyond the mundane stuff of daily life makes daily life worth living (for some of us anyway). Discussion that engages the brain and stimulates the soul....

Maybe it's just the open discussion among adults on heady topics--discussion that isn't presided over by an expert charged with the task of shaping minds--that freaks out people like Keen (and perhaps lots of the newspaper establishment as well.)

Maybe it's not that discussions are "uncivil"--maybe it's just that there are so many people who want to have discussions about so many things that gets the experts and others all jumpy and nervous about what's happening in online conversation...

I don't think it freaks out people like Errol Morris though. He seems to embrace the medium. His blogging, while long, is pretty good. I think he gets it. And, more than likely, in a variety of ways, so do the people who left the 925 comments...

6 comments:

agahran said...

Great post, Tish. I'd love it if you'd rework it a bit for a Tidbits post.

Also, you wrote: "There's no interaction from Morris--as there really isn't any need for additional interaction on his part."

Actually, I disagree with you on that. Seems to me when a community becomes so demonstrably intrigued and engaged by what a news org has published, it's extremely useful and constructive for the author (or someone from that news org) to at least acknowledge the community's contributions and at least say thanks.

One way to reinforce trust and credibility is to show people that their efforts to communicate with you are not wasted, that you are listening. And if they've said something that has made you think harder or otherwise influenced you, note that.

Too often, I think, news orgs try to pretend that media influence is only supposed to go one way. Kinda undermines the "community service" ethic, IMHO.

- Amy Gahran

Tish Grier said...

Be glad to re-work it for Tidbits, Amy!

You raise an excellent point about the need (or is it necessity) of interaction with a blog's audience. My thinking was that the interaction wasn't needed because the group was self-sustaining (and that Morris might include some of these comments in a follow-up post to acknowledge them)

But your point about interaction reinforcing trust and credibility is well taken. I wonder if anyone at the Times has talked with Morris about interaction? I wonder if he'd be interested in talking about it? Hmmmm..maybe this is something to pursue??

Wendell said...

Morris was certainly aware of the commentary - in part four or five of the saga he provides pie charts categorizing the types of comments / arguments being made. In fact, the comments - people talking about how they see the photos almost becomes another exhibit in his long study of how we differently interpret or story history, photographs and the like.

Ought he to have addresses commenters directly? I don't know. That might have gotten a little crowded. It didn't feel like a dialog: it felt like a description of a dialog (if that makes any sense).

Anyway, it was a very interesting piece, a certainly a nice example of that borderland between MS print media and blog-type-stuff.
: )

Tish Grier said...

Hi Wendell---thanks for the update on what Morris did with the comments. In the back of my mind, I think I saw those posts, yet forgot to mention that in my piece (so I'm glad you did)

What he did, then, can be, like you said, some in-between of print and blogging. Personally, I think it's a great idea to incorporate comments in follow-up posts, or even bring stuff out of the comments and post as updates. The whole Morris thing, though, was fascinating!

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