Features

net.wars: Stonewalling

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 January 2007


"We made you," one or more fans once reputedly told Katharine Hepburn, chastising her for refusing to give them an autograph. "Like hell you did," she is supposed to have replied.

Wendy M Grossman

On Tuesday, LA Times columnist Joel Stein wrote a column entitled, Have something to say? I don't care.

From the number of people saying heatedly on blogs that in the face of such monumental arrogance they don't care, either, you have to figure Stein is totally doing the job the newspaper is paying him for: getting read and talked about. Which is why, folks, his column doesn't mean all of print media is doomed.

If you really think he's an arsehole, your best response is to stop writing about him.

Of course, we should also remember that this is the same newspaper that panicked and took down its (badly conceived) wikitorial as soon as people predictably started posting obscene photographs to it. But given that Stein says in the actual column that he personally spends four or five hours a week answering reader email, it might be logical to think that maybe he's just kidding.

That said, if you don't want to be accused of arrogance as a columnist you probably shouldn't compare yourself to Martin Luther. Especially if, as Brad de Long points out, that comparison is inaccurate. Luther probably didn't, as popular mythology has it, publish his 95 Theses by nailing them to the church wall. But he did send them out to scholars, friends, and even the Pope for comment, and encouraged general debate and asked people to send him their comments.

The same Internet that is enabling Stein to "don't care" about his readers followed exactly the same process. Internet pioneers published Requests for Comments and incorporated the best suggestions into their work, which itself was adopted on merit, not because someone talked "at" everyone else to insist it was a good idea. Collaboration is as old as human culture.

But that's the significant difference between what Luther and the Internet pioneers were doing and what Joel Stein is doing: they were trying to build something. Not at all the same thing.

I don't know Stein, but if he's anything like me he's just showing off in public. There is some evidence to suggest that this is true: "Joel Stein is desperate for attention". Adding a comments page to the LA Times site kind of supports this thesis.

The big frustration about emailed comments isn't that they're there demanding to be answered, but that they're private. A comments page, even one that is filled with entries calling you an arsehole, is a public display of how important and interesting you are: look how many people had something to say about it! Much more satisfying if you're a publicity hound.

Any reader determined enough to send a letter or, more recently, make a phone call has always been able to send a journalist feedback on stories. Often this is welcomed because the feedback includes leads for new stories. Duh. Even so, it isn't always easy to face that feedback. Few journalists have hides thick enough not to panic slightly every time a reader communication arrives: this could be the one that shows us definitively that we are idiots who should not be allowed to think in public.

Aside from the silliness, there is a real point here: how much interactivity do we want, and what form should it take? When we talk about citizen journalism, is this what we mean? Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn seized the opportunity to ask his readers exactly that.

One problem for anyone working these days is that adding reader interactivity in which you are expected to participate may add to your workload without adding to your overall pay. That doesn't always matter; if you're a staff writer and have a load of interesting research material that won't fit in the limited print space being able to publish the rest of it on the Web may be satisfying. If you're freelance, not participating in the new world makes you more marginal; but the realities of making a living can make the time drain prohibitive.

George Bernard Shaw estimated that he could have written another play if he had gotten less mail; he actually had a system of printed, coloured postcards he could sent as standard replies to frequently asked questions to save himself time. (The volumes of Shaw's collected letters attest to the fact that he wasn't rigorous about using them without additional comment.)

Most writers, not being Shaw, have to find the time. Because what makes it possible to earn a living as a creative person over a long period of time is the community of readers and fans you build around your work. The sign that you are really successful is that your particular fan community thinks it owns part of your success and has an emotional investment in your work. If they didn't, they wouldn't be fans.

Hepburn was right, but she was also wrong. She still didn't have to give the autographs, though – and she didn't. She told those fans to "Go sit on a tack."


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).