Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 14 September 2011

The world according to reader feedback

Whether true or not, the legend of the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head and leading to his theories about gravity (obviously over-simplified here), demonstrates the truism that great ideas can spring from the unlikeliest of places. That’s why, no matter how ill-considered, asinine, trite or plain dumb, readers’ comments always have the potential for value – note “potential” - even if not expressed in modern Facebook-style “likes/dislikes”.

Gareth Cliff’s opinion-piece Mogoeng Mogoeng attracted a number of interesting comments. However, it also attracted comments which had little to do with any arguments advanced, but instead appeared to be attempts at disqualifying Cliff from holding any views at all.

“Stick to your day job” was a sentiment that appeared at least twice, alongside some less subtle ad hominem attacks. And yes, we can justifiably wonder about how easily a radio and television personality can rebrand themselves as a public intellectual. But finding such a transition implausible or believing it to be difficult does not make it any less possible to do so – and it is distinctly anti-intellectual to rule out the possibility that sensible noises and words can come from surprising sources.

This sort of reaction would be no surprise to Cliff himself. His open letter to President Zuma attracted 876 comments – many quite hostile – as well as a column by Andile Mngxitama asserting that Cliff was the face of “white supremacy”. Sadly, and predictably, it proved impossible (at least for a white man such as myself) to argue that we could and should attempt to separate the arguments from the personalities and politics of racial identity in this case.

My reply to Mngxitama gave rise to the sort of reaction that makes one wonder whether the strategy for which Samantha Vice argues – that white South Africans should refrain from commenting on racial matters – is simply a matter of self-protection rather than principle. There’s no question her viewpoint is sincere, regardless of the fact that I believe it to be wrong.

But there’s a limit to how many times you can hear a considered position being dismissed on grounds of your racial identity or have people calling for you to be kicked out of your university, as the SACP’s Khaya Magaxa did following my reply, before you start to wonder whether it’s really worth the bother.

Of course, if all of us who – rightly or wrongly – believe we have something to contribute to these conversations took the more abusive advice of our readers to heart, we’d simply stop trying to contribute. And while some might consider that a blessing, and move on to complaining about something else, others might think that the space for debate and reflection would narrow appreciably, leaving us all impoverished.

There are at least three broad issues of relevance here. The first is something I’ve previously discussed, namely the fact that Internet comment facilities seem to self-select for vitriol and abuse. People who want to express the viewpoint that “you suck”, or some more sophisticated variant of that, seem far more likely to jab fingers at their keyboards than those who are interested in communication and debate.

Secondly, it seems to my mind at least plausible that we’re living through an era in which ideas themselves are not welcome. Where, as Neal Gabler recently put it in a column, the “public intellectual in the general media [has been replaced] by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness”. Despite the demise of postmodernism in academic circles, it still lives and breathes in the popular viewpoint that everybody’s opinion is equally worthy of consideration, and that individuals are under no special obligation to set aside their opinions in favour of what the evidence points to.

And thirdly, there’s the issue of the extent to which any person or collective should be accountable to others in the first place. The triumph of democracy as a political system has perhaps led to a generalisation of the idea that the majority should be trusted – and when you combine this with the previous two points, the frightening reality dawns that “the people” are often revealed as short-sighted and shrill.

But it’s not always true that the majority are right, or are even to be trusted. We can all get things wrong, and we can sometimes do so simultaneously. To go back to the actual content of the Cliff column (as well as mine, and to a lesser extent Ivo Vegter’s), the idea that something like profound religious faith is a concern when discussing the role of Chief Justice is a genuine issue, deserving of substantive debate, in that it is far from obvious that we can wall off certain states of mind and motivations from others.

Yet even if the majority are not always right, feedback from an audience – whether it be a readership or a population of voters – is an essential vehicle for correction in that you can gain significant insight into what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. James Thorpe left an interesting comment on Cliff’s piece (Wed, 7 Sep 2011 at 09:41), in which this point was made.

He argued for some sort of reader-feedback mechanism here on Daily Maverick. Apart from the comment wall, number of Tweets, Facebook “likes” and Google “plusses”, the editorial staff obviously have access to figures indicating the number of times a page is loaded and which other Internet portals saw fit to link to it. Some may say that this is more than enough feedback – except, as Thorpe points out, we often don’t know what people liked and disliked about the column in question, and readers don’t have access to the hit rate and referrer data.

And then, of course, we can ask the question whether this data is useful to readers at all. Or rather, whether it should be. Again, does it matter whether a particular column is ranked well or poorly via some democratic process? It might well matter on the level of ego for the writers themselves, but is providing this facility plausibly an obligation on the part of the publication and would it add value?

While I was initially tempted to agree with Thorpe on this issue, it’s now not at all clear what anyone would gain. Publications themselves should have an editorial position and publish what they think worthwhile, whether readers like it or not. There is a limit to this, in that it’s no good to sacrifice all your readers for the sake of principle. They can be guided in their decisions on what to publish through viewership figures, as well as through comments.

For readers, what you read, whether in the columns themselves or in the comments left, should itself be the reward. Asking for the decision about what to consider worth reading or not to be delegated to others via an additional mechanism could perhaps be an abrogation of the responsibility to form our own judgements, and then, to guide the judgements of the writers and editors, as well as other readers, through written feedback.

In short, I’d like to believe the free market of ideas espoused by John Stuart Mill can still function in a world where we are encouraged to summarise complex preferences in the pressing of a button labelled “like”, or “+1”. We participate in that market, and contribute to its vibrancy and efficiency, through expressing our views. If they are persuasive, others will hopefully come to share them, and lesser content will be discarded for more substantial contributions.

Likewise, lesser publications might also themselves fall by the wayside if they persist in offering their readership sub-standard fare. It’s not at all clear to me that additional mechanisms for feedback would make this particular market more efficient. However, given the importance of the market in question, practical suggestions for doing so would certainly merit consideration.

The sheer volume of content generated on a website such as this – not to mention all the others to which we have access – mean interesting and potentially important ideas can get lost in the noise. This column, then, is an attempt to highlight one idea, as expressed in Thorpe’s comment. Do we (humans, rather than Daily Maverick) need to hear more opinions on opinions, and if so, what should the mechanism for allowing this look like? DM