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A Discussion is Worth a Thousand Words

November 25, 2009

The most interesting, thought-provoking writing I’ve read on the internet recently was not from of a newspaper, magazine or even a blogger. It was an open thread asking the question “what exactly is premium content,” populated with interested and expert individuals. While the attitude (and intelligence level) of many internet commenters is often unpleasant at best and downright ignorant at worst, in certain situations it is the readers who provide the best content. This is one of the best things about the internet, even though I have only recently begun to encounter it on a regular basis.

This kind of thing doesn’t only happen on posts solely dedicated to creating discussion, though (the above post on premium content was deliberately created for commenters). Take my favourite TV blogger, Alan Sepinwall, who ends his review posts with the sentence, “What did everybody else think?” I often find myself, after reading a post, looking through the comments for the discussion that occurs there. The highlights are always when Sepinwall himself gets involved or, even better, when a director or producer or writer of a show enters the fray.

Part of the reason that comments on Sepinwall’s site are more helpful than not is his enforcing of 6 simple rules for commenting, which are not overly strict but keep a great deal of internet douchebaggery out. The other, and larger part, is the relationship that he builds with his readers by responding to comments and occasionally doing columns where he answers reader mail or even offers to answer any and all TV-related questions asked in an eight hour window. This serves not only to make him more accessible as a blogger but draws return readers.

I rarely see this on more official bloggers, such as The Economist‘s Lexington blog. While I enjoy the content of both, I am rarely inspired to comment on Lexington but always respond to Sepinwall’s posts when I have something to say. While it is obviously time consuming to read and respond to comments, I believe columnists, bloggers and other types of online writers will benefit from striving for a more intimate relationship with readers.

I still remember the time I e-mailed a writer from The Globe and Mail to thank him for writing an article with an unconventional take on global warming and got a response: it gave me the warm and fuzzies. I felt special. In addition to connecting with readers on an individual level, comments can serve as a rudimentary form of market research. Take this crude example: posts about “Mad Men” on Sepinwall’s blog routinely get close to 400 comments per episode, while shows like “Lie to Me” (not a bad show by any means) garner far fewer (10-30 per episode). This type of information could give writers a signal of which topics are deserving of long, investigative articles and which only need a headline and a few words.

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