|Photo: Frank Pasquale|
In James Thurber’s 1942 short story "The Catbird Seat," the boisterous Ulgine Barrows shatters the peaceful diligence of Erwin Martin, head of the filing department at his firm. Barrows, as special adviser to the president of the firm, brays at Martin, using slang he barely understands. Apparently a Dodgers fan, she mimics Red Barber’s ball-field patter, shouting, "Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?" Martin eventually hatches a plan to turn Barrows’s ebullience against her, using words alone. He tells her he’s plotting to kill the president of the firm — suspecting their boss will find the very idea of homicidal impulses in a veteran employee outlandish if Barrows relates it to him. Generations of high schoolers have delighted in her unraveling, the climax of a revenge plot most beleaguered office workers can merely dream of.
The fantasy of using words alone to right a perceived injustice — or trigger a meltdown — has renewed relevance today. On Reddit, 4chan, Yik Yak, and Tumblr, whole Internet subcultures are devoted to mocking and shocking. Enraging an exploitable target is many Internet trolls’ raison d’être. In staider settings, moderators aspire to some digital equivalent of the Marquess of Queensberry rules, carefully policing the commenters for relevance and civility. Ranking and rating is simultaneously a personal passion and big business. Five-star tributes to books on Amazon express appreciation for hard work and refine the company’s algorithms, adding a few pennies to Jeff Bezos’ fortune.
If we could easily escape commenting culture, we might accept its pathologies as one more cost of free speech. But we cannot, and its ubiquity demands a more active response. Trolls and commenters can harm their victims, crossing the line between speech and conduct. Just ask Kathy Sierra, whose promising career as a technologist came to an abrupt end after she faced waves of online abuse. When anonymous death threats proliferated in 2007, Sierra withdrew almost entirely from public venues. Gender and race matter too: As my colleague Danielle Keats Citron’s Hate Crimes in Cyberspace recounts, women and people of color are routinely targeted by hatred online. Such biases are also evident in student evaluations, an old and familiar form of comment culture. But those reviews still have the potential to make or break faculty appointments and promotions.
Boosters of Internet culture tend to characterize the growing power of the "crowd in the cloud" as simultaneously meritocratic and egalitarian. They Whiggishly embrace the rise of a networked commentariat. From Yelp to Uber to TripAdvisor, fortunes are made via crowdsourced contributions that supposedly reflect the "wisdom of crowds." But any massive platform also hosts some cleverly manipulated commentary planted by competitors, troll factories, or miscreants. The sweet business strategy of hosting free, user-generated content is always accompanied by bitter, oft-stealthy battles for reputational capital.
|Reading the Comments|
|This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things|
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education