The most interesting thing about such threads is the mob mindset that seems to underlie them. They are not neutral conduits for spontaneous opinions, but channels dedicated to forms of disgruntlement from people with, for perhaps good reasons, no other outlet. Contributors appear to come to the process with a mindset possibly symptomatic of the isolationism involved in internet relationships generally, and anticipating a certain group dynamic. The tone of a thread seems to be set by the early contributors.
Most contributors appear mostly to want to draw attention to themselves, seeking to convey strength, cleverness, cynicism or aggression, while pre-empting the possibility of hostility or ridicule by pushing these responses in front like swords.
There isn’t all that much to disagree with here, though I have no idea what he means by the ‘isolationism’ of ‘internet relationships’. I stopped reading the comment threads on the Comment is Free site a long time ago, not so much because all comments are stupid, but because the incidence of moronic attention-seeking comments is so high that the thread is practically unreadable. Other newspaper sites are just as bad, if not worse. However, this is not so much a general problem with internet-related technology, as Waters seems to think, but a particular problem with the nature of responses certain news sites -as opposed to other sites that exist for the purposes of debate and discussion- tend to elicit. I suggest that this has more to do with the established role of newspapers, and the degree of influence they are thought to hold.
What’s interesting is the degree of importance that gets attached to comments (and latterly, to Twitter tweets). A lot of the time it’s as though the range of comments that might appear are held to be accurately indicative of some wider trends in public thought. They may not be, even though, particularly in the case of twitter trends, they perform a useful vox populi function for news sites on the lookout for cheaply sourced content.
Posting comments on newpaper site threads is very much a minority activity, and I do not think it wise to infer anything of wider social importance from them, particularly since it is difficult to know, aside from the question of how representative the comments are of any wider group, how many people actually read them, and how wide the actual influence of the comments therefore is. It would be like looking at a series of porno sites and concluding that people these days seem to do nothing but have degrading sexual encounters.
As someone who writes on a site that gets the odd comment, I would hazard a guess that the person most likely to attribute importance to the comments of a particular thread is the person who wrote the inciting post or article. I remember finding it both surprising and admirable a couple of years back to see Anthony Giddens write a post in which he responded to his (probably pseudonymous) critics, whom, in a forgivable lapse of terminological inexactitude, he described as ‘bloggers’. Surprising in the sense that I didn’t imagine that a prominent intellectual like Anthony Giddens was the sort of person who thought going through comment threads to read responses was a worthwhile activity, and that he deemed that the responses ought to be granted a degree of importance. Admirable in the sense that he didn’t really have to do it; he could have simply said nothing and justified his decision to do so based on the stance that anything that appeared in the comment threads was merely the work of attention-seeking sociopaths.