Thursday, January 04, 2007

Joel Stein Doesn't Want To Talk To His Readers

L.A. Times journalist Joel Stein expresses his opinion on the trend of interactivity: in a nutshell, he hates it. Joel thinks that the concept of instant interactivity -- where readers can have input into a writer's work via internet comments or other feedback -- is a terrible trend that should be reversed. He views the trend of making journalists' emails and phone numbers freely available on their columns as the beginning of the death of the once-proud newspaper industry. His email is at the end of his columns, but he warns readers: "Have something to say? I don't care Don't bother sending anything to that e-mail address below -- because I don't care."
Here's what my Internet-fearing editors have failed to understand: I don't want to talk to you; I want to talk at you. A column is not my attempt to engage in a conversation with you. I have more than enough people to converse with. And I don't listen to them either. That sound on the phone, Mom, is me typing.

Some newspapers even list the phone numbers of their reporters at the end of their articles. That's a smart use of their employees' time. Why not just save a step and have them set up a folding table at a senior citizen center with a sign asking for complaints?

Where does this end? Does Philip Roth have to put his e-mail at the end of his book? Does Tom Hanks have to hold up a sign with his e-mail at the end of his movie? Should your hotel housekeeper leave her e-mail on your sheets? Are you starting to see how creepy this is?

Not everything should be interactive. A piece of work that stands on its own, without explanation or defense, takes on its own power. If Martin Luther put his 95 Theses on the wall and then all the townsfolk sent him their comments, and he had to write back to all of them and clarify what he meant, some of the theses would have gotten all watered down and there never would have been a Diet of Worms. And then, for the rest of history, elementary school students learning about the Reformation would have nothing to make fun of. You can see how dangerous this all is
Traditionally, the way that writers get feedback on their books is through sales. If sales start slipping, it means his readership is slipping. Actors have the same process: if people decide they hate Tom Hanks' last performance (or him) they just don't go to his movies (Note: this is not a problem Hanks is having, by the way. He was voted as one of American's most likeable movie stars).

But back to Joel's complaint. It's true that the concept of interactivity has run amok. We don't believe the purpose of a blog is to have an immediate discussion with readers: rather, it is to provide a forum for a particular point of view (like a magazine column) and to spark a discussion. The discussion part comes when a reader then writes about a discussed issue in his blog or by emailing the blog to give his thoughts. The discussion doesn't need to happen in a comment section because then you've turned a blog into a message board. We know there are people who think that blogs need comment sections: like our sister publication The Internet Writing Journal, we don't agree with that line of thinking.

We'd email Joel to give him our thoughts about his column, but instead we've just blogged about it. And we now know that he wouldn't read our email anyway. And by the way, if you're wondering, we at love to hear our readers' feedback: just fill out the feedback form.

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