Saturday, September 28, 2013

doctrine cannot abide the commentariate

NYTimes | When we complain about comments, I’ve noticed, we do so as if we’re dealing with some emanation of human nature or the lusty democratic energies of the American soul. But when I went digging into the history of the Web to find out where online comments really came from, it’s clear that they’re the consequences of what was technically feasible at a certain point and how that feasibility was subsequently implemented. We tend to think that comments represent the culture, but in fact the distinct culture of commenting grew out of digital constraints. Given what Web users had to work with, comments were bound to get weedy. 

Comments as we know them — lines of text stacked atop one another in chronological order — are direct descendants of bulletin-board systems, or B.B.S., which date to the 1970s; users could dial in with a modem and contribute to discussion forums. The computer code that determined the order in which text appears on a B.B.S. also provides the basic architecture of the comment thread. That code, or script, became the basis for an early commenting function called the “guest book”: a place for simple text entry in which any visitor could type a note. Guest books were attached to the Web site as a whole, not to any specific content on it. This created confusion about the sort of opportunity that the guest book presented. Was it the soapbox of the online world? Or was it a bathroom wall?