Earlier this month, after writing his final column for Inc. magazine, Joel Spolsky blogged about his experience in the magazine world. His feelings, clearly, were mixed:
“Writing for Inc. was an enormous honor, but it was very different than writing on my own website. Every article I submitted was extensively rewritten in the house style by a very talented editor, Mike Hofman. When Mike got done with it, it was almost always better, but it never felt like my own words. I look back on those Inc. columns and they literally don’t feel like mine. It’s as if somebody kidnapped me and replaced me with an indistinguishable imposter who went to Columbia Journalism School. Or I slipped into an alternate universe where Joel Spolsky is left-handed and everything he does is subtlely [sic] different.”
What bothers Spolsky isn’t that his intent or his ideas were changed; in fact, he says, they were communicated more effectively. His problem is that his voice was changed.
Spolsky’s observation illustrates a key difference between traditional publishing and blogging. Publishing is about communication. Blogging is about speaking. Yes, blogging is about communication too, but the voice is essential—more so than in publishing, though it matters there as well. A blog, in other words, is conversational.
You can, and usually should, edit a written communication. But unless you want to be a jerk, you shouldn’t edit a conversation.
For traditional editors thrown into the digital world, that’s a problem. Why? Because much of what makes up the Web is a conversation, not publishing. Which means we don’t get to edit as much as we’d like. At best, we get to throw in a “sic” here and there (not counting wikis, of course, but that’s a topic for another day).
The blogosphere flash point for this conflict lately has been comments. You can turn off comments, either altogether or selectively, but you can’t simply edit them. It’s as wrong as changing a quote. If you write it, I can edit it; but if you say it, I can’t.
From the old-media viewpoint, this just doesn’t seem right. Blogger Mark Schaefer wonders, for instance, “why newspapers, who have so staunchly defended the integrity of the published word, would suddenly open the floodgates of stupidity just because the forum has moved to the Internet.”
In a point-counterpoint blog post with journalist Jack Lail, Schaefer notes that “if I submit a letter to the editor of the newspaper and comment on a news story or issue, it has to come with clear proof of who I am, and even then might be subject to editing for appropriateness.” So why, then, he asks, “would the same newspaper allow the public commentary in their online versions to turn into a virtual free-for-all of hate”?
In response, Lail gives the new-media comeback:
“I don’t view comments as ‘letters to the editor.’ I often find them more akin to callers on talk radio, where people are identified as ‘Jim’ or ‘caller from Knoxville.’ (If you applied the ‘same rigorous identification standards’ to radio call-in shows, they wouldn’t have any callers.) The dynamics of online story comments are similar to what happens in forums and fairly open mailing lists.
They are, I think, a participatory experience unique to the online medium and whose benefits outweigh its negatives.
Intellectually, I side with Lail; emotionally, I’m with Schaefer.
I take some comfort in learning that Jeff Jarvis is torn about comments. No, he says, you don’t get to edit the “shit” out of them. But that doesn’t mean you have to like or accept the “level of discourse” they represent: “I’m coming to believe that comments—which I defended when I ran sites—are an inferior form of conversation.”
The solution he sees is not editing, but social controls of the sort found in Twitter and Facebook, built on “real identities and control of relationships”:
“The result is better discourse. I don’t find Twitter or Facebook littered with fools and nastiness and when I do stumble upon them, I unfollow; when they occasionally spit on me, I block (if only I could instead give them their meds).”
Jarvis doesn’t claim to know exactly how this can apply to comments, but “somewhere in there,” he says, “is a secret to improving discourse online.”
We may never uncover that secret, but the point is still valid. On the Internet, the only realistic goal is not to improve individual expression, but to improve discourse as a whole.
So I’ll just have to face it. In the new-media world, editing is not what it used to be. I may yearn to fix Spolsky’s spelling or complete Jarvis’s sentence fragment at the end of paragraph six—but I’ll have to settle for blogging about it.