Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"It's as if you don't even know what we do around here."

In Tuesday morning's Wake Up Deadspin post, the esteemed Ninja made the statement quoted above to, surprise surprise, unstarred commenter shuttledik in reply to a characteristically shitty, clueless, useless comment. And it got me thinking.

Here's the thing: a comment like the one that drew that rebuke from the Ninja would not stand out in your typical barroom or workplace or weekend barbecue conversation about Jenn Sterger and the whole Favredong affair. Nor would it be out of place (acronymical profanity aside) on your typical sports-reporters-shout-at-each-other show on ESPN. In either of those contexts, calling it "shitty, clueless, [and] useless" would be off-base and mean and asshole-y, even if you disagreed with the comment's assertions. So why is it OK to call it those things in the context of Deadspin?

It's OK to call it those things in the context of Deadspin because the Deadspin comment sections are not intended to simulate an earnest conversation - even a conversation between intelligent, thoughtful, funny people - about sports. Barroom, or workplace, or weekend barbecue bull sessions about the latest sports scandal have their proper homes: barrooms, or workplaces, or weekend barbecues. ESPN shows where sports media types bark at each other are perfectly sufficient at providing the world with well more than a tolerable amount of sports media types barking at each other. The Deadspin comment sections are not chat rooms. They are not places for sports fans to make their voices heard. They most certainly are not places for readers to let the Deadspin staff know what they think of a certain piece.

The confusion, I think, arises from the expectation that the comment sections on one website will serve the same function as the comment sections on all others. On, for example, when you get to the end of an article, you can click a little link that takes you to the comments, and there you can see what, at its best, is a free-flowing, informal conversation between sports fans about the article, or about issues related to the article. At its worst (which is where it is roughly 102% of the time), it is a depressing flame-war between minimally-literate insane people and 13-year-old losers about which rival team's star player is the gayest. In any event, the function of the comment section is to give readers a place to spout off, to take part in the discussion represented by the site content. The intent is that this will lead to readers who visit the site more frequently, as they play out their regional rivalries or flame-wars or dick-wagging contests with and against each other. The commenters' intelligence, their literacy, their sanity, or their lack of those things are utterly irrelevant, because the comments are tucked away behind a link where only people who actually want to read them will do so.

I have no proof for this statement, but I'd bet that's editors fully expect that the average reader who clicks one of those links will do so once, gasp in horror, and never do so again - and that's fine, because the comments aren't for the average reader: they're for the insane, minimally-literate, obsessive, cloistered-in-sports-loserdom psychotic people and virgins and 13-year-old psychotic virgins who will refresh 15,000 times a day until they are certain their foe's gayness has been adequately established for all the other 13-year-old psychotic virgins out there.

Similarly, the Washington Post's online comment sections are a never-ending holy war between the very worst dregs of partisan lunacy on both sides of the ideological spectrum, and I'll bet's editors couldn't possibly care less, as long as those lunatics continue refreshing the page every twelve seconds until someone acknowledges the unassailable rightness of the assertion that President Obama is a Muslim Communist mole from Indonesia and/or a crypto-Republican hand-puppet of our Wall Street overlords. As with, the comments are hidden behind a link that the average intelligent person will click once in his or her entire life, and then never again, either because he or she realized the folly of doing so and resolved to learn from the mistake, or because he or she tore his or her own eyeballs out after thirty seconds of reading the comments sections and then crushed them in his or her hands, and can no longer visit the internet, both because of being blind and because there is no internet in the lunatic asylum which is his or her new residence.

In both of those cases - and in virtually all others - the function of the comment section of the website is to provide obsessive readers with a designated place, safe and cloistered away from the general public, where they can hit the refresh button as many times as they want and say whatever pops into their heads without upsetting, driving away, or even being visible to the average site visitor.

That is not the case with Deadspin.

So what are Deadspin's comment sections? In short, they are featured site content. It will have escaped no one's notice that, notwithstanding the myriad merits of Deadspin's writing staff and the wonderful work its members do, the average Deadspin post is very brief - sometimes nothing more than an embedded video with three or four sentences of humor-tinged text to provide context. I am not in any way privy to the inner workings of Gawker Media, but I feel confident in saying that the expectation is that, both in the case of these brief items, and also in the case of the longer-form stuff, readers will take in the actual content of an article or video, then keep scrolling down and see a bunch of funny, clever, original shit that makes them laugh and want to come back to the site. Putting the comments after the content of posts, and below an advertisement, is a nod to the reality that not everything that appears in the comments will be something the average Deadspin visitor will find acceptable - but the comments are not hidden behind a link, because the comments are meant to be read, and not just by the commenters.

The exclusive, hierarchical comment system is not some accident: it is specifically and pointedly antithetical to the notion of comment sections as places for inclusion and conversation and free-flowing bull sessions. Your comments can't even appear on the site to anyone but starred commenters and Deadspin staff until you've proven you're funny enough to be approved (or, as in the case of too many current unstarred commenters, you've said something dumb enough or inflammatory enough to bait a starred commenter into approving you just to respond).

And the site has fucking rules, if the basic system and structure of the comment section didn't make its purpose clear enough. There's an entire goddamn Manifesto, for fuck's sake! And what's the very first rule? Be funny. The second rule? Do not not be funny.

The appropriate way to think of Deadspin is as a publication, like a magazine. (In olden times, “magazine” was a word for a stack of napkins on which primitive humans etched crude symbols in an extinct form of language known as “the complete sentence.” Also, cigarette ads.) Think of the mind-shatteringly hilarious “Fashion Police” section of Us Weekly. That’s the one where such cutting-edge comedians as Johnny Lopez, that woman who wrote the Sex and the City book, and Dave Coulier make blisteringly funny and incisive comments on the fashion choices of A-List celebrities such as That Hag Who Was On That Reality Show That One Time. If Carrot Top made a hilarious observation like, “My locker used to look just like that dress back in middle-school!!!” and Mo Rocca’s comment was “Mine too! Where did you go to school! I loved Trapper Keepers,” sure, we all feel that way, but it also breaks up the uncontrollable laughter of all 18 million readers, and deprives us of Rocca’s own gut-busting japery in the meantime.

But the real pisser is that, for as much as "My locker used to look just like that dress back in middle-school!!!" might seem like the funniest, edgiest, snarkiest boomroast ever, that comment would not get approved or promoted on Deadspin. How? you ask. How can this be? It can be because that comment does not contain a dick joke. But also because, in all seriousness, a comment like that is the sort of thing a clever person might blurt out in a conversation, to the amusement of others, but it is ultimately a lazy observation that is beneath the standard of what a genuinely funny and intelligent person would think up if they had time to think, their entire accumulated body of knowledge to reference, and absolutely no pressure to actually come up with anything.

And that's just the thing, right there: if you read the Commentist Manifesto linked above, you'll notice that nowhere in its contents does it say, or imply, anything even remotely along the lines of "Thou shalt comment." No one has ever lost a star, or been banned from the site, or in any way been rebuked or chastised or penalized for not commenting (although, depending on how you interpret the words "not commenting," you might say that SirTruthington is an exception to this). If you can't think of something genuinely funny and original to add, don't fucking add anything.

Here is where I imagine the sacoplentys (sacsoplenty?) and shuttlediks of the world making the same kind of noise that plenty of other subsequently-banned commenters have made about elitism and unfairness and the subjectivity of humor and WHAT ABOUT THE CONSTITUTION and blah blah blah. And you know what? They're wrong about the unfairness, they're mostly wrong about the subjectivity of humor, and I don't really know what the Constitution has to do with any of it - but they're right about the elitism. Deadspin's commenting system is elitist. It does not pretend to be anything else. Most people, whether because they don't have time or don't have energy or aren't all that funny or aren't all that smart or don't write well or whatever the fuck, simply can't do what the site rewards, which is being funny and original and clever and smart, in writing, a lot.

The fact that Deadspin commenters are not paid for their contributions doesn't mean they are immune from standards, however high the powers-that-be may choose to set them. There's absolutely nothing unfair about this, just like there's nothing unfair about the Ninja banning people for sucking, and there's nothing unfair about the fact that the majority of people who try to be Deadspin commenters never even get approved, much less starred.

Ultimately, the Commentist Manifesto communicates this stuff far better and more concisely than I do. However, since a good portion of what we do here is rip shitty commenters for their shitty comments, I think it's important to be clear about our understanding of the function, rules, and purpose of the Deadspin comment sections. On, you could very well accuse Barack Obama of being a Nazi and you wouldn't draw a peep from a moderator - and maybe that's fine, maybe that kind of wide-open Wild West atmosphere has value, whatever. But that's not what's going on at Deadspin, and would-be commenters who fail to heed that fact do so at their own peril, and in spite of abundant guidance to the contrary.

Be funny. Do not not be funny.