The Blah, Blah, Blahgosphere

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, July 2, 2006

In the news media there is much talk of "interactivity," of breaking down the wall between journalistic producers and consumers. No longer will the news be proprietary to a professional elite that attempts, in an Olympian voice, to speak down to the unwashed masses. Instead, everyone will be an equal, fully respected partner in the news process, including nitwits, fanatics, the extremely daft and the recently straitjacketed.

I'm all in favor of this, as I have a blog, with many excellent commenters, some of whom comment on the comments of other commenters and manage to develop, over time, a kind of cult following of their own, such that the readers of the blog tend to forget all about the writer to whom the blog technically, in an old-fashioned sense, "belongs." Which is fine! Into the future we go! My feelings aren't hurt. We all know who's actually getting paid around here. Paid. Paid. Not to rub it in. Paid.

Interactivity is an evolving process. In the future, reporters will have to have, for at least one hour a day, a reader seated at their elbow to offer helpful suggestions. Occasionally, the reader will be allowed to climb onto the reporter's lap to take charge of the keyboard. You'll start seeing interesting double bylines, such as:

By John Noble Wilford

and Some Guy Named Bob

A leading component of the age of interactivity is Technorati. It shows who's blogging about what, who's linking to whom. It's a vanity machine for bloggers. You can Technorati yourself in the same way that you can Google yourself. You can ponder the fact that no one has mentioned you in 39 days. Then you can think of something outrageous to write that will incite interactive comment. Shoot low, and watch them link.

Another innovation: Some online newspapers allow you to click on a reporter's byline and send an e-mail instantly, before you lose the impetus to call the reporter a glob of bat poop.

Soon, articles published online will typically have their own little comment area. You will be able to read the story and immediately opine, as well as read the opinions of the other opiners. Eventually we'll take this to yet another level, and allow comments between paragraphs. Because readers shouldn't be treated like second-class citizens. All hierarchies must be shattered. In theory there is no reason why comments couldn't be permitted inside individual sentences, like this:

"Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke [a total fascist -- Skippy] signaled Thursday that he will support [as always, Skippy, you're a complete twit -- Onan the Barbarian] another quarter-point hike in the [off-topic, but does anyone know a good way to clean that disgusting fuzzy dust off the refrigerator coils? -- Bert in Brookeville] prime lending rate."

The ultimate destination of this phenomenon is the complete transformation of any text into discrete "bytes" of information, divorced from their original source, to be used democratically in whatever fashion the downstream manipulator wishes. The concept of "copyright" will become extinct. So will "the meaning" of a piece of writing. If you wish, you can reconfigure Moby Dick to become the story of an aging sea captain who is obsessed with a great white hamster.

A long-standing example of interactivity is the "e-mail campaign," in which ideological organizations urge their followers to bombard news organizations with e-mails that in some rare instances are not graphically obscene. Savvy partisans can take a snippet from a story, deftly remove all context and nuance so that it appears to be equating, say, SpongeBob SquarePants with Joseph Goebbels. Then they can mass-circulate it with instructions to send the writer an e-mail stating that, in preparation for his or her richly deserved and hopefully imminent death, Hell is adding a lower circle -- like, so far below the 9th it's more like the 4,872th.

[This just in from Ronnie in Chattanooga: "Don't get hamster joke. Explain."]

All of this is an improvement on the old days, when journalists typically interacted only with their bosses and their sources, while pausing occasionally to read a handwritten letter from a reader who was upset that her morning paper had arrived wet.

Writing was often solitary work back then. The writer was guided not by the audience so much as by an inner voice, what might be called, at the risk of sounding pretentious, a literary or journalistic conscience. Thanks to interactivity, that conscience can now be outsourced.

It's never been easier to know precisely what people want to hear, and to tell them just that, which is one reason American discourse remains divided into two camps of people who reinforce each other's beliefs while hating the other side.

Don't you think?


Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at

© 2006 The Washington Post Company