Why We Fight Online: Introducing “The Commentariat”

This article was originally published on Wonk Bridge

Analysing the Readership of Two Papers Through the Scorsese/Marvel Schism

“On the corners of our fair Commentariat…”

I do not blame anyone who chooses to develop a severe mistrust towards a writer who not only dares to think about writing an article (not their first) that deals with the social dynamics of the internet forum, but who then dares to begin it with a misty eyed reminiscence of a bygone age in which forum comments were few, their posters erudite, and their respective tones charming and welcoming. And yet I must.

Look at this article from back in 2010 — a ‘pamphlet’ issued by Great Britain’s The Guardian (whom we shall shortly be inspecting further) concerning Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. Whatever of the merits of the article, look at that section BTL (below the line), where readers may comment freely. Look at all that gloriously open discussion, how the contributors bring in new sources of their own for collective use — how polite, how civilised, all that. This is the image of a forum in which there is a collective sense among the participants of where individual responsibility lies for the sake of maintaining a pleasant environment — an online forum at that.

The Commentariat?

And in time these small clusters of online community, specialised and moveable and unlikely to settle for too long though they were, grew large, self-regulation became untenable, and online-discourse became the terrible oxymoron we know it to be today.

Talk of civility in this context might seem precious, but analyse even briefly the landscape of the digital world today — roving gangs of individuals united, often violently, by maniacal preference for their own type, roaming nomadically among a relatively small circle of online territories, looking to terrorise their similarly parochial opponents, and all the while causing untold pain of annoyance to the many undeclared — and this violently intense way of doing things rings true to our understanding of pre-civilised nomadic communities, before fixed pastoralism led to the development of similarly fixed custom and then law, and the next stage in the human story.

Despite the Madmaxisms of our common digital estate, certain more solid, generalised communities still exist online — and proof that news is now our water, they are settled around media outlets, to be found BTL of stories of all types. These clusters of commenters comprise one of the principal large-scale digital sub-society types we’ve seen more or less discretely formed through the 10s, though their foundations stretch back further. They are a class of their own. We’ll call them the Commentariat.

And we’re going to look at two of the largest Commentariats in the English-speaking world — hosted by two of that territory’s most cosmopolitan news outlets, the New York Times and the aforelauded Guardian — to see just why and how these communities, that get along about as fruitfully and functionally as the above-average Western TV sitcom family, have bucked their environment’s preference for vigorous atomism.

The Avengers, and the loftiest and most sublime of their nemeses — Martin Scorsese — may feature.

Why the Commentariat Matters

No, first, an establishment of our disciplines. A recurring reader base does not itself constitute a Commentariat — in order to be classified as being in possession of a Commentariat, an outlet must see a consistent inbound flow of user contributions across a wide variety of subject areas across their domain, consolidated over a reasonable period of time, in which the commenters actively dialogue with one another, not merely (inanimately, and in so sterile a manner) at whatever they have just read.

Let’s look at the Guardian to assess how it meets these criteria. On a given day, approximately 87.5% of all open-for-comment articles on their op-ed front page will have 100 or more comments. Day-after articles on sporting events frequently break into the 1,000s. Comment traffic for cultural interest articles is considerably more variable, but on BTL threads featuring more than 50 comments, up to 80% of all commenters will have had at least 3 years of commenting experience on the site (not including those who left fewer than 10 comments across a 3+ year period). On the Guardian, the commenter of the greatest observed longevity had left their first comment in 2003, and were still going strong in October of 2019, while over 20% of all those commenters observed had been drifting the Guardian’s halls of mediation for a decade or more.

This is a Commentariat. And the Commentariat matters.

Why? Because the Guardian is not the New York Times, and yet the comparison of the two bodies is empirically apt. The New York Times holds the third largest daily circulation in America, selling 1,120,420 paper copies and hosting around 3.2 million unique users to its website per day. Lower than the outlet’s 1985–86 peak, true, but still at the heights, comparatively speaking.

The Guardian, on the other hand, has a print circulation of only 134,567 — notably low, even having adjusted for the per-capita scale difference between the US and the UK markets (the highest UK circulation is its execrable tabloid The Sun, with 1,371,190). In fact, Guardian has the lowest circulation of any major UK daily, outperformed by 18 other outlets.

And yet, the Guardian has, over the last six months, pulled in almost 40 million more unique users to its website than the New York Times. On average a unique user will spend 2:58 on the NYTimes site per visit; each unique visitor to the Guardian will spend around 3:45 each time they come by. Needless to say, the Guardian trounces The Sun in the same stakes — the Sun has chalked up some 150,000,000 fewer visitors than the Guardian in the past six months, with each one of them spending a mere 1:50 on the site.

The Guardian has fashioned itself a giant killer, and thoroughly a future-disposed news outlet. My reckoning of where the secret to that Davidy lays? Why, in the Commentariat.

“The Commentariat is Not Cinema”

Okay, so there are considerable grounds on which to speculate that cultivating a thriving BTL community holds serious pragmatic advantages for an outlet — in practical effect, it transcribes principles of social media and grafts them to news stories as an auxiliary appendage. There’s no need to take your grievance or aggrieved agreement to Twitter; you can register your emotions here, in a more self-contained set of surrounds, with less likelihood than on Twitter that powerful winds of distraction will cause your point to be lost to your public (to the extent that you have one) and, thanks to the lack of reciprocal engagement, ultimately to yourself. On the contrary, the bounds of the Commentariat is designed to contain controversy as much (as we will see) as it is designed to foment it, for such containment obliges conversation, and having someone affirm your point, with agreement or dispute, is much more fulfilling.

Establishing that, since the Commentariat presumably has such an effect on the operative success of its newspaper, it must exist, we can then allow ourselves to survey these comment communities in order to find out what they say about the respective readerships of these two great institutions. One thing we can take as axiomatic is that both Guardian and New York Times readers love to argue — and few topics bar politics arouse so much passion among them as the cultural prominence of comic book heroes.

Semantically, the Commentariat is not cinema — and yet, I could argue, it is in fact cinema purely through measurement of the frequency with which its contents provoke one to grab some popcorn and settle in for a developing show. And, true to the pedigree of its combatants, no recent show on either platform was as spectacular as the one that pitted Martin Scorsese’s sensibilities-of-the-20th-century-classical-cineaste against Kevin Feige’s ballad-of-21st-century-culture-as-relativised-commodity. Marty vs. Marvel. Gangsters vs. superheroes, to be more reductive still.

We cannot draw any truly generalisable conclusions about either Commentariat from what we are about to assess, nor is our analysis likely to surrender any really atomic facts about the community’s behaviour (if we can in fact infer atomic facts about anything); part of the definition of what composes a Commentariat is that it is multifarious, and the behaviour of its different segments and individual members differs by subject.

However, that’s not to say that observing as we are about to will not throw up all manner of interesting suggestions as to the nature of these readerships — and as to how the Commentariat might be able to shape the wildest force on the web, the unreconstructed opinion, to a greater good.

In the New York Times

In Martin Scorsese’s personal response to the ‘Marvel is/is not cinema’ controversy, printed in the Times under the title “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain”, the esteemed director summarises so acutely a facet of conversational tone and perspective so typical of the average digital citizen that I have returned to the specific phrase again and again to read and re-read it, to wonder if indeed I ever had read of someone trying to describe that tone of voice and style of argument before.

Martin Scorsese: talks fast. Takes over two decades to produce ‘Silence’.

Scorsese makes this acute description of the average digital citizen’s social attitude while attempting to describe the attitude of “some [people] in the business.” He says that, to go along with their “absolute indifference to art”, they have an attitude towards history “that is both dismissive and proprietary”.

‘Dismissive and proprietary’. A sentiment that greets the unknown not with humility but with a haughty arrogance that, because it is not already in the individual’s acquaintance, it cannot really be worth knowing. A sentiment that affects both a lack of any interest in knowing, and an entitlement to the right of derision.

This statement does not sum up the attitudes of punters in the Times’ Commentariat nearly so much as it would sum up those held by commenters on less curated (i.e. having less editorial content) online social forums, or on lower-end news outlets, such as the UK’s Daily Mail [1]. Established Commentariats that take among their customs a certain seriousness towards the matter at hand tend to prevent individual users from getting too polemical, deliberately provocative, or silly in their leavings.

If we check the comments of Scorsese’s article, we see immediately exhibited among the Times’ Commentariat one of the most common tropes of the online social forum — an attempt to re-contextualise the original content for rhetorical effect. The most popular of the responses posed to Scorsese in the comments uses another of the most common tropes of the online social forum, especially whenever questions of history are concerned — “‘Twas Ever Thus”. The old-grandfather-isms, an instinctive lack of generosity towards newer art forms that is supposedly latent within Scorsese’s points, are eagerly speculated upon by multiple commenters, with the tacit belief underpinning it that no prior epoch could really be so much different from ours, that all history is nostalgia.

Though stylishly done — the Times’ commenters have a certain literary fluency to them hardly in much evidence in a lot of other Commentariats, writing as though they were writing letters — this kind of wilful misunderstanding of the speaker’s point is one of the things that makes online discourse so tiresome for many. It is hardly as though, as Scorsese himself points out, the great director is deriding “Paul Thomas Anderson or Claire Denis or Spike Lee or Ari Aster or Kathryn Bigelow or Wes Anderson” or any other modern filmmaker whose works fulfill his aesthetic criteria. Still, many commenters have attempted to recast the director as an old man shouting at a cloud. The commenters, in caricaturing Scorsese as such, are exhibiting, in the words of Hitchens, that worst vice of a polemicist — the belief that, once you have found the most base motive your opponent could possibly carry, you have found the correct one.

There are those who make trenchant and rather arresting aphoristic observations in response to Scorsese’s argument: an unspecified “Larry” of New York concurs with the director’s sense of distress about the prominence of Marvel comic book cinema, believing that

“Intellectual curiosity has been replaced by ostentatious consumption, quality by quantity and political activism by slogans that fit on baseball caps. The barbarians are not at the gates, they’ve overrun us.”

A similarly unspecified “bill” from Malibu goes so far as to say

“What Scorsese painfully is describing is a change of human beings from fully dimensional, questing beings into drab, flat, consumers. Just read some of the comments on here and imagine their authors at a party with Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, John Ford, or Grace Kelly. We’re living in a fallen world.”

Whatever your opinion on the matter of these comments, their station is lofty, committed and sublime — of a broadness in outlook more common to classical writings than purer, thumb-hammered reaction optimised for the snack of a Tweet. Elsewhere, the comments in response to Scorsese become increasingly granular in their analysis, offering a real value to the reader intrepid enough to hunt through the mighty wash, a value that they might hardly get from a given article itself. Witness Daniel Walter of Los Angeles’ speculation:

I’m surprised to see only one reader accurately cite the reason for this trend: media consolidation. The telecommunications act of 1996 allowed unprecedented vertical integration of media companies, which creates incentive for service of a handful of tried-and-true pieces of intellectual property. The films become loss-leader advertisements for theme parks, merchandise, and more profitable television properties. The gargantuan advertising budgets for the big films suck up so much oxygen that mid budget films can no longer compete. Those mid budget films, which were vehicles for well made original ideas that did not represent any business beyond the film itself, are mostly gone. Annapurna’s bankruptcy shows that with a handful of tiny exceptions, the genuine cinematic space today is exclusively run by patrons, not business people. This is a problem with regulation, not artistic vision.

In fact, one hardly had to hunt for Walter’s fine contribution — the rest of the Commentariat had already voted it right up into the higher reaches of the pile. And here is the most salient and most direct potential benefit of the Commentariat — it is, in many ways, a potential stream of crowd-sourced knowledge. We have remarked before on the ability of particularly savvy readers to correct those writers whose work they read; and you can bet, in any decent Commentariat, that the commenters will be adding to the worthwhile new information in the article with counterpoints or analysis of their own.

In the Guardian

Scorsese didn’t visit the Guardian and so did not manage to benefit from its slightly larger digital presence, but the paper did not forget about him or his words on Marvel, running multiple articles on the schism across a three week period, the latest of which featured this disquieting note of magnanimity from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige:

Everybody has a different definition of cinema. Everybody has a different definition of art. Everybody has a different definition of risk. Some people don’t think it’s cinema. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Everyone is entitled to repeat that opinion. Everyone is entitled to write op-eds about that opinion, and I look forward to what will happen next. But, in the meantime, we’re going to keep making movies.

In the words of Beatrice Cenci, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

The Guardian Commentariat’s literary style tends somewhat away from the Times’ preference for the earnest long(er)-form towards the pithy and brief; a fitting contrast for a newspaper founded by English Northerners to pose against one founded by a former Lieutenant Governor of New York. Let’s take the article on the subject most representative of the Guardian Commentariat: “Martin Scorsese isn’t wrong About Marvel movies — but neither is he quite right” by the venerable film critic and Lorenzo the Magnificent of spoilers, Peter Bradshaw.

Whereas the most popular among comments on the corresponding Times article tended towards the lengthy, the most popular comments among the Commentariat on Bradshaw’s piece are much more variable. SonofMonsterMagnet’s “Scorsese is absolutely correct, end of,” went down about as well as this string of pearls from bcdcdude:

I don’t understand why there has to be a binary opinion on this thing. That said, Scorcese is correct. I enjoy superhero films, but they are essentially bubblegum for the brain. I love all kinds of film from silent to grindhouse and the most upsetting thing these days is that my local cinema will barely play anything that isn’t distributed by Disney or a superhero film. If they do, it’s rarely on for more than a week or two.

I really wanted to see “The Dead Don’t Die” for example and my local Cineworld was advertising it. Not only did they not show it, but they were happy to show the remake of Aladdin for the 7th week in a row.

Cinema needs films of all shapes of sizes. I can watch a Michael Heneke film one day and Avengers the next. I don’t understand why some people are unable to see Scorcese’s wise words for what they are.

We see the Commentariat’s vote split on the issue as a whole — while most of the most recommended comments fall generally on Scorsese’s side in the argument, the single highest rated comment reprises the “old man yells at cloud” chestnut. Whatever else the internet may be, it is suspicious of age, just as it is suspicious of dissent (and is thus in a never-ending state of suspicion). This sense of vote splitting is a common feature of the Commentariat anywhere that recommends are a thing — and generally speaking it’s hard to imagine any successful Commentariat without this nod to gamification being in effect to pressurise the chamber of debate — and anywhere consensus is anything but absolutely overwhelming.

A further interesting feature of the general debate is how often a commenter will take up a notionally agnostic or ambivalent position on an issue, and yet argue it as hoarsely if this was a third form of partisanhood. Witness Zigalad’s comment [2]:

Personally I love both. Scorsese is outstanding, and some of the Marvel movies are too. They are a different audience, a different message. It doesn’t matter how well respected you are, you don’t get to change the fundamentally subjective nature of art and ‘decide’ what is good and what is not. It is a shame that Scorsese feels the need to criticise the work of others and I think it is interesting that he makes awestruck films about pathetic narcissistic mobsters, too dumb to make a living honestly, murdering and misogynising their way around their tiny insular worlds, yet he draws the line at the commercialism of superhero films.

It would surely be interesting to see how Zig would express his love for the Marvel franchise if his affection for Scorsese should be exprimed in the fashion that he’s chosen.

Still, on the Guardian we see a much keener and less centralised sense of dialogue between the constitutent members of the Commentariat than we see anywhere else. There are threads aplenty to be seen on the Times, too, but threads upwards of 40 replies can be seen on articles with comment traffic heavy as this one. The dialogue goes beyond the threads, too. In one standalone comment, TruthSayer666 writes:

Surely we should celebrate all cinema, even the really crappy films, if for no reason to have a frame of reference to compare the really great films to? I for one will watch the Irishman, with an open mind, and make my own decision if it is truly worthy of all the praise being heaped upon it.

On her own thread, Guardian mainstay JennyCronkite replies archly:

Surely we should celebrate all politicians, even the really crappy ones like Trump, if for no reason to have a frame of reference to compare the really great politicians to?
No thanks.

But a Commentariat is not merely the phenomenon of commenters dialoguing with each other. Perhaps an even more influential dynamic is that which is formed between the commenters and the outlet itself — it’s a dynamic the outlets themselves are acutely aware of.

The Newspaper Pick

Of course, the Commentariat cannot be an entirely unadulterated space — the Guardian, in a particularly loaded move, retitled their open comment section in 2016. What once was known as “Comment is Free” (“…but fact is sacred”, after a quote by the paper’s former editor and owner C.P. Scott) is now simply the “Opinion” section, and, such is the suggestion, where the commentariat cannot be trusted to behave with the desired sense of conditioned propriety, comments will simply not be opened. Presumably this makes all of the ‘moderation’ (censorship) of single comments — some of which are active violations of community standards on the grounds of basic decorum; some of which merely disagree with the premise of the article in the wrong way — less of a strain on the staff.

Sometimes the sense of frustration at having been shut out of dialogue in this way will result in commenters taking their sentiments on a given issue to an entirely unrelated article and discussing the original issue there, though not all that often.

More actively speaking, papers will often still curate a sense of their own “party line” within the wider BTL discussion by selecting certain posts and decorating them with the hallowed “[Outlet] Pick” gold star.

From “Democracy doesn’t matter to the defenders of ‘economic freedom’” by Quinn Slobodian

In some cases, as above, the “Guardian Pick” is used fairly nakedly as a means of simply reinforcing the impression of the article’s thoroughness. In some cases, the selected comments are those whose stance on the issue at hand is most reflective of the wider Commentariat’s position on it, as is the case in “Democracy doesn’t matter to…” (Brexit is one of the few subjects on which the Guardian polis, or those among them who show up to comment at least, are unanimous). In others, comments endowed with a Pick are notably out of step with the broad consensus within the group, and where that is the case, the incongruous comment often agrees with the sentiment of the article itself.

Elsewhere, as is the case in our principle case study, the pick is used for ends more utilitarian than mere self-service.

From “‘Of course Marvel is cinema!’ Why the Scorsese backlash is justified” by Ben Child

The array of Picks shown here are broadly representative. Both of the two ostensible ‘sides’ in the ‘Marvel is/is not cinema’ debate are represented; their mutual selection is necessarily without comment (it is never made apparent by the Guardian who selects Guardian Picks, nor which criteria are applied to select them). The popularity of the comments in question among the rest of the Commentariat is generally meaningless as an evaluative criterion for them getting Picks. For the sake perhaps of some great literary quality within the comments, or particular aspects of their expression as regards the topic at hand, the outlet sees fit to spotlight these contributions.

We see the New York Times pursue a broadly similar, position-agnostic approach to choosing which comments to highlight.

The three top “NYT Picks” on Martin Scorsese’s own personal apologia in response to the firestorm he incited, “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.”

The reason why papers tend to be blithely inconsistent with their approach to curation within their own Commentariats is based upon the given article’s appeal — in the case, the article’s appeal, to both publishers and commenters, are those comment numbers. Scorsese’s response engendered 1,958 responses alone. Across all content covering the debate, the Guardian racked up 2,869 comments. The Picks showcase both sides of the debate, and what really brings in the revenue for these outlets is that the debate should continue. That it never stops. That there cannot, nor should there be, any resolution.

This is the result not only of the medium in question, the comment page, but of the rampant subjectivism of our day; that there is no standard of truthfulness for all but the most blatant of ideas, but that someone should hold an idea to be true, which by default then becomes a question of who can assert their idea with the greatest force. Kevin Feige espouses this idea heartily —based on the content of that earlier quote, his voice has attained such power that he seems to be comfortable disavowing not only artistic principles but scientific ones too — and because his is the hand of power, it’s his notion of what “art” is that prevails in our cinema.

But that’s a story for another long winter evening.

What’s in a Name

The Commentariat might seem a fairly elegant, even dignifying term to use to describe discrete communities who are engaging, often several times daily, in one of the most popular and disliked pastimes of the 10s — arguing with other people on the internet. The reason that such a name merits existence resides in that word ‘community’ — that, regardless of the number of cross-purposes they may contain, these bodies of posting internet users have crystallised, accruing their own set of norms, customs and, such as they are hosted, a sense of place.

They even have an internal standard of notoriety that can make individual participants famous — it’s certainly possible that some member of the Guardian Commentariat reading this will feel a pang of recognition if I mention the names ‘Gelion’ or ‘Seune Milmas’. To stand-out, a veritable Lacedaemonian among all the other commenting blow-hards, is some achievement, requiring such self-abnegation of material imperatives and a neglect of one’s duties as to make life almost unbearably enjoyable.

In that sense, the Commentariat proves that internet polity is not necessarily an oxymoron; that some form of online collectivism is possible without being confined to fanatical pursuits. And, it not only points the way towards the future of the press — as the Commentariat gains in self-awareness the value which they themselves hold in belonging such a community in an atomised age, and meet with their outlet’s simultaneous realisation as to the value of their commenters with a willingness to actually fork out subscription ducats for the Commentariat’s upkeep — but perhaps towards the future of the web, as well.

Custom and civility regulate progress as we’ve come to know it — though in our time the sense of the importance of sensibility, of feeling things in an unrestrained way, is still in rich inheritance from several generations back, it is an unfashionable truth that the kind of conditions required for moving the entire human race forward require some form of at least partial restraint and ordering of social interaction. There are those times, like 18th century Geneva, where both can coexist equally, but utopia rarely exists at scale.

And it is within the confines of a functional Commentariat, where the context of other things is constantly in site and a code of community conduct reigns to some degree, that we may find ourselves capable of harnessing the great overflowing energies of the digital citizen to civilised and constructive purposes. What our web lacks is not only a sense of general perspective but nurturing — and we can see nurture in effect through the corridors of a Commentariat just as much as one might also see callousness.

In terms of the final aim, first, it is to nurture a thought so that it stretches well beyond mere reaction, and attains a self-sufficient value. Then, without so many bath salts or offers of afternoon tea, it is to nurture one another with our ideas — merely to subject someone to an environment in which thoughts are the subject of care, love and interrogation, and ends considered something of importance, may be one of the greatest indirect kindnesses a person can ever bestow on another. We might call that place Commentown.

So welcome to Commentown. There’s a lot to do, but you’ll like it here. It’s hell o’ preferable to the wild west out there.

[1] The Daily Mail in fact has an even bigger Commentariat than either the Guardian or the New York Times, featuring several dozen articles per day that break the 500-comment mark; appropriately, they also draw more users per month, and keep each user on site for longer, than either of our two outlets surveyed. However, this comes in principle part from the fact that the Mail is the only tabloid to have negotiated the dynamics of founding a proper Commentariat; comments on their articles tend to be much shorter, and both the matter of the comments and the articles themselves considerably less substantial, than what we can see from either the New York Times or the Guardian.

[2] Yes, everyone on the Guardian has a username like this — unlike on the Times there is no obligation to share real names with your fellow posters.

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