A few months ago, I wrote a post titled The Blogosphere Jungle in which I described the truly uncivil nature of the blogosphere in which respect for opposing views and dispassionate discourse were out and ad hominem attacks and demonization were in.
Yet, as I have followed and responded to many comments to my own blog posts and read many other blogs, I have come to see the "commentariat" in a very different light. Contrary to my earlier belief, it is not another indication of the end of civilization as we know it. Instead, I now see it as a vital force in our democracy that, though not exactly leveling the playing field altogether, it at least flattens it some so that it is not tilted so steeply in favor of the all-powerful ruling class.
To paraphrase Bill Shakespeare, today I come to praise the commentariat, not to bury it.
Yes, there is enough vitriol in the blogosphere that, if it could be harnessed as energy, would make fossil fuels obsolete. And, yes, some of it comes from ideologues who care little beyond proving the righteousness of their own beliefs and demonizing all those with whom they disagree. But a lot of that anger that we see among the commentariat is really just frustration felt by millions of ordinary people who feel powerless against our country's powers-that-be. When you peel away the rage, what you hear are voices that want to be heard. Not just one vote every few years, but one voice that can be heard regularly. Before the blogosphere, there was no such platform from which those individual voices could gain others' attention.
The blogosphere platform used by the commentariat is now immense. And I'm constantly amazed at the number of comments that are left on some blogs, many thousands on the most widely read blogs. Does seeing so many comments discourage others from sharing their own perspectives? To the contrary, it seems to inspire people to join the digital conversation, even if they are hardly heard above the commentariat din. What I gather from this high level of involvement is that, though being heard is an essential part of this new technological empowerment, of equal importance is simply having a place to speak out. And this newly found power hopefully energizes people to express themselves in other ways beyond the blogosphere.
One thing I love about the commentariat is that it keeps me honest and humble. It was easy in previous generations for commentators, found mostly on television and radio and in print, to feel like they were "all that" when all they heard or read was the self-perceived brilliance of their own words and no one else's. But the commentariat has changed all that. As I noted in a recent reply to a comment, if I was looking for ego strokes, the blogosphere is definitely not the place to get them. Insults aside, the commentariat is only too happy to expose the holes, biases, and inaccuracies in my thinking, and rightfully so. It also forces me to confront the influence of my own ideology and dogma in the formulation of my ideas. Any time I think I've come up with the definitive perspective on an issue, the commentariat shows me that I'm, well, wrong (or at least, that I don't have The Answer). In other words, the commentariat doesn't let me fall too far in love with my own BS. Though I may find this "tough love" a bit uncomfortable, this feedback helps me grow as a thinker and a writer by exposing the sometimes yawning gap between what I believe to be true and what may actually true.
Before the blogosphere, commentators had a mostly one-way relationship with readers (letters to the editor notwithstanding) that resembled a lecture. Though the recipients of the expressed wisdom may have learned a few things, this unidirectional flow of information didn't maximum the potential value that those initial ideas could offer. The commentariat now makes blog posts conversations in which ideas are exchanged, challenged, and expanded. In this powerful new role, the commentariat participates in "mass collaboration" and the creation of new ideas in the intellectual marketplace.
Sure, there will always be people on the lunatic fringe who are so wrapped in their own ideologies that real discourse is impossible. But for those many millions more who want to join in these cyber conversations, I say, "Pull up a chair and have a seat at the table. We'd love to hear what you have to say."