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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How to read people's minds

One of the pleasures of the internet is reading the comments that follow online articles. These are generally much more honest than the articles which precede them. The journalists themselves simply have too many masters to serve. They must satisfy their publisher and editor; they must be careful to steer well clear of anything actionable; they usually are supposed to make an effort to at least sound impartial; and they are supposed to keep a high moral tone. What little emotion ends up being expressed in their articles often feels manufactured, or at least strained through the sieve of political correctness. What's left is bland corporatespeak.

Anonymous commenters, of course, have no reason not to be honest. So their unvarnished observations and raw emotions, unlike their real names, don't remain hidden. Hatred, that most honest of emotions, is often disparaged by the mainstream (i.e., liberal) media, which of course only ascribes it to conservatives. But it is an emotion which tends to go hand in hand with any strongly held political viewpoint, and that becomes immediately evident upon reading any of the comments.

Many of the comments also show more common sense than the articles. (Honesty is a prerequisite for common sense.)

This is especially true after an article about a crime or a hot button political issue.

The most interesting thing about the comments is the way that people almost always choose sides on any issue based on race. Under cover of anonymity, people feel much freer to say what they really think -- which often has a lot to do with ethnicity. So a lot of intemperate comments are made from both sides, to the point where the ensuing discussions turn into mini race wars. This is, of course, what makes them so interesting.

The other thing commenters are much more open about is looks. No self-respecting journalist would ever end an article about Annie Lebowitz's financial troubles with, "Whichever way it is resolved, whoa, is she ugly!" But no self-respecting commentariat would ever let such an opportunity pass. ("Is it just me or does she look like an older version of Howard Stern with his hair dyed blonde?").
Ethnicity and looks are two things that are always on people's minds, even though neither is supposed to be mentioned in polite company, other than in pc (read: intrinsically dishonest) ways.

Yes, there are lots of morons who post, and people who can't spell, and people who write in all caps. But a surprising number of the comments are quite witty. I am far more likely to get a silent chuckle (if not an "lol") from them than from the article -- which, due to editorial constraints, must take a more measured tone.

If you want to take the temperature of the populace, look at the comments. Wading through a few dumb ones is a small price to pay to get to read peoples' minds.

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