Well, there’s a lot that readers can do about it. They can go elsewhere for their news—or, for that matter, their conversation. (“This has to be one of the most unified, overwhelmingly negative response[s] to a story I’ve seen on this site, and perhaps anywhere, and it you just shrug it off [sic]. P.S. This is my last post on this site, and when I can get local news from the globe-democrat, I’m gone for good.”) They can register their discontent across the Internet. (“USPS will be sending Mr Kurt Pussy Greenbaum 12500 USPS boxes and 2400 priority mail envelopes within 5-7 days with love from reddit.com and the internet. Also, he is scheduled to have daily package pickups for the next 3 months for with international shipping.. I’m sure he has caught the attention of some government agency by now. Signed, Boxman”) They can create their own sources that compete with the incomplete perspective that a news outlet provides. (“Welcome to www.KurtGreenbaumIsAPussy.com, where we chronicle how an intolerant St. Louis douchebag pissed off the entire fucking Internet.”)

Greenbaum’s phone call was a violation of trust, and would have been a violation in any era. But the ferocity of the response—the utter rejection of the Post-Dispatch’s authority to do what it did—was an entirely modern thing, and it’s a direct consequence of newspapers’ outdated and medium-inappropriate reliance on the authoritarian credibility model.

As one commenter wrote: “What would a real blogger…a *real* “social media expert” do in a situation like yours? Would they have gone off on their own personal witch-hunt? Or, might they have taken some time to address the issue in myriad *different* ways? Perhaps a post about the tendency of modern colloquial language to be more profanity-laced than in days gone by? I think you’d have garnered a great deal of support for bemoaning that issue, and at the very least, you could have used the situation to do what you claim to understand about the “social media” - started a real conversation about the issue.”


B y 2009, the Post-Dispatch’s “Talk of the Day” column had been around for five years, and some at the paper were wondering whether it had run its course. Every weekday, more or less, the paper would pose a question to readers—“Why did Sarah Palin resign?”, for instance, or “Where did you play as a kid—and not tell your mom about?”—who would respond in comments. But the comments were often rude, or intemperate. Although readers seemed to enjoy “Talk of the Day,” the feature often seemed to divide rather than unite the Post-Dispatch commenting community.

On November 4, a little more than a week before he called the school, Greenbaum aired his frustrations with the feature in a blog post: “[M]any days, I am sorely tempted to stick a fork in TOTD and say it’s done…. Would you miss the Talk of the Day? Do you have any suggestions to breathe life into it? Is it worth continuing? Look, I get that politics is interesting and infinitely debatable, I just don’t think anyone’s really debating here; they’re just name-calling.”

Pretty much every news outlet these days wants to become a place where readers come to debate and converse with one another. But the conversations they hope to foster are predominantly authoritarian in nature, mimicking the one-way dynamic of talk radio rather than the two-way dynamic of friends talking. Talk radio is very popular. A lot of people like it. But there’s nothing authoritative about it. A talk radio host can be stupid, and glib, and abusive, and have no interest in legitimately conversing with or listening to his callers—and his failures will not necessarily result in a diminution of status. His listeners are an audience, not a true community, and they are only indirectly connected with the host and with each other.

Online news outlets today say that they’re trying to build a community, when what they’re really building is a talk radio show. They don’t present an environment where true communities can form—and then they act surprised when these “communities” fail.

In his 2007 book Living on Cybermind, the anthropologist Jonathan Paul Marshall writes about thirteen years in the life of Cybermind, an online mailing list founded in order to “explore, exemplify and discuss the sociology and psychology of cyberspace.” Marshall’s book is perhaps the best longitudinal study of online patterns of interaction that I have seen. The Cybermind community resembles the sort of community that news outlets might like to build—its members were highly intelligent, articulate, and engaged in the world around them. Understanding how and why the listmembers came to trust each other, and to trust the list as a community, might help outlets understand how things work—and why things don’t work—on their own Web sites.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.