To Kill A Mockingbird
Marc Storrs and Rob Morphy, To Kill a Mocking Bird (entry for the 50 Watts’ Polish Book Cover Contest). Image via Will.

Having recently written a post that attracted hundreds of comments (some still coming in, alas), most of which were not apposite the post itself, I have begun to wonder if Internet trolling could be characterized as having “a chilling effect” in that it discourages people to write online in the first place. What we have to accept, what I find hard to accept, is that much of online discourse is simply politics masquerading as substantive debate. Find a toehold and use it to make your point. If someone publishes a piece about cheese, don’t hesitate to make a comment about chocolate; and if you write about chocolate, don’t be surprised that someone will use your remarks as the occasion for a diatribe about oil rigs in the North Sea. Assert, assert, assert: push to get your point across. Meanwhile, the sheer amount of junk and nonsense chips away at any credibility that online discourse may still have. This is the rhetorical tragedy of the commons, where we lose our ability to have a discussion because of all the shibboleths waving in our faces.

An example of this recently appeared on the blog of ARL  with the off-putting title “To Kill A Mass Market Paperback and Access to Knowledge.” The occasion of this post was the recent announcement that the mass-market edition of To Kill a Mockingbird was being taken out of print. Mass-market editions, sometimes called “drugstore paperbacks” and “airport paperbacks” because of their (increasingly rare) distribution in unconventional book outlets such as drugstores and candy stores, are small and relatively inexpensive due to the volume and technology of their printing. The mass-market edition of Mockingbird sold for $8.99 (that is, that was the cover price), but it presumably was to be replaced by a larger format trade paperback edition that would sell for perhaps $14.99. (Amazon sells a Kindle edition for $10.99.)  ARL’s position is that the greed of Harper Lee’s estate was driving this decision (which may be true). But if we didn’t have these long copyright terms, Mockingbird would be in the public domain now and schoolchildren would still have “access to knowledge.” Putting aside the question whether the phrase “access to knowledge” seems a bit abstract and strong for a children’s book, the ARL piece is essentially about the term of copyright, not about the price of Mockingbird.

If it were about the price of Mockingbird, the information would become more complicated. The ARL piece appeared on March 21, but on March 16 the New York Times reported that the publisher (HarperCollins) would offer schools the trade paperback edition of Mockingbird for $8.99 — that is, the same price as the former mass-market edition. Now, that information is not as cut-and-dried as it may appear. We don’t know how much schools were actually paying for that mass-market edition (there may have been discounts), nor do we know how many copies of the now jettisoned edition were sold outside of schools, information that only the publisher would have. We also don’t know if a mass-market edition might reappear, published directly by HarperCollins instead of by its former licensee, Hachette, which would instantly double the estate’s royalties (publishers typically, but not always, split licensing income 50-50 with the author). Nor do we know if HarperCollins has long-range plans to enter the digital site-licensing business — for example, making its entire catalogue of children’s and young adult titles available in digital form through licenses marketed to school districts. The fact is that we just don’t know what is going to happen, though we should assume that the publisher will work to maximize its income. And so I ask myself: Are publishers that different from other people?

Lest I be accused of doing the very same thing that I am criticizing in the ARL post, my own view is that long copyright terms do not in themselves provide incentives for authors to create works and for publishers to invest in them. (My own policy preference would be to tax estates 100% for assets, oil rigs and all, in excess of $1 million, which would make the term of copyright irrelevant in many cases.) This, the lack of inherent incentives in long terms of copyright, I believe, is ARL’s position as well (or at least that of Krista Cox, who wrote the post). And so we have this odd situation where ARL has an ally in me, but has managed to get me to view them with suspicion because of their rhetorical strategy. Who is served by this? How does the politicization of everything make the world a better place?


Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


14 Thoughts on "To Kill an Argument: Politicizing Comments on the Internet"

In addition to the general proclivity of the Internet to inspire ideological rantings, both this blog and ARL are focused on academic issues. And academics like to pontificate (it is part of the job). Anyone who has ever been to an academic conference or symposium has witnessed the phenomena of members of the audience taking to the microphones during Q&A to essentially make their own talks (“This isn’t really a question, more of a comment…”) on often tangential if not orthogonal topics. The comment section is the digital corollary to the conference Q&A microphone.

See this recent Slate piece, “My Question Is the Following Statement”

Also Sayre’s Law:'s_law
Sayre’s law states, in a formulation quoted by Charles Philip Issawi: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” By way of corollary, it adds: “That is why academic politics are so bitter.”

It’s also telling when the first response to a piece is outrage. But of course ‘engaging’ via polemics is a common tactic. The ‘substantive’ answer to anything a particular person writes (or that appears in a particular venue) is a jumping off point for a position (because there always is A Position To Be Defended or evangelized). I’ve often thought it would be terrific fun for SK to post without attribution an older quote that was in fact said by some of the most active trollers, and watch for the usual boilerplate responses………

The ARL blog page is labeled as follows:
“ARL Policy Notes
A blog of the Association of Research Libraries Influencing Public Policies strategic direction.”

Thus the focus of the Mockingbird piece is public policy, not news, business or literature. By the same token, what is here termed “political” are actually deep policy issues about which many commenters are concerned, myself included. The industry is increasingly subject to policy decisions by funders, especially governments. I cannot agree that these discussions somehow lack substance, quite the contrary.

I think you nail it here, especially noting that political statements are easy to make, while financial/economic analyses are complicated. Much of our fragmented media space is incentivized by how much noise you can make. Politicizing financial or economic or social or educational issues is an easy way to make noise frequently, but doesn’t generate much signal.

I recently gave a talk that touched on the fragmented media space we now possess, where you commonly have people in the same room having different media experiences — not only individually, but many within minutes each, so that it’s fragmented in time, as well. Parallel media were a gentle influence in prior eras — someone reading a book while someone watched television. Now, however, it’s fragmented for each person — really quick hits, novelty-seeking, and high distraction. And it can be not only media consumption but media broadcast. Most of us seem to have some audience of our own that we cater to (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blogs), and frequency of engagement is a common approach to remaining competitive in a quick-hit media landscape.

The challenge is that this attention-grabbing seems to be falling short of actual communication. In 2014, Chartbeat found that there was essentially no correlation between someone sharing a link and reading a link ( — and, no, you won’t read it). This suggests frothiness is now value. As Chartbeat’s data scientist, Josh Schwartz, says, “There is obviously a correlation between number of tweets and total volume of traffic that goes to an article. But just not a relationship between stories that are most heavily consumed and stories that are most heavily tweeted.” Let that sink in. Tweets drive traffic, but not reading. That’s really interesting/depressing/bad. It feeds the incentive (traffic to serve ads and build audience size) but not knowledge sharing.

Trolling for traffic is kind of the mode here (or, better, trawling for traffic). Frequent, thoughtless, and emotion-inciting interactions are by definition going to be more prevalent in a communication space measured by page views, clicks, and traffic (superficial measures of activity). Until we really get to time on site and depth of read and total engagement as measures, we can expect more of the same.

How many people go to Twitter wanting to get a link to a long, dense article? And what added incentive do they have to read it when it comes from (1) a person they already trust/feel aligned with in some sense (intellectually, politically, etc.); and (2) summarizes the very article they’re linking? The expectations of the format used drive its usage (Walter Benjamin said something about this . . .).

On the other hand, a site like Medium includes a “time guide” for how long an essay is, and allows for commenting on a granular level–do you see that as a better alternative?

Going off-topic slightly (which, given the post, may be on-topic), your penultimate parenthetical strikes me as a bit much, maybe because I live in California and in the Bay Area. Taking all of an estate in excess of $1 million, esp. if the house is assessed at the time of death, would be even more confiscatory than most of us leftish sorts would go for.

A point well taken, Walt. I used to live in coastal California and sold my overpriced house to buy yet another one in Westchester County. I hope it is clear that one can be a pro-business Leftie.

Joe- To your first point about the chilling effect of Internet trolling on our collective willingness to write online, there was a great short piece in the New York Times recently:

“It’s impossible for you to do anything that matters on any scale and not have somebody say they don’t like it. It’s just not going to happen. The world is too big, too connected, and there are too many opinions available at a moment’s notice for meaningful work to never raise somebody else’s eyebrow. Part of dealing with this is simply reminding yourself that it’s simply part of the deal. When you sign up to do work that matters, understand that you’re also signing up to have somebody hate on it.”

Good point, Roy. As I like to put it, wherever two or more are gathered together there will be disagreement. That this is so tells us something profound about human discourse and reasoning. Much of what we talk about is sufficiently abstract that disagreements cannot be settled by simple observations. Science is something of an exception, but not always.

The disconcerting thing about blog comments is that the author of the original post cannot control the discussion, as they do their own writing. Perhaps we should call this the Age of Disagreement.

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