Maybe it’s time for something different.
For years, I listened to local sports talk radio on my commute home. I live in the middle of SEC country, and — especially during football season — the talk shows were full of callers who were mostly annoying and overly opinionated.1 The host of the show was great and I really enjoyed his commentary, so I kept listening. One day, after a particularly obnoxious sequence of callers, I tweeted something like “I’d love a sports talk show without callers” and tagged him. He responded, thanked me for listening, but said that most people didn’t want to listen to him talk for a couple of hours. They tuned in for the callers. That was the format.
Audience commentary is part of every type of media. With newspapers, we’ve long had editorial pages, op-eds and letters to the editor. Radio has a whole sub-genre of talk radio that features callers giving their opinions and arguing with hosts. Television never really developed a feedback format because of obvious technical limitations, but developed something similar. Panel discussion shows are basically talk radio with a standard roster of characters, arguing with each other and representing viewer opinions.
The internet made commentary even easier. In the early days of the web, every news site and blog added comments to their stories to encourage feedback. The feedback quickly turned to meaningless noise, filled with extreme opinions and spam. Social media took it one step further. Facebook and Twitter are essentially just the comments section. Commentary became the media.
Some people love to read the letters to the editor and listen to talk radio. Many people — judging by ratings — watch television shows with a panel of guests arguing with each other about news or sports. There are people want to read the comments on news sites, although I don’t understand why anyone would subject themselves to that. And there are people who truly enjoy social media. This is all commentary-driven media.
I’ve realized that I don’t like any of those things.
I like to read articles that provoke thought. I visit news sites and blogs that cover my (many) areas of interest. I use an RSS reader to track all of these sites. I follow photographers, videographers and creators who make original art. I listen to podcasts that add value and knowledge. I follow people on social media who are experts in their field, but I rarely respond or comment on their posts. Yes, I want to be entertained, but I also want to learn and be challenged. In contrast to the commentary-driven media, I suppose this is expert-driven media.
The reality is that most people prefer the commentary-driven approach. They feel part of the conversation. They can contribute if they want. They want to hear the opinions of others and argue about topics. Our current social media landscape was designed for them. They want to feel that their opinion is a vital part of the conversation. That is the format.
Cultivating an expert-driven media environment is tougher and it appeals to a smaller audience. But there is a significant audience. There are plenty of people who want to read posts and articles from people who know what they are talking about. An ample audience of people who want to listen to podcasts and watch informative videos. We just have to design a system that prioritizes meaningful content and encourages sharing well-thought out responses over quick, thoughtless knee-jerk commentary.
With the implosion of Twitter, I feel like we have an opportunity to build something different. I’m happy with Micro.Blog right now and look forward to its continued development. I’m interested in the resurgence of RSS 2 and the momentum behind new indie-web protocols like ActivityPub. I’m encouraged that so many people are experimenting with different approaches to “social” media. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Every third caller wants their team to throw more to the tight end.
Some of us never let RSS go.
Bob Wertz is a creative director, type designer, Ph.D. student and researcher living in Columbia, South Carolina.