Piss Off

A couple months ago we were talking here about the relevance of newspapers and the shift to online content. Since that conversation I have come to realize how little I turn to The Portland Tribune anymore, even though they "publish" an online daily. Well, there's something I just hate about the online version, and it's the same thing I dislike about most online news sites: no matter how hard I try, I can't help but get sucked in and summarily pissed off by the "comments" section of any given article.

I recognize this is a strange sentiment for a blogger such as myself (however infrequent) to express -- on his blog of all places. As authors on the interweb, our egos rely upon feedback from readers (how else are we to know that you're out there?), and when a young blog like ours hits 5 comments or more we feel like we've hit the motherload of topics. (Not that we want to fall into the trap of posting topics for the sole purpose of accumulating responses.)

But here's the thing. The comments posted on Culture Shock, like most blogs I read, are wonderfully constructive and genuinely collaborative in nature. Blog commentators (commentors?) tend to lend unique insights to the topic at hand, ask wonderful follow-up questions, and can move a blogger's "article" into a wonderful conversation. On news sites like the Tribune, however, the comment section is invariably saturated with poorly crafted rhetorical statements against whatever the author has just written about. For the Trib, which tends to write more about the goings-on at City Hall than even The Oregonian, the online version tends to go something like this:

Tribune: City Commissioners enact ______________.

42 Comments: City Commissioners are stupid tax-and-spend liberals. I'm so glad I live in ________ instead of Portland.

At first these comments can be enjoyed for the humor and irony they provide, and there is one person in particular who has the unique ability to turn the focus of any article on any subject (for example: the mental health care crisis) into a diatribe against public art. Over time, however, these relentless commentaries become tiresome enough so as to discourage me from visiting what would otherwise be a decent reporting of City Hall activities. For me it's become like watching Fox news -- you can only laugh it off until you realize that these people are serious.

For this reason alone, I haven't turned to www.portlandtribune.com for several weeks, but today I was looking for something else and stumbled upon another perfect example. One of today's articles is about Randy Leonard's new loo, with some well-quoted humorous banter (albeit still slightly awkward) back and forth between he and Mayor-Elect Sam Adams, who had the honor of the first flush. Anyway. Plenty of opportunity to have intelligent conversation about whether or not the City of Portland should be investing $100-$140K per public toilet, and to speculate whether they'll be maintained satisfactorily -- right? But soon enough the comments devolve into the same old refrain.

Sam Adams has just spent the equivalent of an Intel executive's base salary on a public urinal. What does he care? It's not his money.
You have got to love this! Portland City Hall is a laugh a day. Now I see why the citizens of Portland keep electing jokers, they are too funny! First Portland goes Green, now it's GO Brown! As an added benefit Portland can fill the pot holes in the roads with the sludge.

Then someone says they kinda like the loos, and so now THEY become the target.

By the way there Dale, what do you do? 1. A bobblehead city hall staffer, 2. a teacher, giving little skulls of mush a better way, 3. An "local artist," 4. A rich snobby lawyer are my guess's. [all sic]
Kinda funny, right? And yet not really, as it reveals the frightening thought process of people around us, and reminds us how easy it is to insult people when you cannot think of a more intelligent way to disagree with them. And as I'm reading these comments, I'm thinking to myself, "wait for it..." and sure enough:

Did this loo come equipped with some public art? That could be a follow-up story.

Alright. I'm just going to tackle that one head on, and give you the follow-up story right now: No, the loo did not come with public art. As if that were the stupidest idea ever. I wish there were public art associated with these toilets -- 2% of $140K would give us $2,800 to work with, which is a decent amount for starters. Let me show you some toilet-inspired works of art to get your creative juices flowing.

(This last photo was a temporary installation that appeared in the Portland Building in 2001, "Inheritance VII" by Heidi Fletcher. Click here for the artist's statement.)

And with that, I hope that some will comment on the pros and cons of the "comment" button, and/or the practicality of public art associated with public restrooms. Of course we welcome (and even seek out) comments from those who disagree, because Culture Shock readers and other blogging practitioners know how to disagree intelligently.


Anonymous said...

Have you seen those suggestive images of waterfalls and lighthouses hanging above the urinals in the men's room at the Oregon Convention Center? I love them.

I remember grimacing every time I used to read the comments section of abcnews.com during the election. Small price to pay for the freedom of speech, I suppose...

MightyToyCannon said...

I share your antipathy toward commentary appended to many online news stories. I try to avoid reading those, but it can be like an uncontrollable need to pick a scab. More often than not, reading such comments shake my faith in the citizenry. The anger and twisted worldviews on display are disturbing enough, but I’m also bothered by the lack of civility that can be shown by all sides of a given topic. I suppose that those who handle the Letters to the Editor at a traditional newspaper have always faced unrelenting, vituperative outpourings. (Picture a canvas sack, brimming with angry letters being unceremoniously dumped upon the desk of the poor sap charged with dispassionately picking the few that will be published).

I’ve often said that it’s a blessing that Culture Shock is read by the discerning cultural elite rather than the hoi polloi. (Actually, I’ve never said that). I agree that when we do receive comments, it feels like a conversation rather than a yelling match. Of course, when we don’t receive comments, we get the sinking feeling that we’ve been chattering away long after the listener left the room or fell asleep. Hello? Is anyone out there?

The fall edition of Oregon Humanities, the magazine put out by the Oregon Council for the Humanities, covers the topic of civility quite nicely and can be read online:


As for public art in the toilet, I'm going to have to think of a few scatological jokes and get back to you.

Unknown said...

Great public art, Culture Jock -- thanks for the pix! On your main point, amen, brother. I first heard the astonishing story of the Illinois governor by checking Oregon Live yesterday, and already the kneejerk whiners were out in force: Seems it all proves that Obama is evil and corrupt and certain to hasten the downfall of civilization (although not be global warming: That's just a liberal myth). It's like the same people who make all those inane comments on sports blogs are also the ones who leap in on news stories with their conspiracy theories. I've always enjoyed reading Buckley (father AND son) and Safire and sometimes even George Will, because even though I disagree with them most of the time they're witty and intelligent and can make a good argument and will break from the party line when their consciences (or even their sense of realpolitik) dictate that they do so. And I'll never forget that one of my intellectual heroes, Garry Wills, started out at National Review and once wrote a very good book called "The Conscience of a Conservative." But the people who hit that "comment" button on Web sites seem to be just as angry and reductive and unwaveringly ideological as Rush Limbaugh, only stupider. And that's REALLY depressing. Civil discourse does require a modicum of civility. Or am I, in Sarah Palin's construct, not being a real American here?

culturejock said...

Oh yes, the men's room at the Convention Center, how could I forget??

OK, so *whew* that I am not alone in this, as if I somehow had a strange aversion to free speech. Letters to the editors often sound so smart, but you also know that every once in a while those editors love to publish a few while laughing to themselves, "oh buddy, you don't know how naive you sound."

So I just read the OCH articles on civility and I think they're great! Also, I can confess that I too quite enjoy reading the Buckleys and George Will for the reasons you mention. They remind me of arguments I used to have with my grandfather... of course we're going to disagree, but I sure like hearing more about why you believe what you believe, and thank you for actually listening to me and why I feel the opposite, then pass me some more of that apple crisp and let's talk about that great play or ballgame we saw last night.

Barry Johnson said...

Newspaper sites almost invariably think of lots of comments, no matter how bad they are, as "good". Hey, it's the public responding! But it's not worth it if you chase away responsible comment in the process. And that's why aggressive moderating is important. Some of the baseball sites I visit (hey, it's an art form!) have the best comments, and it's because they ruthlessly eliminate the off topic, vile or poorly written ones. (And now I'm worrying that you're going to eliminate THIS one...)

culturejock said...

My aggressive moderation instincts haven't kicked in yet, but I can see how they'd be necessary in a widely-read newpaper site. C'mon, push us further! ;)