THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Since the posts from Monday and Tuesday are traveling well and I am on my way out of town for a(nother godforsaken) conference, I'll be brief today.

One of my new favorite hobbies is reading the comment sections of news stories on local newspapers' websites. In particular I am infatuated with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel comment sections, as I have been reading their site regularly for Walker-related updates. Generally speaking, though, I've found that the comments get more amazing in inverse proportion to the size of the newspaper. Sheboygan Daily Haystack > Journal-Sentinel > Wall Street Journal.

We all know that internet comment sections tend to be a crapshoot, from excellent on low-volume blogs to soul-crushing on megasites like YouTube, Yahoo News, and so on. I continue to maintain that YouTube comments are where hope for humanity goes to die. At least we can reassure ourselves that many YouTubers are children; on AOL/Yahoo type news items they are adults, legally if not mentally.

As I read through Journal-Sentinel comments – consider this excellent thread on the Walker-fake Koch prank call story – I am preoccupied with the same question: Who are these people? I mean, what is the profile of a person who sits around all day posting comments on the poorly trafficked website of a local newspaper?

In my mind I break this demographic down into three categories:

1. The elderly. Having finally figured out how to work the internets but not how to make their children call them to listen to inane ranting, they direct said ranting at what they imagine to be a large audience that treats their words with the reverence due true wisdom.

2. Shut-ins. I picture a 475 pound laid-off welder at a screen door factory in Menominee, WI running the electricity in his double-wide off a hotwired pile of stolen truck batteries, furiously pounding away at the keyboard on his 2002-vintage Gateway Internet PC. Mountains of anger, rage, and misspelling incarnate.

3. Fat-assed suburban right wingers posting from their cubicles at Midstate Office Supply about how lazy union workers are. The irony of being on the clock at work while wasting hours on end on the internet – stealing, in essence – does not occur to them. Many of them are fundamentalists and not terribly bright, and fundamentalism + stupidity = complete inability to appreciate irony.

I feel like there is something I'm missing. But seriously, this is worth repeating: Who are these people???

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58 Responses to “THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN”

  1. Ike Says:

    Well, on some of the forums I frequent, it is quite apparent from the timestamps that many of the posters are sitting at their desks at "work" all day. I think there are about 5 people in the U.S. actually working at any given moment, the rest are goofing off on the internet via a PC or their smartphone.

  2. Monkey Business Says:

    On any given day, I do maybe 2-4 hours of actual work in an 8 hour day. If I've got something I really need to get done, that might creep up to 5 or 6. One of the benefits of being a salaried employee at a non-profit: my output is tied directly to how much I want to be paid/promoted. If I REALLY want to be paid/promoted, I can slack less and wow my bosses long enough to get that raise before a drop back to "doing just enough not to get fired" mode.

  3. Geds Says:

    This random quote I came up with a few weeks ago on my blog seems apropos:

    There is one reason and one reason only to read the comments on a random news site. If, for some reason, you are having a high level of hope for humanity and decide you just want to squash that right away so it doesn’t fester, go find yourself a nice Web 2.0 outlet and read away to your heart’s content.

    I'm convinced all of those people are actually doing those of us with misplaced hope a service…

  4. Mike Says:

    You forgot frustrated grad students who see no hope for the future.

  5. glf Says:

    I'm pretty sure some of the commenters are people hired expressly to promote/discourage points of view, or employees who are tasked to create buzz for products and/or degrade the opposition.

  6. JohnR Says:

    @Ike – It's a world-wide phenomenon. For example (one of many) just read yourself some Lily Wong (especially the bits where Lily is working for the Hong Kong civil service).
    Coincidentally, I'm writing this from work…

  7. punkdavid Says:

    If you think the JS comments section is fun, try the Arizona Republic. I've lived for many years in both Milwaukee and Arizona, and you have not truly lost your faith in humanity until you have read the comments at azrepublic.com.

    Yahoo news may be idiotic, but local news websites seem to have an incredible draw to the crazy, bigoted, and downright mean and awful members of society. I think it's mostly the old people in your category 1 above.

  8. markg Says:

    Whenever I read comments on newspaper websites I'm always left wondering hew so many people can be full of so much hatred, and so misinformed.

  9. ladiesbane Says:

    The unemployed. The housewives. The same people I see on the streets during the daytime, making me wonder, "Don't you people have jobs?" No, and no.

  10. Funkhauser Says:

    Ed,
    You leave out the other important question: what do they hope to accomplish?

    I've never really seen how comments contribute to the general understanding. I make exception for comments that make me laugh (Wonkette) or give a different take on the subject (Delong, sometimes). I stopped reading the comments at several blogs because they were nothing more than "Oh, ___ is so terrible!"

    Do the people commenting on local news stories hope to persuade others, or are they just into venting anger or taunting?

    May be we all need a sustained amount of daily rage set up for us. Say, for two minutes or so.

  11. Jude Says:

    Nice attempt at spelling "Menominee."

    And the Madison paper is just as awful.

  12. Johann Says:

    Well, Ed, there's always this answer:

  13. HoosierPoli Says:

    I would like to take this opportunity to get paid 17.50 an hour to state that I resent the implication that fucking around on the internet while on the clock is "Stealing".

  14. Brandon Says:

    I can't argue with your general point about the vapidity of the stuff in comment sections. The articles you're mainly referring to are politically themed. As bad as many of the comments are, you at least kind of expect people to get passionate and worked up about political issues. What I find more disturbing is just the general culture of spite and meanness in so many comment sections, even after articles or videos that have nothing to do with politics. I guess there seems to be an emerging body of research that looks at how the anonymity of the Internet gives cover to people to just be pricks. In any case, it's a really scary phenomenon.

  15. Mike Says:

    Elderly, and unemployed with too much time time on their hands. My wife works for a small-town newspaper, and a good friend works on the technical side of a local news station. It isn't just the web comments, they get bombarded with calls/emails from those types more than happy to share their (misinformed) opinion what the "real story" is and how they could do their job better. Here's the kicker on how misinformed the local public is. The paper my wife works for is privately owned and very conservative in their views and the owners/editors regularly support republican candidates. Yet, in the local right-wing (nut) community the paper is demonized as being "liberal" and "liberally-biased". I hope that irony isn't lost on the paper's highly conservative owners.

  16. xynzee Says:

    @johann: props for chosing a link where it had descended into a political slanging match in the comments.

    That being said, and we post here why?…

  17. SeaTea Says:

    I'm with 'glf'. There are so many of the Walker articles where like 50 similarly-worded pro-Walker anti-union, anti-worker, anti-teacher emails show up within seconds of the article being posted. It seems too coordinated to be random chance.

  18. Meaghan Says:

    So 66% (approximately) of people who comment on these newspaper websites are fat?

    Interesting. I mean, perhaps this statistic matches those referenced on Biggest Loser and CNN, but I contend that my fat brethren are not all Republican, bigoted or angry with or without a dose of illiteracy.

    Fat people are jolly, god dammit. Just like Santa.

  19. acer Says:

    I also doubt Walker would dismantle his crack astroturfing operation just because he won the election.

    In answer to your question: Frustrated cubicle drones with Randroid fantasy lives.

  20. John Says:

    @Mike: "The paper my wife works for is privately owned and very conservative in their views and the owners/editors regularly support republican candidates. Yet, in the local right-wing (nut) community the paper is demonized as being "liberal" and "liberally-biased". I hope that irony isn't lost on the paper's highly conservative owners."

    This is largely to do with the Great Redefinition, a quite frankly impressive feat of the American right-wing in the latter parts of the 20th and early 21st centuries. "Liberal" and "Conservative" are no longer terms that describe different political ideologies, they are now terms that describe correctness. Everything good and right and wholesome and truthful and patriotic is "Conservative". Everything you disagree with is "Liberal".

    See also: Faux News's well-documented penchant for labelling scandal-embroiled Republicans as Democrats, and then quietly retracting after the intended effect has been achieved. Democrat/Liberal does not mean "of the political ideology that believes government has no place in the personal lives of its citizens, and has a responsibility to regulate business that would otherwise do harm to the public interest". Democrat/Liberal means "Wrong/Bad".

    Hence the rampant acusations of "Liberal Bias" against institutions that frequently cater to the right wing. "Liberal Bias" simply means "Expressing ideas with which I disagree".

  21. Monkey Business Says:

    At some point, I sincerely hope that people will realize that the reason the media appears to have a liberal bias is because reality has a liberal bias.

    I'm Jewish, and would never suggest that we round people up based on religion, race, sexuality, anything like that. However, if there were ever a group of people that could actually benefit from being sent to a reeducation/fat camp, the people on these websites would be them.

    I mean, think about it. We could put them on treadmills while we read them the New York Times. We could show them the unedited O'Keefe videos (which all show basically the opposite of what he posts). We could give them classes on government and economics. It would be a goddamn vacation.

  22. Da Moose Says:

    I'm not sure who these people are but I am pretty sure they're closely related to those doing amateur porn on the internet. Who are THOSE people?

    Disclaimer: I've never actually seen porn on the web. I've only been told about its existence from my pastor. (To all those stupid christians, I'm dead serious.)

  23. Southern Beale Says:

    Fat-assed suburban right wingers posting from their cubicles at Midstate Office Supply about how lazy union workers are. The irony of being on the clock at work while wasting hours on end on the internet – stealing, in essence – does not occur to them.

    I'd say that's the largest chunk of commenters, as well as suburban moms who just put their demon spawn down for a nap and have a few moments to spare.

    And then I'd say probably the largest chunk are political activists: interns and volunteers for the county Republican Party, tea party activists, College Republicans, etc. I'd say a big number are sock puppets, one low-paid (or unpaid) staffer for Tea Party State Senator X commenting under 5 different aliases.

  24. Jeneria Says:

    As I live in Milwaukee, I feel I can tell you that you forgot a fourth category. Country bumpkins whose livelihoods depend on spring and summer and as result they have nothing better to do in the winter than find the big metropolitan (and thus "Librel") newspaper and bitch about how leftists social programs (like recycling, mental health care, and schools) are destroying their "livlihood."

    My favorite comment from a recent article about Scott v Abele :
    "Yes they (Walker and Stone) are both responsible adults willing to work hard to save the taxpayer some money. Abele will be a train wreck supporting every social program that comes down the pike. He will also be unable to deal with Holloway and the county board. Milwaukee deserves what it votes for next week."

    So you see, most of the posters to the Journal-Sentinel are not from Milwaukee, they are from everywhere else. And, like Scott Walker, they hope that Milwaukee chokes on its liberal mentality and dies.

    Yet, they don't seem to attack Madison. Probably because of the damn Badgers.

  25. Southern Beale Says:

    Our freebie community newspaper has a wonderful column called "Ticked Off." There's a phone number you call (yes, an actual phone) where you can rant and rave anonymously into a recorder about whatever has you ticked off. The paper prints them and they are ABSOfucking hilarious.

    This is a system designed for the elderly. You just pick up a phone and call and "poof* it appears in print a week later! Very old media. Usually they're ranting about Obama being a Muslim or the awful music kids listen to today or how can modern parents let their teenage daughters out of the house looking like sluts, etc. etc. In other words, pretty much the same shit old people have been ranting and raving about since the beginning of time.

    Only recently has the paper moved into the internet age and offered a web form for complaints. Go ahead: if you're ticked off at Nashville about something, let 'em know. (However, keep in mind we aren't as conservative as the rest of Tennessee. Our city council just voted to not do business with any private contractor who discriminates against gays and lesbians. So be nice).

    Oh and here are a few samples of what has people here ticked off.

  26. demz taters Says:

    Mike @ 11:43 describes it perfectly. On top of that, publishers and most editors are maddeningly receptive to complaints that stories were too "one-sided." Being told to write a corrective story "to make sure we get all sides" is the bane of every reporter's existence.

  27. cromartie Says:

    Elderly, retired, unemployed, unemployable, some small percentage of crispy housewives, and overwhelmingly white. The same people who vote in off year elections and bitch about how lazy liberals should get jobs.

  28. bb in GA Says:

    66% of the 'people-we-think-are-jerks' are fat is about as useful as "You know about 25% of the burglaries occur during the Summer."

    Hasn't anybody noticed, about 2/3 of all of us are fat?

    //bb

  29. Jude Says:

    Sweet mother of god, I'm agreeing with bb in GA?

    Look for the Four Horsemen, would ya?

    Seriously, though, online newspaper comments are just about guaranteed to make you cheer for the incoming meteor.

  30. Ruthie Says:

    Monkey Business @ 1:29: "However, if there were ever a group of people that could actually benefit from being sent to a reeducation/fat camp, the people on these websites would be them."

    NO! NO! The only prayer this country has of getting back on its feet economically is to let "them" lard themselves with McDonald's hamburgers and Twinkies until they drop–preferably before they have a chance to deplete the Medicare and Social Security trust funds–but long enough for the rest of us to prop up our portfolios by investing in junk food and scooter stocks.

  31. mojidoji Says:

    I feel sorry for the non-angry, non-teabagging conservatives: This has got to be a trying time for them.

    @bb – do you get that anxious feeling when Glenn Beck disciples descend on G&T?

  32. daphne Says:

    High school kids avoiding homework and taking out the garbage. The times of their posts are very telling.

  33. timmy Says:

    They might be prefabricated trolls. Check out this alternet article:
    http://tinyurl.com/4mpahdy

  34. acer Says:

    @Mike:
    In Los Angeles, most of the 'baggers despise local scorched-earth conservative talk-radio station KFI for being too libertarian. When any belief system is given the only-child carte blanche of US conservatism from '80 on, its temper tantrums will eventually touch us all.

  35. Craigk Says:

    I don't suppose it's the Midwestern Conference in Chicago you're off to, is it, Ed?

    (My teacher had to cancel Friday's class to go to it. That's how I know.)

  36. Jewish Bowel Syndrome (jbs) Says:

    May I dare humbly suggest that you peruse the comments of, the local paper for the Allentown, PA area, the Morning Call (mcall.com). The general theme of the comments is how awful the city has gotten in the last twenty to thirty years and how Latinos are responsible.

    I'm surprised that you just got him to this. I've been dumbfounded for years from reading that shit.

  37. eau Says:

    RE: Prefabricated trolling…

    Ever been part of a practical joke back-and-forth, only to realise you were doomed because your opponent was prepared to actually kill, die, and/or destroy everything they or you value in order to *win*?

    That sickly combination of paranoia and creeping ambivalence? "Any minute now… Any minute now… Oh come on, just get it over with!"

    I'm so tired I can barely finish this sentence and some eager beaver on the other side is pretending to be 75 eager beavers, all On Message, all the fucking time?

    Who on the left is dreaming up shit like prefabricated trolling? Where's our FoxNews? Where are our legion of shut-in eggheads developing new and exciting ways to turn the moderate right and against the far right? When was the last time a right wing politician was accused of being a secret Muslim/commie/alien/chubacabra?

    Sometimes I think we just don't try hard enough…

  38. SA Says:

    I really, really like this blog.

    So it's disappointing to see knee jerk fat hatred in both today's post and subsequent comments.

  39. kw Says:

    Try the opinion page of The Daily Oklahoman. Ranked by the Columbia School of Journalism as the worst newspaper in America. The opinion page editors are a smidge to the right of, well Beck and Murdoch. But Jeez Louise, the regular commenters are absolutely over the top crazier than a shithouse rat.

  40. Southern Beale Says:

    @timmy:

    They might be prefabricated trolls. Check out this alternet article:

    Bingo!

  41. Scott Says:

    @SA – Don't bother calling people out on their prejudices and knee-jerk hatreds here. It doesn't work – even when it's completely obvious. The most "tolerant and open-minded" liberals here believe that the South is comprised solely of ignorant, stupid rednecks and that all the overweight people are lazy slobs.

    It's something that you just have to live with because there is no point in trying to change their minds.

  42. HoosierPoli Says:

    Hey Ed, have you seen the new Perspectives on Politics? Your topline: "Theda Skocpol says the Tea Party is based on racial resentment; new regression models demonstrate that the sky has a tendency towards blueness"

  43. anotherbozo Says:

    thoughts from Delayed Reactions, Inc.

    Q: what kind of person would voluntarily subject himself to wingnut online rants, written to Wisconsin newspapers or not?

    A. someone with a strong stomach

    B. a masochist, advanced grade

    C. a social scientist with a dispassionate enough view as to be unaffected by the fact that the vermin he studies are of his own species.

    D. all of the above

  44. Nunya Says:

    I haven't taken the time to read the ordinarily excellent commentary on the site but I ask you all to consider this… if you've seen all of the job postings for "social media interns" this is what you have. An endless stream of recent grads doing anything for money who get a few cents per post.

    The internet as the great equalizer is dying a rather quick death. For every brilliant post made on G&T is an army of poorly paid kids to hijack the thread.

    As a guy who has spent an inordinate amount of time understanding how search engines work, I can say without a doubt that the big money can stifle the proletariat just as effectively with new media as they ever did with the old and while spending pennies on the dollar.

    We may be, in hindsight, super-fucked.

  45. par4 Says:

    Maybe it's all of that higher education working.

  46. Jezebella Says:

    You know, normally I heart you a lot, but along with Meaghan and BB, I'm wondering why 2 of your 3 categories are fat people. Have you never met a thin idiot? Because I've met plenty of thin idiots. It just bugs the hell out of me that someone whose opinions I respect, who seems smart and funny and on-time all the time, is ready to just casually toss in a bit of fatty-hating insult for no apparent reason except that, hur hur, fat people are gross and stupid.

    I am disappointed. I has a sad.

  47. prosopopeia Says:

    Got to agree with Jezebella about the comments about fatness here; I'd also add, along with SA, that the tone of the comments here at G&T, as almost everywhere on the Internets, is often fairly angry and

  48. prosopopeia Says:

    Got to agree with Jezebella about the comments about fatness here; I'd also add, along with SA, that the tone of the comments here at G&T, as almost everywhere on the Internets, is often fairly angry and

  49. prosopopeia Says:

    —for a group of progressives—occasionally pretty insensitive. "Morons," "idiots" and x-"tards" appear frequently (I'm not saying that such terms, which have a history that progressives are justifiably proud to have fought against, shouldn't be used, but should perhaps be used with more thought). Two commenters just in this thread suggested that merely being a "housewife" was enough to justify resentment and opprobrium—and also implied, perhaps unintentionally, that housewives were like the unemployed, the elderly and the unemployable in not having a job. This is strange on a number of counts, not least being that women tend to vote Democratic, and that progressives have long worked with feminists to get women's work recognized. I get that G&T's schtick is the joy of ranting, and don't want it to lose an ounce of its invective and vitriol—I just want it aimed at the right targets.

  50. prosopopeia Says:

    Sorry about the triple post—wouldn't take more than three lines the first two times!

  51. cromartie Says:

    @Scott

    That is clearly not true. Asheville is a lovely place.

  52. eau Says:

    "I'm wondering why 2 of your 3 categories are fat people"

    I'm gonna go ahead and assume the elderly people ed is picturing are fat, too.

  53. Kaleberg Says:

    There are lots of people with time on their hands and not much in the way of brains. They have a serious need to express themselves. We used to have a billboard, on a tight turn, that had messages about space aliens and UN domination and god knows what else, but someone ran a small truck through it some years back. The local paper receives and prints all sorts of weird letters, and they do make you wonder. Someone wrote whining about a rock in the road in the national park on a 15 mile road marked "watch for rocks" and "avalanche danger" as often as they can get away with it without ruining the scenery. Hey, look at me, I'm whining right here.

    My favorite take on the Youtube comments problem is from XKCD:

    http://xkcd.com/481/

    http://blog.xkcd.com/2008/10/08/youtube-audio-preview/

    Though, to be honest, I've only posted one or two videos on Youtube and the comment on my brief visualization of state population growth was spot on. I really do need more data and better pacing to make it useful. Maybe now that I know that someone has actually looked at the thing I'll get in gear and improve it.

  54. Zebbidie Says:

    Yes, it surprises me from overseas that American liberals have such a down on obese people and those with poor dentition – diseases both of being poor and of being born to poor parents.
    I suppose they are all in favour of helping the poor, as long as they stay in their trailer parks…as opposed to Republicans who want tornados to go thru the parks. Funny old place the US.

  55. Piperspace Says:

    I just returned from a visit to my hometown in Sheboygan County, so maybe I can add some perspective. I think #1 hits close to the mark. There's a real disdain for liberals among older people (younger people with the means to do so tend to move to the city after graduating) in this rural part of WI that dates back to Nixon (yeah, I'm old enough to remember). It's a part of the local culture. Not to say there aren't liberals there, but there are fewer of them & they tend to be less outspoken.

  56. David R Says:

    If this is genuine, it at least partly answers the question of who these people are— PAID HACKS: http://imgur.com/QAcJm

    Only in America (hopefully)

  57. jwm Says:

    riiight. As opposed to the not at all self-parodying writers who study and write blogs about the spectacle of our political theater as though its some kind of a science. Wait, tell me again, what are Palin's chances of being elected president?