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The comment board hath spoken

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Patty_lOn Wednesday, I posted a long musing on the state of cultural criticism in a comment-board world, and wondered if, now that readers’ opinions are given the same space — and sometimes weight — as those of professional writers, we are moving towards a society in which educated, informed, professional criticism is no longer welcomed or necessary.

You guys responded, and how. After the jump, some further thoughts, and a big, big compliment.

addCredit(“Patty Griffin: Brad Barket/Getty Images”)

First of all, I want to make it clear that this follow-up post was in no way insisted upon by my corporate overlords, who, as a couple of you pointed out, would probably be happy if there were puppies writing this blog, so long as it continued to get hits and generate ad revenue. No, this post is all me: It’s 12:31a.m., I’ve just come back from a very good Patty Griffin (pictured) concert in Manhattan, and I felt like I wanted to get some of the things that have been rattling around in my head for two days down on cyber-paper.

First and foremost: That post, for all its crabbiness, was not designed to condescend to, belittle, or otherwise disrespect the readers of this blog. I got an email from one of the more faithful among you — it’s really not that hard to track me down — who expressed his hurt feelings, as he felt like his contributions to EW.com had always been valued in the past. He didn’t understand why, at this point, I’d suggest they were not. Here’s my response to him, which I reprint in part here, as I think it goes equally for any of you who’ve cared enough to participate in this debate:

Hey. You’re obviously not the problem, for all the reasons you listed here. The problem comes when the cacophony of voices threatens to drown out any legitimate discussion, and when the 4 millionth personal insult threatens to make me stop writing forever…. Don’t make the mistake of thinking my post was a personal attack, because then we’d all miss out on your contributions. But also try and understand my perspective, as someone who worked her ass off to get this job and now finds her ass getting chewed by Joe Q. Public at every turn with no recourse other than to “ignore it.” You try getting sniped at by strangers every time you do your job, and see how long you last before you start to wonder what the point of it all is…. I also think, regardless of people’s opinion on the content of my post, it’s inspired some of the most clearheaded discussion I’ve ever seen on the PopWatch blog. So for that alone, it was worth making everyone hate me. Which, come to think of it, is something I should probably post on the blog.

And that’s what I’m doing. I do think that putting my feelings — feelings I’ve heard echoed by countless colleagues both within and outside of EW for months now — out into the universe was a worthwhile venture. (Hey, this is a blog, after all. At least I’m not telling you what kind of sandwich I had for lunch.) And I am incredibly impressed by the articulate and even-tempered responses most of you contributed in return. Of course all of us here at EW value our readers — that’s why we call you “readers,” and not “consumers” or “subscribers.” We know you take in everything we put out there, and you process it… and now that you’ve got a forum in which to throw it back at us, you take full advantage.

But why can’t every blog post enjoy the same intelligent discussion that you put on display this week? That’s the question I long to see answered.

A few quick things and then I’m done, once again opening the floor to you:

My mention of the historical role of the critic and my place in that tradition was, along with everything else, not intended to be snooty. It was, however, designed to emphasize my greater point: that writing, even for a populist publication like EW, is a craft, and those of us who practice it take our work just as seriously as all of you take your careers. I come nowhere near the brilliance of those writers and critics I consider to be my inspirations — Greil Marcus, Grover Lewis, Dorothy Parker, Pauline Kael, David Foster Wallace, et al — but I’m striving to get there. And my greatest professional fear is that one day I’ll achieve their level of skill, but the craft itself will have become obsolete.

As seriously as we take our craft, we EW writers do occasionally make mistakes, especially on this blog, where the writing, editing, and fact-checking processes all are greatly accelerated. Often times those mistakes are corrected by you, our PopWatchers. We appreciate that. I appreciate that. (Especially when it’s done all friendly-like.) Furthermore, as several of you pointed out, your enthusiastic participation has inspired many of our favorite features here on EW.com, such as Mandi Bierly’s PopWatch Confessionals — especially the ones that get turned into front-page galleries — or the reader feedback in Dalton Ross’ Glutton columns and the ongoing Lost investigation of Doc Jensen. None of us would trade that writer/reader relationship for the world.

But as with any sea change, that relationship does take some getting used to. I don’t think it’s just me who’s struggling to figure out how the Internet is changing media culture — how it’s blurring boundaries that used to be laser-sharp — and I doubt I’ll be the last to ponder the significance of that transition out loud. My questions in that post were sincere, and those who wondered about the double standards involved in complaining about comment boards while simultaneously asking a comment board’s opinion really have nothing to fear with regard to my motives. I get no joy out of making others feel small or unnecessary. But I also get no joy out of being made to feel small or unnecessary myself — or watching my friends and colleagues enduring that experience.

And finally, to emphasize what I think is most important in all of this: If we could find a way to make the way you guys just conducted yourselves into the industry standard… well, wouldn’t that be something? Imagine a world in which writers write, readers respond, and it’s all done in an articulate, smart, witty, courteous fashion — even by those who find themselves in disagreement. You’ve proven to me that you can pull it off, PopWatchers, so now I’ll be expecting it. If it takes me baiting you to accomplish that, then consider it done. I’m not going away any time soon, and to quote the great Jerry Cantrell, “If we change, well, I love you anyway.” Can we make a deal that we’re just gonna try and sort this all out together? Awesome.

Enough out of me. Who’s got something to say?