I’ve been active to varying degrees on a few different websites over the years (no, I’m not saying which ones—those things are pseudonymous for a reason!), and most commenting systems have the option to look at all of the comments made by an account at once. A few years ago, I mentioned to a colleague that while commenting online includes being part of a conversation, it is also something like a mirror. It was difficult to explain what I meant by that, but I think I had the review function in mind: going back (sometimes years, in the case of a few websites I’ve spent way too much time on), I can see a clear picture of who I was, what I was doing, and what my thoughts were.
As I mentioned before, I was once a regular journal-keeper and diarist, recording my thoughts for posterity. Part of the appeal of journaling is the idea that someone in the future might want to read your writing, perhaps because your thought process and opinions would be worth knowing, or at least because your observations are clear enough to give an accurate picture of the world you live in, for history’s sake. In that sense it’s just a few drafts away from being a memoir, composed one day at a time. There’s also the more immediate pleasure of revisiting your own thoughts: very often I’ll encounter a detail in my writing that I had completely forgotten, and the written word will cause a flood of memories.
Reading my comments online can be like that, but very often it’s less like a diary and more like the conversation books left by Beethoven’s visitors late in his life: because of the composer’s deafness, visitors had to write their side of the conversation for him to read, leaving a record of only half the discussion. It’s one thing to reread a comment that contains a fully-formed opinion and think, “Ah! Yes, that sums it up!” or “I remember that!” It’s quite another to look at a comment reading “I agree!” (or, God forbid, “LOL”) and not remember what it was in response to, or read a comment that was obviously a real zinger in context, knowing it was part of a very funny comment thread, but falls flat or simply makes no sense in isolation. Online interactions may be saved on servers forever, but not all exchanges were meant to be timeless: sometimes you just had to be there.
Taking part in online conversations has also helped me to sharpen and clarify my opinions: one can hardly write anything on the internet without facing disagreement, so writing (and defending) opinions, and accepting that others will see things differently, is an excellent spine-strengthening exercise. I’ve seen more than one forum poster claim that taking part in the forum helped them to become a better writer, and to the extent that participating helped them solidify their point of view and express it clearly, I believe it.
Of course, all of this assumes a certain level of civility, not always easy to come by online. I’m not sure the internet has truly lowered the level of discourse, as is sometimes claimed, or if it just allows us to see more of it than we would normally encounter without the flood of information coming to us through Facebook, Twitter, et al. (And of course, even traditional media outlets now expect that their audience will want to talk back, a development that is mostly positive but which is also an open invitation to kooks everywhere.) I avoid the comments sections of news sites like I would avoid bad neighborhoods; I resist the quixotic urge to correct every misinformed thinker I encounter online. In retrospect, there are a few occasions I wish I had spoken up, but mostly I just get worked up and agitated arguing with people I don’t even know, and the well of ignorance sometimes seems bottomless: arguing with people could be a full-time job, and for some people it apparently is. I’ve come to believe that strong moderators are essential for preserving lively discussion without descending into flaming and abuse, especially in the early going; after a forum has been around a while, with a number of regular posters, a tone is established, in general set by the content of the site and the guidelines set by the moderators. To state the obvious, speech online isn’t that different from everyday speech: you aren’t free to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The website isn’t “censoring” anyone: as a private enterprise, it is free to set its own standards of conduct.
I’m not as active in forums as I once was, and for some of the same reasons I don’t journal: I don’t have the time, and If I’m going to spend time writing I’d rather put the energy into something more permanent. Being able to comment online is like having a bar or coffee shop in your home, open twenty-four hours a day, where you can always get into a conversation (or pick a fight). That’s a strong temptation, and for most websites it comes hand in hand with a continuous flow of new content to spark discussion. In that sense it’s not that different from the way I used to watch television, but it can feed into the feeling that I need to be entertained every moment, that I can never be alone with my thoughts. I know I’m not the only one who feels that way (witness the productivity programs whose selling point is the ability to lock you out of your email and social media so you can get some work done); it’s a battle I keep waging, even if I know I’ll be more successful some days than others.