Yakkity Yak

The interwebs has developed in ways both interesting and odd, especially around social networking and the “communities” that companies encourage to form around their websites. Everything from news sites to blogs bear a “Comment” field, encouraging visitors to offer their opinion on the latest piece. It sounds cool. even democratic, but it’s not altruism, and I don’t think it’s overly cynical to declare that this isn’t because the sites are actually interested in your opinion. They’re doing it to get you to invest some time into their site so you’ll feel some ownership, or at the very least come back to see how others respond to your response, and, ergo, with each hit, more traffic, and more ad revenue.

Still, I won’t go so far as to posit that such forums—baldly commercial as they are—have no legitimate function. Communities of a sort do form around some of them. In fact, you often see the same posters writing again and again. Like a small-town paper, where there same dozen people fill the letters to the editor each week, you quickly figure out their pet peeves and pet causes and after a short while you don’t have to read them any more because it’s always the same old story.

Amongst the strangest of the talkbacks I’ve stumbled across recently are the comments on daily comic strips. Some of the comments critique the strip. That’s what you expect. Doonesbury gets a fair share of comment jabs at Garry Trudeau’s politics, for instance. Some of them are the inevitable messages where one reader insults another and the foul language ensues, but a surprising number of them are…well, as an example, here are some select comments on the Sept. 12, 2009 Doonesbury strip, in which the character known as Toggle is chatting with series staple J.D.:

  • Move to Boston, Toggle.
  • Forget showing up just send money.
  • You should have known, BD.
  • Move to Boston indeed, Toggle! In fact there’s a great music college there: Berklee, barely a mile away from MIT and a certain young lady…
  • Toggle, you need to attend school as close to Alex and as far from Zipper as possible.

. . .Okay . . .

Am I the only one who thinks it’s weird that people are offering advice to a fictional character? Not just a fictional character, but a static drawing? And not writing it as a comment on the strip, as in, “Toggle should move to Boston.” No, they’re writing it like advice to the character. This isn’t just Doonesbury. I’ve seen it on other strips. And I find it…weird.

Look, I know I’m not Joe-average-American, but before the age of 10 I had figured out that the characters on TV and in movies weren’t real. I knew they were actors. On some level, I erected that 4th wall and knew that you couldn’t yell through it.

I’m not proposing that the people who post such comments don’t know the difference. They must. Yet they do this. My brain just doesn’t grasp why. At some level are they play acting that the strip is real and they’re saying what they think about these events as if they’re really happening? Is this like a local audience at a Oakland, CA movie theater where the patrons yell back at the screen? “Don’t you go in there, girl!” Are there some unspoken social conventions for talking back to a fictional piece? Are commenters observing some kind of unconscious buy-in with the work where the suspension of disbelief is not to be broken?

I don’t have a single answer…but I find it fascinating.


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