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Comment, Comment on the Wall, Are You Community or Not at All—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on January 6, 2009.

Comment, Comment on the Wall, Are You Community or Not at All
By Ian Ayres ’86

One of the coolest things about posting at Freakonomics is the chance to be educated by your high-quality comments, which add to our posts and sometimes correct our mistakes.

But to be honest, every once in a while I have been depressed by the harsh general tone of criticism. (For example, the comments here got me down. To be specific, it’s not that commenters sometimes disagree with a post; it’s that they claim that the post is insufficiently related to Freakonomics-type thinking.)

Peter Ubel suggested that some of these comments may be the byproduct of Google Alerts and not come from regular readers of this blog. In an earlier post, I made a mistake in describing how often the open-source statistical software, R, is updated, and dozens of knowledgeable R users appropriately corrected me. I’m betting that most of these comments came from Google Alerts (plus indirect links on message boards). The Google Alerts comments are real comments, and as this example shows, they are often helpful comments.

For some reason, it eases my mind to think that some of my flaming may come from Google Alerts instead of from regular readers of this blog.

It might be interesting to have a public signal about whether the comment was based on an alert or not. An indirect signal would be for Google to create an “Alert Trends” feature. Alert Trends would allow you to find out how many people had signed up for Alerts on particular character combinations (just like the existing Trends feature lets you know how many people have searched for a particular character combination).

Using this feature, bloggers could figure out how many alerts a particular post generates. Knowing this might improve distort this marketplace of ideas as authors goose their language to increase their Google Alert readership.

Google Alerts is also a great substitute for email, at least for the thousands of academics, journalists, and webheads who have alerts on their own names. Quasi-famous people who might not have time to read your email might read a Google Alert post that includes their name. To wit:

Hi John Dickerson,

I really loved your Slate article on Obama’s donor database. It would be incredibly non-burdensome for the Obama webheads to disclose the three million donors that gave less than $200.

It’s better than even money that, thanks to Google Alerts, John will read these words.