So a funny thing happened last night. Some of my debate friends posted on Facebook. And then they kept posting. Facebook has posts and comments on posts as the main framework for its operation, each attributed specifically to an identity. And the genius of Facebook, as I’ve long said and doesn’t seem to get talked about as much as it should, is that everyone uses their real identity on their because the incentives in place reward/require that and there are few rewards for being anonymous (at least undiscernibly so) or having multiple identities. Anyway, before too long (3-4 hours), there were over 1,600 comments on this one post.
We naively thought for a while that we would hit some sort of cap or be in for some sort of record, but a tiny bit of quick research proved both of those notions were absurd – there’s apparently a Facebook post with over 305,000 comments and counting out there. Never question the ability of humanity to push an envelope. It was in that spirit, and the spiraling reflection of what a strange, somewhat magical, and overall confounding phenomenon this post was, that I wrote this stream-of-consciousness evaluation, in what ultimately proved to be two comments with a Postscript, this morning. I present it here unedited, typos and all, as it was written:
One thousand, six-hundred, and seventy-two comments. Why is it standard procedure to put hyphens before “hundred” and the last two numbers of a large number, but not thousand or more? That seems odd. I am also breaking the longest silence in this thread’s history, of about 3 hours. It looks like the longest gap prior to this was about 15 minutes or so, but it may have been less. It’s strange that Facebook conceals precise times for things until over a day after they’ve happened. It seems strangely revisionist, even though it’s clear that their reason for approximating things in proximity to the current time is to make things seem somehow more “live” and exciting. Not that this phenomenon could possibly have anything to do with spawning threads of over 1600 comments in 7 hours. Of course, we also have to recognize that while Facebook may not have anticipated this usage of comment-threads, they certainly seem to deem it a form of “working as intended,” since they’ve done nothing to stop or alter it. And some of the publicity around the 305,000+ thread must indeed make them pretty pleased with themselves. As though an entity like Facebook could have a monolithic opinion like that. Perhaps they have endless boardroom debates about whether or not they should cap the number of comments. Which raises another interesting question I’ve always wondered about, which is why there is no limit on comment length when there’s a rather draconian limit on status lengths, one that I routinely (about 1/5 times I try to post a status) trip over. And then they prompt you to write a note, which basically, formatted the way they are in Facebook, has a big sign on it that says “Irrelevant!”. In any event, it seems bizarre that they would cap that and pretty much nothing else. Do they fear some massive escalation prompted by 850-word status updates that prolongs everything else. But why wouldn’t they want that? Of course, I don’t know for a fact there’s no cap on comment characters, though I’m likely to find out at this rate. It could be that what I’m writing right now is not actually being published and has to be broken into a (heaven forbid!) second comment. It’s like a Schrodinger’s cat problem (oh God, I mentioned cats in this thread), whether the cat’s in the box or not. Is this sentence in the original comment as intended or not? I won’t know until I press enter. But I guess you could say “I’m doing it wrong” with this comment, if the point is to extend the number of comments to our ultimate, if dubious, glory. Of course it’s tremendously silly to start doing things like Adam did last night, posting one letter at a time, but mostly because that limits or eliminates discourse altogether. Which prompts the ultimate question, the one that most of you must be asking yourself right now (as though you’ve actually read this mono-paragraph all the way through, though I suppose you might have, and I maybe suggest you copy/paste into Word and insert line-breaks at sentences for added clarity, because this is a lousy way to read), which is, of course, what was it about this post and this series of early comments last night that was able to produce the maelstrom when most of these threads die out after a (relatively!) merciful 30-50 comments? There was a thread about Waffle House a few weeks ago that crossed triple-digits and I recall thinking a comment-thread about WikiLeaks on Reid’s wall hitting 65 comments or so was a sign of great discourse, but of course that actually had predominantly meaningful commentary and debate. It occurs to me at this point that I will be surprised if it actually accepts a comment this long. Insert sexual joke here. Ditto. But seriously. Also, naming Adam and Reid and getting the brief suggestion of tagging them from Facebook reminds me that there is a limit on number of tags in a comment or post. Which makes me wonder how they arrived at the number 6. Five seems so obvious, but 6 actually more convenient (and not just for the trivial reason that it’s +1). It makes me wonder how many things are done in pairs besides debate teams, because that’s what I find it most useful to call out, for example when Rutgers broke 3 teams at UVa. Not that I’m just gratuitously bringing that up. Or am I? In any event, I’m now torn between maxing out my six tags or leaving this as an untagged monument to “doing it wrong” in this thread. Although of course part of the magic of this thread is its lack of gratuity (hear me out) because, unlike just posting single letters repeatedly or even starting to read out of a random Dickens book like some bloated filibuster, the mysterious alchemy that can spawn a 1600+-post thread derives from its ability to entertain a large number of people for a long period of time. Which I would probably levy as a response to any people coming to harshly critique the alleged gratuity of this endeavor. After all, can you really say this thread is less valuable than time spent watching a TV show or, indeed (to reference my own activity last night), a baseball game? Certainly it’s interactive and lively. There was a palpable excitement in most, if not all, participants. A small injection of a sense of wonder. A spawning of micro-communities as people discussed entirely different things but, while they faced periodic criticism, no one was excluded from one main thread. Making it very different than forums or chatrooms designated for specific purposes to the exclusion of others. It almost gave me renewed hope for some sort of small utopian socialist community someday. At the same time, I realize that in analyzing it this deeply, one starts to kill part of the magic, as in overexplaining why a joke is funny. If people fully understood why this thread was so enthralling, it would detract from the magical nature of finding it so and thus take the sheen off the entire experience, to the extent that there is one. I recognize that some people are merely truly pained or annoyed by this, and at least a few people liked particular comments but wisely (?) restrained themselves from actually posting, lest they be besieged by notifications. It also occurs to me to wonder what the relative word-count of this comment is (gee, I sure hope they let it be just one comment and that it loads properly and stuff) to the entire thread before it. Even I, on a morning where I eventually have to go to work, don’t aspire to write a piece longer than the original work which I am appending, though it would be an incredibly commentary to do so. I will have to settle for merely having at least one word for every comment made prior, although I have no idea where I am relative to such a goal. This comment now takes up over six full lines when pasted into Notepad, which forces line-breaks after only a very long time. I know this because I have dealt with computers frequently and pasting into Notepad and periodically saving is a necessary adaptation (take note, kids!) to a world where certain web applications can crash at any moment and working this long on something to find it go up in smoke is one of the most heartbreaking experiences one can have short of, y’know, real heartbreak. Although there is something similar in each, of course, in the idea of working so hard on something or spending so much time with something/someone, only to have it come to nothing in the end, only to have loss. In both cases, there is memory, but the memory of how great something was only serves to enhance the pain of the loss. Wow, this is really similar. And I’m painting myself into a sad, sad corner. And at the beginning of the day too. I went a really long time without doing that in this comment. Although, frankly, and you can probably tell, this actually hasn’t taken that much time to write, which ought be a lesson to all of you paper-writers out there, that something of length doesn’t necessarily take much time to write as long as you feel really comfortable with your material. Although most debaters know that, I would suspect, since debating makes you a faster writer by making you think on your feet in complete and persuasive sentences. Microsoft Word has me at 1,439 words prior to the beginning of this sentence here, which actually surprises me as being a little shorter than I would’ve expected, but so it goes. Guys, I had dreams about this comment thread last night and awoke to think they were more surreal than most of the dreams I have about things which are not actually things. At this point, my computer is really laboring through the process of processing this comment and I’ve probably said most of what I want to say, but I’ve pretty much set an explicit bar for myself of exceeding the number of comments prior with words herein, so it’s pretty much you and me and my recognition that I have to get there at this point, if you are still reading, which I would have doubted prior to the comment thread which inspired this post here, but of course the rules seem somehow changed by this whole thing and in the context of this whole thing. Which says something, at the least, about human adaptability. I almost feel as though I could challenge someone to do anything or virtually anything in this comment thread and people would pool resources and unite in order to rise to the occasion. Possibly ironic use of the word “rise” there, though it calls to mind pole-vaulting or similar, wherein even if what you’re doing is sort of needless and silly, it still has meteoric value as a testament to human endeavor and triumph. I mean, what skill could pole vaulting possibly demonstrate other than sheer human ability to do mind-boggling stuff? And do you ever think about what we recognize as tremendous and what we don’t have a way of recognizing and how trivial the differences are between those things? I know this is going to bother those of you still clinging to capitalism and arguments that the market solve, but there really is no correlation (or little, I would definitely posit) between work and reward, between impressiveness of a feat and structures to recognize that feat. How someone out there is the most talented person at a sport not yet invented (let’s say Calvinball for the sake of argument/illustration), but they will never get to rise above janitor or truck-driver (no offense, Ashley) because no structures are in place to acknowledge their skill, and so they will struggle their whole life with drugs and depression and loneliness because society has arbitrarily deemed them to be unsuccessful. Whereas, on the other hand, a great success in football or basketball in baseball can thrive in a sport invented and earn almost unfathomable amounts of money, power, prestige, and notoriety, living as a veritable modern king in our society. Yes, a certain athletic prowess is certainly translatable from one sport to another, but let me at least tell you a story about this to illustrate my argument. I used to live in Oregon and they are quite big on their recycling there and were a forerunner of recycling/deposit incentives and one day I went with my Dad to a recycling center in a grocery store and we had bags and bags of cans and bottles and jumbled recyclables and we handed them over for our deposit and the kid there (he was maybe 17 or 19 or something) took the bag and sorted it like some dervishing Hindu god, just all arms flying and spinning and never placing a can or bottle or green bottle or plastic bottle wrong, boom, boom, boom, boom, the whole thing was over in a matter of seconds and I was floored by the sheer talent this kid had for seamlessly, efficiently, instantly sorting recyclable items. And then something occurred to me almost immediately, it being obvious in front of me, and I said to my Dad that this was an impressive skill which our society was not in any way designed to appropriately recognize or compensate. For, almost paradoxically, if it were, this kid could not be here in a lowly rural part of Oregon sorting 5-cent recyclables. So walk not from this comment thinking that we are at the terminal point of our understanding of anything, be it radiation and cell-phones or how to structure a society. Or, indeed, how to prolong a Facebook thread. There is much to be learned in the future and I am excited to see what happens next with all of you alongside.
Postscript: Apparently the cap is 8,000 characters for a comment. Where they came up with that, I have no idea, but I doubt they expected someone to test it that often. It does also renew my wonder at the fact that they haven’t capped threads themselves, but that discussion remains for another time (or perhaps for all-time).