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Talk Amongst Yourselves

Some of webzines’ most interesting interactivity involves conversations among selected people on an assigned topic. Slate, for example, features a “Committee of Correspondence”-a panel of four or five people who post every day for a week on a given subject. Messages often respond to points made in the previous day’s submissions by the other panelists. The Committee of Correspondence operates under the gentle nudging of economist Herbert Stein, who frames the question on the first day, and then weighs in on every subsequent day to summarize what the other participants have been saying and to ask new questions.

The power of Slate’s panels lies in the credibility of the participants. The webzine has managed to assemble groups of thinkers who know what they’re talking about and write well (or are the beneficiaries of fine editing by the Slate crew), and who refrain from turning political issues into personal attacks. For an Internet discussion, that’s a rare triple whammy. A panel arguing the merits of a balanced-budget amendment, for example, included Jim Miller of George Mason University, director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1985 to 1988; Robert D. Reischauer of the Brookings Institute, director of the Congressional Budget Office from 1989 until 1995; Robert Shapiro of the Progressive Policy Institute, an economics adviser to the Clinton administration; and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). Slate’s contribution was not in giving these analysts a spotlight-they are for the most part the same talking heads that appear on Sunday TV political shows-but in constructing a forum where they can respond to one another’s arguments and move beyond the glib answers that television often fosters.

In another Slate feature, two people engage in a long-term correspondence with each other on a provocative subject. The “Dialogs” column has grappled with whether there is a God and whether divorce should be more difficult to obtain, and featured a highly charged debate between Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter and the New Republic’s William Powers over whether the press is going too easy on President Clinton by underplaying the administration’s scandals. While occasionally sparks fly, these debates are a good example of the kind of thoughtful and civil exchange often said to be missing from public discourse.

Even experts can become a bit cranky, of course. HotWired’s “Brain Tennis” feature-a week-long debate between two people on a technological issue-veers toward flaming, with flavorful put-downs such as this one from a spirited conversation about whether nanotechnology is more hype than substance: “To call this concoction a straw man is an insult to straw.”

Feed, more than other Webzines, constructs its panel discussions in the spirit of the Web’s nonlinear structure. A selected group of people post short essays on a given topic. But reading through the forum you come across hyperlinks embedded in the text. Clicking here takes you to a response by one of the other panelists to the particular point being made in that specific sentence or paragraph. And within that response are other responses. Reading a Feed debate is like stepping into a hall of mirrors-the discussion swirls endlessly around in a manner that would be impossible to duplicate in print. Slate has started to use a similar style in its Committee of Correspondence.

Webzines also offer readers the opportunity to converse with one another online. Authors and editors occasionally wade in to join the stream of commentary and response. Democratic strategist and former Clinton campaign adviser James Carville, who writes a column of political commentary in Salon called “Swamp Fever,” has posted frequently. So has novelist Anne Rice, who has published a series of diary entries in Salon. This kind of give-and-take occurs in print as well, of course, such as when a magazine appends an editor’s or writer’s response to a published letter from a reader. In webzines, however, the commentary can take on a life of its own and, without the delays of printing and mailing, the conversation assumes a more bantering, informal quality.

Print publications try to select and edit letters columns to roughly the same level of erudition and sophistication as the articles on which they comment. In webzines, however, this is not the case; reader forums are distinctly lower in intellectual power and cogency. Many contributors to these forums are curt, defensive, off-the-point, and have a tendency to substitute passion for intellect and knowledge. The moderator of Salon’s “Table Talk” spends much of her efforts “dousing waters on flame wars,” admits David Talbott, Salon’s founder and editor.

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