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Internet Commenters: This Is You

Online, there are two groups of people: those who comment and everybody else.

While comment threads across the Web can sometimes spur lively debate by offering a forum for the free exchange of opinions, they're just as often a bulletin board for the neurotic, profane and frenetic rantings of anonymous strangers.

But for writer Kevin Collier, even the most rambling of online comments -- when assembled in aggregate -- contain a small element of literature.


Finding Keepers

Collier writes an ongoing feature for the popular indie publishing house McSweeney's called "Getting to Know an Internet Commenter." He started with the same kernel of curiosity we've all felt reading rambling Web comments, namely, "Who is this person?"

"I've long read the mindless comments that follow an awful lot of websites," Collier tells NPR's Guy Raz. "It's kind of like how some people like watching trashy TV."

One day Collier took his curiosity a little further and began to compile a list of comments from a particularly prolific member on (the Internet Movie Database).

He realized, viewed as a whole, the comments created something close to a profile or character sketch of the person writing them.


Collier took the concept to McSweeney's founder Dave Eggers, who liked the idea. Collier has featured 10 commenters since March.

"The good ones reveal themselves -- after a lot of looking -- to be kind of characters," Collier says.  "They're not an exact representation of who this person is, but they are real characters."

They're Not All Trolls

Why can't some people resist the urge to hit that "comment" button? What separates them from the people who can?

"Some people just need to be heard," Collier says. "A lot of people just have an urge to talk."

And sure, there are plenty of rude and downright offensive commenters out there. It's easy to throw your hands up in despair and assume they reflect an eroding American discourse, he says.

But, Collier points out, the positive feedback sometimes outshines the bad. Take the comments that his own feature collects, for example.

"A few people will write me, and they just say, 'Hey, this is funny -- I like this,'" he says. "Just kind of a random act of kindness."

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