Is The Dish A “Community”?

Feb 15 2013 @ 12:00pm

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A reader writes:

I’ve known since the day you announced the change that I was going to subscribe, because there is no single thing on the Internet that has enriched my life more than The Dish in the past six years. But because I’m extremely broke, and saving up for an engagement ring to boot, I’ve been waiting to subscribe, thinking that at some point it would become inevitable because of the meter and then I’d be able to justify my spending to my inner voice of frugality. But after reading the obnoxiously condescending dissent you aired, claiming that I must be a really sad person to feel a sense of community around the Dish, I can’t help but subscribe right this minute.

I’m really surprised that this reader has never felt any sense of kinship with someone merely because they share some intellectual interests. I won’t stoop to his level and call him sad, but I do pity him for never experiencing, for example, the fun of being in an elevator with someone carrying a copy of your favorite book, and exchanging knowing glances about the cliffhanger at the end. We are all part of many, many wordless communities. Has he really never seen someone else wearing a jersey from his favorite sports team on game day and shared a brief but powerful connection because of it? Has he never chuckled at an inside joke on a stranger’s bumper sticker or vanity plate?

But there’s an even more important reason I want to subscribe: yours ISN’T a wordless community at all, and your airing of his dissent (and other reader responses) proves that. I’ve never encountered any media outlet or quasi-public figure who so often acknowledged criticism and attacks on him and on his ideas. I hope some day to be half as comfortable as you hearing people say that I’m an idiot.

You get used to it after a while. And sometimes they’re right. Another is on the same page:

I consider myself American, that is a member of the community called “America.” Does that identity become invalid simply because I don’t interact with the overwhelming majority of them? I also don’t happen to interact with almost anyone in my neighborhood beyond my roommates, but I’m still considered part of that “community.” On the Dish, I’ve had e-mails posted, read threads that have led to many interesting conversations with others, and been exposed to the experiences and viewpoints of a diverse array of individuals I couldn’t hope to replicate myself. In my opinion, the VFYW contest alone invalidates their point.

On that note, another writes:

I don’t bother joining in on the View From Your Window contests, preferring to read the guesses of others who have more time than I to figure those things out. But I was surprised when I read one of this week’s entries from the woman who sent in the picture taken by her fiancé of her looking out the window of the Puerto Rican fort. I’m not sure I would have recognized her from the back, but her description of being in San Juan in December and traveling on to Vieques to celebrate their engagement made me gasp. I received a note from a former student of mine in early January telling me that he and his wife-to-be were vacationing in Vieques over the holidays. And this young couple will be coming up to visit us on Thursday. We consider them dear friends, but we didn’t know until I wrote them a few minutes ago that we both follow your blog. Small world in more ways than one!

More small-world moments from our contest here and here. Another reader dissents:

You asked, “Why else would so many people send us links or write emails like yours or send in their window views or vote for awards and so on if they were not part of a community?” I will never regard the Dish as a community while you insist on running reader contributions anonymously. As far as I know, none of the media outlets you worked at prior (and during) your time at the Dish remove the attribution of the people who contribute letters and other forms of feedback. I don’t begrudge your newly independent site its success, but I would never pay for it while that policy is in place. It seems like an attempt to downplay the fact that a lot of what makes the Dish interesting is written by people who are not named Andrew Sullivan.

There are reasons for that. First, if we identified every reader by name, we would feel obliged to run our edit of their emails for their permission first. The time that would take back and forth would be enormous, and the conversation would have moved on by then. The second is that this blogazine has a single voice and it is a mixture of individual – me – and collective – my colleagues and you. Keeping that intact and integrating the readers into the product in the same voice keeps the place coherent, and doesn’t separate us from you. Third, we want the arguments to count, not the egos. And we want to create a safe space for people to say things they might feel uncomfortable saying under their own name. I do not think we would have been able to collect the breadth and depth of our testimonials on the “Cannabis Closet”or the extraordinary stories in our thread on late-term abortion without providing a safe space as free of ego and comments-section-bile as possible.

Another dissenter:

“Because we are a community.” No we’re not. We are something, but not a community. Who is gonna give me a job? Or be a really nice person and give me $1,000 dollars to get me through the next month and fix the car along with it? Or drive me to the doctor since the car isn’t running? None of you come over and hang out on my back porch. And I don’t run into any of you in the supermarket, even though two of us might be in the supermarket at the same time.

I don’t have time to read all of the sources. You and the rest of you are a great bunch of editors. Someday, when I have a job, it’s worth 20 bucks a year to have you around.

Several more readers share their thoughts on the Dish community:

I’m a new father of a baby daughter, who just moved his family into an apartment, and the money is extremely tight right now. But once I get the extra scratch I am going to 1) subscribe to The Dish and 2) donate to my local NPR station. Both of which I heavily rely on for news, information and intelligent discourse. What I get from these sources is well worth my money and, when the time comes, I expect to feel a little ping of pride in being a subscriber to The Dish.

The thing is, even without giving dollar one, I still feel a sense of community. The vast and diverse segment of the population that are Dish readers is constantly astounding to me. Whether or not I agree with a reader whose email you showcase, I know that at the very least they put some thought into it and are sincere. Thinking and sincerity isn’t something you would normally find in a comments section.

Another:

I probably send more emails to the Dish than to any one person I know outside of work, other than my close relatives and girlfriend. To the extent that “community” and “communication” have a shared root (which they do),qm The Dish is a community to me. And in any community, there are those who get a thrill up their leg being an active member (your “dorky” subscriber), and those who keep their distance from any displays of affection (your dissenter). And there are those who simply appreciate the stimulation the community provides and find it occasional cathartic to throw in their two cents (or pence in my case) by shooting of an email.

The Dish is not Oprah. It is that rare thing on the Internet: a place for intelligent discussion that wears itself lightly. Most of the web communities I’ve seen are populated by either emotion-infused screeds or dispassionate analyses that betray nothing of the writer’s bias. The Dish is the only place I find commentary that doesn’t pander to either extreme. In part because reader feedback is moderated. But largely because, while biased, the editing is, as you claim, remarkably balanced. The attitude that led you to publish dissents of the day is I think the most compelling reason for the blog’s enduring success.

Another:

On whether the Dish is a community, I never gave it much thought but that’s besides the point. My main draw is that there are no comments. I see real discussions, not the mutated form that passes for “debate” these days, saturated with ad hominem and strawman attacks. I want to read comments to see what people think and use those thoughts to build, strength or reconsider my own ideas, but it’s disheartening (and time consuming) when the vast majority of comments I see on news-related sites contribute so little, and all they do is get my stress up.

I think part of this is not the inherent nature of comments itself, but our failure to teach people about real discussions. I admit there was an aspect of The Dish that made me uncomfortable, which was this very fact that we are at the mercy of you and your staff to judge which of our emails are worthy. It took some time to build that trust but now I now trust your abilities as our filter and to present a range of informed opinions. I don’t agree with everything I read, but I think it’s a mark of a good discussion when I can disagree without feeling like I was personally insulted.

In typing this email, it made me realize how much I’ve come to love The Dish, so I just subscribed.

You can join him and 21,387 other founding members here.