The New Hampshire boarding school I attended is located on a remote hilltop, in a broadcast television dead-spot and a half-hour's walk from the nearest cash register. Back in the 1980's, before WiFi brought the world together, our only contact points with the real world were the radio and the Boston Globe. Every morning, a forest-green van would drive up, drop off a bundled stack of paper news, and disappear again down the hill.
I had the sports section memorized by 9 a.m., every boxscore and gamecap and pitching probable. Not only did I know exactly what happened in the American sporting world the previous night, I knew what certain people thought about it all too.
Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy. There they were, below the fold -- they still are -- telling readers what they felt about this Boston team or that, this player or that, in thousand-word tracts. Here were important, important opinions, delivered as if from upon high.They seemed to transcend the world they covered, mostly because of the bold type and the heroic, hyper-artistic pointillized portraits that accompanied their words -- painted by Seurat himself, no doubt, before he died. Back then, I couldn't pick Jerry Sichting out of a police lineup, or Mike Torrez, or any Bruins player other than Ray Bourque... but if I saw was in line for a McDLT behind Ryan or Shaughnessy, I'd know exactly who they were.
But these were professional opinionists, surrounded by towers and buffers. If I disagreed with anything they said, I was welcome to write a letter to the editor and hope that it would be published. I did, once or twice, but they never made it through the screening process, never made it to print.
Flash forward a decade and a half, to a hundred hundred Web 1.0 pitch meetings. I was there, the developer who would erect the bridge that would connect the visionary entrepreneur's dream to the venture capitalist's wallet. The business plans would be printed out, distributed around the conference table, pawed through wanly. Then, the man in the suit would clear his throat and ask, "This all looks fine and good, but where are you going to get your content?"
The answer would come quickly. It had been well-rehearsed. "Well, sir," the polo-shirted and wide-eyed 20-something would reply. "The users are going to create it for us. We're giving them something they've never had... a place to broadcast their opinions, shere their likes and dislikes, in what we like to call a 'virtual community.' And the beauty of it... it's all in real time."
Somewhere along the line, opinion became a marketable object -- buyable and sellable, leveragable. The old bumpersticker couldn't be more wrong. Everyone has one, but they're not really like, er, bung tunnels. Opinions are commodities, and so are the commodes they're ending up in.
The rise of instant internet opinion, in a certain way, is a lot like the American economy after the elimination of the gold standard. There's a similar balance of positives and negatives in the current opinion market: for one, anybody anywhere can have a star opinion, and can theoretically gain an unlimited number of adherents and yes-people. The barriers to entry have become minimal if not nonexistent -- there's no need to own a newspaper or a media empire to have your voice heard. On the other hand, the average value of a published opinion is now less than that of a coupon in a Sunday newspaper circular, and that's in American or Canadian funds.
In the Wild Wild West of sports opinion, the only convictions keeping the average price up are the easily accessible ones, the uncomplicated ones, the denominators closest to the X-axis. Winning opinions are the commonest of currencies, the ones that reinforce the new conventional wisdom or run in exact diametric polar opposition to it. "I sorta agree," "I don't care," "I'm internally conflicted about this," or 3,000-word point-by-point refutations of anything just aren't saleable. And the language is limited. Learned opinions about unpopular games like hockey, darts, bowling -- and, yes, mid-major college basketball -- aren't saleable either. A snappy NFL rejoinder chased with a pop-culture reference and a dick joke is probably worth more than Google stock these days.
And so there's a sad sameness to it all now. When I browse a popular message board or the comments section of a popular sports blog, I can't tell people apart anymore. Everybody's an undisputed expert on every sport, and they've all seen the same movies. The only thing that separates Poster #34728 and Poster #34729 is the catch-basket of teams each currently supports, and their degrees of hatred for the media outlets that serve them product.
The additions of community features to traditional outlets' websites are not, as the revolutionaries would have it, the pathetic efforts of Big Media trying to catch up with the egalitarian realities of the 21st Century. Your ability to post a reply to a Greg Easterbrook or Gregg Doyel column is not for you, has nothing to do with you.
You are being used as a market research tool, and they are collecting your expended energy in a giant Matrix-like battery that powers what's left of The Old Way, the world where there are opinions that matter and those that don't. As soon as these columnists stop receiving overwhelming negative responses, they'll bring in people from the bullpen who can do the job better. The job is to work you into a pointless, idiotic, ultimately ineffectual frenzy. And it's working, at least for now.
Nobody except the old-guard sports opinionists are lamenting the slow collapse and tattered remains of The Old Way -- anybody who loses market share or an empirical position is naturally unhappy. And you don't have to go far to find their defenses of how things used to be, most of which make reference to parents' basements. But there are plenty of us Starbucks-sipping, shower-skipping pseudointellectuals out here who don't like the amount of shouting that success in the instant sports opinion market requires, and we stay as far away as possible.
What's lost in all of this is reporting and storytelling, those solid bedrocks which serve to describe and illuminate the very things people are basing opinions on. The Death Star implosion of Old Media can help pave the way for its direct replacement. Anybody anywhere can walk out their front door, drive down to the stadium, buy a ticket (they're expensive, but nowhere near as expensive as starting a cable network) and write what they see and experience, free of the thick filter of a TV broadcast. Then they can put it on a website.
Independent sports storytelling may not drive the crazed traffic of a point-counterpoint, but you can bank on this: if it's compelling and descriptive enough, it certainly won't be as disposable.