Yes, we are online

February 2, 2011 | Editorial | Number 3
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

We do have a website, dear readers, a recently re-designed one, in fact.

And we know many of you are reading Canadian Mennonite online. Our Google Analytics tell us that as many as 2,400 unique visitors a month are coming to the website for some 16,000 page views and staying an average of three minutes to read something of interest.

That’s certainly gratifying and gives us some indication as to where the medium is headed. Geographically we know, too, that many of you online readers are from our two dominant population areas: Winnipeg, Man., and Kitchener, Ont. These “electronic” numbers pretty well track with our “print” numbers; out of a print circulation of 14,300 copies each issue, the higher subscription numbers are from Manitoba and Ontario, the two population centres of Mennonite Church Canada.

But there the similarity stops. While our letters box to the print version is sometimes overflowing with lively conversation, the “comment” boxes of our online articles and blogs are virtually empty. The silence is deafening!

We are puzzled by this contrast, especially since our newly redesigned website allows for comments on every single article and feature. What we are getting, instead, are frequent spammers who use this to promote their own product, serv-ice or agenda. It usually has nothing to do with the story or feature to which they attach their comments. An annoying nuisance, these comments are deleted by us as soon as they are detected.

Of course, what we would like to see, instead, is intelligent, thoughtful and reasoned comment—affirmations, added insight, opposing viewpoints, new ideas—much like letter-writers send us for the print edition.

And there is one more advantage to an online response: no constraint of space. In our print edition, we ask you to keep your responses to 400 words or less, but online there are no word restrictions. You are more likely to be read if you keep it short and to the point, but we are not working under the same space constraints online as we are in print.

Just this past week, a letter-writer caught onto this possibility and did just that. He had submitted a long letter that had to be shortened for print, but then went online to respond to one of our columnists with his full rendition. That’s just fine with us. In fact, we encourage that.

We are still puzzled, however, with a hesitancy to respond online. Does seeing your thoughts in print somehow make them more credible and authentic? Does the print medium feel more comfortable than the electronic one? Is the wider exposure an issue? Are you more comfortable with expressing yourself to the smaller, confined audience of some 33,000 members of MC Canada (your denominational family) than you are with the millions of potential strangers on the “worldwide web?” Is that somehow more intimidating than the Mennonite family?

Anecdotally, we know that when there is a more controversial subject discussed in the print version of our publication, there is a certain “buzz” created in the pews and around our kitchen tables, an on-the-street conversation that is far less vigorous in letters than it is at the one-on-one level. When, I, as editor, hear this, or become a part of it, I always encourage persons to write a letter and let others share in the wisdom of their thoughts.

Likewise, I ask you, our readers, to share freely and vigorously with others when you have strong feelings about an issue—online and in print. We only ask that you be gentle with your disagreements, and positive and helpful in your suggestions. We do not countenance rancour or animosity. Personal attacks never reach the printed page and are deleted online.

Readership survey coming

In our next issue, you will have a chance to respond through a readership survey, a vehicle by which we hope to measure the effectiveness of our two media. Please take the time to complete this short survey and give us your comments. You will have the choice of mailing back to us the printed pages, or of completing it online and sending it to us without the cost of postage.

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Part of the reason that people don't comment here is that the rest of the internet has trained us out of making comments on news stories. The comments here might be moderated and free of the vitriol that prevails in comments on news articles elsewhere, but once you have learned that it's a bad idea to read the comments, it's a hard habit to break. Similarly, having been trained that commenting on online news isn't something that polite people do, I'm not really likely to comment online.

If I have something that's really worthwhile to say, I'll write a letter. Just like how I don't do thank-you notes electronically, and I don't sign e-petitions. Talk is cheap, and posting an online comment is just as easy. If what I have to say isn't worth posting a hard copy letter, is it really necessary to share it, or would I be doing so because I can?

Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go back to lurking, and using a pen.

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