Two-Way Communication, Redux

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 10, 2009

I’m catching my breath after writing email replies for nearly the entire day yesterday. This is the risk one incurs for a Monday if one happens to write a provocative commentary on a Friday. There will always be many thoughtful responses, including scores of correspondents who really should receive a reply. And this raises the question, again, of how we handle two-way communication at

Users may recall that when we first merged Catholic World News and into a single site, the performance of the Sound Off! feature, which many users enjoyed on the CWNews site, suffered. Gradually we got the bumps out, but the feature is available in only a few places on a site that now has a far broader range of content, so it tends to get lost. At first I thought we’d solve that problem by extending Sound Off! to all news, all commentaries, and all web site reviews. In reality, though, we’ve done nothing to extend it all. More on this in a moment.

Particularly attentive users may also recall that when we merged the two sites, we opened a Letters to the Editor section. Because of a near total lack of interest, it lasted little more than a month. Admittedly, there was much confusion over which of our communications links did what in the early weeks after our release of this feature. It wasn’t always easy to distinguish between Letters, Sound Off! and Email to the Editors. But even when we got the problems sorted out, there appeared to be virtually no interest in Letters to the Editor.

Yet emails to the editors have continued fast and furious, often with permission to quote. I spend a good deal of time answering these messages personally, and I sometimes summarize how opinion is running in the blog. Phil Lawler periodically selects representative messages and responds to the points they raise, also in the blog (see the Mailbag category). But this does not amount to much compared with the level of communication we receive.

Back to Sound Off!, two considerations have kept us from expanding it. First, the format does not lend itself to particularly thoughtful posts; it favors pithy comments, and works best by adding entertainment value to a limited range of items. Second, most of the entries tend to be posted by the same small group of people, often saying similar things. Thus, while Sound Off! provides some entertainment and serves as a modest outlet for those who enjoy making public comments, its value as a resource is not high, and we have no evidence that it is important to a wide range of users. In other words, being by nature somewhat thin, Sound Off! seems unlikely to benefit from being spread even thinner.

And yet, behind the scenes, there is a tremendous amount of communication going on, communication which we value greatly, and from which we learn much. So should we provide greater opportunities for public comments from users? Some users might welcome such opportunities or at least enjoy the results. Others may regard this as a distraction from their main purposes in visiting the site. If you have an opinion about user commentary, please share it with me.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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