I subscribe to the online edition of the New York Times. There's a feature in it -- the comments section -- of which I'm particularly fond. Roughly half the articles, and nearly all of the Op-Eds and Guest Essays, have a comments section. On any given day there are thousands of comments from readers -- in fact, sometimes a single article by itself may receive over a thousand. It's like the old "Letters To The Editor" of the print era on steroids.
It's easy to make a comment. Here are the rules of the game:
-- comments are moderated for being "on-topic" and "civil";
-- they cannot exceed 1500 characters;
-- each article which permits comments has a time limit for submissions. If you get to it too late, it will be closed;
-- you can make a comment to a comment (a "reply"). Thus discussions occur among commenters.
-- comments can be "flagged" by readers as inappropriate. They may then be removed by moderators.
-- you can click "Recommended" beneath a comment if you really like it. These "Recommended" comments can then be viewed in a window of their own when you click on "Reader Picks". They're listed in order of which got the most. This creates a popularity contest of sorts among the readers.
-- there's also a section called "NYT Picks". Click on that and you will see the comments chosen as most deserving of attention by the moderators of the Opinions Section.
-- and finally there's an icon for "All" comments, listed in chronological order.
Because the Times is one of the most widely read and respected papers in the U.S. (and the world), it attracts readers who are often quite well-versed in the subjects being written about and their comments may offer a new perspective that had been overlooked by the author of the article. It tends to be a smart crowd.
I consider myself well-versed in certain areas: New York City in general; taxi driving and the taxi business; transportation; and, of course, my own experiences with the human race as a longtime NYC taxi driver. If I feel I have something relevant to say to an article in these zones, I will often make a comment using the pen name "Old Yeller".
So here's what happened...
On August 24th last year the Times ran an Op-Ed by Jerry Seinfeld called "So You Think New York Is 'Dead' (It's not.)"
"I've been a NYC taxi driver for many, many years. My favorite type of ride is the rare one of picking up a man who has just emerged from a hospital following the birth of his first child. It is the best day in his life and I usually find it difficult to hide my own tears of joy as he tells me all about it.
-- On Aug. 26th, more media attention in this article in the Daily Mail in the U.K.
-- After that it became difficult, if not impossible, to figure out the numbers the comment generated. If there's some way of calculating this I'd like to know about it, but I guess it's safe to assume it must have been in the millions.
NY Times Interview
On Aug. 27th I heard from Shannon Busta, an editor on the NY Times Opinion Desk, informing me that as far as she knew this was the first time a comment to an article in the Times had ever gone viral, and asking if I'd be interested in being interviewed. I was. It was half an hour, live -- which is the interview equivalent of walking on a tightrope.
Click here to see the interview.
Why Was The Comment So Popular?
For one thing, it was short and to the point.
It was written at a time when virtually the entire human race was suffering from a mutually shared reality, and with no end in sight.
More than that, I think, it was because it has the power to rehabilitate the personal purpose line lying dormant in the minds of those who read it. There are certain people -- you could call them dreamers or creatives -- who at some point in their lives have had an epiphany. They have discovered exactly what their purpose is in this lifetime. They have made a promise to themselves to pursue that purpose, no matter what it takes. For many, this means coming to New York City. The skyline of New York, one of the great sights of the world, is symbolic of that dream. To recall that first moment they ever laid eyes on it is to blow apart the barriers that have been holding them down and bring their purpose back to life.
You could just about raise the dead with that.
Two Concise Paragraphs
I've been asked where the full versions of the two stories that are tightly packaged into the comment can be found. The story of the "newly minted father" is in this blog. It was published on March 16, 2013. Go to The Best Day of Your Life.
The story of the dreamer coming to the city for the first time and seeing the New York Skyline as we approached Manhattan was published in my book, Confessions Of A New York Taxi Driver. I am including it here in my blog for the first time. Go to From JFK or just scroll down. It's right below this post.
And Then There Was This
In November a facsimile of Jerry Seinfeld's op-ed on a gigantic billboard was attached to the facade of a luxury apartment building under construction in the Upper East Side. Unfortunately the Comments Section was not included! Read about it here.