Tell us what you really think: the letters section throughout the surfing ages
The online comments section. Is there any greater leveller in the surfing world?
Where industry barons rub shoulders with commoners, while pros snoop anonymously, seeking that one true test of public sentiment.
It’s the place where everybody is afforded an equal pedestal. Surfers of the world are allowed their say.
And what do they deliver? Griping and gloating, sure, but stacks of real insight too. Unbridled ignorance mixed in with flashes of genius. The best and worst of humanity. No matter the topic, the themes are a universal constant.
But never before have comments been so pervasive, or so persuasive. Just look at their dominance here on Swellnet. In many cases the article is only an appetiser for the mains below the fold. It’s the democratisation enabled by the internet, where everybody has a voice. Love it or hate it.
It’s a stark difference to the days of the print media. In surfing mags the letters were an exercise in curation and moderation. Editors would choose what ran, and when, and how. They’d have weeks to formulate responses. Feedback on articles was rare at best.
It was a forum, yes, but with a much tighter leash. Nothing like the free for all enabled by the instantaneous publish button.
But the letters section was still wild in its own way.
Sexism and homophobia were big hits, as was casual racism such as this mid-80s Tracks offering:
Racism is obviously not cool, whichever way you cut it. But this article isn’t meant to be a revisionist hack job on surf publications. We can denounce all we like now with the benefit of hindsight, but these types of letters were only holding a mirror up to societal norms at the time, no matter how dangerous and ill-informed they may have been.
But I am keen to know, what was it like holding the megaphone for surfing’s grassroots consciousness?
For that I spoke to former editor of Australia’s Surfing Life , Derek Rielly. ASL’s letter section in the mid ‘90s was as lively as any, and it was Reilly’s job to sort the wheat from the chaff.
“We’d get thirty or so letters a month, running between eight and ten, from memory,” said Rielly.
“I’d edit to isolate the one great moment from letters that could span pages. I’d only leave in misspellings, bad grammar etc if it added to the impact of the letter.”
Though surfing culture had matured (somewhat) by the mid '90s, there was obviously some still not-so-politically-correct content that ran. Was there any gatekeeping employed at the time?
“I had no moral judgement, then as now,” said Rielly.
“Entertainment value always won. Libel was occasionally a problem, but only rarely.”
By then the main targets were bodyboarders, goatboaters, politicians etc. But even then the tone was generally tongue in cheek.
And if some of the letters appeared too good to be true, they probably were.
“I can’t remember making up letters, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” said Rielly.
“I was in thrall to Viz magazine and National Lampoon at the time, mags that made an art form out of fake reader’s letters, so maybe I aped them.”
But for all the fun, Rielly reckons the letters pages were small fry compared today’s comment model.
“The dialogue between reader and writer now is what makes the game funner and sharper than it’s ever been. Immediate feedback is something you dreamed about in print. Often, there was a three-month wait between story being written and it being read.“
“If you were lucky, you might get one letter in response or a “nice story” at a party.”
Compare that to today, where an article could have comments running into the hundreds within hours of being published.
“Readers have never been so engaged, never so involved in the process,” says Rielly.
“They add bulk to stories that might be a little thin; they skewer stories that should never have been written; they praise when it’s warranted. If the readers are uniformly against you, it’s safe to suggest you’re doing something wrong.”
“Comments are the only form of true engagement, I think. You can fake Facebook shares, Instagram likes, YouTube views, but you can’t create an artificial online community.”
So, what do you reckon? Is the culture better off for having the comments section, and a genuine two way conversation?
And what do you miss, if anything, about the old letters section?
Well shit, go ahead and let us know!