Sorting texts out (or in). Online comments as para­texts (2023)

Andere wissenschaftliche Publikation


In recent decades, online comments have experienced a fluctuating reputation, embodying both the hope and disillusionment of the democratic potential of the internet. These comments below news articles, YouTube videos or social media posts are frequently part of practices of valuation by (de-)valorizing the objects they refer to. Sometimes, the comments perform qualitative assessments of these objects (e. g., negatively criticizing a text), sometimes they function as quantitative measures (e. g., when frequently commented videos on TikTok or Instagram are ranked higher by recommendation algorithms).

However, online comments themselves are also objects of valuation: Although media outlets such as the New York Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, or the BBC have a long tradition of user interaction online, they have been reluctant to allow user comments under or next to their articles. Whereas online comments have been considered one of the most central features of blogs around 2000, whose relevance increased significantly after 9/11, the burst of the “dotcom bubble” and the rise of the “web 2.0”, the NYT, e. g. only allowed online comments displayed in the same window as their articles for a short period starting in 2016.

That means, the appreciation that online comments experienced in blogging, and that user interaction generally had also for large media outlets (, e.g., has had a vivid online user interaction since at least the mid 1990s), did for quite a long time not result in a recognition of user generated content as something that should be allowed to appear in the direct periphery of journalistic articles. The histories of online comments on media outlets’ websites is diverse:, e. g. allowed user comments under their articles in the late 2000s and never revoked that decision until the present day. What can be observed for all media outlets, however, is that they have a media history of changing positions of their user content related to journalistic texts.

I argue that from a humanities and social sciences point of view that is interested in valuation, the relevant question at hand is not why, when or how media outlets appreciate user generated content in which way. Rather, what the article I am suggesting for the theme call wants to focus is the controversy around how comments are valuated differently over the history of the world wide web. The article’s core argument is that this controversy can be understood with Genette’s concept of the “paratext”. Online comments are not simply paratexts because of the way they are situated towards main texts (i. e. journalistic articles, videos, social media posts, e. g.). Rather, understanding comments as paratexts would mean to recognize them as part of the main texts they refer to.

I argue that this understanding of paratexts as a practice of recognition of peripheral texts is not only useful to analyze online commenting in a media historical perspective. Rather, this understanding takes Genette’s concept seriously—more seriously than much paratext research on movie trailers, game controllers, TV commercials and more did. Genette’s concept has aimed at practices of controversial categorization of texts. The “zone indécise” of the paratext is the place where “the author and his associates”, according to Genette, are sorting texts into or out of the category of the text. This practice of categorization is a specific mode of valuation that is typical for digital texts on the internet. The question of what is—with Genette—paratext, and what is only “discourse” is what I call an “axis of praxis” of texts online because practices of categorizing texts have been evolving around this issue again and again over the recent decades.

I argue that this is specific for texts online insofar as ‘texts offline’, such as those of books—which Genette has been interested in—have constituted a socio-material context where the question of sorting texts in (or out) has been reified in the material book and black boxed in editorial routines. Online, however, these black boxes (Latour) are opened up and become objects of controversy.
When the value of online comments is discussed by journalists, when commenting sections on news websites are changed, closed down, turned into a forum (or when a forum off-site is turned into a forum on site), a (de-)valorization of online comments takes place that contributes to the question of whether they should be categorized as paratexts (i.e. as texts belonging to a main text) or rather as (unauthorized) discourse. A history of online comments serves thus as an example of how practices of categorizing texts online, negotiating the boundaries between paratext and discourse, is central for the valuation of texts online.


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Paßmann, Johannes (2024): “Sorting texts out (or in). Revisiting Paratexts praxeologically”. Preprint for Valuation Studies. DOI: