Introducing 'Bob from Edmonton,' the man behind the Times' most popular comment
Top commenter has one tip for Canadians, regardless of political bent: 'Be vigilant and engaged'
His online comment has the unique honour of being named the most popular ever made on the New York Times website, earning him 7,040 recommendations and inspiring more than 1,300 additional messages.
He's become a man of mystery in viral spheres as dozens of Canadian media outlets then searched for its writer.
And his name is Bob.
- Bob from Calgary, we'd like to meet you
- Bob from Calgary reveals he's actually from Edmonton and 'a bit embarrassed' by his fame
Meet Bob from Edmonton, also known as Robert Summers: a 45-year-old urban planning professor at the University of Alberta.
In a Globe and Mail article published Friday, Summers outed himself as the anonymous figure formerly known as "Bob from Calgary." He used that moniker because he was visiting Calgary when the Times comment was posted.
"It's been a busy day-and-a-half," he said with a laugh in an interview on Friday.
Summers first caught wind of his comment's achievement a few months ago when someone from the Times called to say they were planning a feature about the paper's most popular comments of all time. It was a response to a Paul Krugman-penned op-ed in 2010 on American wealth inequality and political influence — a compelling, 458-word comparison of life in Canada versus the U.S.
Summers then provided the paper with a second comment, clarifying his hometown was Edmonton, and explaining a little about why he thought his post had been so popular.
"That was it," he said. "That article went out (on Nov. 23) and it was pretty quiet."
But then The Globe and Mail picked up the story on Dec. 29. Up to that point, Summers had only told a handful of people about his online fame.
"Only a few people actually knew who I was and I considered not letting people know," he said. "But all of a sudden people were starting to contact the New York Times and starting to hunt me down, so I thought I better just come out. And the easiest way to do that was through The Globe and Mail article."
A loud middle is a good thing
Although Summers' original post was made five years ago, he says his sentiments still hold true today.
"I think it's something that most Canadians believe — it's simply saying 'We need to be good to each other.' It's not that complex of a concept."
Nor is it an uncommon sentiment, he added. However, as anyone who has spent much time on a news comment board likely already knows, they are not typically dominated by moderate voices.
I just kind of loudly exerted or put out the middle viewpoint of 'Yes, we're really actually a pretty compassionate country and we care for one another.- Bob Summers
"People are very loud when they exert their opinions and comments on the extremes of issues," Summers said. "You end up in these sort of endless debates and there tends to be a lot of radicalness and a lot of anger in the comments section.
"In this case, I just kind of loudly exerted or put out the middle viewpoint of 'Yes, we're really actually a pretty compassionate country and we care for one another and we believe … it's good for us to be a country with a strong middle class.' "
And good, too, to be a country with a strong political middle, he adds.
While anxious to avoid favouring one political party over another, Summers says the victory of the NDP in Alberta and Liberals nationally in 2015 simply affirmed his 2010 message.
"In my mind, (those election results) represent the ability and the willingness of Canadians to shift things to the middle," he explained.
'Be vigilant and engaged'
The best things citizens, regardless of home country or political preference, can do is "remember to be vigilant and engaged," Summer says.
"It really requires that normal, intelligent, well-informed individuals who have the time and ability ... engage in politics and make sure that they're involved and engaged to help things move forward in a positive way," he said.
"I think the vast majority of Americans and Canadians are very similar and share similar values and share similar beliefs."
Where the two countries differ is in how much influence special interest groups have in the political realm, he suggests. In the U.S., Summers sees a small group of vocal individuals driving the political and social agenda.
Canadians, on the other hand, have been fortunate to largely avoid the same fate, he says.
"I think the people are very much the same, the situation is different," he said.
Since coming out as the comment's author, Summers says the feedback he's received has been almost universally positive, and almost entirely from Canadians. (He hasn't yet delved into the latest comments posted on the Times website.)
While it has been a fun few days for him, Summers admits he'll be happy when the attention dies down. Christmas break is almost over and he's due back in the classroom on Monday, which means there is course preparation to do.
"It's kind of nice to get things back to normal," he said, adding: "It's been fun, but I'm glad it's fading away, too."