Saturday, November 10
So you learn things about how to more or less preserve your sanity on the
web. One of those things, if you're anything like me, is don't read the
comments. At first, because comments are so ubiquitous on the web
and make up so much of its apparent fabric, you just start mentally
blacklisting a few comment sections — YouTube, Facebook, Hack a Day
— then those for entire categories of site — political blogs,
technical blogs, local newspapers, national newspapers, almost any post by
anyone focused on race, gender, religion, music, art, or technology.
Eventually you get to where you keep a short mental whitelist. Circa late
2012, mine looks something like:
- Some of the threads on a few sites which are focused on discussion and have
long-term users and active moderation.
- Whatever comments I have to read in order to solve technical problems. (Often
necessary, seldom pleasant.)
- The SparkFun comments, because it's part of
...and that's about it. Just about every time I stray outside of those rough
parameters, I regret the experience and feel worse about humanity.
An article, essay, or chunk of video might be really excellent: well argued,
well researched, skillfully produced, informative, moving, humane. Most often,
the comments will be shallow, vain, hateful, cheaply argumentative, poorly
formulated, divisive, privileged, and generally destructive. Where the author
of a given text or one of its subjects is female, gay, nonwhite, or otherwise
triggers a particular common bigotry, there will usually be an overlay of
revolting prejudice, creepy sexualization, and implied violence.
A boundless variety of special-interest trolls and kooks lies in wait for
any topic of even slight controversy: Christians, Internet Libertarians, Vocal
Atheists, Islamophobes, People Who Are Righteously Offended by Every Goddamned
Thing That Might Be Perceived as Slightly Discriminatory or Privileged, People
Who Are Righteously Offended by Anyone Ever Being Offended About Anything,
People Who Are More Radical Than You, People Who Use the Word "Collectivist",
Men's Rights Advocates, Climate Change Deniers, Gun People, People Who Hate
Your Favorite Band, People Who Care Deeply About Typography, People Who Want to
Argue About Evolution, People Who Hate Your Technology, etc. ad nauseum.
I'd like to advance a case that comment systems are in general a failed
model, and should be drastically reconsidered. I think
comments-as-default-feature should be abandoned outright by the people building
the web, and that any sort of comment system should be approached with caution
in those cases where it really seems desirable.
I should be clear about what I mean when I say "comments". I'm specifically
referring to commenting systems attached to primary publication mechanisms,
where each main entry or chunk of content gets its own corresponding set of
comments open (usually without requirements more stringent than creating an
account) to users of the site. I mean the comments on most blogging platforms,
major news sites, YouTube videos, Amazon product reviews, Flickr photos,
Pinterest pins, etc.
I'm explicitly excluding things that are structured as discussion media,
like most web forums, mailing lists, and Google Groups, or services like
Twitter where messages might be replies to other replies or not, but exist at
the same level of abstraction. These things have their own pathologies, but I
want to set them outside of the box, for now. There's a gray area with link
aggregators and group blogs, where commenting is one of the major purposes of
the system as a whole, and the items under discussion are very likely not
produced by the people who post them. These are often frustrating places to
hang out, even at their best, but they can be valuable and worthwhile (much of
MetaFilter, a large subset of reddit in its early days) or generally wretched
(Digg, all but localized pockets of reddit ca. 2012).
Comments are generally harmful because they:
- represent an asymmetry in communication: It is substantially less
investment in time, energy, and personal credibility to post a comment than
to post the sorts of things that get commented on.
- appeal to attention seeking, spotlight grabbing, and me-too
- contribute to a sense that something must be written in response,
and that the natural response to a piece of work is to criticize, to express
disagreement or approval, to formulate an evaluation, to attack.
- create an artificial sense of time pressure on respondents, because
it's understood that popular things will receive many comments, and early
ones will probably receive more attention.
- discourage better, long-form, thoughtful responses made at the level of
an original post (a blog post replying to a blog post is on average more
interesting than a comment replying to a blog post, and easier to ignore if
- offer an easy venue for crackpots and assholes, where few real
costs are (or can be!) imposed on antisocial behavior.
- appeal to authors by providing a sense of attention and audience
for their work, and in so doing encourage authors to behave in ways that
attract more comments, rather than ways which produce better work, more
lasting engagement, or a healthier general community.
- require enormous resources of time and energy to moderate or engage
Nothing I'm saying about this is new. Here, for example,
is Shaun Usher,
who runs Letters of Note:
In a move which thankfully won't affect the vast majority of you, I have
today disabled comments on Letters of Note. Permanently.
All complaints should be directed towards a section of society to whom the
concept of even vaguely civil discussion means nothing. This collective waste
of flesh, bone, and dangerously limited brain function have caused me to
dread opening each and every "New Comment" notification I've received over
the past twelve months or so, to the point where I now cannot continue
justifying the moderation of these imbecilic, repugnant grunts when it takes
up such an inordinate amount of my willpower and, more importantly, time. I'd
rather spend my hours happily expanding the archives of Letters of Note than
clean up after a keyboard-wielding gaggle of cowardly, dim-witted,
knuckle-dragging reprobates who have nothing better to do than gleefully
splash their fetid saliva all over my efforts and then roll around in the
puddle until I'm able to press "Delete Comment." I refuse to waste another
Elizabeth Williams at Salon:
I used to believe that as an online writer, I had an obligation to read the
comments. I thought that it was important from a fact-checking perspective,
that it somehow would help me grow as a writer. What I’ve learned is that if
there’s something wrong or important or even, sometimes, good about a story,
someone will let you know. I’ve over the years amassed an amazing community of
Salon readers who engage via email, who challenge me, who inspire new stories,
who are decent people and treat me like one in return. What I was getting in
the comments was a lot of anonymous “You suck, bitch.”
I’m still not entirely immune to trolls. I regularly get some seriously
crazy emails, and I’ve had to become much more proactive about blocking
lunatics on Twitter. But in the past 10 months, the amount of toxicity to
which I am exposed on a daily basis has subsided substantially. And it feels
great. It’s calmed the negative chatter in my head and it’s made my
experience of the Internet a whole lot healthier. I highly recommend it.
The Williams quote brings me 'round to one of the things that's gotten
me thinking most about the dynamics of commenting. Laurie Penny wrote a piece
last Fall about what
for women writing publicly on the web, which triggered a
bunch of people to echo and reinforce her points.
There's obviously a much bigger conversation there, and I'm under no
illusion that there's a simple technical fix for this thing where the Internet
is full of creepy misogynist shitheads. I am pretty sure, however, that the
idea of comments as a required feature of publishing platforms has given
shitheads in general more power than they'd have otherwise, and I think it's
possible to improve things by reconsidering the ways we build the mechanisms of
I should wrap this up by saying that yes, there's still a wiki here which
doubles as a basic comment system. I've kept it because it differs subtly from
traditional comments, my readership topped out ages ago in the very low
double-digits, and in the last decade, maybe 50 people have ever figured out
how to use it. If you've commented here more than once, there's a pretty good
chance I know you in person. If that dynamic ever changes much, I may well
hide the links to comment pages and encourage people to write me an e-mail.
tags: topics/metafilter, topics/sparkfun