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 my job.

...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 impulses.
  • 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 it sucks).
  • 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 with well.

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 minute.

Or Mary 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 it's like for women writing publicly on the web, which triggered a whole 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 participation.

 

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.