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Culture & Religion

Maybe We’re Finally Ready to Move Past Internet Comments

We’re not living in the most discourse-friendly age in history. Nowhere is that more clear than in comments sections.

Later this month the Online News Association will hold their annual conference, at which the online harassment of women journalists is to be the keynote subject. Not only is this a reaction to several high-profile incidents and a concerning greater trend, the keynote comes at a time when many high profile websites are completely scrapping their comments sections.

There are three main reasons for this. First, they can often serve as a forum for ignorance and abuse, and not just of women. Second, the emergence of social media has made them mostly redundant. Third, most public comment boards promote a state of discourse antithetical to rational thought and debate. By offering a forum for ignorance and failing to curate it you tacitly endorse the spread of philistinism.

Take it from a fellow who knew a lot about Philistines:

The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the Lord said to him, “Don’t read the comments, Moses. Don’t do it.” — Exodus 19:20-22

Okay sure: The above is a slight paraphrase. Let’s just say that if the God of Moses had any sense there would have been 11 commandments and the 11th would have been: “Thou shalt not read the comments if thou shalt know what’s good for you.”

In theory, comments sections are a great idea: an open forum for free discourse related to the content of a piece. Dialogue and debate become democratized. Anyone can join the conversation. And for many sites this still holds true. Not every comments section is a wretched hive of scum, villainy, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and not all commenters are misanthropes hell-bent on slinging hate-laced uninformed opinions. But a lot of them are. And since all those folks have Facebook and Twitter accounts from which they can do their thing, what’s the point of a website dedicating time and effort (and money) to maintaining the civility of said forum? What’s really worth saving here?

Here’s a challenge: Take a look at the comments below any random Yahoo News article and try to build an argument that anything there would be missed. It’s impossible. Even in our current age in which intelligent discourse is a rarity and this is what passes for “debate,” there’s very rarely anything of substance in the comments. All you can expect in an echo chamber or a feud.

Below, Walter Isaacson on the tight-knit communities that form around new technology.

Often times, the experience is straight-up toxic. As Jessica Valenti wrote last week in The Guardianwomen writers tend to avoid comments like the plague lest they be subjected to abuse. The same goes for writers of color and other minority voices. I ally most closely with the “sticks-and-stones may break my bones” crowd as far as the peanut gallery is concerned, but I sympathize with any outlet that elects not to offer a stage for ignorance. I don’t think the abuse angle is the strongest anti-comments argument, but it’s not insignificant. 

The main reason why comments sections are bad is because they’re a lot like candy or junk food — mostly temptation, very little substance. Reading the comments sections, particularly hate-reading them, is an intoxicating form of voyeurism, an actionable display of our insatiable urge to swim through the deplorable opinions of our fellow humans. 

If the counter-argument to “comments are bad for us” is “the commenters are there to call the writer out,” then whose job is it to call the commenters out? Democratizing the conversation leads to a fallacious idea that all perspectives and commentary are created equal. That’s just not true.

This, coupled with the aforementioned points about abuse, is why more websites will begin questioning whether their comments sections are worthwhile. And maybe they’ll end up like The Week and Re/code and just scrap them altogether, once it becomes apparent they’re not worth keeping around.

One final note: Much to your credit, the comments section here at Big Think is mostly stellar, aside from the garden-variety trolls and all the really weird folks trying to buy/sell kidneys. Seriously, please don’t buy a kidney from the Big Think comments section. I can’t vouch for it.

Photo credit: Getty Images


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