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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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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