Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Comment About Comments

The Internet is a great place for millions of users to come together and share ideas. The network allows for more interconnectedness than television, radio, or any other technology before. Anyone can share their creations. It is easier than ever to find someone who connects with an interest and have a dialogue with that person. Evidently, it is also very easy to display strong attitude, sometimes with hatred towards a person or group. I’m speaking, of course, of comments.

Scroll down to the bottom of most web pages and you will find the comments section. Some of them are blocked by login information while others require Google or Facebook verification, but the infamous ones have seemingly no rules and anyone can post whatever they want under the guise of “anonymous.” If you’ve spent any amount of time on the Internet, you have probably heard it before: “Don’t read the comments!”1 Ostensibly, this section is a place for users to reflect knowledgeably upon what they have just read or watched. But it is not uncommon for this to devolve into rabid spewing of inappropriate or offensive speech almost completely unrelated to the original content. This is a problem.

Some websites are built entirely on the premise that sane folks can have a reasonable discussion in comments. And these can be successful because of the community that builds around the discussion. Based on the traditional sense of a public assembly, Internet ‘forums’ allow people to virtually gather and discuss a range of topics. These are the very best examples of comments on the Internet, as they allow like-minded people to be together. As the community grows, inflammatory commenters are excised. The opposite of this strict self-policing is a sort of free-for-all where people are rude almost immediately. YouTube is a notorious example, where commenters can be outright abusive. I’m just going to vent a bit, so if you want to skip the next two paragraphs, that’s okay.

Why do these kinds of people do this? What gives them the right to trash an otherwise fine piece of content? These are both difficult questions to answer, but one short, acceptable answer is that our freedom of speech extends to cover ideas stated on the Internet. People feel that they have the power to say whatever they wish, and that others need to listen to them. To an extent, this is true: all of us on the Internet have an equal voice. But these people are also wrong. Just because hate-speeches are widely publicized, this does not make them right or even popular. Even online, ignorant speech is still ignorant. And hateful people are still idiots.

Another obvious answer to the question, is that commenters can hide behind anonymity. A cowardly person can say whatever they want if their name is not directly to the left. There is nothing to risk by antagonizing others. Unless there is a some kind of thumbs down feature, that comment will exist as long as people respond to it. Which is, of course, the improper way to deal with “trolls” on the Internet. The best thing to do is let them say what they will and ignore it. Or read it and laugh at them inwardly because you are better than them2. Either will suffice.

ANYWAY, I’m done with the negativity. Here is an absolutely radical theory: is it possible that comments are actually a positive force on the Internet? I might go so far as to suggest that they have become a part of the original content. Is that too much? For better or for worse, I believe our experiences are shaped by external opinions. I might think differently about a video after having read a comment about it. This might be a sad way to look at it, because it implies we cannot arrive at opinions on our own. That’s not really what I mean. I’d like to think browsing comments give us different avenues of thought from which to compare. I came to this realization while reading a library book in which another reader had written some notes in the margins of the book. It occurred to me that this marginalia really was affecting how I was reading the book.

As an undergraduate, I’m sure I remember a philosopher positing that a piece of literature is only half produced by the author. The other half is from the reader and the experiences they bring to the reading. This implies that every book is different for every reader any given time they read it. This also suggests that comments play a significant role in our comprehension of the work. For instance, if I read a news article online that particularly fascinates me, I purposely scroll through the top dozen or so comments, just to gauge the reactions of others. And yes, this affects my reading of the article. Therefore, I think that comments have slowly become part of the entire piece.

Basically, be careful with comments. They might have more of an effect than you think. It does not make sense to merely post that you don’t like something. Disagreeing with the content or another poster without providing any reasoning whatsoever does not add anything substantial to the conversation. Thoughtful is always best in comments.

So, what do you think? Are comments meaningless addendum to online publications, or should they be taken more seriously? Let me know what you think below.

1 There are myriad hilarious examples of these types of messages online that spoof the ridiculous nature of comments. Sometimes, though, the parodies are more accurate than they should be.
2 In fact, I do get some enjoyment out of reading bad comments because some people are so laughably dense.