I’ve participated in online communities ever since the days of Prodigy’s bulletin boards back in the early 1990s. I still remember my first–and only–flame war: it was with a guy named Den Elms over how realistic the effects in Jurassic Park looked. I also remember another poster chiding me for the anti-Elms posts I was writing, saying I didn’t need to “build a temple of hate” to the guy. I took that criticism to heart,* and ever since I have stayed away from flame wars and arguing on the Internet–which is, of course, the best modern analogue for the myth of Sisyphus.
But by the early 2000s, the Internet had become all about the user. And so the sort of close-minded, competition-based arguing that had once been done primarily about the supremacy of one sports team over another or whether or not Balrogs have wings is now found beneath news articles, editorials, and anything else on the Web.
In order to draw in readers, many websites allow comments on almost any of their pages. And so even the most well-researched, thoughtful piece on some aspect of politics is guaranteed to have a few comments by those of one political persuasion or another, claiming the article is the work of a fascist or terrorist or whatever. It’s reached the point where I actively prevent myself from scrolling down to look at comments below an article.
It’s not that I’m against free speech–far from it. In fact, what bothers me the most about these comments is how they limit free speech in an insidious way.
When you finish reading an editorial in a newspaper or magazine where the writer has (presumably) put in a significant amount of effort and talent, you begin to form your own opinion of it. But if you scroll down a tiny bit, you’ll see the first comment by someone–and it’s usually completely anonymous, you don’t know this person from Adam–and it will often either be blindly agreeing with or roundly criticizing the piece. Once you’ve read that, you’ll get some sort of reaction–based loosely on the inchoate opinion you’d started to form–and you’ll have an urge to read the next comment, and the next, until you come across one that backs up the vague intuitive conclusion you’d reached.
Of course, these comments are rarely anywhere near as thoughtful or well-researched as the original piece. They’re often either incendiary or merely recitations of half-truths or political talking points. But they’re fun to read–I won’t deny that–and so you keep scrolling through them, until finally you’ve forgotten whatever point the article’s writer had attempted to make and have become caught up in the sort of mindless spin that dominates political shows.
My point is this: allowing comments on news articles, editorials and certain other types of Web pages serves to diminish the original article by:
1.) putting the dashed-off, thoughtless rantings of certain (usually anonymous) people on the same level as a well-researched or thoughtful piece, and
2.) making it harder for the reader to come to their own opinion regarding argument or import of the piece before entering into a discussion about it.
Nothing bugs me more than when I read a column by a well-respected journalist, civil servant, or author and then the first comment is something to the effect of, “Oh, you’re full of crap, gasbag!” These people have earned the right to a little respect.
To be clear, I’m only talking about certain types of Web pages–e.g., articles and op-eds in high-profile news sites, magazines and the like. There are many sites devoted to encouraging such discussion, and obviously many blogs thrive on comments (including mine!), and I have absolutely no problem with commenting on those. Ideally, one should link to an op-ed on a discussion board and then discuss it there.
What bothers me is when the ability to comment is carelessly added as a marketing feature and then allowed to run more or less unmediated (except for a token swear filter). While I realize that plenty of smart discussion goes on in these comments as well, it often serves to mire the original article in muck and makes it harder for the writer to make an intelligent, persuasive argument.
*Though Elms did show up as a character in my novella “The Wanderer”–as a grumpy old jerk. RDRR!