The Comments Have Failed Us

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Hand-wringing about comment sections is by now an Internet trope. It surprises no one that most comment sections are vats of poison, filled with grammatically questionable rants at best and violent hate speech at worst. They are used to publicly threaten writers or subjects, to spread vitriol of the nastiest, most alarming nature. Just this week, the staff of Jezebel took their employers to task for creating a loophole that allowed temporary accounts—set up to allow commenters anonymity while giving news tips—to continually plant GIFs of brutal, disturbing pornography. At The Guardian, readers’ editor Chris Elliott wrote a long discourse about the abuse hurled towards women in the section following “any article on women’s issues.” The comments have failed us. It is time to acknowledge that comments sections are, most of the time, a disservice to both the writer and the reader.

What value does it add to finish a long, thoughtful essay or meticulously reported article only to then contend with several hundred haikus made of profanity and emojis? The thoughtful comments—and there are, of course, many—are inevitably buried under the indiscriminate garbage heaped into most sections, the clamor of many shouting voices drowning out the few measured responses. The spectrum of responses is inevitably weighed down by the few vicious commenters. When, in last month’s redesign, The New Yorker eliminated their open comment threads, I exchanged relieved emails with several colleagues. No longer would a lengthy investigative piece be followed by a trail of weird speculation and specious arguments, the same space allotted to a writer who spent several months on a piece shared with accusing comments dashed off in thirty seconds.

Comment sections, at their most craven, are intended to keep a reader on the website longer—ticking up the seconds they spend on a story, adding to the numbers sold to advertisers. But in their purest form, they are meant to foster community, to remove some of the boundaries between the writers whose task it is to turn out copy and the people who eagerly or grudgingly read it. Some sites, through vigilant management and moderation, have managed to more or less harness their commenters into a viable force. Even these require someone to fend off trolls, wade through a vast field of garbage in order to clear out a space for anything to bloom.

But the comment sections on most highly-trafficked sites, the ones automatically included to drum up interaction, do nothing to collapse the distance between the journalist and her audience. Instead, they have only served to cement that vast chasm, lead to the strengthening of the ramparts. Ask any Internet writer, and they can recite you our creed and code: Don’t read the comments. The language widely used to discuss commenters is the same as for an invading barbarian army, because it’s easier to imagine a vast sea of abstracted piranhas than actual people behind their computer screens clamoring for blood. Just as it’s easier for select commenters to imagine journalists as Wall Street fat cats or vicious-if-bumbling conspirators or mouthy monocle-wearers instead of actual people. Comment communities, of course, differ based on the publication and readership. The worst unpoliced vitriol is often found at big aggregator sites, where it’s easier to imagine the institution as a giant media monolith, instead of a newsroom full of working parts and people. (And to be fair, during my brief time so far at Brooklyn and The L, the comments, which we moderate but publish 99 percent of the time, have never reached the level of vitriol of those at The Guardian or Jezebel, and are, in fact, largely coherent.)

Writers who complain about the vitriol in the comments it are given a hearty eye-roll, advised to thicken their skin. It’s bad form to complain about it. “Buck up, buddy! This is the wild acid bath of the Internet. You’ve got to learn to take some slings and arrows!” is the inevitable reply. It’s true that putting your work out for public consumption requires some heartiness of spirit. But it is now not just tolerated but expected that journalists should suffer abuse at the hands of their audience. This is a relatively new occupational hazard. Newspapers always got their fair share of cranky letters, but no reporter was required to read–let alone publish–all of them. There is no other job, save comedian or bar band, where heckling is so routine. In my tenure as a writer and editor, the vast majority of comments I’ve read land somewhere on the spectrum from unhelpful to attacks on character and/or appearance to death threats. For every worthwhile comment, pointing out a facet of a story I hadn’t thought about or a fact I got wrong, ten more appeared that were the literary equivalent of fart noises.

But commenters now cry censorship when their bile is deleted, invoke their First Amendment rights at the mention of eliminating comments system. But those rights mean that you are allowed the freedom of your speech, they do not require anyone to listen. Radio shows still screen callers. Websites do not need a mandatory open comment section. It’s time to privilege the work of journalism–and the psychic space of the people who work in the field–above providing a platform for anonymous commenters.

Nor is the old “lighten up everybody!” chuckle and shrug of “It’s just the Internet!” an effective defense. The Internet is where we work, communicate, meet people, and live. Your bank isn’t any less of a bank because it exists on the Internet. Your job on the Internet isn’t less of a job. Your insults and threats aren’t any less insults and threats. The comment section is the most vivid example of the failure to see other humans on the Internet as living, breathing people, ones with ambitions and failures and favorite snack foods and jobs to do, not avatars or figments of our imagination. Until we can figure out a way around that, it’s time to leave the comments behind. 

Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby