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

 

28 Comment

  • This is a dumb article. You’re dumb. You suck. Idiot.

  • Please. Stop. Me. Before. I. Comment. Again.

    • I’m serious. Ditching these comment sections is a simple way to improve this site and remove temptations to both read comments and make comments.

      What added value do you think they bring to Brooklyn Magazine?

  • I find the comments on most websites I read to be for the most part well-intentioned at the very least, and often they illuminating and full of well-constructed counterpoints.

    It seems to me that this trope of complaining about the comments has more to do with writers pining for the good old days when they could make idiotic authoritative pronouncements to the masses from on high, Tom Friedman-style, and never get called out.

    • How many websites do you read? I’d definitely avoid YouTube’s comments to maintain your high water mark as they’re replete with some of the most opprobrious replies imaginable.

  • Poopoo Fartface Cockmuncher!

    Everyone is stupid but me!

    Bababooey!

  • “Monocle-wearing hoi polloi”? Please look up the meaning of “hoi polloi”.

  • I try to avoid looking at comments. Occasionally, I can’t resist and I’m never happier or wiser because I scrolled down. Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, etc. are ideal for linking to and discussing most content. These sites have block/ignore features and allow a member to address a topic-specific community or a very broad one. Financial necessity is surely the only reason content-producing sites attempt to manage a graffiti wall on each page.

  • This is an ironic article considering this site gets very few comments, which tells me it has very few readers.

  • The comments section is why this online magazine exists. It may be an occupational hazard. You are writing for your readers. You don’t have to respond to comments, and we don’t have to read them. But once you decide that your authors and your authors’ prose is more important than your readers, you have missed the point. If the internet signifies anything, it’s that ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. If you have decided that your ideas are beyond reproach, and do in fact exist in a vacuum, then you have pigeon-holed all of your customers as idiots.

    Print is fading due in large part to the fact that it is not interactive, or as easily transimittable or accessible. If you want to adopt those characteristics, they’ll be others to take your place.

  • God, what an elitist un-democratic position.
    Forget about the concept of an interactive internet.
    Your idea of communication is a one way street.
    Or should I say- a dead end street?
    Achtung! We the authors
    (who have spent “months” writing our golden words of wisdom)
    will do the WRITING
    …. and you -the peon public-
    must quietly READ and LISTEN!
    If you don’t like comments on your precious work,
    or are too thin-skinned regarding criticism,
    then simply ignore the comments. Simple solution.

  • I used to feel the same – I’m a freelance journalist, and the idea of writing for the Guardian now seems almost like signing up for a very public and unpleasant flogging.

    Having said that, the quality of journalism in the jump to online has suffered disastrously … We’re constantly bombarded with click-bait articles and tabloid headlines; there’s a great deal of bad blog writing being paraded as journalism; and it’s hard to believe The Guardian aren’t actively “trolling” their own audience (inviting negative comments) a lot of the time by the sheer volume of garbage they post up under the loose guises of subjects such as feminism.

    I used to hate comments. Now I find they’re often the only place you do find well thought out arguments and (really) journalism.

  • It used to be that people had to sit down and compose a letter, which would be mailed to the editor, and then evaluated for clarity and relevance. Why can’t we go back to that?

    • In fact, after I posted my first comment here, I noted that it was “awaiting moderation” and realized that there is a possibility that it won’t make the cut. While the level of traffic on some sites seems much higher than here, the same concept should be considered.

      If a person who works for the site itself, and is designated as a moderator, must review postings prior to being published, that is the equivalent of the letter to the editor being reviewed before publication. It is a valuable step, between offering a comment, or a nasty-gram, and having it published, or not.

      • Just wanted to say that we don’t moderate comments based on the sentiment contained within (unless that sentiment is explicitly threatening, which is rare). We pretty much approve everything. The moderation system is in place on our site to prevent spam from appearing in the comment section.

  • Instead of publishing 99% of comments, how about publishing the 9% most thoughtful?

  • This is due to lack of filtering which can be established through cross-platform credibility.

    If blogs, forums, and online communities all supported a technological standard for recognizing the credibility of people in various subjects of interest, online communities (like this blog) could provide filters that would eliminate this problem.

    How would you like it if you could control the comments you see, and how your comments are seen, based on relevance to your own interests?

    Rather than creating “filter bubbles” these credentials create cross-platform clusters/circles of like minded people in various subjects of interest, while also promoting individual novelty and creativity within each clusters/circles.

    • Disqus, amongst others, has a reputation system that can be enabled by the site moderator. I wish more sites would enable it.

  • Removing comments entirely is an extreme and unproductive solution. Active moderation is the key to ensuring a higher level of discourse. As soon as trolls learn they will not be abided, they will go find another megaphone for their venom.

  • “But commenters now cry censorship when their bile is deleted, invoke their First Amendment rights at the mention of eliminating comments system.”

    Nope privately run website they can do what they want.

  • Many of us have found that, especially in online areas where politics are the main articles – like DailyKos, for one – the Right-wing seems to be the source of nasty and foul comments. Usually they attack the commenter, not the comment, personally.

    And, while it’s easy to say, “Sticks and stones …” what I have found works most often is if, at the end of a comment, for which I am sure there will be a nasty-gram in return, I allude to the possibility that the poster of that nasty retort should go pick up their check from the GOP or Tea Party.

    Oddly enough, there have been very few nasty, personal attacks when I end a comment with this. It’s as if I’ve taken the wind out of their sails before they had a chance to get up to speed in an attack.

    Certainly, I am not perfect and have gotten into it with some of the worst of them, but over time I have learned that trying to have a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent is not worth the effort, or the keystrokes.

    As they say, FWIW.

  • One way communication is not communication, its propaganda. Articles I find on the internet without a functional comment discussion section, I immediately ignore as propaganda, with a sinister ulterior motive behind them. Delete or lockdown your comment section, and you basically shot your article in its own foot without a chance to influence anyone.

  • “It’s time to privilege the work of journalism–and the psychic space of the people who work in the field”
    How is that even a sentence?
    So, outsource the comment monitoring.
    Your psychic,space is your own concern–not the readers, not your boss. You’re not special.

  • I think even the worst comments serve to remind us that we haven’t come as far as we like to think we have as a society. That all the “isms” are just as rampant as they always have been, that our education system is still sorely lacking (or at least English 101 needs improvement), and we still have a long road to hoe when it comes to tolerance and a functional society.

  • Leave to the leftwing to shut down all comments. They are doing that at many newspapers. The reason? They want to hear a LEFTWING echo chamber only. This is scary as hell. The left is nothing but STALINIST-MARXIST-FASCIST! “Inside every liberal is a TOTALITARIAN” like this broad.

  • So basically, you’re saying that readers who comment need to be nicer to authors? What a bunch of tripe.

    Do you think that you are immune from criticism, ridicule, and contempt because you occupy the loft position of writer or journalist? That here is some specialness to what you do that means you should not have to a use and criticism like everyone else? Please, ask the meter maids how that works for them, or the guy works on the road making repairs at rush hour, the nurse who works a shift in the ER, or the lawyer who has defend your rights to get paid or publish your garbage.

    Perhaps journalists might be less apt to be criticized and threatened if they acted more like journalists and less like shills for a particular point of view/political agenda Unlikely, I grant you, but possible.

    Whiny garbage like this article only acts as fuel for the fire. You get a paycheck, probably more than you should be paid (which is the case more often than not in many fields). If you don’t like what it entails to cash that check, go do something else where your delicate sensibilities are less likely to be offended.