Cultural Commentator

Always Read the Comments Section

Cultural Commentator

Always Read the Comments Section


Back in September, when Popular Science announced they would be disabling the comments section of their website, they became the envy of editors at many publications who’ve long wished they could do the same. Comments aren’t just a confounding hive of trolls and villains, they argued, they actually have an effect on the way readers process information. They pointed to a widely circulated study from earlier this year that found that uncivil comments, the bread and butter of any sub-article scrum, distorted comprehension negatively. It’s a study that gave voice to a suspicion that many in the media have long held: that opening up the channels of communication to two-way traffic is, in fact, dragging us all down into the muck.

That way of thinking is exceptionally misguided, and anyone who filters out comments, either actively or passively, is robbing themselves of an important counterbalance of opinion, not to mention a riotous source of entertainment. Always read the comments, I say.

The revulsion toward the comments section is commonplace throughout all corners of the web. The popular Twitter account Don’t Read Comments is a consistent source of black humor on the matter. “Whatever kind of day you’re having, you can make it just a little bit better by choosing to not read the comments” reads one typical tweet. “We like to think that we’re smarter than dolphins, but no dolphin has ever bothered to read online comments. Dolphins: 1, Humanity: 0” another. Only a fool would wade into the gurgling cauldron of racism that boils under any local newspaper’s articles, and YouTube comments section are the Wild West – no rules, no law, although Google has made efforts to curb that recently. A typical piece on the subject on Salon from last year quotes writer Caitlin Moran summarizing the outlook succinctly: “Never read the comments. It’s where all the world’s unhappiness dwells.” I could link you to dozens of similar articles expressing the same idea, like this one for example, but it would be unnecessary. The idea that comments are inherently bad is so entrenched and so thoroughly internalized it hardly needs outside support.

The fact that so many of these arguments against comments come from professional members of the media is particularly troubling. It’s a descriptivist stance toward the sharing of information, one that confines the way we communicate to a sneering, top-down one-way flow. Granted, as a writer, it can be frustrating to put hours or days of effort into a piece only to have someone waltz into the mix and declare all of my hard work invalid with ten seconds worth of hasty spittle, but to dismiss comments because most of them are dumb is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Yes, most comments are dumb, but so are most articles. Most everything is dumb. Why single out this one tiny subsection in the vast diaspora of boneheadedness? As everyone who’s been piling on the story about Buzzfeed’s “no haters” book review policy has pointed out, like Tom Scocca’s piece “On Smarm” in Gawker recently, filtering out scathing critics out of hand makes for a poorer intellectual climate. Every article in existence already comes with its ready-made army of Dorothy Parkers-in-waiting. And as we’ve seen with the recent rash of Twitter hoaxes, we’d do well to pay attention to commenters, so often the first ones to smell something rotten when they see it. Granted there will be a lot of “FAKE” false positives, but that’s better than the alternative that we’re heading toward, blindly accepting every other viral share that comes down the pike, especially for members of the media who should know better to stop and ask if something is real before we share it.

Besides, absconding from the scene of the thought crime is a sort of dereliction of intellectual duty, I’d argue. It’s an opinion-maker’s job to sort through slush, isn’t it? For every fifteen comments arguing that I’m an idiotic cretin who’s probably engaged in sexual relations with my own mother at this very moment, I’ve found one that might challenge the way I’ve thought about something I’ve written. Isn’t that a good thing?

Who’s going to tell me I’m wrong if not the commenters? Presumably my editors and regular readers already agree with me. That’s not the type of feedback that’s healthy to hear. It creates a vacuum in which writers are sealed off from the rest of the world, and leads to, well, exactly the type of echo-chamber most of us operate in now.

At a time where so much of our media habits are condensed further into pre-ordained confirmation bias boxes, shutting yourself off from dissent, even in its more banal and reactionary forms, seems short-sighted. It’s for that reason that I’ll regularly find myself rolling up my sleeves and forging through the comments section of my hometown’s tabloid, The Boston Herald. like Sun Tzu heading off to battle. Remember: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” How else are we supposed to know what we’re arguing against if not deliberately seeking out the voices of our opponents?

Perhaps you’ve had your fill of political demagoguery online. Comments sections have more to offer than just that. The sheer unpredictability of any given comment section makes it a treasure trove of unexpected hilarity. Consider this gem I just stumbled across on a Rolling Stone article about how “Blurred Lines” is the worst song of the year. “This is coming from the magazine that has Jann Wenner keeping Chicago out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Please. There isn’t an ounce of credibility here.” What in the good holy hell does that have to do with the article in question? Nothing at all! And yet it’s blowing my mind with its absolutely perfect randomness. Is Jann Wenner masterminding a scheme to undermine the rock band Chicago? I have no idea. I don’t particularly want to know either, but the fact that someone, somewhere out there is stewing with frustration over this plot is the type of beautiful look into human psychology I never would have considered had I not scrolled further down on this particular page.

The human mind, as anyone who has read the comments can tell you, is a scary place. It’s also often a delightful and surprising one as well. That’s probably why Gawker has been trying to yoke the harness to the hivemind of the hoi polloi for so long. After years of constant fiddling with the comments sections, the roll out of the Kinja system has turned the commenters into the content-creators. We may end up regretting unleashing Pandora’s comment text box unto the world someday, but it’s just another example of how one would be wrong to dismiss readers out of hand. Websites that disable their comments aren’t only cutting themselves off from a community building around the content, they’re also cutting the rest of us off from a boundless source of information.

I regularly find myself skipping ahead on articles on sites I frequent, like the AV Club, for example, simply because I know there’s an engaged, informed, and yes, often frustratingly banal group of commenters I can rely on there, who might take the conversation in directions I never would’ve imagined. Too often with online writing there’s a predictable formula to a piece’s rhythm, where you come to expect the beats in all the familiar places. Digging into the comments allows you to explore the fringes, to think, in other words, outside of the box, even if it’s coming from inside the comment box.

And as for readers, claiming to never read the comments is disingenuous.  What’s Twitter besides one consolidated comment section? It’s where we go to publish our own opinions, yes, but also where we hope to hear from everyone else. You can’t dismiss the commenters anymore than you’d dismiss your own opinions. The commenters are us. And if you don’t agree, then feel free to tell me all of the ways I’m stupid in a comment. I’m sure at least one of your will hit the nail on the head.