It’s Time to Admit the Whole Comments Section Thing Hasn’t Worked Out

These days the only words I anticipate more than “Errant Signal” when I check YouTube are “comments are disabled for this video.” The idea of a comment section has become so normal that we rarely stop and think how incredibly bizarre it actually is. It’s also clearly an experiment that has not done humanity any good and it’s time to admit that we'd be better off without.

Cue the accusations of censorship and the author’s ruminations on the psychological benefits of drinking during the day.

In theory a comment section is just the logical, democratic outgrowth of the old letter to the editor. Had something to say about an article? Write the paper and the editor would decide if it was germane enough to publish it. What it lacked in accessibility it made up for in quality control.

In practice this is rarely what a comment section actually is. While some people do indeed use them to try and forge a conversation with a content creator the difference is the goal. When someone wrote a letter to the editor, even a critical one, having it published was a sign that his or her rhetoric and argument were worthy of note.

A comment section on the other hand is usually not an excuse to talk to someone so much as it is an excuse to talk about someone where they can overhear you. Loudly. Preferably with a huge group of like-minded individuals digitally egging each other on like if William Gibson had written books about high school students.

David Wong tackled something similar in a Cracked piece about how Hollywood teaches us to communicate as if we are always waiting for a laugh track after a barbed quip. Whether it’s in the comment section of an article or a YouTube video or even on social media people are desperately seeking likes, upvotes, karma, approval, and the indication that they “dropped the mic.” The problem is this really isn’t a communication between the commenter and the creator, and it’s almost never constructive criticism. It’s performance. It’s a rook circle, a parliament of birds pecking at one in the center.

It’s so normalized that “don’t read the comments” has become the online equivalent of “don’t eat things you find on the ground.” That completely ignores that there is someone behind that comment actually choosing to make someone else feel terrible and encouraging others to do the same. Assholes on the internet aren’t a natural phenomenon like rainstorms. They are the directed actions of a living person.

Logically positive comments and actual discussion should rise above that, but the Internet is to logic what an active ingredient is to homeopathy. Even if it’s there it’s too small to matter. Jay Allen summed up the effect of online forums, particularly ones that allow anonymity, in his brilliant article explaining imageboard and chan culture. To quote…

The atmosphere is that of a paradoxically jovial angry mob. Almost everyone sees their own point of view as the consensus, assuming that most people most people agree with them. Any possibly contentious statement is presumed to be ironic, told as a joke or to rile up people who disagree. Since everyone assumes that anyone who disagrees is arguing in bad faith and doesn’t mean what they’re saying, anyone who disagrees is a fair target for apparently hateful mockery.

Comment sections continuously empower this specific kind of prick. What ends up happening is that the prominent voices are not necessarily the ones that make the most sense but the ones that can overwhelm or make the air so toxic anyone remotely moderate runs away screaming and cedes the field.

There’s a little game I like to play with myself whenever anything controversial I write gets re-shared on the official Houston Press Facebook page (Here’s an example if you want one). I like to count the number of people spewing an incomprehensible amount of vitriol and hate as well as the numbers of likes and shares. Every single time I write about a hot button issue like #BlackLivesMatter or those clowns that protested HISD’s Arabic-Immersion school the number of people quietly liking and sharing the article for discussion among their friends outnumbers the meanies, usually by quite a lot. They just don’t want to be caught up in the exploding septic tank that is your average rage-bro commenter holding court. While I understand and sympathize with that completely it’s a problem because it allows Angry Jack the illusion that he is the majority who everyone agrees with when the majority is more akin to parents quietly ushering their kids away from a man standing in the street loudly blaming fluoridation on the Jews.

Those commenters not only bother and annoy (at best) content creators they actively change the way other people perceive the creation itself. It’s why Popular Science shut off their comments sections after a University of Wisconsin-Madison study showed reading rude, attacking comments, even in tiny amounts, made readers more inclined to be negative about the whatever they had just read. Comments sections become entirely about why a few people think the subject under discussion is bullshit, and nothing else. They alienate any consumer that might actually enjoy a creator’s content in the name of allowing assholes to frame harassment as criticism and moderation as censorship.

When the Houston Press switched systems earlier this year it added a new, streamlined way of directly emailing writers, and my readers use it a lot. I get nice notes a-plenty, but I also get some of the same poison. There are rape threats and death threats and raging bigotry and even one guy that tried to convince me there was a link between circumcision and autism.

These bother me emotionally as much as public comments do, but you know what they don’t do? They don’t create a platform where we all pretend it’s OK for individuals to act in ways that would get them arrested out in Meat World. They don’t embolden the proto-asshole on the sidelines to join in by telling him it’s OK to call this person a fag and openly wish their family dies. They don’t silence or open to harassment the people who support or want to further discussion of the creation.

Most importantly, they don’t contribute to the intellectual something-for-nothingism the Internet has birthed. Can’t get a newspaper to print something you’ve written? Comment on someone else’s work and pretend it makes your opinions equally relevant. Can’t produce your own thought-provoking YouTube series? Say someone else’s is garbage and bask in the fact that your comment is forever a part of the footnotes of another’s work.

Comment sections haven’t worked out, sorry. Let people email their thoughts to creators privately or discuss it among their own social media followers. No one is owed a forum, and we’re actively doing a disservice to art and journalism by automatically providing one to whoever wanders by.

Jef’s book of illustrated stories, The Rook Circle, is out now. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner