Not All Comments Are Created Equal: The Case for Ending Online Comments
It shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m not fond of comments sections. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many female writers who are. On most sites – from YouTube to local newspapers – comments are a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage.
There’s a reason, after all, that the refrain “don’t read the comments” has become ubiquitous among journalists. But if we’re not to read them, why have them at all?
I wasn’t always a comments-hater. When I started a feminist blog in 2004, I was thrilled to finally be able to talk with other young feminists online and was open to chatting with detractors. I saw the comments section as a way to destabilize the traditional writer/reader relationship – no longer did audiences need to consume an article without a true opportunity to respond. Comments even made my writing better those days; feedback from readers broadened the way I thought and sometimes changed my mind.
But as the internet and audiences grew, so did the bile. Now it feels as if comments uphold power structures instead of subverting them: sexism, racism and homophobia are the norm; threats and harassment are common. (That’s not even counting social media.)
For writers, wading into comments doesn’t make a lot of sense – it’s like working a second shift where you willingly subject yourself to attacks from people you have never met and hopefully never will. Especially if you are a woman. As Laurie Penny has written, “An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.” The problem is so bad that online harassment is a keynote subject this year at the Online News Association conference.
My own exhaustion with comments these days has less to do with explicit harassment – which, at places like the Guardian, is swiftly taken care of. (Thank you, moderators!) Rather, it’s the never-ending stream of derision that women, people of color and other marginalized communities endure; the constant insistence that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved. Yes, I’m sure straight, white, male writers get this kind of response too – but it’s not nearly as often and not nearly as nasty.
I don’t much understand the appeal of comments for readers either. Outside of the few places that have rich and intelligent conversation in comments, what is the point of engaging in debate where the best you can hope for are a few pats on the back from strangers for that pithy one-liner? Isn’t that what Facebook or Twitter is for?
Seriously: when tech news website Re/code shut down its comments section last year, editors cited the growth of social media as one reason for the decision: “The bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there, making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful.”
Comments sections also give the impression that all thoughts are created equal when, well, they’re not. When Popular Science stopped publishing comments, for example, it was because “everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again...scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to ‘debate’”. When will we see the humanity and dignity of women as a fact, rather than an opinion?
It’s true, I could just stop reading comments. But I shouldn’t have to. Ignoring hateful things doesn’t make them go away, and telling women to simply avoid comments is just another way of saying we’re too lazy or overwhelmed to fix the real problem.
Websites and news sources are increasingly moving forward without comments because they find them unnecessary and counterproductive. In my perfect world, more places would follow their lead – at least until publishers find lasting solutions to making comments worth it. Worth it for readers and for writers. Because the nastiness on our doorstep has piled too high for too long, and I just want to get out of the house.