It’s so common a refrain at this point the whole Internet should just get it tattooed on its forehead backward so it can read the message in the mirror every time it brushes its teeth:
DON’T READ THE COMMENTS.
“Hey, here’s a great article about female empowerment BUT DON’T READ THE COMMENTS.”
“Read this news story about the Middle East peace process BUT DON’T READ THE COMMENTS.”
“I found this really great blog post on raising children / using blenders / making cat videos / choosing the right soup crackers BUT FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THE GODS IN ALL THE HEAVENS DON’T READ THE COMMENTS OH GOD DON’T DO IT DO NOT GAZE INTO WHAT IS EFFECTIVELY NOT SAURON’S EYE BUT RATHER, SAURON’S WINKING, LAVA-DISGORGING BUTTHOLE.”
It has become the way of the Internet. We have come to understand that the comments section is not unlike the Internet’s own septic system: it sits below every post and video and article, collecting all the trash and shit and evil clowns that have been cast down from above. It’s positively dystopian. Up above are the elites, zipping about on their information superhighway, while below, the underpass has some kind of violent hobo fight club playing out again and again.
Internet comment sections are routinely rife with abuse. People go there not to have salient discussions, but to have those salient discussions highjacked by psychopathic bandits. Or they go there to be the bandits themselves: derailers, abusers, sexist shit-hats, racist fuckwits. That’s not to say comments sections are without positive discussion. That’s hardly ever the reality. Truth is, you can go to most comments sections and find enlightening, illuminating commentary. You just have to wade through a toxic slurry to get to it. That slurry represents the worst the Internet has to offer, and there you are, crawling through it on your belly like someone trying to find his watch in a gymnasium full of medical waste.
And it’s our own fault.
It’s our own damn fault.
We have failed to tend the field and now that shit’s all thick with weeds.
We own this problem. Collectively.
But we can also fix this problem, collectively.
If you own any online entity that offers up a comments section, you need to do one of two things:
a) Moderate the holy hell out of that comments section.
…or, if you cannot manage that task:
b) Shut down the comments section.
If you own a site where abuse is first allowed and then tolerated once its in the door — that’s not all the fault of the commenters. That’s on you. You’ve created the horrible space and let the monsters frolic there while you turn away. This is especially true with big sites that gets tons of comment traffic. (And here, quite likely, the insidious reality is that turbulent comments sections help those sites — because some people click more just to watch the endlessly replaying car crash going on in that “discussion,” and clicks mean revenue.) It’s not just about programmatic filters, but also about actual humans looking at comments and making editorial decisions about what can go there. Humans will moderate other humans. It has been our way before and must be again.
And here you might say, “Buh-buh-wuh!” And you’ll stammer out something about democracy and freedom of speech and censorship. But I’d ask you shift your POV a little bit. Look at a comments section like it’s the letter section of a newspaper. (For those who don’t know what that is, once upon a time young intrepid children rode their bikes down the neighborhood streets of America, flinging these rolled-up wads of murdered tree, and on the murdered trees someone had printed old, vetted, edited news stories.) The letter section was not a free-for-all. They did not print the rantings of every froth-mouthed cuckootrousers who wanted to air his conspiratorial, hate-fueled grievances with the world. They moderated those letter sections.
Consider, too, shifting your POV and trying to remember that the comments section is a public section. And, as such, it should abide by the relative rules of public discourse. Not entirely, of course, and I recognize this metaphor has its limits, but just the same, you can’t go into Target and take a dump on the barcode scanner. You can’t wander around in public space just yelling hateful shit. (Well, okay, you can in some areas, but it’s not actually encouraged and can have consequences.) Every square inch of floor is not a soapbox. Every gulp of oxygen is not fuel for someone’s belligerence. Every open space is not a concert hall for hatefuckers.
You do not own all the comments sections in all the world.
If you host a blog or any other site, then you own one: your own.
Moderate your comments section, folks.
And have a comments policy in place — I just clarified mine, for the record. And have a way to report abuse, too. (You can always report abuse here to me at terribleminds at gmail dot com.)
This isn’t a perfect solution. Any moderation runs the risk of shutting out voices that have dissenting opinions. It potentially creates an echo chamber if taken too far. (Though even here I’d argue that a safe space echo chamber is preferable to a free-for all prison knife-fight — it’s nice to have voices be heard, but the questions you gotta ask are: heard by whom, and to what effect?) If we are to hope that comments sections can actually be a place for discussion or even argument and not, say, the equivalent of an orgy of Cookie Monsters on a permanent meth binge, then we need to start doing something. Tolerating dissenting opinions does not mean tolerating abuse. It does not mean violating safe spaces online. It does not mean letting the Internet look like something out of Mad Max. This is on us to fix. Some sites do it. Some do it well, others do it poorly, but doing it at all is better than looking the other way. It’s not about creating some singular standard — but those of us with gardens are responsible for tending them to whatever extent we can.