Why do I bother reading the comments? Seriously. Why? Why can’t I read an article, absorb its contents, and exit the page without seeing what the rest of the world thinks?
This is an addiction I’m struggling to break. I’m not alone, either. A Google search for the phrase “don’t read the comments” brings back more than 1.5 million results, including a July 2013 article in Scientific American about how the desire to read and respond to comments relates to anthropology.
There are more than 4 billion internet users, worldwide. No matter the piece of content, you’re bound to bump into a wall of negativity and disagreement. I’m hard pressed to find anything that everyone can agree on. For instance, 7% of Americans believe the moon landing was a hoax, 14% believe in Bigfoot, 15% believe the government adds mind-controlling technology to TV broadcast signals, and 4% believe “lizard people” control our societies by gaining political power (source).
Good luck trying to get them to agree with just about anything else.
As an occasional writer, I’m faced with a bit of a double edged sword: the fewer people read my article, the less likely I am to end up the subject of internet vitriol; the more readers, the higher the likelihood of ending up the subject of ad hominem attacks.
In the past month, one of my articles was published on two popular sites, Thought Catalog and xoJane. This was huge for me. Writing a piece about my experience as a transgender woman, and having it read by a mainstream audience was a delight. Eventually, though, as is the case with nearly all pieces of internet writing involving transgender people, the comments sections slowly peppered with accusations of being some sort of freak, not a “real” woman, and so on. None of which really had anything to do with the content within my article.
For instance, here’s a comment a user named “fckoff” left at the bottom of my article on xoJane (TW: transphobia):
On Thought Catalog, hidden in a pile of mostly-positive commentary was this:
The thing is, most of the comments were so positive. Why is it that I can’t just brush off the negative ones? Knowing that some transphobia and gender policing will always find its way into the comments section, why can’t I stop myself before looking at the comments?
Anonymity gives people the courage to say things online that they ordinarily wouldn’t share. Anonymity makes it so easy to forget that comments like the two highlighted above are aimed at individuals of a group with a disproportionately high rate of suicide attempts.
Sometimes its good to stay cloaked in anonymity, but please never forget that when you say hateful things, there are real people on the other end. Step back and breathe.