I love the internet. It’s a wonderful place to discover new artists and talented writers and cats playing with yarn. But lately, it’s getting me a little down. I’ll read a clever article or watch a delightfully charming video of a Beagle befriending a moose, and after I have a good giggle, I’ll make the mistake of scrolling down to the comments section. Internet comments turn my joy into sadness in mere seconds, on every kind of site from video to news to opinion. Why can’t people enjoy a timely listicle for just that: its timeliness? Do we have to take gifs seriously? In the last few weeks, more than twice I’ve sent articles to friends and caveated them with, “Don’t bother reading the comments.” And it’s time to take a stand.
I understand the need for free speech. I understand the importance and significance of having our opinions protected. But there’s a difference between stating your opinion and commenting for commenting’s sake, just to insult the author and/or fellow commenter. I don’t understand why so many feel the need to go out of their way to write something hateful, and it’s a shame if you’re proud to call that free speech.
I used to think people left hateful comments on articles because they could do so anonymously. I wondered, would you say something that rude to the author or commenter’s face? Surely not, which is why you’re commenting anonymously. I didn’t agree with it, but I understood the behavior. Now, people have no problem signing in with Facebook and leaving a comment that’s easily traceable to their name, photo and profile. Most still choose to remain anonymous, or virtually anonymous (to comment with an account created from the website they’re on). But to comment with your social profile so easily accessible to the masses is a bold move—I’m not sure if it’s commendably bold, but it’s bold.
What should the conversation be, then? Trust me, nobody laments a your/you’re mishap more than I do. And while I roll my eyes at poor grammar in comment threads, an article comment thread is not intended to school each other in the passive voice. (See what I did there?) Should they feel inclined to do so, readers should use the comment thread to respectfully leave their opinion about the piece—the one so many merely skimmed to get to the text box at the bottom—and engage with other readers about their opinions. It’s respectful. It’s mature. If you disagree with opinions stated in the piece, you’re more than welcome to share them, if you do so with an open mind. So when I have to ask, “Why are we discussing post-Reconstruction race relations in the comments section of a video starring a puppy chasing a butterfly?” It’s clear some part of the system has broken down.
It’s my belief that most people who enjoy an article don’t comment on it. They read it, smile to themselves and maybe pass the link along to a relevant friend on Gchat or share it on Facebook. I think more positivity could do comment threads some good. If you truly enjoyed something, let the author know! Others will follow suit.
Alternatively, it’s also my belief that some commenters just take what they find on the internet a little too seriously. This is common with opinion articles. At the end of the day, not every article can cater to every audience; I don’t think any harm was meant by that list of questions every twenty-something wonders. If you’re looking for the offensive in everything, you’ll never be disappointed.
All of these thoughts lead me to the question: is trolling a form of cyberbullying or cyber-harassment? If you’re commenting just to insult the author of the piece, I think so. If you’re commenting on a post to attack another commenter, I think so. And if you watch a thread just to keep your insult comments coming, I think so. All of those things are forms of harassment, and thus should be taken seriously.
What are we going to do about it? I don’t think closing comments on articles will make a difference, because people can still share and comment on things via social networks. Where there’s a fired-up will, there’s a way. But where do you draw the line, and how do you combat the negativity?
Some sites have already taken measures to combat negative comments—most recently, YouTube. In short, YouTube added algorithms, filters and requires commenters to sign in with a Google+ account (remember, Google owns YouTube). Will these measures help? Are they the right thing to do? There’s always a way around something, but I can only hope. People are already unhappy about it—there’s a petition tens of thousand of signatures strong to stop the new changes. Just spitballing here, but I bet the unhappy ones are the same ones sassing all over the ‘Tube.
As a writer, I experience negative comments in two ways: those I come across on other articles, and those left on my own articles. I love reading comments left by readers, but lately I wonder why some of them bother. The question is raised more and more: should I reply? I respond to e-hecklers on a case-by-case basis. If the comment stems from a misunderstanding of the integrity of my intentions or the site I’m representing, I usually intervene to restate my thesis and apologize for unintentional hurt feelings. I don’t, however, engage with people who are clearly never going to learn. The line between the two groups is thicker than you might think. What readers don’t always realize is writers are often given assignments; what’s a staff of writers for, otherwise? Comments like “How is this news?” and “Who even cares?” are not helpful. Remember: we’re doing our jobs. If you don’t like what we’re saying, take your side eye to another site.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have some of the answers. All I know is, I’m disappointed by the lack of humanity that’s growing more and more rampant in comment threads. Honestly, I expect more from the internet. Sometimes, I don’t feel very welcome here, or I don’t feel like bothering. Let’s reclaim this online community where literally anything is possible; it’s up to us to lead the positivity charge. You can agree or disagree with any or all of my points, but I ask that you remember this: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.