The Ineloquence Of Internet Commentary

Usually, I avoid comment sections of online articles, since I’m not as enormous a fan of migraines as I used to be. Lately, however, I’ve found myself drawn to them — these mysterious forces, these black holes ferociously sucking up the possibilities of high-quality conversation, before disintegrating those possibilities into a billion particles instantly.

Yes, everyone has an opinion. Yes, everyone has the right to voice that opinion. But, as I’ve recently observed, comment sections of many online articles — news, opinion, humor, etc. — have become largely contrarian and hostile in nature: violent bursts of NO!, raging insults against the author, swarms of fireflies telling the Sun that it has no goddamned idea what it’s talking about.

Don’t get me wrong. Occasionally, I will come across meaningful, intellectual discussions on the topic at hand from people who sincerely treat comment boards as a means of intelligent debate; this is the sole reason why I believe that comment boards should continue to exist. However, much of the time, I’ll find a hundred faceless people waving their arms and shouting, “Hey! Down here! I’m better than this article! And you’re a real bastard!”

For a concrete example, scroll through some of the 300+ comments to the recent story, “163,000 Jobs Added In July; Unemployment Rate Rose to 8.3%.” Here you will find a horde of readers angrily denouncing the percentages in the official report and even calculating/producing their own numbers, calling the reported numbers “drivel.” Here you will also find boisterous digital mobs shouting, “Shut the hell up!” at any one who dares to start a discussion with them. Hostile responses have been posted so frequently, in fact, that has developed a list of “Community Discussion Rules,” including “If you can’t be polite, don’t say it” and “Don’t use obscenities.”

For another concrete example, simply scroll through the comment section of just about any online Op-Ed piece posted any where, any time.

The difference in tone shouldn’t be too hard to recognize: the patient, intelligent commenter may question some of the author’s points and add his/her two cents; this person encourages the conversation to keep going. On the other side, the stubborn contrarian belligerently tells the author, “You’re wrong!” and expels an endless amount of energy masturbating aimlessly.

What are the causes of such responses? My opinion: the introduction of the i nternet exposed the world to a new, free form of self-publishing, through which any one could voice his/her opinion to millions across the globe. Because of this, and because a great number of us crave fame, we increasingly use comment boards to acquire as many “likes” as possible. Some of us have adopted the notion that excessive negativity is likely to draw attention, and will argue primarily for the sake of argument.

Note that I am not exactly referring to trolling here, since the true definition of trolling is to veer off-topic and deliberately incite a web riot. I don’t believe that the foremost purpose of these comments is to deliberately upset anyone else (except maybe the author), but to elevate the status of the commenter.

Of course, this is all just one man’s opinion, and I encourage you to intelligently discuss this topic in the comment section of this article.

Ironically enough, this against-the-grain activity has overtaken many comment boards and has thus become the majority.

Even articles on the arts aren’t safe: on a Houston Press blog, writer Jef With One F posted the article, “Top 10 Funniest Novels Ever Written.” Despite the fact that he acknowledges the list as “the ten funniest novels we’ve come across,” and even politely adds, “If you know one we missed, please tell us in the comments,” he is met with not much more than hostility:

No mention of Confederacy of Dunces? How am I supposed to take this list seriously? This list is fucking dumb.

This is basically the Top Ten Funniest Novels Written At A Ninth-Grade Reading Level. So, congrats Jef, you’ve scored a solid hit for your target demographic, which appears to be the lowest common denominator.

How is it possible you have left off BOTH Catch-22 AND A Confederacy of Dunces? HOW? I could probably try to understand leaving one of those classic comedies off, but BOTH? That just destroys any credibility you probably never had to begin with.

While I disagree with most of the list and agree that Confederacy of Dunces is one of the funniest novels ever written, I think that there are better ways to contribute to the discussion than by outright insulting the author. Jef With One F did mention that these are Houston Press’ top ten funny novels, and he even invited readers to contribute their own favorites, but he did not encourage them to be immature about it.

One alternate way to respond to this piece: write “Confederacy of Dunces” and thoroughly explain why you believe it is one of the funniest novels ever written. (A few readers did exactly that.) Another way: suggest to Jef With One F that the next time a list like this is composed, Houston Press should poll its readers.

I’m not even sure if writing this article will change any of this behavior, or spark an intelligent discussion about this pattern in online culture, since it has persisted for quite some time now and will likely persist in the future. All I can say is: the daily ritual of beating our digital chests does not constitute thoughtful conversation, which I believe is the root of human progress. In these crucial times in the United States’ development, we need to take online discussions of economics, healthcare, joblessness, gun control, the environment, education, equal rights, and even the arts (movies, music, books) to a thoughtful, hopeful, and diplomatic level, and shift away from finger-pointing, hubris, and overwhelming egomania. Otherwise, we look like nothing more than a Confederacy of Dunces. TC mark

image – Shutterstock


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  • Llamaz

    Truer words couldn’t have been spoken…

  • nightshaye

    I think also the anonymousness encites people to even more extremes of criticism. That along with an older generation who didn’t grow up with the internet, to which the comments sections are like the thrill of a new toy.

    Although on the upside, I’ve learned so many sides off different issues, even from people who were flagrantly obnoxious. Of course it’s true the person could say the same things in a civil way. Buy when that isn’t the case, as so many times it is, I’ve tried to distill the message out of all of the attitude dispassionately. Which is another thing this function taught me!

    • verbalbanter


  • Kovie Biakolo (@koviebiakolo)

    Everything I’ve always wanted to say about most internet commentary.

    • Cath

      Same here.

  • Liz (@cheezliz)


    • caro

      Bravo Liz.

    • jen

      you’ve just proved his point even further.

      • Am

        Not sure if you’re trolling or genuinely dumb…

      • makeupandmirtazapine

        I think it’s an attempt at humour. I thought it was funny anyway.

    • Uhm

      Case in point.

      • S.Jones

        Oh come on guys, she was joking

    • Anon

      Hey Liz don’t you know the rules? Tits or gtfo.

      • Am

        Oops my comment was about Jen! Liz’s comment made me laugh…

  • Nahid

    I think a lot of it has to do with people who don’t just express their opinions, but feel the need to impose their views on others and insult anyone who doesn’t agree. If we all learned to respect each other’s opinions and keep our minds open to listening to others, we’d be able to express our views without being condescending and have more thoughtful discussions.

  • jen

    not only is this article hilarious and completely true, its the sole reason I even read thought catalog! you’re writing oozes with intelligence and great vocabulary. I love learning new words! also, i like the little comparison at the end. I too agree humans should be more civilized in how they deal with others thoughts on the internet! just because no one can track it back to you, and you don’t have to worry about the persons feelings because you’re not dealing with them face to face, doesn’t give you the write to be a meany and denounce someone’s ideas! perfect article! cheered up my morning.

  • Jon

    Online comment sections tend to get a level of engagement proportional to the amount of effort their owners put in to running them. If you have an environment without accountability, without clear standards of conduct, and which abstracts the humanity of contributors to the point where it’s easy not to empathize with them or each other, then of course you’re going to get a cesspit. This is what always happens, look at Youtube or virtually any news site for an example of how not to do it. Comment sections that address these issues with strong and transparent moderation, clear social guidelines, and active engagement by the people writing stories tend to have much better communities. Unfortunately that takes a lot of effort, so it’s not the default standard on the web. Discourse falls to the level of the least mature participants, so all it takes is a few idiots going unchallenged to send the whole thing to shit.

  • G

    i’ve written and spoken about this very topic to alot of my friends, and have even participated in some good ol’ vitriolic commenting just to see how it felt and i came to this conclusion. i believe people leave these sort of comments as a release of sorts. on the internet you can be as anonymous as you want. in our daily lives we usually have to maintain a certain level of decorum, but you can say anything you want to the world in comment sections all from the comfort of your couch. i dont think these kids of comments are ever truly hateful, but just that persons way of letting loose some pent up aggression in a relatively safe way. idk, that’s just how i tend to see it for the most part.

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  • Mike Acosta

    Good article. Concise and straight to the point which makes it effective. It’s actually funny that I wrote something about the same subject matter before reading this post.

  • Stacie

    A lot of people really misunderstand what free speech means as well. They think that it means their opinion is not up for criticism or discussion and that if a moderator takes it down, their rights are violated. I had one person who responded very rudely to a comment I left (that I wrote in a very non-confrontational manner.) The news website deleted it because they had a standards section that he did not comply with and he commented again saying that they were violating his freedom of speech. I’ve also deleted crude or outright mean comments on my own blog and people claimed that was a violation of their rights too, as if allowing a public forum on your own website meant you could not regulate it in anyway and you had to subject yourself to anything they wanted to say.

    And I may get flack for this last statement, but I see it come from men more than women, at least in the websites that I frequent.

  • duncansomerside

    i think an important reason for many of the angry and outrageous comments are due to the fact that when people see one outrageous comment, they feel obligated to stand up and dissent the comment. Then, after many times of doing that politely, it becomes impossible to react maturely and in a civilized manner, and then that’s just how people speak thereafter online. The most important thing to remember, I think, is that we are all humans behind the computer screen and therefore all deserve respect.

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