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 NPR.org 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 NPR.org 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.