10 things the comments section has taught me about the web


Of all the challenges faced by those who put content online, the comments facility must be the most vexing one. (There’s even a Twitter account, @AvoidComments, which reminds followers not to read the comments, ever. Sample tweet: Whenever you see a smiling child, remember: she’s never read a comment in her life, and she’s doing just fine.)

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Many websites have experimented with reining in the bad behaviour that predominates in a facility that offers a toxic combination of visibility and anonymity. Imposing standards all too often means sacrificing interaction, however. Recently, TechCrunch announced that it’s bringing its comments facility back; channelling comments via Facebook resulted in a precipitous dropoff in engagement, so now it’s trying LiveFyre.

I usually don’t read the comments on one of the platforms I blog on, and haven’t for years. This is sad, because I’ve always thought of blogging, unlike the opinion pieces or features I write, as a fundamentally social act. You write in the expectation that others will have a view on what you’ve written, and the text is created in the space between your post and the reactions to it.

If I stopped reading the comments, it’s because they became a strain on my sanity. To survive them, writers need to have thick skin, or be a masochist, or both, and I know of bloggers who stopped writing because they couldn’t handle the vitriol. Actually, I don’t know of anyone who can spend any time reading the comments on some websites without wanting to stab themselves in the eye with a hot fork. But trolling and abusive comments are par for the course, so much so that serious research has been conducted into why people behave so badly online.

Researchers have found that that people online have lower levels of self control. (Oh yes, and spending too much time on Facebook makes you fat – the more people spent online, the more likely they were to engage in binge eating).

In my years of blogging, I’ve learned a thing or two from the comments facility.

1. There’s a kind of Kevin Bacon game going on

In the Kevin Bacon game so popular in the 1990s, the challenge was to link any actor to Kevin Bacon. In the comments facility, the challenge is to see how long it will take for the comments on any post to devolve into a slanging match between – for want of a better term — liberals and conservatives.

Take this report from a UK news website on a group of American tourists attacked in Peru.

The first comment takes a swipe at liberals and it goes downhill from there, becoming nothing more than an opportunity for Republicans to fling insults against Democrats, and vice versa. In South Africa, for example, all comments facilities ever somehow end up hosting rants against the ANC and/or apartheid and/or white privilege, whether or not the original post had anything to do with it. The situation is similar in countries with similarly torrid pasts.

Which is why….

2. If you want lots of comments, write about race and/or politics

Around the world, hot button issues range from gun control to rape. Nothing fires up the comments facility like discussions about race. With over 88 000 views and 575 comments, this post generated far more interaction on blogging platform Thought Leader than any other in the history of the site. The recent FNB ad debacle effectively turned South Africa into a giant comments facility, with much ranting about the ANC on various news sites.

Don’t write about race or politics unless you are very thick skinned or utterly convinced of the correctness of your views (I’ve learned the hard way).

3. Abuse is nothing new

The comments facility has just made it easier for people who’d otherwise just rant around the dinner table, to articulate them in public. Back in 2004, readers were forced to fax hatemail to the publisher of my satirical pieces about bitter expats; now all they need to do is post a comment. Fortunately, the comment sections on many sites are moderated so the abusive, ad hominem attacks on their bloggers are mostly filtered out. If I got to see the comments they didn’t let through, my insomnia would probably be worse than it already is.

4. We’re talking a small number of people

Editor of News24 (a division of emerging markets media giant Naspers) Jannie Momberg says about one percent of readers comment, and of those, around 10% are abusive. “News24 comments” remains a byword for aggressively stupid, racist comments, but that’s not really fair because the same behaviour can be seen in the comments facilities of other news websites, too. In fact, the comments on a couple of recent pieces have been sane and reasonable for the most part.

5. The same names crop up everywhere

Spend any time reading news or comment and you’ll spot the same familiar names and pseudonyms, banging the same drum they’ve been beating for years. Commenting must virtually be a full time job for some of them, and they never seem to get bored.

6. Very few people actually read what they comment on

This is what really grates me. If I go to the trouble of putting together an argument, the least I expect is for the reader to take in what I’ve actually written before commenting. Sadly, the typical reader strategy seems to be: read the heading, scan through the body of the text, blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.

Most popular columnists and bloggers have regular readers who know them well, or think they know them well, so by the time the latter click on the link, they’ve already made up their minds (familiarity, alas, breeds contempt — on both sides). They read what they think they see, then argue with their own projections. Much of the so-called debate in the comments facility is a form of ideological shadow-boxing.

7. Angry, abusive comments beget more angry, abusive comments

Take any divisive topic – in this case, climate change. According to this study, the more abuse in the comments facility, the more it will inflame others who might otherwise have been reasonable. Study co-author Dietram Scheufele, a professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pointed out that the comments made what used to be a private act now more like “reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it.”

8. There will be mansplaining

Mansplaining is the practice of men telling women what she’s actually thinking because, poor thing, she’s misinformed. Because commenters don’t list their gender, it’s impossible to make a reliable assessment of whether men comment more than women, but my impression is that they do. Any female blogger who writes on a platform where there are many male readers knows all about mansplaining.

9. The real discussions often happen elsewhere.

This is something that happened when TechCrunch shifted to a Facebook-based comment system. I’ve long held the view that if people really wanted to debate with bloggers in a civil manner, they can do it on Twitter or Facebook. Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with much trolling on either platform, and because there’s more immediacy — the blogger is there in person, not a disembodied name attached to words – it’s harder to be abusive.

10. And yes, sometimes the comments are more interesting than the piece that inspired them

Sometimes, the comments facility works as it should, bringing out viewpoints that actually add to an understanding of an issue. The comments on this post on a rather obscure subject are easier to read than the piece that triggered them.

There are no ad hominem attacks, and each commenter seems to be genuinely interested in teasing apart a complex issue. But this is all too rare, and probably only happens when the vast majority of potential commenters are filtered out by the complexity of an issue.

Recently, I changed my blogging strategy, writing slightly less contentious material that’s as much about seeing what responses I get as it is about putting my opinion out into the world. A meta post, if you like. As a result, I’ve started reading the comments again — but I’ll probably stop, because it’s still too depressing: the same crowd are still saying the same things they did five years ago. Not that it matters, really.

The commenters don’t really need me to participate, because once the post is up, it’s not mine anymore, but theirs. It takes on a life of its own, and I am happy to let it go.

Here’s the ultimate irony: if the comments facility teaches you anything, it’s that if you’re going to be a writer, and put yourself at the mercy of others online, you have to learn to filter out most your readers or you’ll stop writing altogether. As that Twitter account reminds us: “The next time you’re thinking of reading the comments, do a Google image search for ‘fluffy puppies’ instead.”

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