On Reading the Comments and a Democratic Internet
“Don’t read the comments” has been a survival guideline for online publishers, videographers, and anyone who communicates online for as long as I can remember. Hunting down the causes of abusive, antagonistic, and downright cranky online behaviour has become something of an international sport. After all, people in “real life” (a phrase I would not oppose to the Internet since the latter is very much a real, if more ethereal, place) seem much more restrained and polite, less inclined to express hateful emotions. Whether because of anonymity, a lack of face-to-face contact, or another vaporous reason, the Internet brings out the worst in people. So goes the conventional wisdom encapsulated by the phrase, “Don’t read the comments.”
One article that recently dropped on Medium, however, attempts to shatter this reflexive tendency to blame the problem on online interaction in general. “Don’t read the comments,” while often a viable short-term solution to feelings of depression and self-doubt that can be triggered by nonsensical and abusive feedback, also forecloses the possibility of positive online communication and puts the onus on the abused rather than on the abusers. It’s effectively ceding hegemony over the comments section to the lowest crust of humanity. More to the point, we can never read the goal of eliminating or at least alleviating online abuse without directing the blame at the real culprits: the corporations and other entities that regulate online communication.
It’s certainly true that Youtube comments often seem to be spawned from some moist, toxic fungus dimension, but the real onus for protecting worthwhile speech while isolating and disempowering abusers is with those who wield power over the comments sections. To take a not-so-innocent example: I frequently use Yahoo!’s maligned (though not entirely malignant) social networking site tumblr. To put it mildly, the spectrum of fan interests and political tendencies on tumblr is vast. Much of my political maturation was aided by friends I met online who shared beautiful art and fruitful conversations with me. These are the kinds of interactions that platforms should be fostering. But, to use a slightly problematic example, to get the crops to grow, you need to control the weeds. Take life to give it.
Tumblr is often stereotyped as an overheated talking room for youthful liberals and leftists just cutting their teeth on critical vocabulary. While that faction certainly exists, there is also a proliferation of Nazi, “Third Position,” fascist, white supremacist, and other cancerous blogs that spread their bile and are free to do so. Never mind that their rhetoric and actions are often threatening or outright violent towards minority users, their speech is protected and ought not be interfered with! Such is the mindset of the administrators, at least.
The author of the linked article recommends that we all take personal actions to hold websites accountable for their enabling of abusive behaviour. He suggests that we replace “don’t read the comments” with “don’t use the comments section until the CEO of Yahoo! does something to prevent abuse of their users.” Unfortunately, such actions are likely to have little impact, because simply changing our speech patterns, while a necessary step towards breaking the common sense hegemony of abusers online, doesn’t scratch the real problem: the private and for-profit ownership of what should be open and democratic channels.
And a democratic channel does not mean one that is tolerant or open to abusers; it means that the rule of the people prevails over it. Protection of the vulnerable and preferential treatment of their speech over those who would trample over them is entailed, as well as the elimination of advertising and swift removal of oppressive voices from such areas. As long as the basis of belonging in an online community is as a customer or, worse, a traceable asset being sold to advertisers, we can never achieve this goal universally. What’s necessary now, then, is the cultivation and vigilant protection of open, progressive spaces for dialogue that can also embrace a mass audience, showing the world what a truly democratic Internet can do if freed from the admen and the trolls.
Don’t hold the platform owners accountable: overthrow them.
P.S. I personally have had many wonderful interactions in my own comments sections, and would like to thank everyone who has creatively and sensitively criticized or praised my work here. I’m grateful to all of you.