Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web
by Joseph M. Reagle, Jr.
The MIT Press, 2015.
This is perhaps a great book review to do following my recent blog ranting about the inconsistent moral messaging of political candidates using discriminatory language under the auspices of “political correctness.” (Whew! Even writing that sentence is enough to get me roiled-up…)
Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. has written a rumination—that’s right, I said “rumination,” and not a critique nor social commentary nor advice for dealing with the problem—of online commenting. Comment sections are those places after news articles, YouTube videos, and blog posts (like this one) where you are likely to encounter the world’s most opinionated, bile-infused, disrespectful, not-well-thought-out reader/viewer reactions to the primary content of the webpage. A person can’t rightly call it punditry because the writers usually don’t have any educational background on the particular topic at hand to which to be able to hold a candle. It’s all crowd-sourced blather. Crowd sourcing was once touted as the hive-consciousness solution to everything on the planet. It is the foundation of sites like Wikipedia and others who still insist that it will be the future of humanity and save the world. However, research studies seem to prove that the bad and vile out-paces the sincere, and, if unchecked and unregulated, eventually overwhelms any usefulness. If you wonder why Wikipedia is constantly begging for more millions of dollars in donations, it’s primarily because the organization is trying to keep pace with moderating all the “garbage” that gets infused into the ever growing monster of data that is Wikipedia.
A good percentage of commenter-posters on the internet are people who have actually found their way there as an outlet for their own sadistic entertainment, and take glee in seeing how far they can “push the buttons” of other completely anonymous co-commenters. These are called “trolls,” and they are the bane of every online content producer. No matter how many speed bumps, roadblocks, filters, algorithmic prevention programs, or rules are initiated by media sources, the trolls and the bile-filled blather eventually finds a work-a-round in order to infiltrate and ruin the fun for everyone (which is exactly what makes trolls feel successful). Commenters also tend to be people with very stratified opinions, having the confidence to either affirm or disagree with the primary content in the first place—if someone feels strongly enough to make a comment, they usually have an opinion in the first place. In any other scenario, primary content creating an apathetic response does not merit commentary to begin with.
As other reviewers of this book have noted, Reagle doesn’t reveal anything new that anyone who regularly reads or participates in comment writing doesn’t already know about how atrocious comment posts can be, or the struggles that major media outlets have in their desperation to find a workable moderation technique. Pretty much the exact thing that Reagle admits at the very beginning of the book (on page 9) is exactly the conclusion that is recommended at its conclusion 180-some-odd pages later: primary internet content is better off without having comment sections at all…
“The easiest way to avoid comments is not to have them. Because many sites have disabled their comments, I begin this [ruminative] journey with what gossip teaches about online discussion and why many users and sites are turning away from comment. I argue that disabling comment is a reflection of a platform’s growth as users seek intimate serendipity and flee ‘filtered sludge.’”
I believe that by the term “intimate serendipity,” the author has intended to describe a phenomenological interpretation by readers engaging in the primary content, indicating that they are satisfied with the “discovery” of primary internet or blog post material and the introduction of new catalyst inspirational ideas that are introduced to the brain. (The author confirms this theory—although not until page 177—when he describes a comment-free site as “a place where [people] can express an authentic sense of self without fear of attack, manipulation, or unusual exposure while remaining open to things that will surprise and delight them.”)
The larger and more popular a media site becomes—through the social media sharing that is meant to attract the hive in the first place—the more prone it is to abusive comment attack. Thus, when Reagle talks to the founders, owners, and creative content producers of some of the internet’s largest and most popular sites,they don’t have much to add to Reagle’s conclusion. They pretty much all admit that comment sections are the worst interactive forum-medium for humans ever.
Here are some of those people’s reflections on comment sections…
Jeff Atwood, co-founder of the site Discourse:
“If you are unwilling to moderate your online community [speaking to bloggers], you don’t deserve to have an online community. There’s no end of websites recreating the glorious ‘no stupid rules’ libertarian paradise documented in […] Lord of the Flies in their comment sections. Such a site ends up exactly as you’d expect it to.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor and blogger at The Atlantic:
“Limiting comment should be thought of as cultivating a garden. ‘Once you take out the rubbish and clear away the weeds, flowers begin to grow.’”
Mark Frauenfelder, co-founder of the Boing Boing blog:
“My view of online community has changed over time… I’m no longer interested in responding to comments on my posts. The subtleties of face-to-face communication are lost. Most people are not polite online, including me.”
And Mr. Frauenfelder’s self-observation should be a key point… Should we be worried about how online data and online interaction changes us so dramatically psychologically (and perhaps physiologically)—through mediums like comment posts where apathetic insults make obsolete the millions of facial musculature variations that evolution has provided us as a compliment to our face-to-face communication? …How listening to the subtle inflections and timbre and volume of my voice—in conjunction with those millions of muscular facial variants—create a cultural, physiological, and personalized communication method adapted to and particular to humans over millennia… all of which is simply, non-chalantly tossed out the window with the advent of internet dialogue.
I don’t think this is an overly dramatic posit to investigate… Modern electronics have—in their very brief introduction to our daily lives—wreaked havoc on our biological systems. Our sleep patterns are disrupted because of the overabundance of blue-light that we absorb staring at our screens.1 Dry-eye—also from overexposure to screen viewing—is becoming a multi-million-dollar business.2 Ocular (vision) studies have shown that there’s been an increase in vision distortion and other eye-strain maladies in the population resulting from close-range viewing of electronic screens.3 There has been a dramatic increase in youth spinal problems that has been associated with the fact that people are constantly looking downward at their phone screens—known as “text-neck”—a wholly unnatural inclination for the neck-spine physiognomy to endure for prolonged periods of time.4 And documentary evidence is abundant and growing that proves that pedestrian accidents have increased due to inattention and negligence of street pedestrians walking into oncoming traffic, oblivious to their surroundings or to right-of-way lighted crosswalk indicators.5 We seem to be setting ourselves up for forced physiological evolution on way too extreme of an abbreviated timeline based on the ubiquitous electronic devices from which we can’t seem to extract ourselves.
The psychological ramification that Mr. Frauenfelder touches upon is the observation that his own emotional rationality is altered in ways that otherwise—in person-to-person contact—would be taboo or would make us highly uncomfortable. Is politeness and civility just a veneer that cracks and peels away once we’re behind the anonymity of our computer screens? (And did Donald Trump forget that he isn’t behind a computer screen? …Sorry for that joke; that fish-in-the-barrel was too easy to shoot.) Comment postings incite our anger… and comment posters seem to want, and even enjoy, inciting anger from us.
This interesting proclivity, forcing us to face a darker side of our human psychology, has inspired lots of humor… “If you can’t say something nice, save it for the internet comments.” And, “There’s a reason that comments are typically put on the bottom half of the internet…”
But the question that I’m not sure that Reagle addresses in his book-length rumination is whether the anger is already in us and if something about comments looses those floodgates; or whether comments, themselves, are the cause of ire: in other words, are comments the fire-poker stoking more heat under our embers, or are comments the match that caused the field fire? Or maybe the question is whether comments simply reveal our truly primitive animalistic impulses when placed in the perfect rage-inducing conditions. Anger and rage are two of the most identifiable emotions to humans,6 and as such has been attributed to nature and to gods. Arguably the most severe case of representational anger in religious literature ever might be attributed to the God of Genesis in the Judeo-Christian Bible, when God becomes so incensed at His human creation that he wipes them all out in a global flood (save for Noah and his family) so that He can start from scratch.
The pervasiveness of taunting trolls, the sequential inflammation that can occur in comment zones predictable to an algorithmic equation,7 and the “culture” of increasingly technological moderation techniques required by the media industry (akin to trying to keep hackers at bay) all point towards something more intrinsic in the psychological makeup of humans.
While many people like feedback on their creative endeavors (communication is a core human trait), our animalistic brains can have a hard time coping with harsh criticism. (defense mechanisms are also a core human trait of survival). Reagle notes, “In a lecture about television in the 1970s, media theorist Raymond Williams observed that ‘we never have as a society acted so much or watched so many others acting.’” If Williams had that opinion in the 1970s, what would he think about our over-saturated media-consuming population now?
With media exposure increasing exponentially, what exactly is our brains’ media saturation point? When does the trust and belief in reality become superseded? And does it destroy our eventual ability to trust? Is it reversible? Some theorists have even come to the point of hypothesizing that our world is merely a hologram in which we participate as an experiment8… Those theoreticians would seem to have already gone beyond removing all truth and reality from our existence.
Reagle offers some very few but poignant and disturbing examples of the tipping point of reality, its exposure as well as its creation:
- Thousands of fans of the youth fiction novel The Hunger Games protested vociferously when a character from the book (described as having a “dark-complexion”) was cast as a black character in the movie. In this debacle, social media seems to have revealed the latent racism of western youth, or their culturation through media itself as promulgating an Arian typification of hero-worship.
- Phone video documentation of police brutality, over-aggressiveness in situations of subduing persons of interest, and suspect shooting by police. Enough said.
- Facebook “likes” revealing individual personal advocacies, resulting in job termination by supervisors or managers with opposing viewpoint stances.
In a society that describes itself as a Christian moral civilization with a Biblically-advocated principle of “Judge not lest ye be judged,” do social media comments provide an exemption to the rule? Does social media give us license to judge others?
In the very last paragraph of his book, Reagle asks the question, “Can we encourage policies and technologies that are supportive of our highest ideals [when it comes to places like comment fields in internet media]?” It’s rather a rhetorical question, after Reagle has made a point of documenting the atrocities of comment trolls and quoting a multitude of media professionals who have answered “no.” This whole book would point to an answer of “no”; it is not within the capacity of human nature—unregulated—to achieve.
Reagle also uses the last paragraph of his book to try to present a “hopeful” outlook for the future of reasonable dialogue among his fellow human beings when interacting in the medium of internet comments: “Difficult questions sometimes are best asked of ourselves first…individuals are at their best when mindful.” A more reasonable sentiment could not be fathomed… but doesn’t appear to realistically reflect human tendency that the author has documented during the previous 185 pages, which—sorry for the negative comment, but—seems rather disingenuous.
 http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side (last assessed 1/22/2016).
 McMahon, Stephen, Martin Kolzenburg, et al. Wall & Melzack’s Textbook of Pain, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders Publishers, 2013), p. 855. View citation at Google books here. (last assessed 1/22/2016).
 https://www.thevisioncouncil.org/sites/default/files/VC_DigitalEyeStrain_Report2015.pdf (last assessed 1/22/2016).
 https://www.healthline.com/health-news/is-technology-causing-a-lifetime-of-pain-for-millennials-050415 (last assessed 1/22/2016).
 “Texting While Walking Causes More Accidents Than Texting and Driving,” https://www.healthline.com/health-news/tech-texting-while-walking-causes-accidents-031014#1 (last assessed 1-22-2016). Also, “Distracted Walking: Injuries Soar for Pedestrians on Phones,” http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/distractwalk.htm (last assessed 1/22/2106).
 Altarriba, J., Basnight, D. M., & Canary, T. M. (2003). “Emotion Representation and Perception Across Cultures.”Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 4(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/ 2307-0919.1033. Available to read online at: http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1033&context=orpc (last assessed 1/22/2016).
 For instance, Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s rule of Nazi analogies) is an Internet adage asserting that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1″— that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism. Promulgated by American attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990, Godwin’s Law originally referred specifically to Usenet newsgroup discussions. It is now applied to any threaded online discussion, such as Internet forums, chat rooms, and blog comment threads, as well as to speeches, articles, and other rhetoric. In 2012, “Godwin’s Law” became an entry in the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Godwin’s law does not claim to articulate a fallacy; it is instead framed as a memetic tool to reduce the incidence of inappropriate hyperbolic comparisons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_Law (last accessed 1/22/2016).
 Vienna University of Technology. “Is the universe a hologram?.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150427101633.htm (last accessed 1/22/2016).