Comments: A Commentary

You know that thing, the Internet?

It’s pretty cool, huh?

The Internet allows us to reach out and communicate with those we would never otherwise know, to have experiences otherwise impossible, and to learn things at a faster rate than ever before in human history.

Oh, and it is rife with The Comments.

Even if you have only been using the Internet for, say, a day, I would bet that you have been exposed to The Comments. They are featured on news sites, video uploading sites, blogs like this one… heck, Facebook is basically a fancy way to have semi-organized commenting (as well as every iteration of games involving ‘farms’ and ‘villes’ within the capacity of marketing managers’ imaginations).

The point of The Comments is to give a convenient location for readers / users / people of similar interest to make their voices heard in relation to the blog / news article / video of illegal Hungarian swordfish fighting rings — because how else will readers of the blog, those interested in the news, and secret fans of maritime fencing find each other? We can’t exactly have a communal corkboard where said consumers may post flyers. Especially that last group, because, guys, the Hungarian government is cracking down.

The problem is simple: the Internet connects us to others, yes, but it connects us to ALL OTHERS. As in, anyone who can get online for at least a few minutes with some device — and there are many — can now contribute to this community.

And, people — some of those anyones are dicks.

These are attracted to The Comments, where they may spout anything that comes to mind, anonymously or not. The commenters everyone tend to remember are those who are loud, boorish, obnoxious, rude, or downright slimy. When those types find a foothold in a public forum, especially one in which they will never face any accountability, these trolls go off the rails and cherry pick every conflict they can find.

I know people like this, who enjoy conflict and work to suss it out in every situation possible. When it’s Argument Time with these folks, they get loud and take untenable positions, just to see rational folks squirm when logic is shown to be irrelevant. These argumentative people, however, still operate under a modicum of social pressure which grants some small amount of restraint to their posturing.

Online, though, nothing is stopping them from waxing poetic about how your facial features might be improved with a careful application of point-blank gunfire — and, oh, they would be more than happy to give you that makeover, free of charge.

On the Internet, this is known as trolling, and everyone I know has succumbed, one way or another, to it, only to feel foolish later. The trolls, every time you feed them, get to feel smug and self-satisfied before getting back to their algebra 1 homework, while you, the trollee, just feel like crap.

Now I turn to you Internet veterans, those who have been surfing the web for AT LEAST A WEEK (all others, keep reading Yahoo! Answers… you’ll catch up). The prevailing wisdom has been to either “Ignore the trolls,” “Engage the trolls with logic and make sure that you bring a mob of sensible people to back you up,” or “Avoid the situation entirely by not looking at the comments.”

The problem is, The Comments can be a great place for discourse, discussion, revelation, learning new perspectives.

That’s why I am glad to read that content curators such as GameSpot and IGN are moving to take a firmer hand in controlling the community features on their sites. YouTube, the preeminent source for The Worst Comments, is undergoing policy changes to root out some of those bad apples.

The thing is, the hateful commenters are in the minority. Most folks online will either engage on an insightful level, simply express their opinion alongside others, or sit back and let others do the talking. Not everyone in the world screams at the top of their lungs all the time and spews hate speech on any who will listen.

But.

BUT.

And it’s a big, hairy but that stinks of rotten Limburger cheese-like protrusions.

But those people are the loudest and easiest to notice, not to mention that they pay the rage forward to otherwise rational people and make the problem appear worse than it is.

I have seen arguments that protest the moderation of The Comments as a violation of free speech, and something occurred to me this evening.

A website’s owner is not responsible to ensure free speech.

‘Free speech’ generally refers to the concept in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, in which the U.S. government agrees that it ought not censor the American people.

That has nothing to do with Popular Science, whose website recently disabled The Comments because of trolls, nor Bonnier Magazine Group, the company that publishes the magazine. Nowhere, in any section, does U.S. law guarantee that this company must let people talk as much as they want.

Think of it this way: let’s say that you go to your local coffee shop and buy a croissant. The pastry is a little flat — not flaky — and you are disappointed with the quality of customer service when the barista refuses to give you a new one. Local Coffeeshop Inc. is under no obligation to let you get out a can of spray paint and tag the side of the building with “YEAST LEAVENED? MORE LIKE GREASED LESSENED!!1!”

(Hey, let’s see YOU find a good rhyme for ‘leavened.’)

If Local Coffeeshop Inc. has a website that allows customer comments on items, they are under no legal obligation to display that graffiti-I-mean-commentary there, either. (Company policy might say otherwise, but that is another matter entirely.)

YouTube is not required to offer The Comments. GameSpot does not have to let users insult and abuse its content creators and writers. As Popular Science demonstrates, having a comments section is a privilege, and if too many people abuse it, we all lose our recess.

Here on my blog, I have my comment moderation set to require me to approve each comment individually. If I start to see more traffic, I might change that and just review what is on the site from time to time, but either way, I plan to keep an iron grip on The Comments. I want this to be a place where people can feel safe to express themselves without fear of reprisal by digital bullies.

One author I respect turned off the comments on his site and received a nasty backlash from some in the community. Another, bigger name, carries a policy (which I used as a model to work out my own) that any comment he finds distasteful will be removed from his site, and too bad if that bothers you.

The trolls can always go somewhere else and troll. Let’s make the places we like to go on the Internet, like YouTube, io9, IGN, positive environments, where we can read an article or watch a video, then glance at the comments, and come away content, with a marginally intact Hope for humanity.

Private individuals and companies are under no obligation to provide ‘free speech’ on their websites, and if losing that is what it takes to not feel depressed every time I scroll too far down on a page, then free speech be damned.

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