Comment CultureMay 20th, 2009
by Brad Listi
Just read some pretty interesting stuff on “comment culture,” which has become an area of interest over the past few years. A new mutation in the human fabric.
Naturally I’m fascinated by the comment boards on this site. I’m also fascinated by comment boards in general, and the people who populate them, and I wonder how they work, and why.
With respect to The Nervous Breakdown and its boards, I often find myself asking: What is it? And how did it happen? And what is its value? And who is it that’s drawn here? And why? And what might this weird beast become?
And things like that.
And now my eyes turn to a recent piece from Virginia Heffernan at the New York Times. It’s called “Comment is King”, and it offers a pretty interesting assessment of the often-grim banality of comment boards, particularly those attached to mainstream news outfits like the Times and the Washington Post, and Slate.com.
A couple of excerpts:
But as it is, online commentary is a bête noire for journalists and readers alike. Most journalists hate to read it, because it’s stinging and distracting, and readers rarely plow through long comments sections unless they intend to post something themselves. But perhaps the comments have become so reader-unfriendly, in part, because of the conventions of the Web-comment form.
Online commentary, for one thing, is a circadian art, one in which style and tone seem largely determined by the time of day a comment is posted.
And excerpt #2:
This echo-chamber effect is unpleasant, and it makes it hard to keep listening for the clearer, brighter, rarer voices nearly drowned out in the online din. Which is too bad: newspaper journalism benefits from reader comments. Creating registration standards, inventive means of moderating and displaying comments, membership benefits for regular posters and ratings systems for useful comments are just some of the ways that other news outlets like Slate have improved the quality of reader responses.
And now Ron Ronsenbaum has penned a response piece to the NY Times article entitled “Come Out, Anonymous Cowards! This is Your Chance, in which he cites anonymity as the root cause of all comment board evil:
Your chance to explain what’s so scary to you that you have to hide your identities behind a mask while hurling oh-so-brave insults. (Possible enshrinement of your cerebrally challenged remarks in Google for all time?)
The New York Times super-smart web culture columnist Virginia Heffernan’s recent ruminations about the low standards, (e.g. the low I.Q.) of typical web commenters and their frequent self-congratulatory ignorance and stupidity, while capturing some truths about them, left out one aspect of the problem — the source, the cause of the domination by dimwits: anonymity.
I just can’t believe that the average human being is as creepily vicious as the average commenter. And the reason can be found in something a close reading of Virginia’s column discloses: all her examples of idiot commenters were anonymous and used screen names.
I gotta say, I read these two pieces with a bit of pride. For one thing, I think the average IQ on the boards here is generally pretty high. (As I like to joke, the comment board is really the show. In many instances, it’s as interesting as the posts themselves.) And while there are, of course, exceptions to the rule, the tone here is generally pretty civil—even in moments of heated disagreement.
Still, I do notice while surfing around elsewhere that there does seem to be a certain type of human being who revels in the anonymity offered by a comment board…loves to throw punches and lash out….and then retreats and hides. Cowardly behavior indeed. And more than a little pathetic. I can’t help but think that people who do this sort of thing must lead pretty boring lives. That or they’re easily entertained.
Anyway. Food for thought. These articles caught my attention (thank you, Galley Cat!) and seemed like an apropos thing to mention here on The Breakdown.
Naturally I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, dear readers. And for the sake of witty irony, it might be nice if you tried especially hard to lash out at me today, and to be extremely rude and foul-mouthed to your fellow compatriots.
Let’s make it ugly and vindictive, shall we?
Let’s use curse words and be all…sociopathic!