March 18, 2015

Why You Should Read The Comments

If you've been around the internet for any length of time, you've probably heard the timeless adage, "Don't read the  comments."

It can be levied at any media, from YouTube videos to blog posts to news articles. Don't read the comments, guys. You don't want to see what's hanging out there.

As a blogger, I value comments. Thus far, I've not had any posts on my personal blog be the victim of malicious commenting, and even disagreements in comments has led me to clarify and refine my own beliefs, which is a fun process for me. In some of my paid work, I've encountered significant pushback in the comments of some pieces--but again, I learned about myself, my beliefs, and my writing. I grew and improved.

As a reader, I sometimes find myself tempted to skip the comments, because I know they will be terrible. Our local news is an awesome example of this. I live in a very conservative state, and reading the comments on some pieces that I KNOW are going to express views very contrary to my own is sometimes painful. It's amazing how many times you have to bang your head on a desk before your body numbs itself, it really is.

But I see a value in this. One value is that I get to experience people epically going head to head with nonsense in amazing ways. I see great rebuttals, and amazing arguments, things that make me go, "Damn, I wish I'd thought of that."

I also get to see what the "other side" says. The comments section is often a window into what laypeople think and feel and believe on any given topic. It serves as a pulse check. I can read what politicians are saying. I can read what social and church leaders are saying. I can't know what people are taking away from those messages, not without some way of seeing into their thoughts and engaging with those.

There are, of course, limits to these benefits. I recently had a friend's comment section go absolutely insane with the most vile racist comments I've seen in a very long time. There was no point in reading that section, aside from being able to flag the comments for deletion by moderators. Comments that are vile or unnecessarily personal or are blatant ad hominem attacks are all comments that I can reject, myself.

And there is never a pressure to respond. I don't feel it. I try to engage with comments on my personal blog, because it's out of the way, and I appreciate everyone that takes the time to read my rantings and ramblings. But on paid work, I often don't engage, unless there's a clear misunderstanding of something. I once watched a piece that continued to soar--100 comments; 200, then 300, then over 400 comments, and I didn't respond to one. Why? Because the piece was engineered to elicit a certain response, and it did so. I had nothing to add to that comment section, even as I read every point. If there had been questions, or if readers had needed clarification, I would have responded--but as it was, they were emoting what I had expected to see emoted. There was nothing that I could add.

It's also important to know your limits. I encounter this most often as a commenter myself. I make a comment, sometimes not the best thought out, sometimes on a topic I'm not as familiar with, and someone takes offense or contradicts me with a different viewpoint or information I was unaware of, and I feel myself get defensive. It's reflexive. There are times when that defensiveness is something that I can't control. Those are the times that I step back. I ignore the notifications. I walk away from the discussion. Again, it's those times that I feel have nothing to add.

We have come to this point where we all say, "Don't read the comments!" or "Why did I read the comments, I know better," and what we are losing is that sense of accountability for writers, the sense of engagement for readers, and the pulse of what our ideological opponents thoughts and arguments actually are.

In some ways, disengaging from the comment section derails the entire purpose of writing. Writing is a form of communication, and communication requires some very specific features: a communicator, a message, a medium, and an audience. When we say, "Stay out of the comments," what we really say is, "The audience isn't important." But the audience is. They are the ones that will take the message and spread it.

I'm personally committing to wading into comments sections more frequently and engaging with sites, both that I agree and don't agree with. Yesterday, I waded into a comment section of a blog that I frequently read but rarely comment on, and wound up setting off a shit storm--not on purpose, and not towards me, but when someone made a careless comment in response to my comment. It was like watching a slow rippling explosion, with good points and bad points and terrible arguments and great arguments. It's still going on today, although I've opted to disengage from the discussion because I've said all that I can say.

When we're wading into a comments section, there's a few guidelines that I like to follow. I'll wrap up the post by sharing some thoughts on them.

The first is my basic approach to comments. I could explain this myself, but I like what I read this morning in a post by Jack Vance of Atheist Revolution. I don't always agree with Jack, and I rarely (if I have ever, come to think of it) comment on his pieces, but I appreciate seeing a point of view that is different from what I encounter on so many of my other atheist blogs. Jack said this:

I'd like to make three bold statements that do not strike me as even remotely controversial but which many people seem to have trouble accepting:
  1. Just because someone disagrees with me does not make him or her crazy, stupid, or even wrong.
  2. The fact that someone disagrees with me does not mean that I am somehow entitled to treat him or her poorly.
  3. Points #1 and #2 are not specific to me; they apply to you as well.

No matter how much I disagree with a viewpoint, I try to start from a place that says, "This person is a person. A human being, deserving of respectful engagement." That we don't agree doesn't mean that person hasn't thought about the arguments that I'm putting forth, and I try to be cognizant of that. It doesn't mean the discussion won't get heated, it doesn't mean there won't be give and take, but I find that it puts me in a spot of emotional detachment, where I am able to engage with the individual commenter or response without feeling like the person is somehow beneath me. They are just an individual coming from a different spot. I do find this incredibly difficult with arguments that are racist, homophobic, transophobic, sexist, or just obscene--but in those instances, I try to focus on the argument and not the individual making it.

My next guideline is to unpack my emotional response to whatever the comment or subject matter is. What point am I coming from? Is this tapping into biases that I hold? Why do I believe what I believe in this instance? What beliefs are relevant, and why do I hold those? Often, this is especially helpful when I find myself tempted to respond irrationally or hurtfully to another person on the internet. I find this happens most often with beliefs or assertions that I am less secure about--things that maybe I have no knowledge to back up. In fact, for me, that's typically the case when I respond, or am tempted to respond, badly: I don't have the facts that I need to support my case, so I lash out. When I find myself tempted to do so, and I acknowledge this as the reason why, I immediately disengage and go find out what I really believe and why. I may return to the discussion. I may not. At the end of the day, though, that discussion still produces something valuable to me: a deeper understanding of myself and a firmer support of (or change in!) what I believe.

The best communities are built around engagement. In our neighborhoods, when we all take care not to throw around trash, when we all take pride in the upkeep of our home, when we all wave and smile even if we don't really know or like each other in a profound way, we are engaged, and the neighborhood benefits.

The same goes online. The best communities are the ones were readers and writers and commenters are all engaged, and willing and ready to discuss and talk and grow together. And let's be real: Those communities are only built when we make a commitment to better commenting, and when sites make a commitment to better moderating.

That's the community I want to be involved with.

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