Upon reading Jessica Valenti’s recent article for The Guardian “the case for ending online comments” I was aghast to read her argument against keeping online comments sections running. It seems to me the equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and singing to block out hearing other voices.
Nonetheless, it has got me thinking about whether “cyber-bullying” and internet trolling are indeed enough to legitimate her case. Valenti argues that “comments are a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage” yet I have frequently found the opposite. Like many, I cannot wait to read the comments sections after reading an article as, I feel, they extend the narrative beyond the parameters of the article itself and probe subjects that word counts perhaps simply couldn’t allow for. More often than not I see engagement in debate as opposed to “a sea of garbage” but then again, perhaps one man’s garbage really is another man’s treasure I suppose?
Comments sections are like driving. Perhaps a strange comparison but stay with me. Most of the drivers you encounter on your commute are reasonable and abide by the rules of the road. But eventually you’ll come across a driver with a crazed sense of entitlement and importance, in a rush somewhere and willing to speed, beep, overtake and endanger others to get there. Still with me? Great. Like communicating via the web there is a (wind)screen between you and the outside world that means you can get away with a bit more than you would in a normal face to face encounter with someone.
Having been on my R plates for almost a year now and making some small driving errors with other drivers’ eyes on me, I am almost fully convinced that the real ugly, nasty cores within (some) people are awakened whenever they get into that drivers seat. And the same goes for typing up a comment under an article, there’s ultimately nobody else to stop you. Like a vehicle, you’re completely in control of it.
CONVOLUTED DRIVING COMPARISONS ASIDE, despite the “garbage” in comments sections there is some real gold among comments and that shouldn’t be undervalued because some ridiculous stone age, sexist comment is posted among it. Most of the time narrow mindedness reaps what it sows whenever a multitude of people urge a troll back into its cave through retaliation. I mean, if said troll posts his/her comment they are equally taking the risk of criticism also. As someone who trawls through many, many comments in articles simply because I find them fascinating to read, I’ve seen more discouragement of trolls than engagement with them from other commenters. But, it’s completely dependent on the article.
It feels as though the risk of criticism from internet trolls is a risk worth taking if it brings a fresh perspective and one that is perhaps not always agreed with but ultimately valued in bringing colour to an issue and stimulating debate. A friend of mine recently stopped himself from unfollowing Twitter profiles that were at odds with his own point of view. His reasoning behind this was that if you block out everything that is at odds with your own point of view you will be surrounded by only that which you consider correct and bring about the illusion that a certain stance on an issue is the only one that matters. The same is applicable here. Blocking out voices isn’t a viable option for news platforms such as The Guardian.
As someone who edited the opinion section of my university’s student newspaper for a year, I thrived upon reading others opinions on issues. I still (evidently) really enjoy reading opinion articles even the ones that make my blood boil through how (SUBJECTIVELY) wrong I think they are. But surely that is the beauty of opinion writing? I am slightly shocked that as a columnist Valenti would be discouraging engagement from her readers. Her own writing is dependent upon her opinion and opinion articles exist to provoke debate and stimulate thought, they ultimately thrive upon reaction.
The part that hit the hardest in Valenti’s article however was the notion that “Outside of the few places that have rich and intelligent conversation in comments, what is the point of engaging in debate where the best you can hope for are a few pats on the back from strangers for that pithy one-liner?” What’s deemed rich and intelligent is completely subjective and while most aren’t paid to air their opinions, that doesn’t undervalue them. It also seems that a lack of pats on the back from strangers has been the very fuel to Valenti’s fire.
It would appear “the never-ending stream of derision…that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved” which Valenti complains about is simply being re-applied to those delivering such notions to her. She’s simply engaging in a never ending “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I?” battle.
Ultimately, internet trolls who post ridiculous comments simply for the fun of it are a small price to pay for the stimulation of real online debate. And with individuals being able, more than ever, to engage with issues online, de-sensitisation to trolls is imminent if not already happening.