Internet trolls are a small price to pay for engaging comment sections

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.

Why is Veet Striving To Make Unnatural Natural?

Veet, the popular hair removal brand, has stirred up a great deal of controversy following the airing of its most recent advertisement in North America. The uproar surrounding the “don’t risk dudeness” ad is that it reinforces gender stereotypes by implying that having body hair is something inherently male. However, the very fact that Veet as a product exists is because that, shock horror, women have body hair too. The sooner this is accepted, as opposed to incessantly concealed, the better. Why is something we cannot help depicted as abhorrent and unnatural in society?

In the ad, which has now been taken down from the internet, a woman forgets to shave and is thus transformed into a man and ostracised from society. It conveys hair removal as a constant struggle, and that women must be hyper-aware of the fact that the beauty regime is vital to their acceptance. Of course we needn’t worry because Veet is apparently our saviour, promising to keep us “womanly around the clock.”

These parameters used to define “womanly” are narrow-minded because they succeed in alienating women who do not strive to be hairless demi-goddesses on a daily basis. There are a lot more pressing issues in women’s lives that do not revolve around being hairless, therefore it is neither realistic nor practical of Veet to suggest that women will be cast off from society if they do not pay vigorous attention to their body hair regime. It also sends the message that men are in a privileged position because they are unquestionably accepted into society in spite of their body hair, whereas one of the women in Veet’s ad is so helpless she cannot even hail a taxi by herself.

The polarised notion that individuals fit comfortably into only two categories, feminine or masculine, is against the very nature of individuality. However, the pervasive nature of the media has unfortunately resulted in the acceptance of this very idea. Arguably, it is only a bit of lighthearted humour; Veet themselves have even stated how “while the current advertising campaign for Veet running in the USA has been well received by most consumers who appreciate its wacky, tongue in cheek humour, it has also provoked a great deal of comment.” Nonetheless, the influence of the media, especially in regard to permeating personal ideals and opinion, is often more powerful than most of us would like to admit.

While it is very easy to trivialise the whole issue by accepting that, well, it is just hair, it is also a matter of confidence for many women. Many feel incredibly insecure without shaving, so to have this collective insecurity exploited is quite despicable. The Independent’s Orla Tinsley describes here how the ad is ‘misogynistically driven’ and a ‘narrow minded idea of gender construction.’ Indeed, the social media backlash which Veet has already received is encouraging; it shows that women are not passively accepting this unrealistic yet seemingly imperative image. That said, it remains a matter of personal choice as to whether women wish to remove body hair or not. It should not be perceived as something solely masculine because the bottom line is that it is not, and it would be delusional to believe so. It goes against the hard facts of reality.

Hair removal is not absolutely imperative. What is imperative though is Veet ensuring that they make money. And to make their money by subtly but assuredly shaming women is undoubtedly even more shameful on their part.

As published on studentjournals.co.uk April 18 2014