The AV Club Comment Section: Community, Clique, or Cesspool?

Hello and welcome to my first long-form article on Medium! As an internet participant for more than 20 years, this piece will incorporate some background context to define what we’re talking about — online comment forums and human behavior— then move on to an example sourced from a recent discussion on The AV Club. So you know, this article makes no assertions to be academic or scientific, but there will be numerous screenshot captures for use as reference points; all images were sourced by the author from the actual thread as viewed on The AV Club on March 10, 2016, via the Disqus plug-in. Let’s get started!

CompuServe on a 28.8 modem — that was my first introduction to the online world. At the time, the chat system was pretty basic: plain text, no formatting, no emojis. It did let users pick a handle, so I took that chance to be clever and maybe a little smart by not using my real name.

One of my most vivid memories of using CompuServe was making small talk with some guy and he eventually started getting into White Supremacist stuff. I mean real hate speech, loaded with references to violence, and even my naïve teenage self at the time could feel really un-nerved and abhorred by the words I was reading. After that uncomfortable encounter, I didn’t quit going online but I certainly had a different perspective about the types of people I might encounter through the portal.

As time went on, AOL kept sending free trials so I played around in those chat rooms. I’m a heterosexual male, and at the phase of life I was predominately interested in chatting with girls. It actually worked from time to time. I had a few pen pals and we’d send each other photos and letters until eventually forgetting to reply and not hearing from each other again. As high speed cable modem powered internet came to town along with ICQ, my interest in the computer went through an evolution…

Half-Life. That was the game that changed it all for me. Well, that along with ICQ and the [R]age Board for the Elites forum hosted on GamersX.

I had an ICQ account, it seemed like the coolest and most useful chat program going at the time. When I started out with Half-Life online, it was in Team Fortress Classic, mowing down people as a HW Guy with a chaingun. Because there was a chat function in the game, I made a connection with a guy who went by [UGMC]Pearl Jam. He was in a clan, and I was interested in joining a clan, so he told me his ICQ number and from there we made a connection.

Eventually the [UGMC] clan was more interested in Half-Life Deathmatch or Team Deathmatch than in Team Fortress Classic. It happens. That’s when the addiction kicked in, making friends who were into the same hard-core, competitive style of play. Hours and hours in Half-Life online multiplayer. There were hundreds of really great players all over the US, Canada, Europe and Australia too. Then Counter-Strike came along and really, truly kicked off the realistic-ish CT vs. T style of games. So many “de_dust2” games…

Having ICQ was a way to coordinate playing together, and having a message board forum — the [R]age Board — was the way to build a community of sorts…a crass, immature, swearing, insult filled, full-screen animal face picture as a response, ridiculous community of young males and some 30+. Many face-to-face LAN parties happened thanks to that game and its community.

It was a sight to behold and potentially an article in its own right, but the reason it gets mentioned here is because I’ve been around forums for years, have seen some really clever and ugly exchanges. Now that I’m older, 10+ years removed from any serious online multiplayer gaming, I can reflect on what a knuckle head I was along with a lot of others back then…and also pick up on certain behaviors and rhetorical techniques that I recognize…

Let’s just go ahead and work from a premise that the overall demographic of readership for The AV Club is going to be politically left of center, some more than others. It likely also has a larger than usual number of self-identified “Independents” who probably have a mish-mash of Conservative and Liberal sensibilities. Practically speaking, this makes for a good foundation for discussion about art — different perspectives, life experiences, and moral compasses all have a worthy place.

Deep down, I can tell it’s nostalgia for the past that gets me so vexed about the current state of affairs at The AV Club. Unfortunately it’s a similar story to pretty much any ‘new media’ outlet when ‘old media’ with deeper pockets starts to poach talent. The replacements get younger, they tend to have more savvy when it comes to attracting an audience with headlines and stories geared toward one side or the other, implicitly or explicitly, but overall the quality of the site degrades because these writers aren’t as experienced in their delivery as the previous batch. If there’s a comment section, expect to read not-very-subtle backlash from time to time regarding these changes.

It happened years ago at Ars Technica, at DealBreaker, and also at The AV Club, but there’s another wrinkle: A significant exodus of talented writers left The AV Club to form The Dissolve under the Pitchfork umbrella during the summer of 2013. As of this writing, The Dissolve has been closed for eight months and does not seem destined to return, in spite of the development where Pitchfork sold itself to Conde Nast. The AV Club got its staff numbers up again during the two year run of The Dissolve, but the editorial direction and overall tone started wrestling with itself.

One particular instance: A new writer put out a For Your Consideration piece in praise of Jay-Z and Beyoncé's On The Run tour, working from a premise that it “is like the best movie of 2014.” Here’s a link to the piece:

If you want to take some time to read it and the comments, you might get a preview of where this is going in some respects. You won’t miss anything by skipping it for now or returning later. It’s a place-marker of sorts.

My take on the hostility by the commenters to that particular piece is grounded in their expectation, not a wrong one, that the merit of The AV Club is/was in discovering and appreciating material by not or not-yet mainstream artists in film, music, television and the like. What the audience wasn’t expecting was seeing The AV Club as a platform to sing the praises of an act which was so epically successful and generally acknowledged as industry-leading pop entertainment. It genuinely seemed out of place.

So, given that The AV Club uses Disqus as its commenting platform, and has for several years, the system change that enabled accounts to go from site to site to site and comment brought a new wrinkle to the fold. There’s a line somewhere between politics and entertainment, but with Donald Trump in the race for President of the United States, one could reasonably argue that line has been effectively removed for the time being. It’s like a character walked off a set and into reality and nobody can really ignore it. The AV Club certainly couldn’t help but get involved, and that’s when the real fireworks started.

A Google-powered search of ‘Donald Trump’ content on The AV Club (March 2016)

Thanks to Disqus, early in the Donald Trump coverage The AV Club had an influx of apparently genuine supporters — the short hand accusation being they’d wandered over from Breitbart News. The clash of ideologies was rather epic at first, with some commenters engaging in serious debate while others went right for mockery and condescension. It was, without question, an us-versus-them rallying point, and overtly political rather than based in the realm of “entertainment” that’s the core concept of The AV Club.

The hard part about this kind of reflective article is that I can’t exactly pin-point when I noticed the Community becoming more of a Clique, or just recognized finally that it existed. Once observed though, it’s nearly a given that some sort of with-us-or-against-us conversation will take place on a sensitive subject, and there’s a cast of characters who frequently set the tone. These habitual commenters often share quite personal details in the weekly Tolerability Index section, which frequently run into the neighborhood of 1,000 comments.

Logically, this kind of sharing enables people on the internet to form perceived bonds with one another. It’s a result of familiarity — seeing the same commenters time and again — mixed with humanity — sharing sensitive thoughts, worries, or successes and happy things — and that’s how The AV Club Clique came to be. With established familiarity, some commenters who are passionately wrapped up in their ideologies feel empowered, maybe even compelled, to make statements that are “right” and will get lots of upvotes.

So what happens when a person is on the “wrong” side of a discussion?

As of this writing, the dispute between Ke$ha and Dr Luke is a wedge topic of the clearest type. Ke$ha is accusing Dr Luke of abuse, specifically sexual, and wants her freedom from a contract with him; Dr Luke is accusing Ke$ha of using a vile accusation as leverage to get out of her recording contract. That’s the she-said, he-said, and the situation is ongoing. Both of them seem to be able to tell “their side” through the media; who to believe is in the eye of the beholder.

Let’s get to our example, Dan. The following is one of his last comments, after having spent some time and effort responding to The AV Club Clique following his “wrong” type of statement:

This is when Dan reaches what I call “futility enlightenment” in discussion

So what did Dan put forward that unleashed the fury? He observed that The AV Club Clique’s “right” perspective is that Dr Luke is a rapist. Here’s an excerpt of the thread:

It’s obvious Dan was poking The AV Club Clique with a stick — if doing so was right or wrong is up to you to judge — but it got quite the reaction.

It’s not the only example in this case though. I was watching in real time, so I do know the content of the original ‘This comment was deleted’ post was analogus to Dan’s “wrong” assertion that until Dr Luke is convicted of rape in a court of law it’s not fair to assume he’s guilty, and that The AV Club seemed to be doing just that. Even without the following posts intact, you can observe the tone and see the upvotes that came with taking the “right” cause to heart:

When the original comments were still there, it was pretty clear cut jabbing being directed toward them: needling, trying to get the opponent to lose their cool and get nasty. This is, without question, a consistent trend within The AV Club Clique of “right” thinkers. It’s like trolling, but softened by mob rule — It’s not trolling when we do it sounds about right. There also was a ‘victory lap’ post following the put downs of the above and Dan:

“History is written by the victors”

Having been on the receiving end of similar pile-on fun in the past, I can still remember “the hill I died on” so to speak. A while ago I deleted my several-years old Disqus account and only have one as a place-holder now to keep the handle from being used by someone else. This Clique behavior is quite a phenomenon to witness, at times so ugly it’s like a Cesspool. Anybody who might be interested would find dozens of examples like the above — of mob justice piling on the “wrong” opinion — are scattered elsewhere throughout the site.

Unfortunately for Dan, it’s not only supported by the community but by The AV Club moderators as well

What’s the point? Hosting comments carries implications of censorship, tolerance, or endorsement — those aren’t negative characteristics, just something to keep in mind in the grand scheme of things. My reason for taking screenshots, writing this out and sharing it is to more or less serve as an observation of a behavior which websites and communities should ask themselves if they want to support.

If the answer is No, I hope that the examples provided simply indicate the rhetorical techniques that are employed as troll-ish setups, ad-hominem type posts which can easily be deleted, and hopefully discouraged by moderators. Allowing one “side” or group to use these techniques damages much needed balance in the context of having a discussion.

If the answer is Yes, in that catering to a passionate, ideologically aligned audience is good for revenue, then I wouldn’t be surprised. However, I would note that such ideological echo-chambers can apparently have real-world spillover effects, the most extreme of which might involve violence by way of an un-hinged individual.

Look, I’m not asserting that’s the end-game in this context; to assert so would, well, kind of be like trying to troll-ish bait me into responding to a non-sequitur setup.

Numerous comment sections and message boards and forums probably have ups and downs between Community, Clique, and Cesspool outside of this example — I know I’ve seen it on Ars Technica as well. It looks to me like a general extension of human social habits, like an evolutionary necessity where feeling part of a group is comforting. Experience makes me believe getting upvote currency is a pathway to the pleasure center of the brain.

If there is potentially one “ideal” kind of commenting platform design — a variation of Disqus, or of Facebook, or using a Twitter handle — I don’t think we’ve hit upon it yet. I’d like to believe it’s possible one day. Maybe though, just maybe we’re simply too flawed and will habitually use whatever tools we create to beat on each other until only those who are in agreement survive…