Where is the Love in Comment Sections?

I want to ask you a question: If you had to identify yourself with one word, what word would that be?

Would it be something like “Christian? Muslim? Jewish? Buddhist? Hindu? Atheist? Agnostic?”

Or would it be something like “American? Asian? African? European?”

Or would it be something like “Gay? Lesbian? Straight? Transexual? Bisexual? Asexual?”

Or would it be something like “Wealthy? Middle-class? Poor?”

Or would it be something like “Educated? Uneducated?”

Or would it be something like “Conservative? Liberal? Libertarian? Independent?”

Or maybe it would be something like “Chargers fan? Lakers fan? Kings fan? Padres fan? ManU fan?”

Over the past year, I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time reading through the comment sections of websites such as Facebook, YouTube, New York Times, Bleacherreport, and ESPN. Not surprisingly, the comments I read on these websites reflect a whole range of opinions in reaction to events around the world. After reading an article or watching a video, I habitually skim through the comment sections to see what everyone else thinks. Some comments I read and I think “what an idiot”, other comments I read and I think “could not have said it better myself”. As I find more comments that align with my beliefs, I feel myself comfortably nested within an online community of sorts.

Communities are good at reinforcing our opinions, but they can also make us blind to the imperfections of our opinions. This may seem like an obvious fact, but a shared set of attitudes, ideals or interests within a community is not always correct or logical or true. Just because a certain number of people agree on an opinion does not make that opinion true. The number of likes on a post is often mistaken as a sign of credibility. Too often, I am guilty of making this mistake.

I believe this is best illustrated through an example. I currently live in Lubbock, TX — where the land is about as flat as my nose. Let’s say I look outside on a gorgeous and clear day. Everywhere I look, the horizon splits the sky and earth in a perfect, straight line. I don’t see any curves, so it seems reasonable to me that the rest of the world is also flat. Now the majority of people (hopefully around 99%) will disagree with me. However, there is a surprisingly large group of people (including celebrities like B.o.B. and Tila Tequila) that agree with my assertion that the world is flat. As I skim through the Internet, I find articles, blogs and comments supporting my opinion that the world is flat. I can feel my confidence growing. Feeling brave, I post on Facebook stating how NASA and the government are really trying to trick us into believing the world is round. I nervously wait for five minutes, but before long I get likes and comments on my post saying “wow this is real?” or “this is so true” or “yo fam dis is lit”. Soon, I have more likes than I’ve ever gotten on any of my profile pictures. I am now convinced that the world is flat — or my Facebook profile pictures are just really shitty. Encouraged by my online community, I create the hashtag #worldisflat and try my best to make sure everyone knows my opinion through social media.

While this hypothetical example may seem a little ridiculous and exaggerated, the core of it holds truth: opinions are not always facts. All too often, we refuse to admit that our beliefs are imperfect even in the face of contrary evidence; our stubbornness can grow unruly by support from online communities. This stubbornness is also the cause of hostility and conflict that can occur between communities that disagree with each other.

Going back to my example, let’s say someone comments on my #worldisflat post “your an idiot”. At first, I am taken aback by the blatant misuse of ‘you’re’, but then I am hurt and personally offended at being called an idiot. This insult causes me to become defensive. I furiously type my response: “no, YOU’RE****** an idiot because you believe whatever the government tells you”. In a span of minutes, people from both sides of the argument join in on the comments, creating a toxic environment with people engaging in hateful and ultimately pointless online fights. Both sides insist on being completely correct and the other side being completely incorrect.

To clarify, I do not believe the world is flat. In fact, when I first heard about the #worldisflat movement, I was enraged. I created excuses to justify my anger by saying that these people are complete idiots who are making our society dumber. I believed I was doing my duty by publicly shaming and personally attacking #worldisflat supporters. But, lurking under my anger was an ugly, smug sense of superiority stemming from my perceived stupidity of these #worldisflat supporters. As I let my anger and ego settle down, I saw that their reasons for believing why the world is flat might actually hold some validity. #worldisflat supporters fear that our government is lying to us about the world being spherical. I agree that our government is not as transparent as it should be, and they definitely could be lying to us about some very big issues. Furthermore, refusing to accept what is simply told to us has led to many important discoveries. Galileo was told by everyone that the world is flat, but he insisted the world was a sphere — a radical proposition at the time. Imagine how many people must have blasted him as an idiot or as a madman.

It is so easy to roll with the initial tug of anger that is inflamed during a disagreement, but I try my best to remember that whomever I am arguing with, there are always reasons for him or her to harbor a certain opinion. If people can respect each other, arguments can be constructive without tearing each other down. By respect, I mean that both people try to understand the perspective of the other and learn from each other. Maybe I’m just being optimistic, but I really believe that we can start working together rather than against each other on online comment sections.

I want to ask you a question, again: If you had to identify yourself with one word, what word would that be?

Why not “Human”?

P.S. I know this piece is far from perfect, so please comment below!