Commenters: You Need Us; We Don’t Need You
Commenters are awful, nasty, hateful creatures — except when they arent.
As a journalist, I’ve reported on the Chelsea Manning trial, the New York strip card heist and the Defense Distributed project. I’ve told people about how the American and British governments are monitoring people’s phone calls and how internet providers are avoiding corporation tax. I’ve covered the Sandy Hook shooting.
And of all these things I’ve reported and more, nothing, not one thing, has set readers ablaze like articles on women deserving equal rights to men. What does that tell you about website feedback sections? These are not venues for debate between informed people. They do not enrich our discussion.
Anita Sarkeesian, creator and presenter of web-series Women vs. Tropes, has the right idea. She’s disabled the comment function on all of her YouTube uploads. All it took was the flick of a switch. All she had to do was tick a box that said “no”. Perhaps more site-owners could be as brave.
They would be doing themselves a favor. Speaking specifically for the gaming media, free discussion between readers often serves to undermine our output.
IGN editor-in-chief Steve Butts concluded in a recent post that user discussion on his site had become “horrifying”. Polygon reporter Emily Gera last year created a computer game satirising the people who comment on Kotaku. It only ends when you click the a button prompting you to “suddenly see the error of your ways.”
Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Reddit – just four of the literally millions of ways people can have their voices heard on the internet. So why let them talk over articles? Is a false sense of online community worth sacrificing your credibility for? Should writers have to second-guess themselves just so a vocal minority can feel included in something?
Experts should be allowed to speak rhetorically. They’ve earned the right to have their voices heard above others. They’ve studied, practised and perfected their craft, and made the effort to create something. I don’t know of many plumbers who have to listen to their customers call them faggot while they’re fixing a sink. Professional writers deserve the same respect. They know more than their readers do. That’s why they’re inside the tent, pissing out.
So should we just turn comments off and force compliance from our audience a la print magazines? No. When Huff Post blogger Katie Hopkins writes an article called “Twitter Silence Sums Up Everything Men Hate About Women,” I want to watch readers gut her like a fish.
And on rare occasions, you’ll hear from a commenter who has been directly affected by the issue, who can provide an insight that you can’t. These people should be listened to. For everything rotten about internet comments, I think they’re still worth defending.
Though some things aren’t open to debate. When Cara Ellison writes that videogames are fundamentally sexist, she’s right. People who disagree are wrong. To permit readers to comment on her article propagates the myth that women’s rights are a matter of opinion.
I’ve not encountered it personally, but I’m told that in some newsrooms, editors decide on a case-by-case basis which articles readers are allowed to debate. That sounds ideal to me. Or maybe writers could decide for themselves. Surely they deserve that right.
At the moment it feels like commenters rule. They’re are innumerable and able to respond to our writing anonymously and uncensored. It feels like they’re the ones with the power to say what they like, and we, the writers, who should be leading public opinion, are the ones having to watch our mouths.
Moderation is not enough, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We can decide when debate should be open and when it should be closed. We’re the reason people visit our sites. We’re still the ones with the power.