Against “Don’t Read the Comments”
We’ve made a habit out of telling people not to read the comments online. But what started as a cynical in-joke has become a bad habit, and an excuse for enabling abuse across the web.
This piece is part of my series about how we can move toward humane tech.
Websites didn’t always have comments. I’m old enough to remember when the first sites experimented with different ways of introducing interactivity on their sites. There were web forums (now mostly displaced by Reddit or relegated to minor sites that support niche communities), guest books (sort of a forerunner to your Facebook wall), and then eventually the standard comment box, a simple form at the bottom of the page that asks for your name and your opinion.
The truth is, when many of us were implementing those early comment forms, we did so based on assumptions about web users that were based in the last century. What’s astonishing is that design choices that were out of date when built into commenting tools and blogging software 15 years ago are still repeated as mistakes today on many large, mainstream sites.
The result of continuing to repeat the mistakes we made when building commenting systems a dozen years ago is that nearly every popular large-scale app or social network or news site has some significant issues with widespread abuse of users, particularly marginalized users.
And those of us who see ourselves as savvy insiders in media or tech joke about it knowingly, saying, “Don’t read the comments.”
Making our interactions online more humane has been a long-term obsession of mine. Years ago, I wrote “If your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault”, which to my surprise has become a point of reference for a lot of product designers. Last year I wrote how we can design our sites to prevent abuse before it starts, using the real-world example of how we’ve built protections into Makerbase. And those are just examples from my work — many smarter people have written incredibly thoughtful and surprisingly complete guides to preventing, reducing or even eliminating abuse in online communities.
Here’s a spoiler: Preventing abuse online requires the people running a site or an app to invest time, effort and attention into protecting their community. That’s the bottom line.
Now, many times, people saying “Don’t read the comments” are making a dark joke about the inevitability of abuse on the particularly communities they’re connected to. For example, writers at top blogs or media sites may be obligated to publish as part of their jobs, but are stuck working for employers who don’t invest in preventing abuse.
And honestly, I get it — making a joke out of the situation may be the only way of dealing with that horrible feeling of dread that comes from knowing an institution values one’s words enough to profit from them, but not enough to protect the person writing those words.
Similarly ,we might offer “Never read the comments!” as a reminder to people we care about, urging them to be mindful of self-care as a necessary part of dealing with the grinding, exhausting, never-ending stress of sustained online harassment campaigns. That sense of telling a friend “Don’t look at this thing that will stress you out and hurt you” is understandable and even laudable.
Ha ha, not funny
Yet I think our reflexive use of these grim jokes have gotten accepted into the culture of people who build, manage, and publish on large social apps and media sites. The fact that we joke about it documents an acceptance of a culture of abuse online. It helps normalize online harassment campaigns and treat the empowerment of abusers as inevitable, rather than solvable.
And worse, we denigrate a form that used to be, and sometimes still is, a powerful way of making meaningful connections with the world. I met most of my closest friends in the comments on my blog, or by commenting on theirs. Most of the people who came to my wedding were people who became friends by reading the comments. Whether it’s been some of the most talented people I’ve had the chance to collaborate with, or some of the most inspiring creators who I never imagined getting to connect with, being a person who read the comments opened countless doors for me back when we used to assume reading the comments should be a good thing.
There’s a grave cost to assuming online interactivity is always awful. The burden is felt most acutely in denying opportunity to those for whom connecting to a community online may be the only way to get a foot in the door. Those underrepresented, unheard voices are the most valuable ones we lose when we throw the baby out with the bathwater and assume online comments are necessarily bad.
How do we fix it? Simple: Hold platforms accountable. Whether it’s a big news publisher or a large social network, if we’re sharing information or ideas on a platform and are immediately overrun by abuse that threatens to silence smart conversation or the potential for meaningful connections to be made, put the burden on the platform. Instead of “Never read the comments”, we can simply say the name of the publisher, owner or CEO of the site in question, and then mention that they don’t want to invest in solving abuse on their site. If we’re being charitable, we can say they simply haven’t invested enough in preventing abuse.
But either way, the solution is about sharing the pain of online harassment with those who have the resources and the power to prevent it before it starts. Right now our tendency is to treat it like a joke, so there’s no wonder why those in charge, who don’t face the abuse dished out from the communities they host, treat online abuse like a joke too.