I used to run a semi-happening online soccer magazine. At the time, I allowed and occasionally even encouraged readers to make comments on the articles because it seemed like the thing to do, to engage the audience. I no longer feel that way.
As a writer, I don’t do comments anymore. I’ve learned that they don’t really “engage” anyone. Allowing comments only hands the keys over to the reader, giving them a platform to say whatever they choose. And what they choose often has less to do with you and your articles than it does with them and their own personal agendas.
And what’s wrong with that, with giving others a platform to speak their minds? Well, for starters, I worked hard to build that platform and attract an audience. I invested hours of research, writing, editing, rewriting, proofing, fact-checking, and formatting to create every article. Beyond that, I worked hard to promote the thing, using social media, content marketing, and organic SEO. So why should I give that platform – and my readers’ attention – to someone else?
Fear and Loathing in the Comments Section
That said, my greater concern is with what you typically find in the comments section. Sure, there are, on rare occasions, a commenter who will raise an interesting point. But the overwhelming majority are snarky, superficial jabs from people who simply don’t like the topic you wrote about.
For example, if you are a sports fan, you are not going to read a lengthy article (and they’re really the only kind I write, aren’t they?) about a team you don’t like. A Barcelona fan is not going to read an article about Real Madrid, no matter how well-researched and written it may be. The interest just isn’t there. Yet you will receive plenty of comments about how that particular team sucks, your publication sucks, your article sucks, your writing sucks, and you, the author, suck. Now did they really read an entire article about another team and not like it, or are they just vehemently opposed to anything that doesn’t suit their world view and decide to take a swing at it?
Sports has always given people a license to abuse one another. But I’ve also written about everything from art to politics, and yet I still encounter this same tribal mentality in the comments section. It’s as if people are not as interested in what you have to say – or how you say it – as they are in the satisfaction they seem to get from opposing or attacking it in the comments section. The actual content of the article appears to take a backseat to the commenter’s desire to feel like they have somehow won, even if it’s not a contest.
For example, if someone were to write an article claiming that the sky was lavender rather than blue, I might read it out of curiosity. But would I feel compelled to post a comment about what an idiot the author is for making such a ridiculous claim? While I have made the occasional online comment over the years (usually in a desperate attempt to show everyone how clever I think I am, as opposed to really wanting to say something about the article itself), I prefer to quietly move on to more important matters, noting the site and author in order to avoid them in the future.
But you know how the Internet is. It’s not about information. It’s not about reasonable arguments. It’s about winning. Even if you have nothing to gain.
So imagine I did post a comment, ridiculing the writer of the lavender sky piece. Do I really think that will change their opinion? Are they going to read my comment and think: “Whoa, this guy is saying the sky is blue, and that I’m a sniveling idiot; be gone lavender sky theory…you are no longer of value to me.” No, they are not.
Will posting a comment change the views of others who read the piece? No, it won’t do that either. If I just read what one must assume was a well-made argument for one point of view and then I read a comment at the end that offers only a brief, abusive, and poorly worded claim that the author and theory are stupid, then a comment alone is not likely to dissuade me from the theory presented in the article.
From Anger to Incompetence
This, of course, leads to another issue I have with comments. The lavender piece will most certainly be riddled with comments like “Are blind?” and “Look out the window and you will sea blue, dickhead!” Am I really compelled to give a voice to people who can’t speak – or, in the case of the Internet, can’t write?
And then there are those comments which really have nothing to do with whatever you posted. My favorite are the ones that involve Obamacare. I don’t think I’ve ever even written about healthcare. But people always seem to find a way to vent about things like Obamacare in the comments section. And I’m sure the lavender article author would likely encounter the same: “The sky was blue until Obama gave this country to the gays with his Obamacare bullshit!”
Yes, that’s about par for the course when it comes to your average angry commenter. There’s typically a lot of negativity peppered with hate speech. Logic rarely has a place at the table. Whether they want to advance an agenda, feel like they have an axe to grind, or are simply angry with the world, they will seek satisfaction in the comments section.
And if you think that these examples, with the intentional mistakes in spelling and grammar, are exaggerations, then I’m willing to bet you have never run a blog. Believe me, I’m being polite about the depths to which commenters can stoop.
The Proof is in the Posting
I’ve even done some experiments in an effort to test my suspicion that people who like and follow blogs on platforms like WordPress don’t necessarily read your content. I noticed that people started following my blog only seconds after I had posted something, which left me wondering how they could have found the article, let alone have had time to read through it all, in the minute or two after it was posted.
So I did a little experiment in which I listed a topic in the headline – something like “Mustard is the New Superfood” – and then started the text off by saying that I’m not really writing about mustard or even foods but rather conducting a little experiment to see if people like a blog post without even reading it.
Sure enough, I had several blogs that write about the subject of the headline (in this case, food-related blogs) immediately like the post and start following my blog. This confirmed that people were indeed liking my posts and following my blog without ever reading a word I had written beyond the headline or tags. Though, frankly, I don’t understand their motive for this. Is it to get me to follow their blog or like something they posted in return?
But what was stranger still is that I actually had a few comments about the headline subject (imagine something along the lines of “Obama is yellow, just like mustard, and stinks like his Obamacare”). I certainly didn’t expect that, but it was proof that people were also posting comments without even reading what I had written (sadly, no one commented about how clever I was to write an article that has nothing to do with the headline in an effort to see how this all works).
After that experiment, I shut down the comment functions on everything I write, including this fine specimen of blogdom. Yes, I know I’m missing out on an opportunity to receive constructive, useful criticism and insightful counter-arguments to my own. But I also know those kind of comments are about as rare as an apology on the Internet. Besides, the best feedback is given directly, by friends and colleagues you trust and respect, as opposed to some anonymous person who may or may not have even read the entire article.
My Final Comments
At the end of the day, I don’t need the random praise (“Brilliant!”) or the spiteful criticism (“Fuck you, and fuck Obamacare!”). I put a lot of thought and effort into everything I write. And once I post it online, I’d rather let the reader be the judge. Enjoy it? Then come back for more. Hate it? Then move on.
If someone actually reads the article and genuinely disagrees with me, that’s fine. I can live with that. I assume they can live with it as well. But if they feel strongly enough about the need to voice their disagreement, then perhaps they should write and post an article sharing their own views, just as I have. Or, if they are so deeply concerned with my physical or spiritual well-being after reading something I wrote, they can always contact me directly.
Neither of these things will happen, though. Writing their own presumably intelligent article is hard work – a lot harder than simply taking a cheap shot (“You suck!”) at someone else’s hard work. Plus, the process of crafting that article might expose some flaws in their thinking, in a way that a snarky little comment would not. And emailing a comment directly to the author, out of view of the World Wide Web audience, surely won’t satisfy the exhibitionist desire and perceived “victory” of someone who dreams of posting the perfect comment – that pithy jab that shows the entire Internet that they are better than the author…better, in fact, than the entire Internet. It’s a competition that no one can really win, which is why I no longer bother to play the game.