Friday, August 05, 2011

The Dreaded "Comments Section"

Ok folks. This post has nothing to do with any statistical analysis, and is only very loosely related to baseball. Furthermore, it's about a subject I don't really know a lot about - I might be two years behind the curve, and I may be talking out of my backside. I'm willing to accept that.

I was just at, and I noticed they have a new function for users to comment on their articles, through their Facebook account. I like this.

One of the best and worst things about the internet is the anonymity it brings. On the positive, it gives people a lot of access to guilty pleasures that might be considered socially unacceptable. Suppose you really like listening to, say, the musical stylings of Jessica Simpson. If this were still 1990, you'd have to go to Sam Goody to purchase her new single. Today we have iTunes and Youtube and heck, you can even join a fan forum for her. Completely anonymously. That's awesome, and just one of about 40 quadrillion ways our lives are better than they were 20 years ago.

On the other hand, anonymity seems to give people the right to say anything they want.. Anything. No matter how stupid, bigoted, deranged, twisted, short-sighted and just plain wrong, people could say anything they wanted. Which is ok - I'm a firm believer in free speech. So why, then, do comments sections turn into such vile cesspools? The problem doesn't come from the fact that people can say what they want - it's the fact that they can say it without repercussion.

The reason free speech works so much better than censorship is because, once a speaker has been censored, he can make yourself into a victim, a political prisoner of sorts. "Look what the man doesn't want you to hear!" This is true, no matter how awful the message. When a racist loser like Fred Phelps (and yes, I'm using an obviously extreme case) can freely be a bigot, it's fine, because in response, I'm free to call him a racist loser. More importantly, most reasonable people can see that he is a racist loser. If he were censored though? It would, in a backwards way, raise sympathy not only for him, but for his pathetic beliefs. "He is just saying what THE GOVERNMENT doesn't want you to hear."

So, it follows that the check on unbridled free speech isn't censorship - it's shame. It's that human nature dictates that people don't want their peers to consider them complete morons. So most people, when entering into an argument with someone, are going to at least try to have facts on their side, rather resort to ridiculous ad hominem attacks about the person they're arguing with.

This doesn't happen in comment sections. Go on any of the very, very large internet sites, read a column, and then try to read through the comment section. If your brain isn't hurting about 30 seconds in, you're either incredibly tolerant of the stupid, or among them. Nearly every comment is met with an outlandishly mean character attack. There is zero intelligent discussion of any issue. Ever. Why? Because there is no recourse. You can write as vicious a reply as you'd like, because there is no shame in being wrong, and no shame in being mean.

(Note. This isn't true of the smaller, better regulated forums out there, which are fundamentally different than major websites for a variety of reasons. These function more like societies, where people will take on leadership roles and call out the foolish on being foolish. Sure, a certain amount of homogenous groupthink will go on, but that's true of any society, really. And, in the better forums, well-reasoned dissent is welcomed and discussed. In my criticism of comments sections, I'm talking more about the large scale, international type sites, like, Yahoo (probably the worst),, YouTube, etc, that are essentially impossible to moderate.)

This is why Grantland's decision to have their comments section through Facebook makes so much sense. If someone is commenting on an article, he won't care what blazersgrrl144 or DetroitFan06 thinks of him. He WILL, however, care what that cute girl in his chemistry class or his potential new boss thinks. This will make the responses more measured, and the less measured responses more shamed. A random person saying "hey rotflmaoattheknicks, you're being f*&(^@ mean" doesn't mean as much as your co-worker saying "hey William Johnson, you're being f*&(^@ mean."

Not that the system is perfect. A lot of people don't use Facebook (though I'd imagine 98% of the sort of person who would comment on an ESPN article do), and the privacy concerns are real. Still, even though it's not perfect, it has to be better.

No comments: