Commented Out

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“Don’t read the comments” – if you want to preserve your happiness/sanity/sense of equilibrium, don’t read the comments. There’s a twitter account dedicated to the idea, extensions for all the browsers, articles in every type of publication – even crafts. Do you need a cross-stitch reminding you to not read the comments? You can get one.

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I followed this mantra. If I wanted to read an article about something I enjoyed, or about a news item that was current, I just skipped the comments. There. Satisfaction in holding my own opinion, and I could just ignore the noise.

But.

Nothing has changed, particularly. I still avoid vitriol on the internet, as I do in life (I’m essentially a lazy pacifist; confrontation in all forms alarms me).

Yet.

I am working my way through Smarter Than You Think, by Clive Thompson, and he talks about how the comments is where the discussion happens, linking it back to Socrates:

…the writing strategies of today’s students have a lot in common with with the Greek ideal of being a smart rhetorician: knowing how to debate, to marshal evidence, to listen to others, and to concede points. Their writing is a constant dialogue with others. … Today’s online writing is like a merging of that culture and the Gutenberg print one. We’re doing more jousting that takes place in text but is closer in pacing to a face-to-face conversation. No sooner does someone assert something than the audience is reacting – agreeing, challenging, hysterically criticizing, flattering, or being abusive.

He writes also,

We so value conversation … that we hack it into any system that comes along.

In the above, he talks of the @handle convention that users started employing on Twitter to credit/reply, and trackbacks/pingbacks on re-blogs.

The conversation isn’t just in the comments, but comments are the most visible – and maligned? – aspect of the ongoing conversation we see happening constantly online.

Can you stand one more quote? I knew you could. Thompson goes on to tie more firmly online conversation with Greek ideals:

For Socrates, the advent of writing was dangerous. He worried that text was too inert: once you wrote something down, that text couldn’t adapt to its audience. People would read your book and think of a problem in your argument or want clarification of your points, but they’d be out of luck. For Socrates, this was deadly to the quality of thought, because in the Greek intellectual tradition, knowledge was formed in the cut and thrust of debate. … Today’s online writing meets Socrates halfway. It’s printish, but with a roiling culture of oral debate attached.

I’ve looked at my own habits as a human on the internet, and I find that I have excessively, almost embarrassingly, contradictory behaviors. In the past year or two, I have made a point to comment more on blogs – almost exclusively people I know in real life, but sometimes a user who I have connected with. I have tried to be more active in productive or social comments, while avoiding becoming part of a community of commenters on any particular site or blog (which I don’t have particular reasons for, it’s just the way it’s turned out to be). And conversely, I am content enough to read the comments when someone posts a link and indicates that there’s a trainwreck in the comments, or someone makes an excellent point, or that there is otherwise an opportunity for voyeurism where I otherwise wouldn’t participate. This makes me part of the problem where comments are concerned, I think. A well-moderated community is a productive and thriving community. Every well-meant, well-reasoned comment not made adds to the dearth of well-meant, well-reasoned comments available. It is a debt that goes unpaid, with interest.

Furthermore, I live completely differently when it comes to my Facebook habits. What is Facebook without comments? It is a barren wasteland of humblebragging. Add comments in, and a flat image gains facets, faces, features; things go granular – a post becomes a story. I am part of a community on Facebook that is all multiple mamas, and the comments are the community.

And P2, the theme we use on our internal blogs at Automattic, is heavily reliant on comments. Things posted internally are rarely just a post. Things are Liked, linked to, commented on, often many levels deep. I cannot imagine work without comments.

Sometimes, a site doesn’t get comments right. It can be a surprising turn-off of the content of the posts themselves. The conversation, when left to a yowling mass or even just a single abuser, shadows the original thought posted.

I think we can do better. We can elevate good content with thoughtful debate, and even “just” support! We can ask for moderation to match our mountains. We can be good neighbors on this internet. Let’s steer the ideas forward.

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