September 24, 2013

End the comments! For civilization!

They’re finally doing it.

No more comments. Popular Science has just announced that they are putting the kibosh on the comments. And it can’t come soon enough.

Gene Weingarten once noted that getting a news article along with comments was like ordering a steak and getting a side of maggots. This has always approximated my feelings on them. I remember when I had just started blogging and I would make the mistake of reading them every day, a practice which I cannot frankly say I recommend, if your hobbies include Having a Sunny Outlook on Life or Believing That Humankind is Basically Good.

Now, Popular Science has announced that they are removing comments after a study revealed, fairly convincingly, that people who read an article with vitriolic and terrible comments beneath it thought that the scientific consensus was less settled than it was, and then presumably went out to sow misconception and bafflement in the public debate.
This study is a science-send for all of us who have long despised comments but only suspected that they were also UNDERMINING SCIENCE and DESTROYING AMERICA. Now, we know for a fact that this is so.

In the piece explaining Popular Science’s choice, online content director Suzanne LaBarre noted:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

We have this mistaken idea that some things are up for debate that frankly are not actually up for debate. People may disagree on them, but the only reason that they disagree is that, well, some of these people are wrong. You do not have to give people who are objectively incorrect equal time. There is no point disagreeing about facts. If you are constantly reduced to proving hundreds of years of scientific consensus over again before you can even start to talk, you waste everyone’s time. Jean Kerr once memorably noted that “the real menace in dealing with a five-year-old is that in no time at all you begin to sound like a five-year-old.”

Popular Science is right.

“Never read the comments” is one of the few phrases I would not regret tattooing somewhere on my body. Partially this is because, like Noel Coward, I can take any amount of criticism so long as it is unadulterated praise. Distracted, by our phones, from writing on actual bathroom stalls, we store up those sentiments and pour them out at the bottom of news stories.

The problems with comments are something one could expound on at length.

My theory for why Web sites like the Post have such difficulty with comments used to be that this obeyed the Internet Rule that the more obscure and bizarre the niche group, the friendlier the comments. By and large the comments on your Erotic Lincoln Vampire Fanfiction are much kinder and better spelled than the comments on a major news story about, say, wiretapping and surveillance, which mainly consist of erratically capitalized screeds against the president and observations that would not be out of place in a toilet stall.

But why?

This finally explained itself to me when I attended a whistling convention. I’d been to conventions before — Star Wars, punning, you name it. People at pun-offs know already that they like a certain type of wordplay. People at whistling conventions know only that they are capable of making a certain sound by blowing air in a particular way. At the latter, you have no idea what to talk about. Music, maybe? In the same way, online, the less commenters are guaranteed to have in common, the worse the climate tends to be.

The few places where the comments sections are the home of a vibrant, riveting, polite discussion are the ones where the host site has made a vigorous effort to create community.

On most major news sites, all you have in common is the fact that you just read [Whatever That Article Was], and you have [Some Feeling] about it — and, more damning yet, that you are one of the people hardy enough to venture off the safe map of the article and into the deep and chartless waters of the comments section, where most of the occupants are weird darkling creatures with the opinion equivalent of strange dangly glowing protrusions on their snouts to lure in unsuspecting fish (“So, you think Obamacare ISN’T a sinister plot? Come closer and explain!”).

This does not conduce to civility or illumination.

The places on the Internet where the discussion is good are places where people are bound by other bonds than simply Having Just Read Something – they come back to the same blogs day after day, they share an interest in certain policy areas, they like panda erotica, whatever it is, it forces them to have a stake in making conversation polite enough today that it won’t be uninhabitable tomorrow. You can be much ruder to the waiter in a place where you are not a regular.

And even if you are a regular on news stories (hi, folks!), the nature of big news or breaking science is that if it’s big and controversial enough for people to flood in to read about it, that small regular community gets overrun. It is hard to maintain community in the middle of a stampede. You only use the correct forks when you aren’t fighting through throngs of people to tear hunks off the new carcass.

So, well done, Popular Science!

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.