lovely rita

Never read the comments.

This is one of those phrases that people who write on the Internet — especially Women Who Write on the Internet — can safely tattoo somewhere prominent. It is a truth you can bind as a seal on your hand. Once the article ends, there is a line like the line on old maps: Here Be Monsters. Venture beyond at your own risk.

It’s just science. Adam Felder at the Atlantic tested the effect that comments have on people who read an article and found that, in fact, they negatively affected readers’ perceptions of an article’s quality. Never mind that the article itself was written and edited by people who, say what you will about them, were definitely not identified only as Obamanation88 with a small picture of a racist squirrel. None of this mattered. The comments still dragged the whole operation down.

I know there are exceptions and caveats. If you really put the effort into tending your comments garden, you can produce a forum where people disagree without being disagreeable, but that takes a kind of constant pruning and vigilance that is really not feasible if you are also posting stories multiple times daily. It’s like Teddy Roosevelt said when people asked him why he wasn’t keeping his daughter Alice in line. “I can be president of the United States,” he said, “or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” Well, the same applies here. Some people have the rare gift of being excellent writers who also moderate a lovely comment section. But there are only so many hours in the day. And even then it may not work.

Look at Jezebel, where article writers now have to deal with trolls who are posting violent and pornographic gifs in the comment section using anonymous burner accounts whose IP addresses are not recorded. And then staffers have to waste their time scrubbing these off the walls. This is just a lousy thing to do. Who has this kind of time? Also, if you want to post pornographic gifs, doesn’t Tumblr exist? And they have one of the better comment sections to begin with.

Sometimes you want to just take a blowtorch to the whole thing.

I understand that on the Internet you are supposed to have a nice thick skin so you can be exposed to ideas and people with whom you disagree without cringing all the time. But there are limits. This isn’t censorship or being terrified of exposure to new ideas or even saying that you have the right not to encounter certain things. If you’re trying to maintain a pool, you can argue about how many lanes to have and moderate discussions about how long Adult Swim should take. But you can’t argue with people who want to use it as a toilet instead of as a pool. Those people should be removed from the shallow end and not be allowed to come back.

Before, if you wanted to go urinate in a nice community pool that was being carefully maintained by the members of that community, you had to get into a car and drive there. If you wanted to write a vitriolic letter to the newspaper, you had to pay postage on it, and it did not automatically reach the desk of the person who penned the article and also every other reader of that article.

But comment is free. And easy. Too easy.

Lots of theories about what makes for good comments have been tried and found wanting. Is it anonymity? Nope. Is it tying everyone to Facebook? Please, have you seen your friends’ posts about the conflict in Gaza lately? Maybe it was that we weren’t communities and we didn’t have enough in common?

The more people feel they have at stake and the more they feel they have in common with the other people they are conversing with — if they know they’re going to be back in the neighborhood later and might want to use the pool — the politer they’ll be in their comments. (This rule relates to my other rule that the less mainstream the Web site, the nicer the comments. Large national newspapers and popular magazine sites are always full of vitriol from people who clearly only read as far as the word “Obama” in the headline and have no reason to think they’ll ever return. Niche communities for people who like to draw erotic art of the Founding Fathers as woodland creatures generally have comments that are quite polite, complimentary and well-spelled. They have to be. If you start coating the walls with filth, no one will critique your Raccoon Jeffersons.)

But I’m not so sure. You can have a nice community pool — Jezebel often does — but you’re always at the mercy of people who want to come take dumps on your news dumps. There is no easy fix. It all comes down to politeness. And politeness is a fragile web comprised of a myriad tiny interactions. It is hard to guarantee and easy to disturb.

Maybe we should just give up the dream. A well-tempered comments section has been one of those great mirages that has hovered over the Internet for the longest time. We would have a wonderful, moderate discussion, we would enhance each other’s lives, and butterflies and unicorns would swoop to and fro in the middle distance. Like most utopias, this has failed to exist. But we keep thinking maybe it can. It would be so nice to have. And sometimes it really seems like it’s working.

And then this happens. Is it worth continuing to roll this stone uphill?

Never read the comments.

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