If you’ve ever broken that cardinal rule of Internet browsing and — gulp — read the comments, then you’ll already know what the statistician Emma Pierson recently proved: It’s a bit of a bro fest down there.
Pierson, writing Tuesday in the New York Times, observed that commenters on the Times’ Web site are overwhelmingly male, except in certain highly gendered areas. It’s an inequity born out in other places, too, your current site included. While The Washington Post doesn’t require commenters to supply their gender, I’m told that 75 percent of the users who volunteer that information are male.
It’s just an estimate, but still: 75 percent.
In an effort to explain this sort of mind-blowing inequity, Pierson links it to a whole bunch of institutional and social influences, all of which are totally valid: Women also tend not to speak up in classrooms or on other types of sites, she points out; the Internet is often a font of misogyny and abuse; there isn’t gender equity in terms of who writes the Times’ stories, either.
But in the comments section — yes, I read the comments — many readers disagreed with her framing, as readers so frequently do. Why, several asked, are we talking about comments sections as if they were inherently good? Why do we assume commenting is a behavior that should be encouraged?
“Maybe,” one (female) commenter suggested, “women are sensible enough to realize that all this commenting — whoever is doing it — is just a waste of time.”
Upvotes to you, female commenter! That may just be one of the most sensible alternate commenter theories of our time.
See, here’s the thing: With no offense meant to the kind commenters of the Intersect (*waves*), comments sections on news sites and elsewhere are overwhelmingly vile, vapid places. The anthropologist Krystal D’Costa once compared the experience of reading online comments to watching a car crash as it happens — maybe because both are unfortunate, and both can be deeply traumatic.
Sure, there are outliers. But even the reliably quick-witted denizens of the Gawker network struggled last summer with a recurring rape GIF problem, and even The Washington Post’s carefully policed hordes manage to slip into political insults or off-topic vitriol sometimes. Don’t get me wrong: It is well within your rights to call this paper the Washington Compost and bemoan its slow decline since the Watergate days. It’s just not necessarily a constructive, civil discussion … particularly under a blog post about, I don’t know, Internet dating.
I’m prone, as Pierson is, to look at gender inequity in comments and think, “Uh-oh, there’s something wrong here” — women should be participating, women should chime in. But if I, as an Internet-using lady, think about my own commenting habits, I see the problem less as some kind of failure to speak up, on my part, and more as a statement on commenting. I’m not trying to be polite or to shy from a debate. Rather, I don’t comment on Web sites for the same reason I don’t watch wrestling, or go to strip clubs, or do any number of other things that men statistically do far more than women: I think it’s stupid, and I’m not into it.
Nobody on their deathbed ever said, ″I wish I had spent more time reading internet comments.”— Don’t Read Comments (@AvoidComments) November 13, 2014
Of course, there is a big difference between wrestling and online discourse, and I don’t want to gloss over that. Comments sections are (in their highest, most Platonic form, anyway) a venue for serious discussion and debate, a sort of collaboration between the writer and the audience. The comments section is supposed to even the playing field, open writers up to criticism. It’s supposed to represent, in some small way, the democratization of the whole media enterprise.
And comments do, indeed, affect how people view the media: Both scientific studies and informal surveys have found that readers tend to like articles and their authors less when there are comments attached to them. More important, comments provoke this phenomenon that one 2013 study dubbed the “nasty effect”: People’s views become more polarized and more extreme after reading “nasty,” or uncivil, comments. Not exactly the Platonic ideal, that.
“Online communication and discussion … has the potential to enrich public deliberation,” the authors of that paper wrote. “Nevertheless, this study’s findings show that online incivility may impede this democratic goal.”
I’ll leave you gentlemen to debate that amongst yourselves.