Why I Stopped Allowing Comments on My Posts
Sometime last spring, I decided to close the comments sections on all of my future posts here. Some people noticed. A few people complained. A few people found it kind of threatening. A few people even (some subtly, some not) called me a fascist. One anonymous reader wrote me some bizarrely personal emails. All in all, pretty standard fare for the blogosphere—complete with Godwin’s Law confirmation.
I’m reasonably confident in my choice. This is something I’d been mulling for years before finally pulling the trigger. I’ve worried that any public attempt to explain would be read as anxious affirmation-seeking, so I haven’t bothered.
But…since I published a snarky piece clowning Internet Commenters today, I decided that it might be worth offering a few serious thoughts about comments sections. I don’t want my only words on the subject to be flippant.
As is custom, when I started writing here, I wrote an introductory post. I included this passage:
I don’t really spend much time in the comments sections—whether it’s my post or someone else’s. This is mostly for two reasons: 1) I suffer from “Someone is Wrong on the Internet Syndrome.” I have a hard time walking away from online arguments, which leads to all sorts of frustrating physical (mostly lack of sleep) and psychological consequences. Comments section donnybrooks always threaten to cost me short-term sanity. 2) As a result, I rarely have time to indulge.
To put it another way, I found (and find) my own commenting impulses really unhealthy and unflattering. For years, I sort of blundered around like the young version of Rousseau’s Emile: earnest, gullible, serious, and such. Guys like that get slaughtered in comments. But that was better than the more recent past. I toughened up until I was better (still subpar) at sarcasm detection, opponent belittling, and all the other tricks and tools. But the self that I became on the (eventually) rare occasions that I commented was not a self that I was proud to acknowledge. I wouldn’t say half (heck, 5%) of the things that I consider putting in comments sections to people that I genuinely care about.
Let me try to offer a few less-solipsistic thoughts as to why this might be. I’ve concluded that most online comments suffer from impediments grounded in the structure of comments sections. They make for poor communication because of the way online comments are structured, not because a site is infested with a uniquely bad gang of trolls.
Here’s what I mean: the communication tools you choose conditions the sorts of dialogue you have. Poetry can express many things particularly well. Peer-reviewed scientific writing can express many things particularly well. However, there’s little overlap between the two sets. You can try to express research findings poetically, but at some point, the structure of the means of communication you’ve chosen will chafe against the content you’re trying to express. The purpose and internal logic of poetic expression just aren’t particularly conducive to some tasks. Not all means of communication are suitable for all tasks.
In other words, the structure of each—poetry and scientific writing—encourages a certain kind of communication. The same is also true for casual conversation, opera, body language, emails, hand-written letters, and most any means of communicating with others.
So: I’ve grown convinced that comments sections are nearly always designed in such a way that they impede valuable communication. There are many reasons for this, and they (can) vary with the site.
A note: thar be long, esoteric rabbit holes down that path, so I’m going to offer some common problems with common functions of comment sections. I don’t have time for more.
Like all forms of communication, comments sections are fueled by a search for recognition. We reach out to others not just to express, but to connect. We try to display ourselves as “rational,” or “passionate” or “open-minded” or “sensitive” or whatever the structure of the forum values.
What does a comments section value? We call it “snark.” That’s an ugly term for a more subtle process. Comments sections value disinterested, stylish, dismissive brilliance. As my online Zarathustra puts it in my McSweeney’s piece,
Conversation is like casual tennis—each speaker shoveling the ball over the net to encourage a return. But the Internet Commenter is a poor partner who plays for and with itself, and crafts each line to stylishly wound opponents. For the Internet Commenter, every shot is a cross-court backhand. It is not enough to communicate; for the Commenter, every acknowledgment is a new chance for a flashy put-away.
This happens for a lot of reasons, but it’s primarily linked to comments sections’ low accountability thresholds. When interlocutors cannot be reliably held responsible for their insults, their misstatements, their prevarications, and etc, discussions of substance become decreasingly likely. A discredited commenter is always one fresh coat of new username or IP anonymizer from restored credibility. In the real world, this sort of easy, breezy reputation rehabilitation isn’t available, so interlocutors work more cautiously and politely.
Anonymity fuels this dynamic, without question. It grants commenters a measure of confidence few people carry into face-to-face conversations. It frees their will (or their id) from decorum and fear.
Avatars complicate the matter somewhat; when commenters choose an online name/graphic/persona to consistently embody, they face the potential of being held accountable. But this also fosters a weird dynamic—the biological humans behind their online identity become caretakers for their projected identity. Unlike the offline world, where they frequently cannot have full control over which of their words or actions face others’ judgment, avatars exist in a narrow world where users can construct and cultivate an image without being trammeled by as many of the awkward accidents of being human.
Perhaps more importantly, the act of projection is more obvious with an avatar. Sure, people in the offline world frequently try to project a consciously-designed image of themselves, but this is frequently inchoate—or even subconscious. By contrast, avatars make the choice of name, image, ethos, style, and etc an explicit condition for entry.
Note: I don’t resent the use of avatars in and of themselves. There are good personal and professional reasons that many online commenters use them. The reasons for using an avatar are not necessarily linked to the sorts of communication that they foster.
These are not the only factors—but they’re big ones. Some of comments sections’ problems are inertial; for a lot of interrelated, unidentifiable reasons, the culture of commenting on the Internet ended up this way. Even in instances where individuals are required to conclusively link their online activity to their real identities, we still see an inordinate amount of bilge.
Some of the problems are a function of the challenges inherent to written communication; almost everyone has had the experience of having seemingly innocuous written messages misunderstood by their recipients. This is particularly dangerous in a format designed for brevity.
Of course, just as there’s some room for poetry in an instruction manual, it’s possible to fight back against the structural and cultural predispositions of the comments section. Some people at this site are committed to that project. There is frequent, extensive discussion going on behind the scenes here about the state of our commentariat. I admire the people who spend many hours of their time each month arguing over just how awful invective needs to get before it warrants a regulatory response—but I’m pretty confident that they can’t fundamentally alter the tenor of the comments section.
So that’s a gloss on why I’ve decided not to open the comments section on my posts. It’s not everything that I think about the subject. It’s not nearly as clear as I’d like. But it gets at some of the broad contours of my position, and I hope that it demonstrates that I didn’t make the decision lightly.
 Consider: there are at least two major elements to what we consider the marks of gentility. The first consists of a certain sort of behavior that reveals one’s character (esp. self-discipline), usually in interactions with others. This is what we generally mean when informing a delinquent roustabout that s/he is NO gentleman/gentlelady.
The second, meanwhile, consists in the trappings of a privileged lifestyle. The obvious ones are material: clothing, cigars, racehorses, country manors, politicians, obscure maps, and assorted steampunk gear. But these are also intended to reflect an uncommon depth of character and erudition. Gentlewomen and men have these things because they have the means, but also because they have the taste.