Comments must die

5 min read

I’ve been blogging more lately, and getting some response – not here on my own domain, but on the various social networks on which I’ve been posting notices. (That’s Twitter and, to my occasional chagrin, Google+.) Now, it’d be awesome if more people owned and relied upon their own web sites to host content, it’s true. And you can only trust the cloud so far, so I’m definitely going to strive to keep and host my own copies of any really awesome things that come out of discussions.

But I am not bothered by not having local comments on Gibberish. I don’t miss them at all.

Having comments on your domain means turning it into a nightclub that takes considerable management. Not helping matters is the inherent disembodiment of an anonymous, textual medium – imagine if the hecklers in your nightclub were ghosts. The natural inhibitors that come with being physically present aren’t there to moderate people, so the moderating tactics we’re left with are more blunt, therefore more damaging to the remaining human conversation. The worst of both worlds, fighting each other. (And again… lessons here for RPGs, where everyone’s acting in an ideaspace as a fictional self that isn’t limited by the things that happen to brains when people are physically present.)

As Neven Mrgan writes in the afore-linked, some of us just want to write. Others of us just want to pretend we live in a world without comments, and have access to the tools to make that possible by hiding them all. But is that enough? We can buy ourselves distance from each other with technical capital, just like how people with monetary capital can buy houses on far-off estates; but where’s our responsibility to each other in that picture?

Brian Eno said a while back that “a more connected world is a more vulnerable world,” and he predicted that soon our societies would start to shy away from the trend of more and more connection. I think we’re at a moment where we can and must choose – voluntarily, for a goddamn change – to pull back from a social extreme and therefore stay accessible to people who aren’t a certain flavor of social extremist (see also: grognard capture).

As web analyst Paul Ford writes, the central question of the web has become “Why wasn’t I consulted?” And sometimes that’s great. But I have come to believe that other times, this harms the larger culture. I’d like to see an online world that has a wider range of answers to that central question – not just always “oh, my bad, here’s your comments thread.” Would that online world have more elitism in it? Yes, it would. It would have more of all the things that are in the real social world. But it would also remain the online world: it would connect people who otherwise aren’t connected, and thus would retain more anti-elitism than the real world. Not every point on the web needs to be a customer-service desk for that to be true. Every domain should have a customer-service desk, probably, but not everything should be one.

For example, the web page for a New York Times article should not be conferring any kind of status on the comment of just anybody who wanders by. Whatever you think of the NYT’s ideas about its own status, it does need to have those ideas, and use them. That’s what being the Times is. Lots of newspapers, and other publishers per Ford’s piece, feel a bit put upon by web culture because they’ve reified comments rather than seeing them as an instrument that has a necessary but specific use. Someone convinced them it’s not a web site unless a thread of comments is trailing off everything, like drool; they need to snap out of the trance.

Another example is feminist and anti-racist blogs, where a measure of what might look like elitism – shutting out a voice that’s popular – would help protect voices that don’t have power in the world. (That said, I can understand someone whose blog gets them regular death threats via email wanting to provide comments as a kind of pressure valve for the hate.)

Must comments die everywhere? No – I was just trolling you (another often-harmful social fact of the world, just like elitism, that must be managed for the greater good, not abolished). But no matter where or how you put things on the web, I urge you to change your comment policy this year. You don’t have to block all comments (if your blog-host-or-whatever leaves you that as the only option, I encourage you to change hosts), nor even make your policy more restrictive – just try a new form.