“remember when youd go over to ur friends and go to the ‘computer room’ to the old s***** desktop n sit on the giant black leather computer chair and ur friend showed you charlie the unicorn n harry potter puppets and their older siblings were listening to soulja boy and tpain,” said Twitter personality @sjalynnmayree in a tweet that garnered nearly 500,000 likes.
If the explosive virality of this tweet is any indication, there is a category of highly specific moments which resonate with those of us who grew up in the Internet Age. Our childhood memories are rife with afternoons spent watching YouTube videos with friends and, perhaps automatically, scrolling through the hundreds of thousands of comments below those clips. Whether you get a kick out of the raw, unfiltered messages that come from the comment section or whether they make your blood boil, the inevitability of the comment section is one most of us know all too well.
Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s Editor in Chief, announced in February the creation of a new online letters section and the related decision to shut down comments on TheAtlantic.com. “We are choosing now
“But what about discourse and freedom of speech?” – Alexa Johanningmeier ’21
to elevate respectful, intelligent discourse and argument,” he wrote. “We want smart and critical readers to have a more visible role on our site, and we’re looking forward to hearing from you, and publishing you.” My reaction to this announcement has evolved quite a bit from the first time I heard it. At first, I felt rather like I did in middle school when my entire class had to stay inside instead of going out to recess because a couple of kids were being too rowdy. I found myself asking: “Why do we all have to lose our commenting privileges because some people decide to write vulgar, hateful and problematic things?” I couldn’t imagine reading the news, interacting with social media posts or watching silly videos on YouTube without having comments below to peruse.
As time went on, I started to ask myself just why I cared so much about the presence of comments in my experience as a content consumer and some research told me that a lot of other people felt the same way I do. Adam Felder, Director of Digital Analytics at Atlantic Media, asked 50 Americans to read a recent National Journal article with a representative sample of the comments attached to the story and 50 Americans to read the same article sans comments. Each group was given a short survey after reading the article which measured their understanding of the piece, their mood after reading it, and their opinion regarding the quality of the article.
Both categories of respondents indicated that they retained information from the article and that their self-reported mood had not significantly changed. Yet, the respondents who had read the article and some of the comments attached to it had a significantly more negative opinion of the article’s quality. This experiment indicates that when we read the comments of other readers, our own opinions of the content begin to mirror those of its most vocal opponents.
As I became aware of the way I interact with content online, I found that I raced to the comments below articles and videos almost reflexively and that, even if I hadn’t had any qualms with the way an article was written or the story that it told, I left the page with a much more negative impression of the thing I had just read, watched or listened to.
“But what about discourse and freedom of speech?” I fretted. “Isn’t getting rid of this platform just censorship?” While this does limit the immediate gut-punch of reactions a reader might receive directly after finishing a piece, we still have plenty of ways to talk about the things we care about in different mediums. From what we write when we share on Facebook and Twitter, to giving feedback directly to the authors and creators themselves through highly curated Letters to the Editor, to more thoroughly moderated online forums, we have plenty of opportunities to give our two cents on just about anything. The demise of the comment section has been a long time coming and I’ve accepted that its death is just as beneficial to me as a reader and critical thinker as it is to the folks on the receiving end of the worst that the platform has to offer.
Alexa Johanningmeier ’21 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from St. Louis, Mo. Her major is undecided.