The Commentariat

The level of hostility, snideness and general nastiness that is seen in internet comment sections is nothing new, but its only really seemed to bother me lately. It has seemed increasingly like the overall majority of comments on general news and opinion sites are of the sneering variety. Posts about religion,for instance, are invariably treated to immediate reactionary shots deriding anyone who might follow one, or a story about the Occupy movement typically is subject to comments about smelly hippies “getting a job”. I’ve taken to not bothering to read comments sections any more – as there is rarely anything of worth in there. This is not to say that I want to see a chorus of people agreeing with the post (that wouldn’t be of much use) – comments sections offer a forum for constructive debate or further illumination on the points raise or counter-points – but I don’t need to see the ubiquitous quips and one-liners that have become the norm for such places. It has got me down to some degree. I look at these comments and I dispair – Is this what the public thinks? Is this the majority viewpoint?

However, today I read a piece by John Nicholson on Football365 that made me think. In discussing the trend for minority opinions to be read or treated as the thoughts of the masses he wrote:

Look at the Guardian’s website. Massively popular, with articles read by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people, yet look at the number of comments they attract. Regularly under a 100 made by a recurring cast of people. Even the global warming nutter vs nutter debates only attract 1500 or so. So almost no-one who reads the articles comments on them.

I realised this is true. Most web sites which would attract moderate or large readerships don’t really have huge amounts of comments relative to readership. The majority of people simply don’t comment. I thought about this a bit more; why is it that the comments sections seem to be overwhelmingly reactionary or abusive? Probably because the type of people who are reactionary or abusive simply have to have their say. The rest of us simply agree or disagree and don’t feel the need to wade in. The sneery, snide types must have their opinion heard. Others? Less so.

Of course, there is a lot to be said about how the medium itself makes it easier for people to broadcast more abusive messages – by placing the discourse behind digital screens it dehumanizes it, but this piece made me think about the numbers. That for every person who read an article only a minority chose to comment, and their motivation for commenting is possibly in alignment with their attitude.

That cheers me up. A bit.