Last month a woman who worked for the Stranger, an alternative weekly in Seattle, quit in a huff. She had been writing for the paper's blog, the Slog. The problem was the comments people were making on her posts. She couldn't stand them anymore. "The word I would use is cruel," she wrote in her sign-off.
Actually, if cruel was all they were, she got off pretty easy. For all the hype about Flickr and YouTube and Twitter and whatever else is putting "Web 2.0" in its business plan these days, the most ubiquitous form of user-generated content (to employ a phrase that just won't die) is the humble comment. Web publishers have begun to offer commenting on everything--posts, videos, pictures, whatever--like it was a kind of interactive condiment. Now practically anything on the Web collects comments the way a whale collects barnacles.
In theory, it's a great thing. We're giving the people a voice! But the reality is that commenting either attracts loathsome people or somehow causes ordinary people to express themselves in a way that is loathsome.
A random example: on June 11, a user called way21337 uploaded a video to YouTube. It's titled My new gerbil, and it shows, in fact, a black-and-white gerbil snuffling around cutely in somebody's hand. It is 11 seconds long. By press time, it had acquired 102 comments. Let's take a look! They begin with NewTyhuss, who writes, "sweet!" Things start going south with comment No. 4: "id hit it." (Good one, ZRace67!) After a week, we're down to eldergod: "why dont u shove that gerbil up yur ass and quit posting stupid videos." bwalhof writes, "kill yourself. fast." And so on.
Comments aren't always that idiotic. The comments on Gawker, a Manhattan-based media and gossip blog that I will probably (no, definitely) be made to regret mentioning, can be incredibly mean, but they're also often funnier and cleverer than the posts they comment on. Last August Gawker ran an item about the rapper Foxy Brown, who was accused of hitting a neighbor with her BlackBerry. The commenters spontaneously generated an entire mini-subculture consisting of variations on this single item: "This is like the time Spinderella stabbed me with her Treo." "MC Lite [sic] beat me about the head and upper shoulder with a stack of faxes." By October, the Foxy Brown post had 10,000 comments, at which point Gawker--presumably fearing the arrival of the Rapture--shut it down.
The horribleness of commenters isn't really a mystery: Internet anonymity is disinhibiting, and people are basically mean anyway. Nor is it a mystery why the people who run websites put up with commenters: the economic model for Internet content is based on advertising, which means it's based on traffic volume, and comments mean traffic. They're part of the things that make online publishing work. TIME.com enables comments on its blogs, including mine.) It's just hard to tell whether they're ruining the Web faster than they can save it.
Commenters tend to respond with surprise--they're shocked, shocked!--when people call them on being not nice. In their social universe, this kind of rhetorical slap-fighting is just how you do business, and anybody who feels otherwise is thin-skinned and humorless. As lame and self-serving as this excuse is, we can learn something from taking it at face value. Maybe commenters are just on one side of a cultural disconnect between two incompatible ideas of what the social conventions of the Internet should be. One is based on the standards of real-world, off-line politeness. The other is a kind of communal game in which whoever is cleverest and pushes the most buttons wins.
This disconnect is probably just temporary. In another decade or two, one side or the other will have won out, and then we'll all be on the same page, and we won't have this kind of misunderstanding anymore. But I know which side I'm rooting for. I'm sure Foxy Brown is with me.