Is the Comment Board Inevitably a Discussion Killer?


I DON’T READ the comments placed on websites, and I’m here to tell you why. Long before there was an Internet, it was the habit of many newspapers (some of them well-respected) to publish unsigned editorials. This practice, which continues to this day, has always discouraged me. An opinion, when pushed into print, should always be signed by its author. Of course it is understood that a New York Times editorial, for instance, will have been composed by one or more of the staff publicly identified on the organization’s masthead. An argument appearing in the Op-Ed section of a major newspaper will never be quite beyond identification, yet it still seems to me unprofessional to advocate a public policy or initiative — a job which may include a call to war — and not to put one’s skin in the ring at least in this small measure.

Then the Internet came along, and with it the many opinions of Sexy_Man1972 and bccanuck14 and im_smarter_than_you, and so on and so on. In a time when the veiling of faces in public has become a much deliberated matter, the World Wide Web is birthing an anonymous race of public square lurkers. These dissemblers are probably doing no harm, but neither is their contribution of much positive value. I keep encountering the mostly uncontroversial belief that democracy requires that citizens be identifiable in public. Well, what’s more public than the Internet? And yet it’s crawling with trolls in disguise.

I’m old enough that I remember when comments came to the door, typed and folded into a sealed envelope. In those days of yore it took some effort and incurred some cost (the price of a postage stamp) to compose and forward one’s thoughts. This marginal addition of effort, it turns out, made all the difference. Sure, there was even then the odd pieces of mail from evidently unhinged correspondents. But people who have to put a bit of sinew into the business tend to make it worth the while. A hand-composed message with an addressed (and self-addressed!) envelope, walked to its point of dispatch, will as a general rule have something more by way of substance than ‘U ARE STUPED’ and so forth. It’s too easy to type out a few hasty words and to hit Submit, but there you have it. The bar is either no longer so high that the sloths dare not leap, or it’s now come so low that the slitherers take notice: I’m not sure which.

For friends and relatives of mine who call on the phone to recite the comments placed under my newspaper articles, the trolls are a source of amusement. And I admit, the comments they read to me are funny. From them I’ve gathered that I’m a know-nothing Yankee socialist agitator who doubtless was planted here and paid by a conservative think tank to advocate on behalf of the Indians and the CIA. The person I infer from the revelations of my detractors is so much more complex and intriguing than I am that it makes me jealous. Here I am with my day job and my uneventful life while someone else, by coincidence with the name Wayne K. Spear, is making an undisclosed fortune in the work of intrigue, infiltration and collusion. Unfortunate for us both, the scam has been exposed by SudburySatNight, st.albert69, TheTruth and all the other diligent citizens of Trolldom.

The depressing fact is that I thrive on debate, dialogue and heated dialectic, and that the prospect of an upper-caps exchange of the usual insults isn’t enough to get me out of bed in the morning — but it’s what the Internet above all else provides. The emails which come to me directly are mostly intelligent and well-argued, and I respond in kind to each. I look forward to thoughtful correspondence. The anonymity and cheap ease of comment boards however seem almost to guarantee dullness and sterile rancour. The unintentionally amusing comments are overwhelmed by the mere nasty ones, so poorly conceived and executed that the taking of offense (which might actually lead to something interesting if a principle were at issue) would be a waste of energy. So I ignore the comment boards, and I don’t scratch the itch when, on a lark, my friends call to say, “You should see what people are saying about you.” Why?

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