Usually it wasn’t too much trouble keeping my comment sections clean, so I generally left them open. I had to close them down for a while when between drafts was repeatedly hit by substantial waves of comment spam-escorted brute force attacks, but I reopened them when that subsided.
Yet, for reasons that should be quite obvious now after #GamerGate, I never opened—and never even planned to open—the comment sections of my “secret level” just drafts where I write about game-based learning and game-related media ethics.
When Popular Science shut down their comment sections on new articles, they did it for interesting reasons, namely, that “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story”:
In one study […], 1,183 Americans read a fake blog post on nanotechnology and revealed in survey questions how they felt about the subject (are they wary of the benefits or supportive?). […] Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology—whom we identified with preliminary survey questions—continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology. Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.
Another thing with comment sections is that they’re never, and can never be, a “marketplace of ideas” because it is not a discussion between equals:
Also, the very principle of “comments” establishes a hierarchy that kick-starts the endemic growth of sycophant and troll populations, a development that has become the scourge of blogs all over the web, ramped up to lethal levels of toxicity in the troll department especially where White Male PrivilegeTM feels under attack. Not wishing to go into details at this point, but the most inspiring and “community-building” comments are usually those that people write on their own blogs, in response.
But there’s more.
And that “more” is something that practically all articles with open comment sections about #GamerGate or #Ferguson or any other topic where privileges are at stake will highlight: the sheer brutality of the attacks leveled at their respective writers.
The overwhelming toxicity of our internet-wide “comment culture” bears no resemblance whatsoever to that noble and cherished and arch-democratic “marketplace of ideas” we’d been looking forward to creating by means of a truly open and accessible medium. While this doesn’t seem to be working, though, this medium’s structure at least makes it almost ridiculously easy for the overwhelming majority of commenters to put up their own platforms and freely opinionate away.
So shutting down comment sections for good wouldn’t exactly be a tragic loss. On the contrary, it’d be mostly a huge gain for every in-good-faith reader and writer and especially for the more vulnerable: if commenters had to fall back on commenting on their own platforms, there’d be no rape threats, hate speech, sockpuppet armies, drive-by randos, and general terror in our respective digital living rooms.
Which, of course, is exactly why the same assholes who terrorize comment sections all over the web will be the very first to howl and whine how you’re taking away their rights to freedom of speech—as if “freedom of speech” meant that they have a constitutional right to enter your apartment and piss in firehose fashion over your guests and take a dump on your furniture.
So that’s why, I think, it feels like it’s about time to say goodbye to the concept of “comment sections” for good.