The Lost Hope of a Collaborative Internet
Among its many great promises, the internet offered humanity the possibility of facilitated collaboration at a speed, scope, and cost that combined to create an infrastructure through which such vast collaborative opportunities– discourse, truly, writ large, or small, or whatever size in between you wanted, or that your ideas could command, anyway– were a realistic possibility. The structure and execution quickly became obvious, as people moved beyond unilateral, newspaper-style content publishing to message boards and blogs, where someone could present an idea, proposal, argument, or other creation, and others could respond to the idea, and even interact with the presenter in that space below the posted concept referred to as the comment section. The availability of a publicly interactive comment section is one of the most distinguishing features, along with accessibility and mixed-media formatting, of online content, and for those interested in promoting quality discourse, the comment section was the structural crux of the internet’s promise in this regard. Some sites, such as Reddit.com, saw and prioritized this concept to an extreme degree. Reddit calls itself “the front page of the internet,” but “the comment section of the internet” might be a more descriptive title.
Confucius and Plato and many others in the two millennia and a half since have made successful use of dialogues and conversations as ways of sharing, probing, and developing ideas and knowledge. If the great deliberative, discursive world wide web is to be a thing we have, though, it has yet to arrive, and the commenting structure may not be the way to achieve it. In the context of addressing the current status of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim baseball team, David Roth wrote:
You, of course, are smart enough to stop when you get to the end of something that you have been reading online. You value your time on earth and understand how precious and brief it is, and know not to spend any of those hours walking the superheated miles of irradiated ungrammatical ragebarf that unspool in the comments under every item that presently exists on the internet. I, on the other hand, am a total idiot, just a real dope who does not value his time in any meaningful way. So I can tell you a little bit about what you’ll find in those comment sections.
First things first: They’re bad. The Comments are not a conversation, and despite being argumentative in the extreme they’re not even an argument. They are a cacophony of furious and fuming assertion, a thousand monologues screamed at the same time in something like the same pitch, all day and all night, forever and ever, amen. It is, finally and most fundamentally, a pose-off. The Comments are a space in which to righteously make every single thing happening in the world about the manifest righteousness and rightness of your own crabbed and crabby self. The Comments are an echo chamber in which to lay out your own armchair biases– luxuriously inflexible and unfailingly certain, one way or the other– and make the world conform to and reflect them. It is a sad and angry place, simultaneously intimate to the point of claustrophobia and as bloodlessly abstract as drone warfare. To reiterate: pretty bad.
That is what The Comments are for, if they have a purpose– they are a safe space for people to share their passionately held idiocies and gripes and fixes. No one is listening, and no one should, but the comments are not there to be read.
The secret sadness of The Comments as a way of being is how false-bottomed and fake it all is. What appears to be a stand on principle or some damn-the-torpedoes assertion of bravery is, finally, a retreat: In response to the unpredictability and inconvenience and stubborn slippery elusiveness of the present, The Comments seek refuge in false certitude, authoritarian mysticism, glass-jawed denial and all misbegotten species of future-fighting grievance.
It is not principled, although it poses as such. it is mostly an elevation of reactions and hunches and received wisdom and under-examined biases over anything and everything that might challenge them. it is intellectually coherent, but only insofar as it exists in denial of anything that might challenge that coherence. The people positing and posturing and sternly saying “no” in The Comments are there because it is the easiest, safest, most isolated place to be. It is difficult to imagine them negotiating daily life with much success, or much joy.
David Roth, Los Angeles Angels, in Baseball Prospectus 2016 223, 224-26 (Sam Miller, et al. eds., 2016) (emphasis added).
Imaginations and illustrations of the internet as “a real place” can be both humorous and insightful. Inverting the lens, though, and understanding the internet as a canvas or screen or wall upon which we project ourselves simply holds a publicly recorded mirror to our lives, habits, mannerisms, thoughts, and actions. Improving public discourse, it seems, requires something more than easier access to the means of engaging in such discourse.
See you in the comments below?