Recently Anil Dash published Against “Don’t Read the Comments” as part of his series about how to make tech more humane. The conclusion of the article is that instead of avoiding the comments, we should bear witness to the hate and hold platforms accountable for the communities they create. If platforms want our content and engagement, they need to invest in better tools to build abuse-free spaces. I agree that powerful platforms need to be more accountable and that there’s more they can and should do to prevent abuse.
Most negative comments fall into a grey area. They’re dismissive and unkind, but few fit the technical definition of harassment or hate speech. I haven’t had much hate lobbed my way but I still don’t usually read the comments and advocate the same to others. Not because I think it’s a funny thing to say, because I’m cynical, or even because I don’t have tools to report abuse, but because I find the grey area depressing, demoralizing and frustrating. It’s not simple disagreement that I find unpalatable, but comments that are designed to silence and shut down conversation.
Let’s look at some of the comments on Paulette Perhach’s excellent piece A Story of a Fuck Off Fund. The essay takes you through two versions of the same story. In one version, a young woman has no savings and finds herself stuck in a job where she’s harassed and in an abusive relationship. In the second version, she lives below her means so she can build a savings fund that allows her the financial freedom to protect herself. It’s a parable of sorts.
What about me, bitch?
We’re surrounded by stories where the protagonists, the heroes are usually men. “He/him”, “guys”, “dude” are still frequently default language choices because we’re told they’re inclusive (despite that they’re clearly not). But because this particular story is about a woman, written by a woman many people feel the need to point out that the story applies to men too. It’s as though by writing about a woman, people think that Perhach has maliciously excluded men.
Here’s one about how men too need a fuck off fund because women take everything from them:
Men also need FoF’s but in some cases it’s not enough. Dozens of men I know had built their hard earned FoF’s but had to give all of it to their wives who divorced them. Those stories are a lot more heart-breaking. It involves losing life savings, their homes, jobs, and children they loved and nurtured (who in turn lost a father) because of how women manipulated the sexist divorce system much like your boss laying his arm on you … (it continues…)
Along the same lines is this doozy:
Yes we need to teach girls and young women to save money because men will inevitably beat and sexually assault them. While we’re at let’s teach boys not to marry because their wives will divorce them, taking the children, the house and expecting monthly payments for years to come.
Then there’s this one that gets right to the point:
Why are these articles always female centric? Do you think it’s only the females that get left in the shit?
LOL you are so dumb. Why frame this as a woman thing? All responsible adults should be able to handle their own shit woman or not. Morons.
Would these people have felt better if Perhach had put a disclaimer at the top of her essay?
Please note: This is a parable. Although the protagonist is a woman, the lessons herein may apply to people of other genders.
These type of comments are part of the great tradition of “what about us” pile ons that tend to happen on the Internet whenever the default isn’t white and male (another example is #alllivesmatter as a response to #blacklivesmatter).
You’re wrong and stupid. About everything.
The next common grey area comment-type is the arrogant, belittling silencer. I suspect that most empathetic humans who read these types of comments have the same visceral reaction to them as I do: frustration followed by a desire to stand up to them the way you would to a school yard bully. When you realize how many there are, the feeling morphs into helplessness. Although I believe most people are good, sometimes the Internet sure doesn’t feel like it.
These people don’t want to contribute to a conversation, they want to silence and belittle the writer and anyone who agrees with them.
Let’s start here:
Fascinating how she had a functioning tinder account on deck and ready to go when she got to the hotel… LOL women don’t get wet, they jump from raft two raft. Dog on the bridge that wants both bones, I tell ya…
Ho! Ho! Those sneaky ladies, I tells ya. LOL.
The article clearly touched a nerve for this “music licensing and production company” account:
So did you tell your boyfriend to fuck off? Because if the story ends up being that having the FOF is all you need and you can tolerate a douche boyfriend and then jettison him whenever you feel like it, it sounds a little childish. Also this story doesn’t really translate to folks that have children and share a house and a life together. Or do you think having a few thousand dollars in a FOF makes it possible to tell your spouse of ten years and mother and or father of your children together to “Fuck Off” and then just walk away?
Then there’s this “helpful” bit of feedback:
“if you ever call me stupid again, i’ll leave you”.
Why not leave right away when he called you stupid?
What’s a reader to do?
Every time I read the comments I go through an abbreviated version of the five stages of grief.
- Denial: People aren’t this terrible. Are they joking? Maybe it’s just the same sad person making comments under different account names?
- Anger: Why do people have to be such assholes? I should say something!
- Bargaining: Maybe I can hide or report some of these mean ones? I’ll hit the little heart and say something nice to counteract them. Maybe they don’t realize how they sound?
- Depression: There’s so much cruelty online. I don’t even want to be here anymore.
- Acceptance: Comment sections are the cess pool of the internet and I just need to accept that. For my own sanity, I should stop reading them.
The truth is that although I find them exasperating and unkind, none of the comments I’ve sampled above are examples of hate speech or harassment. As much as I wish we could make rules to enforce kindness or decent behavior, platforms are a reflection of social norms out in our world where nasty political rhetoric and inflammatory editorializing has become common.
I hope people who have a big and powerful platform like Anil Dash continue to advocate for more kindness and humanity in our tech and out in our world.
But I’m still going to mostly avoid the comments. Not as a joke, but because I fear that the sheer weight of the nastiness that lives in those little boxes would wash me away.