January 28, 2015

Never Read Comments On the Internet

That's a well-known mantra. People are stupid and callous and the veil of anonymity leads many to say things they wouldn't ordinarily say. Internet comments give soapboxes to everyone, so often they are littered with hateful, uninformed, or entirely irrelevant content.

But there is a flip side to that - two flip-sides, actually - that are often ignored.

First, anonymity gives people a voice. With a "level playing field," those without an outlet to express their feelings or opinions in traditional circumstances find a way to reach a greater audience. That in itself is a remarkable and valuable thing.

Second, and what bothers me most, is that because of this stigma, real feedback gets drowned out. When reasonable, logical, self-preserving people are trained to not read the comments, you are perpetuating dangerous mindsets. You are negating a lot of people's point of view (enforced silo-ing is a well-studied consequence of social media) by assuming what they have to say will make no difference. But further, the creators of the content being commented on don't take seriously the very real feedback from those consuming it. In a physical situation - a store, for instance - feedback is much harder to give: you must be physically present, you must have the conviction to actually speak up about it, and you have to wait for the proper channels or people to come available. This barrier of entry means that store or restaurant complaints are taken much more seriously - partly because they are rarer.

This afternoon I opened an article, my curiosity piqued due to a bold title. But I was quickly disappointed. The article was once again sensationalist, stating something grandiose but both failing to support it and slipping into the world of opinion rather than research and reporting.

My instinct was to write a comment saying so. I was disappointed, and am continually less and less trusting of any media - even supposed "news" sources. But then I realized that a) no one would read it, or b) it would get buried in over-reactive commentaries left by those way too easily offended.

As someone whose degree is centered around acknowledging error, inviting feedback, and course-correcting when the situation requires it, this situation pains me. Too often, the comments section of a page, post, or article is often the only place for consumers (be it readers, buyers, or other interested parties) to either provide praise or point out a flaw our failing. And without it, the situation will only worsen because there will be no meaningful feedback loop.

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