A vast swathe of people now believe that it’s impossible to have intelligent debate online. This is not an unreasonable belief; scroll down on any newspaper website, let alone YouTube, and you’ll discover the shouting matches that inhabit most comments sections. Jessica Valenti recently wondered whether we shouldn’t simply shut down all comments, like Popular Science and, in part, The Verge, have done. Of the Guardian, she said:
My own exhaustion with comments these days has less to do with explicit harassment – which, at places like the Guardian, is swiftly taken care of. (Thank you, moderators!) Rather, it’s the never-ending stream of derision that women, people of color and other marginalized communities endure; the constant insistence that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved. Yes, I’m sure straight, white, male writers get this kind of response too – but it’s not nearly as often and not nearly as nasty.
It is strange that she praises the Guardian’s moderators for taking down explicit harassment, but doesn’t consider that they could also remove the ‘never-ending stream of derision’. When The Times or The Telegraph choose which letters to publish in their printed editions, we don’t consider the letters that didn’t fit as having been censored. And just because web pages can be infinitely long doesn’t mean that newspapers suddenly have an obligation to publish everything.
It’s clear the writers and editors at the Guardian care deeply about combatting sexism and racism; that much is evident through the paper. That’s why I regard their refusal to properly moderate their comments to be an astonishing abandonment of principle. It is not a question of free speech or censorship – people may take their hateful speech elsewhere online, and rage at authors to their heart’s content. It just doesn’t have to happen on the article itself. And if it is a question of cost, then remove the comments entirely.
Unmoderated comments sections like the Guardian’s may start out well, but they inevitably succumb to entropy, giving prominence to those who have effectively unlimited time to shout and argue. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has considered trying to reason with ignorant commenters, only to conclude that they have far more time than me, and far less inclination to listen. The transient nature of articles and comments doesn’t help; why bother arguing that sexism is real for the tenth time on the tenth article?
But the real reason why I detest what the Guardian is doing is because their comments sections are, bit by bit, contributing to defeatism and pessimism. The unrepentent toxicity held within them makes it seem as if there’s no point trying to improve the world or change people’s minds. How many times we do hear “I’ve lost my faith in humanity after reading the comments”? In reality, the comments that are see are come from a tiny, unrepresentative sample of the population – but because they are supposedly open to all and they represent some of the little free conversation we see amongst strangers, we conclude that they are representative.
Well, they are not. And the Guardian’s comments are not representative of what could be possible in a well-moderated community. I’ve often praised Metafilter for it’s excellent moderation, and I was reminded of that by a thread in which someone complained their ‘completely harmless’ comments had been deleted for no reason. A moderator explained:
For context, this is about a couple of comments deleted from the thread about how pop songs are all written by the same guy (link goes to my note in the thread). The comments were about Taylor Swift’s short-shorts and her legs. My prediction was, this would cause a pointless derailing fight in the thread, so I deleted them. These were the comments:
“These kids today probably don’t have time to write. The energy they put into these elaborate stage shows. Plus TayTay walking around New York in her short shorts avoiding the paparazzi…”
“I got a kick out of one pic of Taylor and her legs sitting on the floor of a fabulous all white garret jotting down tablature.”
You may look at those comments and think, but there’s no outright harassment, how could they be moderated? Well, as a few people pointed out, they are sexist and gross. People are free to be sexist and gross in their own homes or with their friends – but not on Metafilter. When you read Metafilter, you do not conclude that the world is composed of sweetness and light; people often have strong disagreements there (but not violent disagreements). You would conclude, however, that it is possible for people to change and learn and be reasonable; that you can have faith in humanity.
And if you criticise Metafilter for not being representative either, because it has full-time moderators, then you would be criticising the entire project of civilisation; the idea that we can organise ourselves and improve our culture in a way that makes the world better, not worse.