What’s Wrong With Angry Commenters?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Dec. 1 2011 7:07 AM

Back Off, Angry Commenters

Has the Internet unleashed new levels of bile?

Why so angry, commenters?
Why so angry, commenters?

Photograph by Comstock.

A new species has risen from the shallows of the Internet: the angry commenter. Sure, there is a long tradition of inspired cranks and interested retirees who have always written letters to the editor, but something in the anonymity and speed and stamplessness of the Internet has unleashed a more powerful and uncontrolled vitriol. I am not here talking about the thoughtful, intelligent comments, which also abound, but rather the bile unloosed, flashes of fury and unexamined rage that pass as “comment.”

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

The commenter is justifiably angry at the encroachment on his time by the offending article. After all, since he has been tied down with rope and physically forced to read the article all the way to the end, this resentment is justified. “Why do we read this kind of drivel?” one commenter asks, and that would pretty much be the question that suggests itself. Why not just put it down, walk away? (As one non-angry commenter puts it, “The internet is big. Go somewhere else.”) We can only conclude that there must be part of the ritual that the angry commenter enjoys, some small thrill in hating something and being able to voice how resentful he is of the precious time that article has robbed him of.

Now it’s easy to see how one might disagree with or dislike an article, but what is more bewildering and bears examination is the response of hating the writer’s guts. One would think, reading some of these comments, that the writer has done something to the commenter, that there has been some deep personal transgression. One suspects one thing the writer has done is be the writer, and the commenter feels unfairly ghettoized in the comments section, and feels secretly, well not so secretly, that they should be writing the article, and the writer should be commenting. Like, let her see what it’s like to be tied down and forced to read an article from beginning to end.  

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There are several common fantasies about the writer that fly through comments sections. One is that the writer is “privileged,” and/or getting rich off of their insipid and offending article. The confidence and specificity of this fantasy is interesting. One commenter claims that a writer “typifies the white, middle-upper class man who attends Harvard. … This is because of his race and class privilege. To him, no one really has access to the "old boys' network" or is thinking too much about jockeying for social position. That's because he is a de-facto member of the old boys’ network and already has his social position.” One Slate commenter asserts that a writer “can afford to work only sporadically”; another asserts that she “pulled herself up by her manolo blahnik bootstraps,” yet another that the article is enabling her to put more polish “on her Mercedes.” Assuming the commenter does not live next door to the writer and is not the writer’s sister or best friend, one wonders a little how the commenter is quite so confident about the content of the writer’s bank account. Especially since most freelance writers for places like Slate are not exactly paying the rent on the penthouse off their efforts. If the writer has come from a place of privilege—and as in the rest of the world, some have and some haven’t—they are most likely frittering away whatever they do have by entering an insecure and unlucrative profession like writing. These demographic realities, though, make little impression on the angry commenter, who, one notes admiringly, sticks to her guns.

We are clearly in a season of class war, and one can understand the class war against a hedge fund guy, but a writer? This is, in other words, a class war Mao or Ho Chi Minh could get behind. In fact, it’s possible that Mao or Ho Chi Minh living today would be angry commenters.

It’s also interesting that the angry commenter comes fairly equally from the right, from the left, and from some other apolitical place of rage. Though I haven’t admittedly done a scientific study, it’s my impression that angry commenters are a little harder on women writers than male writers, for reasons I am not sure of, though angry commenters themselves are both male and female.

One of the offshoot pleasures of angry commenting seems to be getting angry at the other angry commenters. There is an element of what one might call socializing, a sort of happy hour of nastiness and sniping. Is this joyful little flash of human friction and fraternizing the best they can hope for? As one non-angry commenter writes to some other angry commenters: “I'm sorry your life is so empty that you find it necessary to try and pick fights with random strangers on the Internet.”

This raises the question of whether the commenter is basically normal in their daily life. Maybe she is a school teacher who is sweet to kindergarteners during the day, and then, on a Sunday afternoon secretly releases her anger at the unsuspecting world? Is the person who writes, “Move out of the city—seriously—there are too many of you idiot—think you are so sophisticated and special—narcissistic personality disordered yahoos already here I could puke” perfectly polite to the old lady blocking their way in a drugstore aisle? My guess is that the angry commenter is functional, loving, and peaceable in his daily life, and it is only in the comments section that his darkest fury is unleashed (though I could be wrong). In this model one could argue that comments sections are fulfilling an important social function, a kind of collective unconscious that allows the commenter to voice and play out their worst impulses so they can be civilized in their actual lives.

It is possible, though, that there is just more bitterness out there than we realized before the Internet brought us closer to people’s rawest, quickest, uncensored thoughts. (That rooting around for a stamp, the walk to the mailbox through the fresh air, the name at the bottom of the letter, did seem to have a mitigating effect on expressions of blind hatred.)

Of course I am all for everyone’s right to express themselves (though it can be more effective to spell and use words correctly). Snobbism is actually one of the commenters’ favorite bugaboos, and it is considered snobbish among many angry commenters to prefer that words be spelled or used correctly, spelling and standard written English, being a construct of the wealthy, and anyway kind of a show-offy part of the writer’s “privilege.” We all do have spell check on our computers, so clearly if the angry commenter wanted to she could spell correctly too, but spelling correctly would be giving in to the whole hierarchy, namely the idea that some things might be more interesting to read than other things, that has angered her in the first place.

Anyway, the angry commenter is a new breed, and the study of them also new: I welcome, of course, any further evidence or information that would help our understanding of this fascinating and mysterious species.

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