The Internet has lost its nerdy stigma. It’s now widely accepted as normal to spend hours every day online and to meet friends and romantic partners there Yet, one lonely outpost of online shame remains: the comments section.
The consensus is that comments sections are the home of trolls and crackpots—people who can’t get a hearing anywhere else. Professional writers counsel one another not to read the comments. They might admit they read them as a guilty pleasure—but to take part would be hopelessly declassé. It’s the difference between watching The Bachelor and appearing on The Bachelor.
As a writer, I have more reasons than most people to share this distaste. I’ve been savaged by packs of rabid commenters. I’ve been called a misandrist and a misogynist for the same article. I’ve had commenters follow me on Twitter and harass me for days.
But I’m also one of them. In fact, I’m a long-term, unregenerate commenter on Slate. And in the years I’ve been commenting, I’ve come to love and to deeply respect the comments section.
Some comments have obvious value. People are drawn to respond to articles about their area of expertise, and often a commenter appears who knows more about the subject of the article than its writer. People tell personal stories that are illuminating and sometimes moving, from an account of what it’s really like to serve on a grand jury to raw confidences about being inappropriately touched as a child. Articles on gender discrimination can trigger entire oral histories of gender discrimination. It has the appeal of getting drunk with strangers on a cross-country bus and hearing their life stories, but without the obvious downsides of being stuck on a bus with drunken strangers.
But the main reason to love the comments section is also the reason so many people hate it: It’s unfiltered. Comments sections host people of every political orientation, intelligence level, and psychiatric diagnosis. You encounter every talking point you hate, expressed with gloating certainty and an ear-shattering disregard for grammar. Some of the commenters could fairly be described as idiots. Some of the idiots have what could fairly be described as a sex-murderer vibe.
But it’s not an echo chamber. On Twitter or Facebook, when you discuss climate change or same-sex marriage, you’re talking to a self-selecting audience that mostly already agrees with you. In the comments section, you’re talking to anyone who has Internet access. This means the conversation can degenerate into an exchange of curiously spelled insults: “whiny libtard b^tch”, “Repuglican @sshat.” But I’ve seen people come into the comments section hidebound by a particular perspective and then, over months, make friends with people of the opposite political persuasion and work to find common ground. It also often happens that everyone will unite against a common enemy: the writer of the article, or the moderator, or Lena Dunham. Sometimes everyone joins in making silly jokes, as when an article addressing the question “Why Do People Hate Anne Hathaway?” sparked a series of comments like “I hate Anne Hathaway because of her chitinous exo-skeleton” and “I hate Anne Hathaway because she totally trapped Shakespeare into marrying her by getting ‘accidentally’ pregnant.’ ”
Over years, a good comments section becomes a community—one that’s weathered ugly brawls over climate change and Obamacare and the definition of “straw man” and acquired a rough-and-tumble intimacy. On Slate, some people have been talking to each other for over a decade, discussing not only the articles but their everyday lives—although too much irrelevant chatter can get a person banned.
This brings us to the most lovable facet of the comments section: the ongoing war between the commenters and the people who run the site. This animosity is inevitable. Commenters not only viciously criticize the site, they also use the comments as a venue for self-expression, including posting their favorite music videos. Understandably, the people who run the site come to see them as irresponsible children and do everything they can to control them. The commenters fight tooth and nail to escape this suppression and continue to misuse the site for their own purposes. There’s a Coyote-and-Roadrunner aspect to this struggle that I find irresistible.
One ingenious rebellion came from a woman who objected to the name of Slate’s women’s blog, The XX Factor, because it implicitly excluded trans women (who have a Y chromosome). At the time, the user names of commenters who had clicked the Like button appeared beneath every comment—so this commenter named her account “Slate’s XX is Transphobic Against Transgendered Women Who Were Born XY” and clicked Like on every comment on XX Factor, causing her anti-Slate message to appear in an eye-catching line down every page. For a while the Like button vanished altogether, spurring consternation among the commenters. The comments section became a venue for discussing the events that led to its removal, and whether the woman was justified or bonkers.
More widely abused was the Flag button. For a while, a certain number of Flags would automatically get a comment erased; a greater number got the commenter banned from the site. This resulted in a series of chaotic flagging wars. Commenters would repost political screeds that had been flagged out of existence, sometimes dozens of times, adding only the intro: “Because some people are trying to silence me.” Eventually, the flags would mount and they would be banned. However, it’s the work of a minute to create a new account, so they simply manufactured new accounts as their old ones died. Others flagged them tirelessly, often just for fun. The original commenter would retaliate by flagging the flaggers, and would sometimes create a dozen accounts to multiply their flagging power—until comments and accounts were blinking in and out of existence at a dizzying rate.
There’s something compelling about this wild, pranking, disreputable fellowship—like the outlaw brotherhood of mice that live in the walls of an apartment. Even if you don’t want mice in your apartment (and I speak as someone with mice in her apartment) part of you roots for the mice. At Slate, the mice include people who work in finance and academia as well as people who are long-term unemployed; people who can explain quantum mechanics and people who can’t spell “is”; people who are jarringly honest and people who tell tall tales about owning a Swiss bank. It’s a motley crew that gathers under the floorboards to debate politics, relationships, and the plot of Game of Thrones with no expectation of glory or even basic respect. For all the nastiness and ignorance that flows through the comments every day, I’ve never found a group that made online life feel more alive.