Note to Myself – Don’t Read the Comments

November 27, 2014

I’ll admit it; I get most of my news from the internet. Either from news websites or a handful of respected select sources on social media, I basically pick and choose the news that I want to read and/or be exposed to. I left televised news broadcasts years ago and only tune into them these days when there’s an event that is breaking faster than online channels can keep up with. The reason for my departure was simple – televised news had become, and largely still is a source of wholesale negativity. Here’s a sure –fire recipe for fear, depression, anxiety, anger, indignation, melodrama, hopelessness, and desperation; 1) get comfortable in your favorite couch or chair, 2) watch the evening news, 3) repeat for 2 weeks.

I want to be a positive person and put my attention on uplifting stories and experiences that give me hope for the human race. Don’t get me wrong – I’m no Pollyanna. I know the world can be a rough, violent, and nasty place. But that doesn’t mean we have to invite that nastiness into our living rooms every night. Just do a little armchair reading on the neurological and psychological effects of absorbing large amounts of negative images, sounds, and other stimulus from the environment and you’ll understand why it’s so important to minimize your exposure to this type of emotional toxicity.

So, in addition to the books I read, I stick to online outlets for my news and information about what’s going on in the world. Does it paint a complete or a perfect picture of absolute truth? Of course not, but it gives me the information I feel is necessary to form what I hope is a well-informed perspective.

The reason I mention this is that as I sift through the articles, stories, and headlines, the one glaring difference between televised or print media and that of the online world is the presence of the comment section. In the old world of media information, outside of occasional letters to the editor, opinion polls, or a man on the street type interview, the average information consumer was silent. Not the case on the internet. As the internet has continued to evolve, it is no longer a one-way repository of information to be accessed and consumed by the public. Now, in addition to its role of unlimited information warehouse, the internet has become a public cybernetic forum in which everyone has a voice and an opinion. And this is a big change in the way we have been communicating about politics, religion, values, and countless other subjects.

The comment forum is in many ways a bold new frontier in which readers (or viewers in the case of video) of online material are free to add their own two cents. This can be a very good thing in that it gives a voice to people that would perhaps otherwise not be heard. However, as a fair, just, and unbiased vehicle allowing others to share their support or opposition to a particular point of view, it’s not always without challenges. No doubt a comment section helps to support our freedom of speech and gives us an outlet to voice our concerns, change minds, and sway public opinion. And while I’m not here to debate such logic, I do want to point out a few of the effects of this apparently innocuous cause.

First, as a frequently anonymous forum, comment sections allow the commentator the freedom to say whatever they want with little if any concerns over how their comments reflect on them as individuals. In everyday face to face, telephone, or email communications, we have a set of filters that help us abide by social convention, maintain good working or social relationships, and basically behave politely and courteously. In an anonymous comment section, those rules often go out the door and we see a much more primal side of human nature come to the surface. The comment section is the domain of the ego unbridled and people join the ongoing conversation for one of two reasons – to either take the side of the article or story or to attack it, plain and simple.

From a basic psychological perspective, we want to belong and feel like we are part of a group, so if we like the article’s premise, we read the comments or join the conversation so we can enjoy strength in numbers and feel better about our common beliefs. Likewise, if we disagree, we comment and seek other like-minded dissenters.

This is all well and good. However, in comment environments the best laid intentions can often pave a road of toxic mayhem. The ego’s persistent need to be right combined with the anonymity, freedom, and unaccountability of this atmosphere can very often turn the comment section into a battleground of cynicism, sarcasm, anger, vitriol, rage, and even hate speech. In the same way that people can be much more aggressive behind the wheel of an automobile than if they were on foot, online commenters are often willing to say (or write) things they would absolutely never say in person. The ‘must be right at all costs’ mentality creates blanket negativity that really doesn’t solve anything, and in the case of a particularly incendiary story or issue, may actually contribute to the problem. Making matters worse are the internet trolls who seem to take a strange delight in inflaming conflict and stirring the pot simply to raise the ire of their fellow commentators. They may not even have a dog in the fight so to speak, but relish in deliberately poking and prodding others in order to get a reaction.

This isn’t to say that comment sections are inherently “bad”; but they can certainly be a highly flammable milieu, capable of generating a great deal of negativity.

This brings me to the second point I’d like to make about comment sections: everyone’s an expert.

Due to the nature of expressing personal opinions, people tend to speak their minds with a great deal of conviction in their beliefs. They become very passionate about what they feel is is right or wrong, good or bad and are willing to proclaim it with absolute certainty. There’s just one problem; it’s just an opinion. Everyone has opinions, personal viewpoints and perspectives. It’s part of the human condition. However, having an opinion doesn’t mean it’s the absolute, objective, irrefutable truth. It’s merely one viewpoint amongst countless others, all of which believe that they are equally valid.

Furthermore, having an opinion doesn’t make one an expert on that topic. This is a really, really important point. In a very interesting article titled The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School, makes a very compelling argument that, we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. This ‘collapse’ has contributed to the mindset that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s, and this is simply, not the case.

There is a very clear line between true expertise and simply having an opinion. Having a strong opinion isn’t the same as knowing something, either as the product of thoroughgoing study (as in holding an advanced degree) or through direct experience. This doesn’t mean that your opinion doesn’t matter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. Nichols calls attention to what’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which in essence says, the less you actually know about something, the more confidence you have in what you think you know. This effect is ironically and painfully evident when you consider ongoing “debates” around issues such as climate change, evolution, or separation of church and state.

Countless comment sections throughout the internet and social media attest to the blurring of the opinion-expertise boundary. No matter the topic, everyone is the smartest person in the room, espousing their interpretation, their personal opinion as if it were the one and only Truth. Once again, this is not meant to go against our right to free speech, nor am I saying that expert opinions are the only ones that count. They do however, carry more weight in a discussion, as they should. When considering a given topic, I believe our inclination should be to value the expert opinion over that of the layman. This isn’t to say the expert can’t be wrong, but based on their deeper understanding of the topic, an expert’s perspective is going to be of more merit than the average Joe.

Unfortunately, this typically isn’t the case in most comment sections. Everyone has something to say and very few of those commentators are actual experts. They vehemently argue and defend their position, not realizing the wisdom in Dale Carnegie’s words when he said; A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

In closing, I don’t want to dump on comment sections or make it sound like they’re a horrible idea. I think they can serve a purpose and can at times stimulate some worthwhile dialogue, provided you know your fellow commentators and proceed in the spirit of a healthy debate or discussion. At the same time, they are not without risk. It can be disheartening to read an uplifting story about something you believe in, and in turning to the comments section in hoping to see how others may have been similarly inspired or uplifted, you only discover loads of negative and trolling feedback. Thus, my personal recommendation is to proceed with caution. And if you don’t have something to say that’s constructive or helpful, be quiet. Recognize that if you want to retain your peace of mind and remain positive, sometimes it’s better to avoid the comments section altogether. But if you do indulge in either reading or commenting yourself, hopefully you don’t take it too seriously or personally. Everyone has an opinion, and we all know what body part they’re often compared to…

And yes, this essay is just an opinion as well 😉

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