"Don't read the comments": The trolls, racists and abusers won — reasonable online feedback is a thing of the distant past

Jessica Valenti says websites have outgrown comments sections — and she's right

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 11, 2015 7:57PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=9066519'>GenNealPhoto</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(GenNealPhoto via iStock)

To those of you who,after you read stories, write responses in the comments and offer an enlightened, sane take — whether you agree with the author or not — I salute you. To those who read the comments because you find the conversation there informative and intellectually challenging, mazel tov. As for everybody else, forgive me, but I strongly suspect you're trolls, masochists, or both. That's why I'm with Jessica Valenti, who this week in the Guardian questions why we still have comments sections at all.

"I’m not fond of comments sections," Valenti says. "I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many female writers who are." And when she notes that "Don't read the comments" has become such a familiar refrain, she wonders, "Why have them?" Sites like Re/code and Popular Science have already eliminated theirs.

Like Valenti, I too didn't always shudder at the thought of comments sections, have not always taken Caitlin Moran's stance that they're where "all the unhappiness in the world dwells." Valenti says that when she started out, "Comments even made my writing better... feedback from readers broadened the way I thought and sometimes changed my mind." I know the feeling — I spent much of my early career in nascent social media, as a host on the WELL and host of Salon's member community, Table Talk. And I used to read comments on my early stories and find a variety of thought-provoking perspectives.

Admittedly, a lot changed several years ago, when one specific person decided I was worthy of a personal grudge, and began appearing in the comments after every piece I wrote with his incredibly — wait for it — misogynist views about the sort of emasculating monster he'd decided I was. But what was worse was that in a relatively short span of time, that one lone troll wasn't unique any longer. He became typical. As Valenti observes, "Sexism, racism and homophobia are the norm; threats and harassment are common." Comments are rife with "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."

Of course, it's not just in the comments. Later this month in Vienna, the Organization for Security and Cooperation is hosting an all-day panel on "countering the online abuse of female journalists." Because there's a need for one.

What was once the great opportunity for dialogue between writers and readers, a chance for an evolving conversation, has for many of us been instead a poisonous experience. And though Valenti says that "Ignoring hateful things doesn’t make them go away, and telling women to simply avoid comments is just another way of saying we’re too lazy or overwhelmed to fix the real problem," I am perfectly content with adding the comments, like the last two "Matrix" movies, to my mental list of things that lost the privilege of existing in my universe. It doesn't fix the problem, but I don't need to fix the problem; I just need to not have it.

I know others would disagree. Rebutting Valenti, Katharine Murphy, Deputy Political Editor of Guardian Australia, valiantly says, "Set aside the monomaniacal trolling, which is more useless and empty than our worst excesses, or the abuse, which is sometimes plain weird, and the cynical and reflexive commentary about journalistic deficiencies designed to be a crowd pleaser rather than generate genuine insight – looking through what I’d group together as ‘the gratuitous’ – sharp audience feedback enlightens." I just wonder how much of that "sharp audience feedback" is left after she removes all the other elements.

Murphy says that "Listening is a simple act of atonement, and a statement of humility." But I say that's an act that has to be earned. We — and by "we," I especially mean the kind of people who are especially targeted for harassment and ugly remarks, not just in the comments — don't owe hostile, anonymous strangers our attention. That doesn't make us weak or unable to tolerate criticism. It means we have set boundaries on how we expect people to treat us. When someone reaches out to me directly in a reasonable and thoughtful way — and that includes a critical one — I'm generally responsive. But when a barista hands me coffee, I don't then make my own cup of coffee, hand it to him, and say, "You suck at making coffee, loser, that's how you make coffee," you know? I think he'd think that was crazy.

Writing has become one of the few professions now in which there's an expectation of reciprocity, no matter how toxic the dynamic may be. But like many writers, especially female writers, I decided a long time ago that ignoring the feedback of people who want to pick fights is not an act of service, nor is it my obligation. And the fact that the word "commenter" is now all but synonymous with "troll" should tell you why.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Aol_on Feminism Internet Culture Jessica Valenti