Comment sections online should be the beautiful public squares of our democracies: places we navigate to for frank and thoughtful exchanges of ideas; places where we learn to understand each other’s point of view and where serious discussions evolve over time.
But, of course, they are havens of the grossest abuse, verbal violence and cruelty. It’s understandable if we sometimes conclude, after time reading comments, that humanity has lost its way.
But there’s another explanation: The source of dismissive and rude remarks and frustrating discussions isn’t bad people: it’s that commenting isn’t something we’re naturally or automatically very good at. It is, however, a learnable skill. In fact, everyone online is almost always trying to do something important, but just going about it in a hugely unfortunate way.
So for example:
We want to communicate an urgent, and sometimes well-founded belief that another person is mistaken
So what we too quickly say is: “You are a fucking idiot who can jerk off with my shit.“
But what we could learn to say, given that no one ever learns anything under conditions of humiliation, is a more effective: I wonder if you might have missed something that feels important from where I am positioned…
We want to stand up for clarity and common sense by admitting that we didn’t understand something another person said
And so we say: “Wtf motherfucker“
But it could be a revolutionary move, with huge influence on the way other people start to think one could and should behave online, to say: I found it at points a little hard to follow your train of thought, yet deeply respect your underlying intentions…
We want to convey immense disappointment
So we say: “I used to like what you do; but now I think you’re a phoney and a total fraud. Unsubbed, wanker.”
But we could say: I’m puzzled because I generally very much admire you and I don’t entirely see the point of what you seem to be doing now. It would be lovely if you could perhaps explain things from your no doubt very legitimate perspective.
Sometimes we simply want to exorcise the humiliation that a cold and indifferent world has doled out to us
So, at our keyboard in the middle of the night, with the odd freight train whistling in the darkness outside, we say: “Suck it up bitches; bunch of fucking wankers spewing bullshit from your own anuses…“
When what we could learn to say, from our isolated bedrooms, is: I sometimes feel so sad and alone…
Let’s remember that no one is ever brutal or cruel online by their ultimate free choice. They are so because they are hurt, damaged, alone and afraid – and because no one has been kind or good to them for a long time. Behind every online outburst, there’s always a complex, painful backstory (which we will mostly never know but which we can be sure is there) which has made it impossible for the commenter to feel they can be realistic, reasonable or civil.
People get rude too, because – in their very isolation and powerlessness – it is impossible for them to believe that others out there could be vulnerable to their insults. Their rudeness is grounded on a disbelief that strangers could take them seriously and might be tipped over into inner collapse, despair and self-hatred because of them. Such is their background feeling of impotence, the troll has forgotten their own power.
After spending a while in the comments sections, it can be easy to to form the belief that humans have grown into monsters. The good news is that even though comments claim to reflect how the world is, they in fact represent only the fringe views of a tiny percentage. They induct us to forget the vast invisible army of moderate, reasonable, kind not terribly opinionated individuals who are just standing by in silence, as appalled as we are. The world is much saner than it appears.
The real achievement would be to build an online world every bit as kind, patient and good as most of us are in our real lives at every moment of every day.