I’ve permanently disabled comments for all pages and posts on this website.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In a way it’s absurd that the notion of turning off comments requires commenting on (hah). Why should it? When did we suddenly simply accept it as natural that every bloody piece of text we read has a little space at the bottom in which we can add whatever our brain is about to fart out? And when in God’s name did we come to assume such a thing would be healthy?
Don’t get me wrong, debate can be quite healthy. But debate isn’t the same as comments. I’ve often enjoyed reading written debates in collections of letters or articles; there are authors who are primarily famous for precisely such texts. But these are coherent texts, presented in their own space. They are a proper response, often enjoyable and thought-provoking even to someone who hasn’t read what they are responding to. Comments, on the other hand, are this weird growth that continues where the proper text stops, more like a strangely-shaped mole on the text’s bottom that you can’t quite look away from than like… well, something worth reading.
The problem, I suppose, is that comments become part of the text. They affect – or perhaps infect – our reading of the text in ways that a separate response does not. They’re right there, after all, on the same page, as if they were part of the author’s intent. This effect is particularly strong with negative comments, of course. You can write thousands of words about the interaction of culture and economics, for example, and all it’ll take to completely skew people’s perception of what you’ve written is someone leaving a comment to say that “you obviously think racism doesn’t exist” or “you’re clearly a Men’s Rights Activist!” or “how dare you suggest that violent Stalinism is the only solution to the world’s problems!”
What do you do in such a situation? You can delete the offending comment, though that can easily lead to making your comments nothing but an echo chamber. You can respond politely, wasting hours of your life on restating basic premises that did not require restating and draining yourself intellectually – which, in the long run, leads to apathy and depression. Or you can respond with the same level of thought they put into their comment and tell them to fuck off – which is perfectly justified, but ultimately just gives fodder to the people who claim that you’re unwilling to engage. Finally, you can ignore the comment, leaving it to fester in everyone’s reading of the text. None of these solutions are helpful.
This also happens with less hostile comments. Comments encourage a kind of intellectual laziness, because it’s easier to just say “I don’t understand this!” than to actually think about what premises the author is arguing from or what the context of their argument is. A complete text, uncommentable, is much easier to consider as a whole than a text that is perpetually unfinished, always awaiting another explanation by its author. The relationship that comments encourage between author and reader is not a healthy one. (That applies to most parts of today’s consumer culture. Artists are no longer visionaries or messengers; they merely provide a service to their customers.)
Even completely well-intentioned comments that aren’t based on ignorance or malice can completely derail people’s understanding of a text. I’ve often seen wonderful articles followed by ten times as much text debating one minor aspect of something mentioned in passing by the author, to the point where at the end it feels like that minor detail was what it was actually all about. Now, it’s not that that conversation is boring or bad; it’s what it does to people’s perception of the original text, which was after all written for a reason.
Let’s go back to the idea of deleting comments you don’t like, because that relates to the other reason for having comments: ego. Yes, the public acknowledgment of one’s brilliance. People saying “that was a great article, you’re so right!” It’s always a huge rush and an encouragement to get these. But ego is the enemy of truth. You start writing in order to get that response – not to be right, but to be cool.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being happy about positive feedback. I crave that feedback as much as anyone. I’m just suspicious of it in that context, where it’s not a thought-through appraisal of something you’ve written or a private communication, but part of the author’s performance of coolness. If you don’t let the words stand on their own, the presence of the author overwhelms them, and suddenly we’re discussing the author, not the work.
All of this is not to say that I don’t appreciate the majority of comments left on this site, or that I don’t enjoy engaging with people on a variety of issues. I love a good debate, especially since I’m not one of the people who are so fond of trying to censor language or who believe that differences of opinion inherently signify differences in moral stature. But I don’t want those debates to happen in the swollen flesh-sacks hanging off the lower sections of the internet. This site is where I want to put the stuff that I create, to stand or fall on its own merits.
There are plenty of places where we can talk; let’s not talk in the cinema, OK?
- See also: Popular Science, Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments.
- I don’t really want to debate stuff on Twitter, either.
- I may make exceptions for technical issues – reporting bugs is easier to do when you know what other people have already run into.
- If you want to talk to me, please do write me an email. I’m slow to respond, but I always try to.