Who sets the tone on the internet.

Internet comment sections are, I think we can all agree, a wretched hive of scum and villainy (present company excluded. Natch).

As Irish writer Mic Wright noted in yesterday’s Telegraph

 If ignorance was an Olympic event, the heats would be held in the comment sections of national newspapers.

…At their worst, comments are like toxic waste buried under the foundations of an article and irradiating all rational debate with ignorance and aggression. 

…There’s an old sporting adage “play the ball, not the man”. That sentiment gets absolutely no traction online. There is no quarter in the world of online comments. The assumption of many regular commenters is that they could do better than anyone who plies their trade as a writer; they see through the “agendas” of those they find so abjectly infuriating.

I’m fairly certain that nearly everyone who comments at In My Head would agree, particularly those of us who know each other from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog over at The Atlantic — he and we spend real effort keeping his boards free of toxic waste, and no little time complaining of the toxicity so prevalent in other locales.

But so, ok — yes. Commenting sections suck. We know this.

Here’s the part I didn’t know:

Comment sections are actually frequented by a very small minority of readers. Industry averages suggest less than one per cent of the readership of any given article will comment.

Less than one percent!

Right. Let’s round that up to 1% for the sake of ease, and then, for the sake of argument, let’s say — what — 50% of comments are either positive, helpful, or at least benign? That means that .5% of internet readership is setting the tone for everyone else.

Half a percent, give or take. Half a percent!

That is more kinds of wrong than I can count. Aside from anything else, I know and you know that a lot more intelligent, kindhearted and generous people would be adding their voices to our global conversation, if only they didn’t have to dodge so many trolls.

I do what I can in my wee corner. I just banned someone today, for sheer rudeness, and I know that Ta-Nehisi spends a really egregious amount of time fighting back the filth — but he does, after all, have a day job. I’m pretty sure the amount of time he has to spend weeding out crazy people (or “the barmy,” as Mr. Wright so Irish-ly puts it) is why he posts so few open threads anymore.

But I don’t know what the answer is on the larger scale, other than a broad and generally held commitment to civility and simple manners. I do believe that we are on are way to that Promised Land, but it may be a really long while before we get there. Because an unscientifically estimated .5% of readers don’t want us to.

h/t Gonzai55 for pointing me to Nic Wright’s piece in yesterday’s open thread.




  1. efgoldman

     /  September 7, 2012

    Its the same model as talk radio. Although the percentage of callers/listeners is said to be higher (~3%) based on some old studies, its still a very small amount. Of course on a monologue show like Rush, there are [almost] no callers.
    Similarly, and direct mail piece which gets above 2.5% to 3% response (whether its sending money or just requesting additional info) is considered a wild success.

  2. Of course, the irony here is that you found out about Mic’s article…from the comments section.

  3. LongHairedWeirdo

     /  September 7, 2012

    There’s also this:

    I was kind of stunned to think about how simple this would be, especially with RSS feeds and other aggregation tools.

    • aaron singer

       /  September 7, 2012

      I would venture a guess that the number of article readers dwarfs commentary readers by a similar reader:commenter ratio.

  4. LongHairedWeirdo

     /  September 7, 2012

    Um. In case it’s not obvious: what I mean is, it doesn’t take a lot of people (or, technically, a lot of money) to get a lot of comments, and if they’re worded in an appropriately clever, snarky way, they’d also spawn other imitators who would gladly ste, uh, plagi, uh, *borrow* those comments to use on other sites.

    So in addition to rudeness and nutters, there’s going to be a lot of propaganda.

  5. Sometimes I’m tempted to play tennis in the comments section of an online article, but more and more I’m trying to be myself.

  6. Wow. It’s really that small a percentage? That gives me hope, I must admit. Because on the rare occasions when I read the comments section on a blog which does not belong to one of my friends or colleagues, I come away bitterly depressed.

    • My husband was reading the comments on a piece in HaAretz yesterday about the Eritrean refugees and despairing and I was like “but wait! Only 1%…!”

    • Yes. Gawker media sites are a visible way to see this, because they provide pageview numbers right on the front of every article. (I work for one, Kotaku.) An article with 50,000 pageviews will often have 200-300 comments. I wrote one yesterday that’s had extraordinarily high readership and also extraordinarily high commentary, and it’s still 102,000 views to 800 comments. That’s still about an 0.8 % reader-to-commenter ratio.

      So yeah, I completely believe that 0.5% – 1% figure. It’s what I see borne out in my daily job as a loudmouth on the internet.

      And like anything else, the angriest are the most likely to take the time to log in and say something. It probably does help to remember that the other 99% of readers aren’t feeling that strongly negative about a thing.

  7. Comments sections are great. Some blowhard can’t just get on a public platform and air her biases and not pay a price for tendentious sermonizing . Some comments are dumb but that’s not true all comments at every venue.

  8. Emily

     /  September 11, 2012

    What do you think of the “sign in with disqus/facebook/twitter” interfaces that are increasingly making anonymous commenting difficult? On the one hand, it may make comments sections better by discouraging driveby trollings and encourage community, as seems to be the case on TNC’s blog. On the other hand, I do not wish to have responses I might post on religious, political, and professional sites clearly linked, thankyouverymuch (given that my personal opinions on those topics are pretty irrelevant to my work, and not appropriate fodder for potential employers), and I’m probably not the only one who has avoided posting comments on sites where you HAVE to sign in with a linked account. So that might drive the percentage of readers commenting lower.

    • I keep my opinions somewhat circumscribed when I post with my own name. There’s good in that–I am more delicate and restrained.

    • Everyone needs an online alter ego to post on certain topics in certain places. Alexandra Levit wrote a book called Blind Spots warning people that their online output could damage their careers. If they take her seriously but want to engage in life online they need to protect themselves.

    • I really, really think that the value of anonymous posting cannot be overstated — there are a lot of people for whom the venue (The Internet) is too public to be able to use their real name, and yet they actually need and genuinely benefit from the venue.

      On the other hand, people can be fully transparent and still be total asshats.

      And on the third hand, people can always make up fake names & details on Twitter or FB (I, for instance, have a fake FB account so that I can have better access to FB, and trust me when I say that it reveals nothing about me whatsoever. I could [and have, in fact] used that account to sign in places and to “like” things).

      On the fourth hand, there’s no denying that anonymity encourages genuine trolls and that is a tremendous problem.

      So I don’t know what the answer is. But I don’t think that it lies in stripping away anonymity.