In defense of comments

You’ve heard it a million times: don’t read the comments.

It’s my least favorite of internet mantras (perhaps second only to if you build it, they will come, but more on that some other time) because it dismisses a huge swath of internet participation, and prevents us from realizing the potential of what comments can be—making it all that much easier to accept the status quo.

Don’t get me wrong, I have few illusions about the downsides of many comments sections out there. They can be chaotic, terrifying messes that serve up the seeming worst of humanity—sometimes, not reading the comments can be an important act of self-care.

But I often hear this phrase combined with an implicit: what did you expect? 

And that’s where I think we need to push back, because not every comment section is a cesspool—many of them are clean, well-lit spaces where good things are happening for people who come to the internet to learn, share, and connect with others.

In fact, at their best, comments are community. If you only skim the comments on YouTube, you might miss it, but on sites all around the web, connections and relationships have been built in the comment sections of journalists, bloggers, news sites, retailers and more.

I little while back, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook to share their favorite comments sections—I wondered if there were sites people would be genuinely sad to see the comments disappear. It ended up being one of my most popular Facebook posts. Here’s what people came back with:

There were a few other suggestions as well—a friend of mine was pleased that she’d never received an angry comment on her personal finance blog, another pointed out that without the help of commenters on ModCloth, she’d never find the right fit, and another recommended The Truth About Cars as having a particularly smart community of commenters.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list, and it’s biased towards the interests and reading habits of those I happen to be connected to, but seeing the range of these recommendations confirmed for me that a lot of people are reading the comments, and getting something from it besides higher blood pressure. For those who’ve loudly proclaimed that comments are beyond saving, I’d encourage you to check out some of those sites and see if you find anything that strikes your fancy.

Two things stood out to me in reviewing these sites:

Engagement (and moderation) counts

Maybe it’s the observer effect, but many of these sites and individual writers are definitely reading their comments and aren’t afraid to get into the mix. Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Captain Awkward do a great job of publicly moderating discussions and letting commenters (and the rest of the community) know when something crosses the line, and news organizations like The Guardian have invested significantly in online editors and moderation staff.

Anonymity isn’t the problem

This is most certainly a topic for a longer post, and perhaps I should say it isn’t the primary problem. I think anonymity is a bit of a red herring, but it always seems to come up in discussions about comments. Many of these sites have robust comment sections without any kind of Real Name policy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue for the past few months, and I definitely don’t have all the answers, but since it’s Monday morning and we’ve got a nice fresh start on the week, I’ll invite you to join me in a little weekly goal: be a better commenter this week.

Maybe that just means reading the comments and responding to some of the positive ones, maybe it means commenting on a piece you found interesting or helpful, even if you don’t have much more to add—be part of that virtuous cycle.

If you’re ready to get started, feel free to share some of your thoughts on sites that should be added to the list above, or your ideas on what makes for a good comment section below!