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Don’t read the comments. Write them!

It seems like all the signs point to “never read internet comments.” It’s true: the more you’re invested in a topic, the more broken-hearted you will be if you read the comments on the internet. The Atlantic has a piece on internet comments, and how they’re still pretty awful. There’s a twitter account dedicated to dissuading you from the very thought. It’s hilarious, and you should check it out. Everybody and her cousin will tell you not to read the internet comments. I’m here to propose something revolutionary: don’t read the comments, but write them instead! I exaggerate, of course, but while writing thoughtful, encouraging, or just plain decent comments won’t shift the axis of the Earth, it might shift the terms of discussion and make the internet a better place for women and for everyone else.


There are several separate, but similar instances that have led me, an avowed long-time blog lurker, to think and act. While I haven’t transformed overnight into a prolific comment-writer, theses instances have made me rethink my role as avid internet user as a responsibility. It’s kinda like voting: if you can, but opt not to vote in an election, then what have you done to improve your political landscape? Here are the things that have occasioned my mental shift:

1. Under the heading “Sikh woman teaches Reddit a lesson in tolerance,” Balpreet Kaur’s story of bravely taking control of her own narrative unfolding derisively on Reddit became viral. What struck me was the pedagogy: Balpreet transformed a potentially traumatic event into a teaching moment for the internet. As a teacher, I thought I could do the same, and take the two minutes it lasts to write a comment. As an academic, on the other hand, I suffer from chronic perfectionism syndrome, which is part of the reason I’m such a reluctant commenter: “surely, it would take too much time I don’t have,” I would tell myself, “to put this thought into cogent prose that would represent my persona accurately.” But here’s the thing: the anonymous commenters who generally overpopulate the comments section [present company excluded, of course*] and transform it into a snake pit obviously discard their venom immediately, and without any packaging; also, the genre does not require polishing beyond what’s generally due to a tweet, a FB status update, or an SMS text. Bottom line: take the five minutes it takes to add your two cents, support an opinion you agree with, or demystify an idea in polite terms.


2. Michelle Moravec and Heather Froelich performed a corpus analysis of the comments in an open thread on Postcolonial Digital Humanities website, and came up with startling results, especially for an academic discussion:

Of 38 individual commenters producing a total of 153 comments, we coded 26 commenters as male (68.5%) and 12 (31.5%) commenters as female. 72% of all the comments were written by men compared to 28% written by women.

Beyond comments:
3. The Wikipedia stats on women editors stand as the most eloquent example of why we need more feminine and feminist voices  online. As teachers, we know, probably best of all, that EVERYBODY reads Wikipedia; that it’s the first line of information, for teaching and for research. And yet, this example shows that far fewer women engage in editing Wikipedia articles than men. There are drastic consequences for this statistic: women writers are under-represented or brushed aside; if they exist at all, entries on women are underdeveloped. As one of my wonderful students put it, “women’s voices have been silenced long enough,” so why aren’t we taking this opportunity for redress? There are many reasons, and this blog response to the article from NYRB linked above lists nine of them.
4. Even if it’s impolite to quote oneself, Hook and Eye has many articles on why more women’s writing, reviewing, and commenting is vital. 

Finally, there are many circumstances impeding women’s participation: time, labour, emotional investment, fatigue, etc. We’ve discussed them here on H&E, and their disproportionate propensity to affect women. Yes, we need to draw a line between enough and too much labour. But do consider, every now and then, writing a comment, a Wikipedia entry, or a review. We have the expertise, the skills, the knowledge. Let’s get ourselves a voice!

* There are many good reasons to remain anonymous, especially given the environment I am describing, and what’s often at stake in revealing one’s identity. I am not referring here to people who feel this pressure, but to those who use anonymity to spew vitriol, as our commenting policy puts it.

4 thoughts on “Don’t read the comments. Write them!

  1. Thanks for a great post Margrit! When my own work was the subject of comments section flaming, I just couldn't bring myself to engage and offer my own defense. I realize in retrospect that I should have forced myself to participate in the conversation. Your discussion here really captures well what is at stake when we opt out of important public discussions.


  2. Hi Danielle,
    Thanks! I remember your research being profiled by Sarah Boesveld last year in the National Post, as was mine. I also remember your FB status about the comments. NOT reading the comments on your own research defeats the purpose of knowledge mobilization, no? I have to confess, to this day, I haven't read the comments on the article about my research. That's what makes these internet comments so problematic: yes, they're a quick response to what you work on, but most of them are more about the commenter than the subject at hand. Sound familiar from conferences? At conferences, at least, we have decorum and face-to-face interaction. Take those away, and it's all guns ablaze.
    I'm not sure that defending your own stance in that venue would have done anything to change anyone's behaviour. My point here is, as always, a systemic change can start with individual contributions. No, I'm not advocating for a neoliberal approach: maybe I should have gone and written a comment on your piece, and it hadn't crossed my mind at the time. Live and learn.


  3. Thanks for this excellent post, Margrit. I really enjoy everything you add to H&E. I tend to avoid reading comments as they are too upsetting for the most part, and I have to limit my stress. However, I have been making an effort to comment or to promote blog posts or online articles that I think need to be read. I am relieved to know that I am not the only one who feels too stressed out or too perfection-oriented to write comments. The fear of not having the time to properly and adequately express my thoughts about important issues is what keeps me from joining in most discussions. I even find my own blogging is plagued by that particular form of writing fatigue. I made the decision to start another blog, and I'm working on a post about an issue I think needs to be openly addressed (on a particular ethical issue), but I anticipate either no comments or a lot of trolling ones for that reason (people are afraid to comment, or too tired to do so, etc. . . ). I agree that we do need to make our voices heard, otherwise the internet really is just a big playground for the same kind of b.s. we have to deal with in real life only with more verbal aggression because of the lack of consequences for those who remain anonymous.


  4. Danielle, I think I remember when this was going on, and how upsetting it was for you. I'd had a really terrible conference experience at the time, so I understood where you were coming from just a bit too well. I was ripped to shreds in person by some angry junior scholars who felt that the only way to make themselves look better was to take down the person below them in the pecking order. I guess someone didn't get the job they were hoping for, and came in looking for a fight. I learned a lot from that experience, but it took me a year to recover. I hated conferencing for a while after that and dreaded all presentations. I had to take baby steps to recover my confidence. As for participating in the conversation, you did the best you could at the time and that was a learning experience. Next time you will scare the vitriolic commenters with your fiery wit and steely intellect. I've also heard that no press is bad press, so that negative experience could be seen as a step toward your future as a famous public intellectual 😉


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