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.
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.