Re: Megan McArdle’s Plea for Comment Thread Civility

Megan McArdle, “My Quarterly Plea for Comment Thread Civility”

It’s been a while since I’ve read and taken seriously any comment thread on more popular sites. A major reason for this is that the threshold for what constitutes a good comment is so, so low elsewhere. Really and truly, we’re talking about “good” comments 1) being publishable, not just trying to get everyone to form a lynch mob 2) conveying decent information, not promote conspiracy theories 3) not aiming to make the blog author look bad, but demonstrate some graciousness.

If it seems to you like most comments on the Internet can’t meet those ludicrously low standards, you’re exactly right. In fact, commentators on the Internet reveal a heck of a lot about themselves through comments, and very rarely does one get the impression “hey, that’s someone I’d like to talk to, maybe meet in real life.”

Does that mean comments should be closed? Of course not. Comments are a necessity – I know I hate it when I can’t comment on something online – and sometimes even fun. I certainly learn from the comments on this site, but then again, my readers are exceptional. They actually read, and have demonstrated over and over that they have the quality of patience to an exceptional degree (heck, they read this blog). But I can tell you that I get a different sort of troll that’s just as vicious as the types listed above, if not moreso. I’ll typically get someone who thinks they know more than me and goes to exceptional lengths to prove I’m an idiot in a thread, not quite realizing they look like a psycho and that I’ll delete their comment no matter how learned it is (and if I was wrong, take the correction too and amend the post later). I do care about the intent of people who post on my blog: if you let people be hateful toward you, they will take full advantage of that, and it’ll ruin the blog for your other readers. People who are civil and treat others well on the blog – including the blog author – should be given first priority.

Which brings up a serious question: are comments revealing of something deeper? I actually think they are – they absolutely demonstrate our political immaturity, that we’ve learned the worst lesson we possibly could from pundits and talking heads. We think we can shoot off about any topic, that our comments are just as good as any “expert’s.” And we hold that we have some magical right to be heard by everyone, even as that involves saying our speech matters more than someone else’s. We don’t think “hey, that blog is someone else’s property, it’s a privilege that they’ll let you talk and even respond.” We don’t realize that commenting on everything is only a demonstration that we hear one voice, the voice that matters, and are actually closed to a number of others. I do wonder if the very concept of mass media created this problem, where each man is a broadcast tower unto himself. The nice thing about the Internet is that there are people who do play nice, and it’s fun to learn how to have a public persona even if one does make some mistakes (rest assured, I’ve made plenty).


  1. “I certainly learn from the comments on this site, but then again, my readers are exceptional.”

    I believe that this is because the content is exceptional. If the blog itself is vitriolic and distasteful, why would a reader interested in learning and human excellence be posting on there? Given, there are always going to be those who would spit in the face of whomever their interlocutor is. That seems to be the result of contempt for authority outright, whether justly earned or otherwise – as if authority itself were the problem. Again, this ties in with your points in the last paragraph.

    But what brings Rethink good readership is its very stubbornness. And that doesn’t mean that the readership will always dwindle. In a certain way, human beings have a miraculous ability to WANT to meet challenges. It’s fascinating.

  2. I was recently (trying) to think through the logistics of hosting a completely civil discussion on the internet- basically of moderating a conversation in real time. It would be a nightmare and unfortunately many of us never or rarely return to the same website to actually follow up or answer to anything we’ve written there, so most online comments, I don’t think, are meant to be conversational. They’re much more like folks playing Critic and writing their little tag line for the article/page.

    Of course that’s incredibly self-centered, to think that you can singly determine the worth of any work, and very telling of the poster’s character.

    However, I have been guilty of doing exactly this, and while I’d like to say my “Blah, this is garbage” or “You’re dead wrong”-type comments were always justifiable, that the content really was ridiculous nonsense, I know they weren’t. And I am really quite the opposite of a self centered egotistical person in real life.

    All that to say, there are a lot of factors inherent in the medium that makes it very tempting and very easy to be loud-mouthed jerks online.

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