I have a confession for you: I don’t really read comments sections, unless someone specifically suggests that I read comments on a particular thing. I think that this confession is ranked right up there on the surprise scale with ‘I like breathing’ and ‘sometimes I bake cakes,’ because my general dislike of Internet comments is pretty well known. In fact, I am often seen repeating the old adage ‘never read the comments’ because, well, I think it’s a valuable piece of advice to keep in mind.
However, this fact about me is highly relevant to this next fact about me, which is that I rarely comment. There are a lot of reasons why I don’t really like commenting, but it basically boils down to that it’s a communication medium I don’t really feel very comfortable in. For one thing, I like to write long things that I come back to and tweak and polish and change. Now, granted, I could open a word processor and write comments that way, but by the time I had a comment perfected and went to post it, a whole new slew of comments would have arrived and mine would no longer make sense. Also, people who leave long comments are very annoying, and I don’t want to be one of those people.
I also really don’t like the rapidity demanded in comment exchanges. I am a thinker and a muller-over of things. When I react quickly, I often, well, things don’t go well. I frame things poorly, I don’t articulate myself, I say the complete opposite of what I mean, and I create a muddle. Comments are frightening territory for me because there’s the pressure to respond now and to respond perfectly. I don’t do quick, I don’t do rapid, I don’t do kneejerk, and that is what comments sections are to me. Hence, I don’t comment, even at FWD, unless someone is asking me personally a direct question that I need to respond to.
The reasons I don’t engage in comments are heavily tied into my disabilities, and I note that I personally feel that there are some ableist overtones to the way people think about Internet comments. To demands that people keep up with comments across the Internet. To insistence that people read through hundreds of comments before leaving comments of their own. To expectations that people be involved in comments when they may be expending all their available energy reading and writing.
To be honest, I don’t get much benefit from reading comments sections. I understand that other people do; that other people feel that comments are a great place for engaging, exchanging ideas, educating, learning, exploring, pondering. And that a lot of sites rely heavily on comments to build community. Of course, a lot of work goes into building and maintaining that community, and moderating it, and people who moderate comments are rarely given much respect for it. Curation of comments, especially on social justice sites, is a fraught activity and it often means that site owners and moderators start focusing entirely on the commenters and forgetting that there’s a large segment of the reading community that doesn’t comment.
And this is where people like me get left out. Because we don’t comment, so we aren’t viewed as part of the community. In fact, it seems to be assumed that we don’t read things if we aren’t commenting on them. Or that we, as readers, are not as valuable because we are not commenting. That we are making some kind of statement by not commenting. We are sometimes made to feel guilty for our ‘lack of involvement’ by people who are not really thinking the implications of what they are saying through.
The fact is, I read a lot of things. I have a very large RSS feed, I read everything that everyone emails to me, I follow a large number of people on Tumblr and Twitter (and read everything they post, which is a bit different from following a large number and checking in now and then). I can’t even begin to convey the number of things I read, although I link many of them because I think they’re interesting or good, and sometimes I email authors to let them know I’m reading and to chat about it with them.
But I don’t comment.
Not commenting is generally perceived as poor blogging etiquette, I have noted. People who don’t comment are less likely to be linked and cross-promoted. We have to work a lot harder to be noticed because, well, we don’t comment. So a lot of people don’t know we exist. It wasn’t until I started having exchanges with people on Twitter that the blogging community opened up to me a lot more and became aware that I existed, even though at that point I had been blogging for four years, and blogging daily for most of that time.
There’s also a kind of uncomfortable trend that starts to happen with some sites and ingroups of commenters. As an outsider, I get the perception that commenters are more valued, and people who are commenty are often reluctant to wade into the fray on established sites because they get the sense that the commenters and the writers have a cozy scene going on and they don’t want it disrupted. Some sites hand out little prizes and treats to their commenters, whether it’s inclusion on the blogroll or…other things. I’m trying not to be specific here because I’m not interested in singling out any one site for criticism, I’m just trying to make an observation, which is that commenters are privileged over regular readers and that established commenters in particular are given a special place in the hierarchy.
And I think that, oddly enough, although comments are supposed to be an egalitarian place for discussion, this trend has the result of suppressing discussion in comments. People are viewed as outsiders to the community because they don’t comment just in general or because they just found a site and are hesitant to join conversations and thus people miss out on their voices. They may write responses on their own sites, but because they don’t comment, those responses often aren’t seen.
It’s tough. I don’t know what to do about this, I really don’t. I at least have the advantage of loving and valuing all my readers equally because I have no commenters right now, and I try strenuously to avoid preferential treatment of commenters at FWD. The solution to this problem, the expectation that people be involved in comments or remain outsiders, certainly isn’t to close comments across the Internet and it’s not what I am suggesting, but I do wish that people would ponder it, and that those of us who are involved in comment moderation/curation would think, occasionally, about our silent readers.