The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, December 08, 2008

On comments and character

by Tamara Lee

Who are the kinds of people who comment online? The stay-at-home mom who uses a series of exclamation points out of pure frustration about an article; the insomniac warehouse worker who uses all-caps to register his fury about the state of the world.

Reading the comments following an article appearing in an online-version of national or regional newspapers can be a sort of character study. But the most enthralling and disheartening reading I’ve found has been on the CBC.

The vitriol spewed by some of these folks, many of them regulars, is unlike anything one would hear in normal conversation. These kinds of people are the raging drivers of the Internet: if someone dares to comment on the rager’s so-called point, there’s likely going to be an ugly accident. And of course, many people (and apparently moderators) can’t help but watch the ensuing accident, or watch for it.

I often find myself immersed in reading the comments on the CBC, especially when the article has been about national politics, because I sometimes feel I live in an ideological bubble and need to know how the rest of the country thinks. But the reality, I’m learning, is that these comments do not reflect a cross-section of Canada. They do, though, reflect the mindset of the kinds of people who regularly leave online comments.

The tone of the comments left, for example, on Salon.com, or the Tyee.ca, compared to the tone of the comments left on the CBC, and increasingly Canada.com (representing an array of regional papers), seems to point to an increase in discontent among the average-Jill-and-Joe. They now have a forum other than the lunchroom and dingy bar to tell people just what’s the matter with the state of the world. Mostly, though, their world begins in their neighbourhood and ends in Ottawa.

What moderators let pass as acceptable can be especially baffling. The racist and sexist comments that somehow manage to slip by have increased; the comments that try to spin some sense into a discussion (for lack of a better word, because online commenting can rarely be called a discussion) have become fewer and fewer. But that may have less to do with the moderators, and more to do with the sensible folks recognizing the futility of trying to espouse reason within an online Jerry-Springer-effect.

I know of what I speak because I have been one of those who try to squeak in a voice, be it devil’s advocate or genuine disgust at someone’s ignorant comment. And the result is usually the same: the post is either ‘check-marked’ by those who agree (although never the same number of folks who agree to the rager’s point), or the point is lost in the muddle of frenzied opinions.

Once I had someone call me to task for my comment, but a small group of white knights came to my rescue with statistics and quotes to prove my initially meek point. I didn’t have the energy or interest to keep up a jousting game, but apparently the knights were willing to get off their horses and engage in the rage. I never bothered to check in to see the end of the match.

Now, of course, as anyone who follows online forums knows, indeed as anyone who has used the Internet regularly in the past five years or so knows, the anonymous posters can range from teenagers posing as any number of characters; to political pundits posing as average-Jill-and-Joes to further a cause or point.

And so the online Springer-effect adds yet another new dimension to what poses as debate, or more often than not, farcical entertainment.


(Image: 'Throwing chairs' courtesy of Thijs van Exel.)

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I start reading comments and find myself getting entertained, then angry and then depressed.

So I've stopped going it.

If someone has to be anonymous to make their comment, I can't really take it seriously.

Tue Dec 09, 12:39:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

That was me above. Posting anonymously was a funny-joke-type-thing. I gave myself a little giggle, but it's over now and I've fessed up!

Thanks Tamara for this post and I love the throwing chairs photo!

Andrew

Tue Dec 09, 12:41:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Ha! I thought it was funny, and I'm glad you fessed up. Thanks for dropping by; I'd begun to feel like I was scaring people off. I really only meant the big newspaper style forums, not blog comments ;)

I love that photo too!

Tue Dec 09, 02:05:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I love reading online comments for news stories. The range of opinions on a subject amazes me as well as how polarizing an issue can be. Despite the fact I'm reading only the views of those who are prone to comment, it still makes me feel I'm getting a sense of how the general populace is responding to news events. For some reason, that makes me feel more secure, as though nothing will be able to totally surprise me.

Thu Dec 18, 01:33:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Thanks for dropping by, Tricia. Interesting response. You know, I just read some horrific posts on the CBC re: the woman who burnt to death on the streets of Vancouver. Honestly, the only enlightening thing about it was that ignorance truly is universal. So disappointing.

Fri Dec 19, 08:08:00 pm GMT-5  

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