It’s fair to say that we don’t need to talk all the time.
I have groundlings on my mind today, for some reason. The poor folks that stood on the ground, by the stage in the Globe Theatre in the 17th century. They could barely afford to watch a play conceived by Shakespeare, but when they could, they were happy enough to. Never quite had the luxury of sitting down comfortably, but they were at least lucky enough to have a front row spot occupying ‘the pit’.
Lucky is subjective. The popularity of Shakespeare’s plays would pack the house. Every square inch of the pit would be full of 500-or-so people, though these groundlings were entertained by a play, they would have to give up the freedom of space. The inhabitants of the pit were normally peasants, and tradesmen that would spend a days wage ( a single english penny, if I’m not mistaken). Being that close to the action with little room to move around, they were often rowdy. These folks would turn to heckling or throwing vegetables at the characters they wouldn’t like.
In the perspective of then, you can almost look at the modern groundling as a sense of tradition. We don’t call them groundlings though, they’re more of a heckler, or a troll. Taking part in an article that someone couldn’t wait to share, by damaging their enthusiasm with very little meaning of their own, but the joy of being a jerk.
When I caught wind of Popular Science getting rid of their comments section, I felt interested in the idea. Their reasons behind it, make a lot of sense. Why would you want to open up conversation of science to the mass that probably know very little about it. Or the children behave as though they’re the smartest person in the room. Which is probably true, if they spend all of their time a room alone, they’re the smartest because no one else in in the room with them.
News of them getting rid of the comments section is also in the same wind of other websites changing the way they moderate their communities vitriol. Years of abusive language and they finally put their foot down, if only a little bit. They still want the community, they still want the conversation. Hell, some websites have now adopted code which allows their users to leave comments all over their articles. At the end of every paragraph, all over the header image. They want to give others the freedom to speak everywhere on the page. Only now, they want you to watch what you say.
The thought of PopSci getting rid of comments is actually smart. After all, Science is about learning, not talking over it. And I like to think that it was just the website finally getting it out of their system. You’d forget years ago, the comment section on the website was only the forum. A moderated space that would never get out of hand, all the conversation never left the room.
But then at some point, there was a spike in what it meant to be social over the internet. I can’t quite pinpoint when it happened, this was way before the popularity of facebook. All I can remember is that some of my favorite websites suddenly had blogs, and a comment section underneath each news article. Suddenly every website made it their business to get you active into every conversation.
At the beginning, it was actually quite nice. It felt more like a privilege to comment underneath your favourite writer. Then someone would reply to you as if you’ve made a good point, and then conversations would continue, you’d find a common ground, make a friend. Yes! There was a time where the very idea of this, made you feel much more welcome to a website.
Over the years the mentality of the groundling started to leak it’s way in. More traffic to a website, meant more people would talk. The more voices a website had the more congested the comment section would become, then the more negative the comments would be. Websites, that wanted to engage their audience with a comment section on everything would soon bear witness to the 500 commoners on the ground throwing vegetables at the unsuspecting writer. The writer now no longer has the freedom to write the way they want, because the stage is too small and the crowd is surrounding them. But the modern groundling is different than just a rowdy heckler. The comments section has exploded into a place where people feel threatened, so I’m not really all that surprised if a website decides they want to do without the peanut gallery, and just focus on making their website great!
That’s not to say that commentary should always be discouraged. Sometimes it could actually be beneficial. Frequent Feminist Opportunist Anita Sarkisian, gives you the example of someone that never allows comments to happen. I’ve been in defense of that before because of the nature of her videos, and the usual attacks that active internet feminists get. But I’m also kidding myself if I think that her content should be comment-less.
The work that she does is work that screams out for community to talk about, because her work is often short-sighted of the bigger picture. In the case of Feminist Frequency, she continues to take it down a path where her word is more important than everyone elses, because she refuses to listen to the constructive part of her audience. Instead she often takes the empty banter that she receives, and fuels a specific agenda.
Youtube is often hailed as the worst website in the world for comments, as even the most adorable videos in the world could be home to some of the most careless thoughts a human being can make, but as I’ve mentioned before, it’s on account of it’s volume. The more people that occupy a space the rowdier it gets. People undeserving will get the vitriol whether or not they’re actually asking for it. But if you think about it, there shouldn’t be any surprise at all, that entertainment has the highest form of hecklers out there. It’s something that we already do in front of our televisions when we get into a tv show, and we do it in comedy clubs to get validation from either the comedian or the crowd. So just like the 17th century we boo and hiss at the things we don’t like. A time honoured tradition.
There will always be a place for a comment section, only if you actually build the structure to welcome and handle the commentary. As long as Social Media stays as a dominant presence on the internet, We will always believe it to be a necessary evil.
So with that in mind, where and when do you think that comments have helped a website grow? and when do you think a site can do without them?