Look high, look low, look anywhere on the Web where user commenting is enabled, and you’ll find vitriol, hate speech, and an appalling ignorance of the difference between “Your” and “You’re.” The “empowering” of reg’lar folk with the ability to comment on Web sites has generally led to a lot of unpleasantness and just a thimble-ful of thoughtful discourse.
I recently read a fine summary of the case against comments on the blog Luminous, written by a Web developer named Michael Barrish. Barrish says:
I stopped reading blog comments long ago, recognizing, in confirmation of Sturgeon’s Law, that 90% of all comments are crap. There are many varieties of crap—off-topic, self-serving, ass-kissing, uninformed, superficial, showboating, belligerent, and of course, just plain dull—but the result is the same. Of course, 90% is not 100%, which is say that some comments are not crap at all, and that some—one percent?—are truly thought-provoking. Unfortunately the better comments don’t come with little flags indicating their higher quality, so the entire endeavor remains too much of a crap shoot (pun intended) to tempt me.
Yet there are certain sites where the comments are actually worth reading, and where the commenters themselves have formed a happy, civil community. On Serious Eats, the food site run by Ed Levine, the tenor of the comments is jolly and small-townish, with none of the nihilism, know-it-all one-upmanship, or loony vein-bulging you get on sites like Eater and Chowhound. See this old post by Ed about doughnuts, for example, in which Ed laments the state of the doughnut trade in New York, and take note of how the commenters chime in with their own thoughts and suggestions; Serious Eats is the most uncynical, undepressing food site out there.
Part of this is to do with Ed himself. The shop proprietor is a sunny, middle-aged enthusiast, the antithesis of the callow, attention-mad Webutante hater. Furthermore, as Ed has explained to me, Serious Eats commenters must register with the site to comment. Required registration doesn’t always weed out the cranks, but it does act as a deterrent to anonymous drive-by hate-comments of the “F U faggit” and “Your so retarded” variety. Plus, it fosters a sense of community and cooperation.
Another site with comments worth reading is Scott Schuman’s wonderful three-year-old blog The Sartorialist, which basically adapted Bill Cunningham’s shot-on-the-street fashion photography to the Web age. Anonymous commenting is allowed on The Sartorialist, but it’s seldom cruel or bitchy–which, on a fashion site, is really saying something. Again, this is a case where the proprietor’s enthusiasm is infectious. The commenters, whether chiming in on a man’s ensemble or a woman’s, come out in large numbers and offer a very readable mix of gush, constructive criticism, and fill-in-the-gaps ID’ing of specifc elements and accessories. They are indispensable to the reading experience of this particular blog, and that’s as great a scenario for user comments as one could hope for.
P.S. The eccentrically dressed young woman whose Sartorialist photo I link to above is my college-age cousin Fay! I was utterly astonished to find her included among Schuman’s roster of hardcore fashionistas in Milan, Paris, and London. She’s from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for gosh’s sake.