Hating on comments, and even scheming to restrict or get rid of them altogether, has become a hot topic online lately. But amid this comments backlash, there is good news for those who litter the Web with idiotic remarks: It turns out that someone likes them!
This summer, designer Kelli Miller and writer Kendra Eash published the third issue of Post Comment Below, a magazine that collects comments and similar material from message boards, status updates and IM threads.
“We shared a fascination with the chaotic, ‘anything goes’ attitude of Internet commenters,” Miller explains of the project’s origins, “and would often send each other particularly off-the-wall or nonsensical comments just for fun.”
They started to see this Web communication as a kind of time capsule, worth preserving in “a more precious form.” They published their first issue in 2010 — a vaguely absurd string of semirelated observations, jokes, arguments and misfires about everything from Sandra Bullock’s marriage to the relative merits of vinegar spray to the shifting fortunes of social media companies. Probably better skimmed or browsed than really read, it’s nonetheless full of amusements. (“According to McDonald’s and Denny’s and AARP, at age 59 I’m a senior citizen, for what it’s worth, which is mostly a discount on a cup of coffee.”) Shortly afterward, the Library of Congress began archiving tweets. “We felt that kind of validated our idea,” Miller says.
Eash and Miller collect material for each magazine as they go about their regular digital business — basically hoarding anything that’s interesting or funny, and that touches on communication and dialogue. Eventually this is culled into a “loose narrative” that brings certain themes to the surface. The latest issue is called “Sex, Drugs and Robots.”
The most fascinating “little nuggets of passion and wisdom” can come from the most unexpected places — “a passionate comment about something completely banal, like when Skechers is going to release a new walking shoe,” Miller continues. Taken together, comments that may have been forgotten immediately nevertheless reflect the culture of the moment, from the social and the political to changes in how language is used.
“The stream of conscience output of online dialogue,” she concludes, “can be poetic, revealing, therapeutic.”
Needless to say, that point of view is drastically at odds with conventional wisdom, especially lately. YouTube says it’s trying to cleaning up its notoriously foul comment culture, Gawker has talked up a new comments scheme, and Popular Science has given up on comments altogether. A study of comments’ negative impact on civil discourse dubbed it “the nasty effect.”
Miller isn’t convinced. She acknowledges that comments — particularly when they veer into bullying, harassment, racism or misogyny — can be vile and depressing. But getting rid of or severely restricting comments, she counters, would leave “a void in the digital landscape.” She compares the backlash to the transformation of Times Square, from its somewhat seedy but very interesting past, to its cleaned up but over-commercial and sanitized present: “Take away people's ability to abandon their inhibitions and you are left with something that is sterile and a bit vanilla.”