Please read the comments section

I've seen friends share articles with which they agree on Facebook including the caveat, "just don't read the comments section." I've learned there's even a don't read the comments movement (or at least a 40.3k following) as well as many articles suggesting against reading the comments.

I keep hearing the idea that reddit (which can be considered as a site composed almost entirely of comments) is toxic. That there's too much groupthink.

Then I read Jeff Atwood's piece entitled Please read the comments section (a title that I shamelessly stole). That got me thinking, are comments really so bad? Are we doing a disservice to ourselves to dismiss what others have to say?

Let me offer three stories:

Story #1: A film critic is questioned

Have you seen The Good Lie? I haven't, but I was reading some reviews recently and noticed a few negative reviews in a mix of predominately positive reviews. I was curious why, so I read one of the reviews from a film critic at NPR.

Okay, she had some interesting points, and now I'm actually more curious to watch the film. But what really caught my eye was one of the comments below the article which I'll highlight:

Hi Ella, I am one of the Lost Boys in US. I read your article on "The Good Lie" movie and I am slightly confuse of what you were trying to get at. First, what do you suppose this Lost Boys movie should be about? Did you want it to be a Sudan civil war documentary, or about Lost Boys immigration struggles to US? Note that there is another Lost Boys movie, "God Grew Tired of Us" that talk about their life struggles[...]

Well! What a great point to make. I have seen God Grew Tired of Us and this commentator is spot on. The commentator goes on to offer additional perspective that the film critic is lacking (nothing against her though). By reading the comments section I was pointed to an important complementary film that is not even mentioned in the original review.

Story #2: A front page reddit post framed as injustice towards men in a women vs. men world

Just yesterday this (incorrectly titled) post hit the front page of Reddit. I happened to see it only about 30 minutes after it was posted. It was skyrocketing to the front page and as much as I didn't want to read the comments section, I did want to speak up for women and rape victims. I wanted to offer my opinions on it at this unique opportunity before millions of people around the world for the next few days would be looking at it.

So I bit. I clicked the comments section. I was expecting a lot of toxic groupthink comments for which reddit is so well known (and yes there were some), but I also found some people already had stepped in to support women and rape victims. Some of the discussion was not even centered on the women vs. men debate the video and title were trying to provoke. They were picking apart how absurdly sensationalist this story even was:

This link came from a YouTube channel that preys upon uninformed people.


People, the title of this post is incorrect.

It really sucks that reddit is a male-dominated website and we live in a world where rape runs rampant[1]. It also sucks that these red herring, inaccurate stories show up on reddit. And no, it was not completely free of disrespectful comments, but it was a start. Buried in the comments, perhaps too deeply, were some smart and pithy statements to support future arguments I may have on such topics such as rape and feminism[2]. I learned why the punishment for rape is much higher than the punishment for making a false rape accusation.[3] By reading the comments section I learned something new.

Not only that, but today when I checked on it, the highest voted comment was about how misleading the headline was, and so the title itself got a misleading title tag.

Granted, the reddit discussion was missing something a feminist friend later brought to my attention[4]. More than anything I am really bummed some feminists are hesitant to speak up on these matters (see proposition #1 below) or avoiding the comments (see proposition #3), which is perhaps why this perspective is missing from the comments section on this reddit thread. Although it's little wonder why they're hesitant[6][7].

Story #3: A (potentially) controversial article regarding sex and gender

A few years ago I read this fascinating article on complex sex and gender in the animal kingdom as part of a series published in Ars Technica.

I won't summarize the article here, but in it the author discusses the importance of defining and differentiating between sex vs. gender[5]. Now the question, I wonder, would you have read the comments section?

Graph from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Well, you can go ahead right here if you'd like. In the forum I was glad to see things like this:

Expand your horizons.


It's pretty common for scientific terminology to have a more nuanced but precise definition than what the general population uses. For a quick example, "mass" and "weight" have extremely different meanings to a scientist or an engineer, but are used completely interchangeably by the general public.


Which is exactly why it might be good practice in papers to specify exactly which definition one is using, if the term may potentially be ambiguous. I think the relationship between sex and gender is poorly understood enough to warrant clarification.

Sweet! Respectful and thoughtful comments! I'll point out that you'll see an editor of Ars Technica jumping in right away only three comments down, and another Ars staff member down the page as well (this is related to one of my proposals below).

Allow me to me make three proposals:

P1: Speak up respectfully

If you see something that drives you crazy, say something, and say it respectfully. Don't unfriend that annoying Facebook friend that's always spewing crazy shit. Tell them how it makes you feel. Then if they can't respect how you feel, the onus is on them to either unfriend you or think about it.

Out on the rest of the internet (the public) if you're afraid to speak up using your name, use an alias. If you're afraid of getting doxxed, consider creating a unique username separate from any of your other usernames out on the internet. I know this really sucks but you can also use a proxy or Tor to remain protected if you fear for your life from speaking up[6].

P2: Be careful moderating your comments, but please, please do it

If you're a site owner, a writer/blogger, a journalist, or thinking of launching the next reddit or stackoverflow (another site that consists almost entirely of comments) please consider moderating your comments. I applaud Ars Technica for doing so, and commend Reddit for trying to improve. As Jeff said it best:

If you are unwilling to moderate your online community, you don't deserve to have an online community

A big caveat is that bad moderators (and censorship) is often worse than no moderator. But you can still encourage respectful opinions. Discourage bad behavior. Comments like "Nope." or "Wrong." or "This!" or the ones full of toxic vitriol like "You suck, bitch" need to be moderated out of the picture.

P3: Please read the comments section

I know we're all pressed for time, and many comments are terrible, but the next time you read the comments, you may be surprised. I hope you find a reasonable, respectful discussion from which everyone can benefit.

Thank you for reading my comment here today on this topic. That's right, I'm referring to this 1400-word long comment masquerading as an article. I'd like to hear yours.

[1] Some quick Googling looks like rape happens every 30-60 seconds. I'd imagine it's very difficult to find accurate numbers like that because it's so often under reported. Regardless it happens at an alarming rate and is something we should be talking about in addition to providing support for the victims.

[2] Most feminists are just men and women who realize that it's harder for a woman to get ahead than men.

[3] In short, because we have disparate punishments for raping someone vs. making a false rape accusation (maybe in the form of perjury) the accuser is more likely to come forth and free an innocent person. The idea is that if the accusor was lying and isn't going to face years of punishment, they'll eventually come forth. The nuances of this are discussed here and here but the TL;DR is that different crimes get different punishments for (probably) good reason.

[4] False rape accusations are incredibly rare (probably because the ramifications are prohibitive, accusing someone of rape is so hard that most victims don't even do it), but whenever anyone is talking about the current rape crisis it always comes up as a serious consideration before someone should even be accused, so people think it is a legitimate point to discuss, and has become a huge red herring for the anti-feminist side of this issue.

[5] From the article (which you should read):

Sex is a scientific concept, referring to the biological and physiological differences between males and females [...] Gender, meanwhile, is a sociological construct. Most often, the term “gender” describes how men and women fulfill certain cultural norms defined by their sex.

[6] How fucked up is that? Reminds me of oppressive countries or how our pal Galileo was treated for thinking the earth revolved around the sun, but alas, we get to live in a world like this. Sad.

[7] Some reasons why feminists are hesitant to publicly speak up regarding issues are contained within the first few paragraphs of this article in addition to a surprising example of why it may make sense to publicly speak up. A really tough call that makes me frustrated and uncertain about the issue.


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