They're All So Tough on the Internet

I do not care if you refuse to spend money on a product.

I do not care if you think any product will fail because you do not like it.

And there is no reason to believe any chief operating officer is reading your anonymous discussion board post on how he should run his company, so why are you offering your business advice?

The feedback forum is a ubiquitous tool everywhere on the Internet. I’ve tried for years to understand why any site’s owners feel the need to have them, because there’s absolutely no value to them at all. Not one.

How do I say this with such certainty? Well, I admit that I’ve done more than my fair amount of trolling around discussion boards to news stories, well to the point where I am certain that site owners convince themselves they need a feedback mechanism to encourage community discussion. (Actually, it’s probably more like believing that discussion boards will somehow increase revenue, since they can indicate heavy traffic as proof of the advertising potential, but I digress.) This community discussion is a vital part of the “new media,” which goes far beyond the old-fashioned letter to the editor because now the audience is global. In fact, it’s to the point where if you don’t have a feedback forum, you just don’t “get it.”

When I’m online, I spend the majority of my time on news and tech sites. Often, I tend to skip the article entirely and head straight to the comments because that’s where the action is. (And I wonder if this will ever be a measurable trend, where article comprehension loses out to feedback.) If you’ve bothered to read comments to any given article, you’ll quickly notice a pattern: it’s a “discussion” really between only a few people who have nothing else to do during the day, and they respond to other posters—who have an equal amount of free time—under the impression that their opinions matter. This is what I meant by article comprehension: why bother yourself with a 1,000-word essay when you can glean the gist of it from the first few posts before the trolls and the monkeys get out of their cages and join the fray?

Naturally, there are those who might say that the feedback post is an old idea in a new forum, and how it’s healthy for democracy to have an exchange of ideas. Poetic to be sure, but if you have a global audience and you’re reading an article about an issue in your own neighborhood, what difference does it make if someone agrees or disagrees with you? And even if someone lived in your community and writes that “you’re right about this!” what is that going to do to effect any change about, say, a bond issue?

The problem is, that people writing on these forums are not interested in solving any problem as much as they are interested in telling you why you’re wrong and they’re right. Or why you need to read their Web site where they “discuss this very thing.” Now, while everyone is entitled to his opinion, that doesn’t mean said opinion leads to a solution, and if you’re inclined to link your own Web site in, you’re just going for the “me, too!” moment than anything else.

If we don’t have the personality types who want to demonstrate their vast knowledge on a given subject, then we have others who treat the feedback forum as a way to communicate with the author of an article. Or, I should say more correctly, establish a personal relationship with the author. How many posts have you ever read where the author is named and what follows reads like a personal correspondence? I’ve seen too many and it seriously creeps me out. Why would any person believe that an author is reading every single post in a feedback forum? Sometimes, it’s true, an article’s author will post a response, but this is usually rare. In most cases, posters will treat the author as though the latter owes them a personal answer, or as if all the hundreds of other posts don’t exist except for theirs.

But this pales in comparison to the personal invective posters reserve for each other. If feedback forums are healthy for democracy and discussion, then there’s very little to be proud of because it doesn’t take long for someone to call someone else a “fucktard” or other such bon mot. What possible contribution to democracy does it serve if the body politic is quickly resorting to name-calling and threats? What social problem was ever discussed at length wherein every adjective for the male sex organ is invoked with churlish delight? And more to the point, why do posters often act like they’re in a bar about to kick someone’s ass? There is nothing more pathetic than the textual spectacle of two anonymous forum posters threatening each other. But there it is with every post: angry, cagey people who want to comment on everything and believe that some Democratic Purpose is being served or stoking their own egos that they’re the toughest man alive. There is no purpose, there is no function to feedback forums. People do not discuss articles online, they merely use it an opportunity hide behind a phony name and the (relative) anonymity of the Internet to attack one another and pass it off as intellectual discourse.
Nothing could be further from the truth.

So, what is to be done? Having constant access to news has introduced any number of bad Internet habits, namely the one I alluded to earlier: skipping the article and heading straight to the circus. In order to absorb a serious news article or analysis, I’ve had (ironically) to treat it like a reading something in the newspaper. You read it, think about it and maybe jot down some thoughts, but that’s the extent of the commentary, unless I feel compelled to blog about it without the idea that someone is going to or must read it to know my opinion. I no longer read an article and wonder what others think about it. I don’t care to click the link to see scores of opinions and smug bloviators who like to act sooo tough. I read to read, to learn and then move on. It sounds so simple, but like I mentioned, the Internet has caused some bad habits on my part. Of course, my approach works for me, and I admit that the lull of the feedback freak show is often very powerful. But I am quickly losing my naïve belief that a discussion of ideas requires me to login to a site and quickly dismiss someone else’s post, call that person names, or declare how I will not spend my money on whatever tech product was just announced. (Honestly tech guys, do you really believe that what you spend your money on is of any importance to hundreds of your anonymous Internet friends?)

This does not make me a better person or intellectually superior. But having my own Internet strategy for reading news articles and analyses has taken me far from the maddening crowd and returned me to the shocking act of just thinking about what I’ve just read. What a concept.