The complicated history and frightful future of the Internet comment section

Why is your comment so important that thousands of strangers need to see it? This is the question I asked myself the other day after realizing I was one of the top comments on a YouTube video with over 300,000 views.

It’s popular opinion to believe the Internet would be better off without comments sections. This is because comment sections are often petri dishes for trolling and hateful nonsense. On the other hand, comment sections bring distant people’s together and build a crowdsourced layer of insight.

Comment sections are a complex matter and we must take many things into account before we decide what the future of them is.

The complicated history of Internet comments.

The first comment section, as we know it, appeared in 1998 on the website Open Diary. Open Diary serves as a public diary platform for contributors to post their thoughts. In turn, the site allowed readers to comment public or private responses directly to authors. Thus the open lines of communication begin.

As more publication websites, newspapers specifically, began to increase readership they also increased the addition of the comment section to their sites and stories. Between 2007 and 2008 there was a 42% growth in the number of top circulating news sites with comments sections, and by 2008, 75% of the top 100 most circulated newspapers had comments sections.

People wanted to be heard, and the comment section was their megaphone. Almost immediately purveyors of public forums, whether bloggers or publications, realized the amount of work required to operate a comments section. Fred Wilson, venture capitalist and avid blogger on his site AVC, accurately sums up a purveyor’s love-hate relationship with comments sections:

The truth is comments are used by a very small portion of the AVC readership. But the people who use the comments are very active and engaged. So removing comments won’t impact a lot of readers, but it will impact the most loyal readers. So I want to tread lightly here. But I also want to lower the overhead of writing and managing AVC and comments are the highest overhead feature on AVC.

Fred Wilson, AVC

This is a sentiment that all people consider before killing the comments section. The most passionate Internet users are often the ones lurking in the comments. Why ignore the ones who drive your business?

When Internet comments work.

The most obvious upside of having Internet comments is the interaction between people that takes place and the diverse perspectives it brings. A friend of mine, named Trevor, recalls just a decade ago when gay marriage discussions ruled the airwaves:

I’d tune into the Wall Street Journal everyday to read their nonpartisan, unbiased reporting of some new information. They were careful with their words and very professional. Then, I’d scroll down into the comments and there’d be 13,580 comments on a two-hundred word article. Just back-and-forth bashing from opposing views. It was a bloodbath. As a gay man, I feel as though it was somewhat healthy that people were airing out their frustrations. But it was also kind of toxic because I imagine most of those people carried that anger with them throughout the rest of the day.

Outside of back-and-forth opinion sharing, there are many more tangible benefits of a comments section.

First, they often provide a means to cultivate new ideas to the content creator. A concrete example of this in action is the YouTube series Hot Ones where celebrity guests – from Kevin Hart to Gordon Ramsay – are interviewed while eating chicken wings with increasingly hotter sauces. Whether on purpose or accident, the comments section on each video has basically become a viewer voting area for next guests. The most liked suggestions often end up being featured on the show. It’s a really fascinating and organic community action that has boiled up in the comments.

They’re not the only ones, either. In 2011, a study in the Newspaper Research Journal found that 22% of journalists got stories from the comment sections of their papers online publication. That’s a decent amount of help if you ask me.

It’s not always new ideas that drum up in the comments. Sometimes, this immediate feedback can keep creators in check.

YouTuber Logan Paul discovered this during his trip to Japan’s infamous Suicide Forest. As expected, Paul and his friends came across a dead body. In his naivety, he posts the dead body to his 15 million followers and instantly received a tidal wave of backlash from fans, fellow celebrities, and even business sponsorships. For a short time, he even decided to walk away from his YouTube channel because of the massive mistake he made.

Whether you’re a columnist, blogger, YouTuber, Instagram personality, or anyone that uses the Internet to build their tribe, the comments section can provide excellent benefits. But sometimes, it goes the other way.

Already a future thinker?
Then become a friend.

When Internet comments don’t work.

Obviously, nobody likes when comments lean in a toxic direction. Racist responses, perverse commentary, and blatant trolling all done to incite a reaction. Although many of us have learned to not read these comments, it’s often like a massive car crash. You know you aren’t going to like what you see, but you look anyway.

I think the worst part about comments sections is not necessarily the negativity in the comments themselves. Rather, when comment sections are a conduit for deep bonds between “bad actors” to take place. There’s a specific type of content in question: content from the youth.

We’re seeing more and more young creators out there, which I believe to be a great thing. The creative muscle is the best muscle a kid can strengthen. And I’m sure if you have a kid they’ve at some point expressed an interest in going viral or making a career out of social media.

However, a ground-breaking investigative video by Matt Watson (very informative, but also unsettling), uncovered how pedophiles are using YouTube comment sections as a means to share the specific points in videos that show shots of kids in compromising angles, which inadvertently happen when you give a child a camera.

Videos of little girls playing Twister, doing gymnastics, playing in the pool and eating ice lollies are all routinely descended upon by hordes of semi-anonymous commenters, sharing time codes for crotch shots, directing other people to similar videos of children and exchanging phone numbers along with a promise to swap more videos via WhatsApp or Kik.

The video with millions of views will almost always involve young girls swimming, dancing or doing yoga. In the comments, people inform them how “nice” and “beautiful” they are, while making requests for more videos with better lighting or different outfits. Many of these accounts also have their own playlists or uploaded collections of videos featuring children that have been scraped from elsewhere on YouTube. Many of the comments are too upsetting to reproduce.

K.G. Orphanides, Wired

The real issue here is that YouTube was confronted about this nearly two years ago and yet, hadn’t done a whole lot about it. Not to mention, they were still monetizing many of the videos. Thankfully, people got YouTube’s attention this time around.

On Wednesday night, the online video giant announced it had banned more than 400 channels and disabled comments on tens of millions of videos following a growing YouTube controversy concerning child exploitation. However, many major brands, like Disney, AT&T, Nestle, and Fortnite are jumping ship and halting all YouTube advertising in its wake.

Matt Binder, Mashable

Comments sections are expressions of our free speech, which is why it’s so hard to stamp them out in general (even though we’d all like to when something this horrific is happening in the comments section). The important thing to ask ourselves, though, is what’s the realistic next step to take with internet comments to ensure we’re evolving in a positive direction?

The Future of Internet Comments.

There are a few ways in which our commenting systems and areas of discourse improve in the coming years.

The first is through self-policing. There’s no greater example of this than Reddit, which is practically one massive comment section itself. Seriously, everyone (who uses Reddit) knows that the true gold of Reddit is in the comments. But what’s so unique about the majority of threads on Reddit is that they’ve developed their own community standards which every member actively upholds. It’s fascinating. If someone violates those standards, either they’ll be reported or people simply won’t upvote those comments (and therefore they’ll never get any eyeballs on their comments).

Outside of Reddit, there’s a practice that I hope catches on.

Chris D’Elia is a famous comedian, who like every other famous person, must put up with comments from online haters. Every so often he’ll screenshot some hater’s Tweet and respond to them – literally putting this person on a worldwide stage to be embarrassed for their actions. It’s almost the opposite of what you’d think to do. But, he’s done it so much, that people now delete their Tweets immediately once he responds. In other words, it’s kind of working.

Anyone can do this, no matter your level of fame. Hopefully, this practice catches on.

The other major way that commenting systems improve is through technology. Smaller sites/businesses that want to still build their communities can turn to dedicated discussion platforms such Disqus and Discourse. These are a bit more intimate and at the owner’s discretion, so they can simply kick people off if they’re being disrespectful. These tools seem to be catching on, especially in gaming communities.

The Coral Project is creating open-source technology that can be implemented within existing content platforms – the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are among two of their high-profile clients. Essentially, they’re creating tools that can identify the most engaging commenters and then follow-up with them to treat them as active members of their journalistic team. It’s a fascinating way of bringing readers into the conversation.

Ideally, there’s a tool that’ll one day exist that uses NLP, natural language processing, to monitor all comments and make sure we can weed out what society doesn’t need. NLP is a form of artificial intelligence that aims to understand how we string words together to create meaning. However, this is a very tough thing to get right.

Google’s attempted this before with an API called Perspective, which analyzed comments and scored them based on their toxicity:

The underlying API used to determine “toxicity” scores phrases like “I am a gay black woman” as 87 percent toxicity, and phrases like “I am a man” as the least toxic. My experience typing “I am a black trans woman with HIV” got a toxicity rank of 77 percent. “I am a black sex worker” was 89 percent toxic, while “I am a porn performer” was scored 80. When I typed “People will die if they kill Obamacare” the sentence got a 95 percent toxicity score.

Violet Blue, Engadget

As you can see, the toxicity score is very biased and I’m not really even sure what it achieves.

The problem is that the vast majority of words can be used in a negative or positive way. It’s the context of the situation, the other words used around it, and the intent that turns words into nasty comments. Context and intent are notoriously hard things for AI to understand. And I see it being a long, long time before these systems are perfect.

In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for sticking up for one another and doing what’s right.