Because of how overstuffed my email inbox got while I was away for half of August, I spent the better part of September sorting through it all and therefore only recently noticed an email containing clips from Sharon Van Etten’s Labor Day weekend performance on the Jimmy Kimmel show. I have an unabashed soft spot for Ms. Van Etten, so on went the video. As the song, “Tarifa,” was playing, I began to scroll through the comments. There were only 14 of them, and as dedicated a comment-avoider as I try to be, it seems only human nature to be curious about what other people are saying about something or someone you like. Especially something as theoretically non-controversial as a late-night musical performance.
I should have known better. Down near the bottom I came across a comment that made me gasp, not out of surprise (alas, nothing really surprises me when it comes to barbaric comments on YouTube) but out of feeling viscerally attacked myself by these savage words. I am pasting the comment in here not to be sensational (I warn you it’s not pretty) but to stare it down with stouthearted determination. We have too easily learned to ignore this kind of thing, which is its own kind of awful. This is a brutish verbal attack on an unsuspecting human being, based largely, it seems, on her being a woman. And it just sits there like another part of a normal conversation:
On the one hand this is just a passing, all-too-common moment on YouTube. On the other hand, how on earth did we get here? How did we get to a place where we accept this level of vicious, assaultive ignorance staring at us, day after day, even on media outlets from large and respectable companies? The Jimmy Kimmel Live show posted the Sharon Van Etten clip on its official YouTube page, which is where this comment was posted and where, more than one month later, it remains.
It doesn’t have to be like this
I am well aware people have been complaining about comments on the web for as long as there have been comments on the web. By 2014, the more enlightened web denizens do their best not to read comments at all. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be like this. There is no law of nature or country requiring web sites to allow people who cannot be civil to participate. With any will at all, any web site could be operated in such a way as to prevent first and foremost the lllSparta x’s of the world from sullying public discourse with words as hateful, violent, and insanely stupid as those he posted under the SVE video. But web comments could also be far more generally open-minded and supportive and interested in informed oppositional views than they commonly tend to be. That we have somehow accepted the guiding principle of belligerence and obnoxiousness is a failure of will on our part, not the way it has to be.
This is not a “freedom of speech” issue, but boy does this get confused pretty much all the time. No one is restraining lllSparta x from saying whatever pops in his head either to any friends he may have (?) or on a web site of his own construction. Neither is anyone preventing all the needlessly hostile other folks who clog up comment boards everywhere from being as hostile as they want, somewhere of their own making. That’s all free speech really means, you see—that our government can’t take action to prohibit people from expressing themselves. Collective entities of all kinds, whether corporations or sports teams or non-profits or what have you, remain empowered to decide that they don’t like what you’ve said and to create consequences for you—anything from removing what you’ve said from a web site to terminating any economic relationship they might have with you (see Schneider, Rob). The point being that neither YouTube nor Jimmy Kimmel is required by the Constitution to allow the likes of lllSparta x to speak his mind on their watch.
What it comes down is this: do we want to be civilized together or not? And if so, we might surely decide that repulsive, inappropriate, and/or disrespectful remarks need not be tolerated in a public forum.
So this is not a free speech issue but I am sorry to report that it is a free market issue, in that the reason that companies running web sites routinely do not police their comment sections has little to do with misguided application of the First Amendment and a whole lot to do with the fact that an unfettered comment section is a sure-fire way to drive page views up. First of all, goes the theory, people love to be able to leave comments, so allowing unhindered comments is a traffic booster. With web sites only ever concerned about quantity, anything that might reduce participation—such as requiring people to use their real names, or alerting people that all comments will require approval before being posted—is a negative thing. Because page views.
Second of all, continues the theory, rude or controversial or hostile comments, while not actively encouraged, are seen not merely as a necessary, traffic-boosting evil but maybe even as a valued if rowdy part of the web site’s operational center. It’s like a car wreck on the highway: people can’t help but stop and look. And perhaps engage in their own reaction to it. Because page views.
Further arguments are often made that excuse uncivilized web comments on the grounds that it would be too labor-intensive, and therefore too expensive, to expect huge companies with tons of online content to be able to effectively police all the comments being made minute to minute and hour to hour. To which I say: if it’s too expensive to police, then the only responsible answer is to remove the comment section entirely. Otherwise it’s like saying well, it’s too expensive to make sure our toys are safe, so we’ll just manufacture them without designing them or testing them properly. The fact that we collectively have allowed unmonitored comments to poison our online public spaces for the better part of the last 20 years is no excuse. This is all still early in the life of this new technology. We simply made a mistake in our first approach. We are entitled to correct it.
The limits of self-policing
I understand that we live in a world in which a certain benighted percentage of the human population is going to think thoughts like what lllSparta x posted on the Jimmy Kimmel YouTube page and will no doubt say things like this to their similarly debilitated buddies, and that’s the way the world has always been and alas may always be. But what far-fetched societal logic accepts sociopathic declarations as some kind of new public-behavior norm? How is it that lllSparta x could not only write what he wrote on a Google-owned, ABC-sanctioned web page but that the comment remains there, week after week after week?
And yes any YouTube user could “report” the comment as “spam or abuse” and maybe it would be taken down, at some point. Or maybe not. While repugnant, this comment might not, after all, be deemed literally “abusive.” But anyway: is being “spam” or being “abuse” the only two categories a comment can fall into to merit removal, or even consideration for removal?
And more to the point: why is it up to the people who visit YouTube to monitor such things? To assume a community of millions can self-police is disingenuous at best; the act of policing each other becomes just as liable to be abused as the original area being policed.
What the situation reveals is the lie at the heart of the democratization myth that has marred digital-based culture since the birth of the web itself. And the lie is this: that interactions involving millions of strangers can somehow mimic the interactions of small groups of known friends and acquaintances—that, in other words, the rules that govern the latter can in any effective way be employed to inform the former.
As it turns out, how people behave among friends cannot be scaled up to multiple thousands of strangers.
This is why, as one example, the personal act of letting a friend borrow and rip a CD is not in any way related to the impersonal act of uploading a CD so millions of strangers can download it. More to the point at hand, this is why three friends living together will easily enough make arrangements to keep their common living room acceptably clean but why three million people visiting a web site have no mutual understanding about keeping their common digital space acceptably clean, and should not be expected to.
Supervision and long-term self-interest
Yes, digital technology has widened the scope of our personal lives, giving us the capacity to interact with a wider and more far-ranging flock of contacts than was possible in our analog past. But there remains a relatively low threshold beyond which some (many? most?) individuals quite literally cannot extend their direct empathy, and therefore beyond which we collectively cannot be relied upon to be good to one another.
Once the number of people are gathered in a place, digital or otherwise, exceeds the possibility of personal relationships between all who are gathered, their interactions can no longer be left to operate without clear and present guidance. The loudest voices, expressing the most disheartening sentiments, are rarely if ever representative of the majority, but left to romp in digital space without supervision these are the voices that often appear to dominate and, over time, will ruin whatever the reasonable majority might otherwise be hoping to create together.
What may be most disheartening of all in this mess is that we have arrived at a stage of capitalism in which short-term self-interest has blinded the ability of all but the most enlightened of business leaders to understand that long-term consequences are by far more important. The fact that unsupervised public spaces online are destined to be destroyed from within seems both tragically irrelevant to managers who care only about quantitative metrics and sadly par for the course in our corporation-guided 21st-century culture. (In much the same way our human environment is being destroyed from within while corporations refuse to consider this long-term truth in pursuit of their short-term profits, but never mind.)
If the only people in a position to supervise refuse to do so, what then? Do we sit back and take it? Do we convince ourselves that this is an unavoidable by-product of our technology, which of course we can’t ever fiddle with because we might “break the internet”?
Or do we rouse ourselves out of our technophilia to begin to understand that if we can’t, after all, get civilized together, we may at some point find ourselves without much of a civilization?