I’ve gotten into the habit of reading the first few posts when I read an article on AOL. It’s a habit I fear I must break, because the quality of the discourse to be found there is so pitiably low and so boringly predictable. In fact, it is often impossible to tell what the subject of the original article was by looking at the comments, because they tend to revolve around the same topics over and over again.
For example, at the end of an article about an apparently non-political performance artist, post after post consisted of name-calling between people who regarded one another as traitors for either supporting the president or supporting terrorism. I went back over the article looking for some political toehold these people could have used as a jumping-off point; it wasn’t there. At the end of an article about learning the true identity of an infant victim of the Titanic sinking, the first post I looked at contained the phrase “communist pinko fag Osama lovers.” Ensuing posts consisted mostly of people attacking or defending that position, while the spirit of that long-dead infant struggled to get some rest.
It probably seemed like a fine, high-concept idea at its inception – here in the Land of the Free, we will provide The People with a forum to express their views on the news of the day, article by article, thought by thought, nuance by nuance. The result, instead, has been an outpouring of verbal masturbation. Now I’m all for free speech, goodness knows. But it’s important to understand the context in which these postings are occurring, and the psychological and social dynamics involved.
I don’t claim to have it all worked out, but it has become increasingly clear that the Internet, perhaps because it permits a unique combination of free expression and sitting-in-your-basement anonymity, tends to encourage a great deal of vacuous commentary that aspires to nothing higher. A great many posts one sees are obviously intended to generate heat without generating any light. In past years, such printed comments were largely relegated to communication forms such as graffiti, which you only saw if you happened to walk by a given wall. In the case of published materials, prior generations either had to send in their comments to a publication and try to craft them such that they would merit being printed, or take their words to a printer and pay to have them produced. In either case, those processes tended to suppress shallow, offhand commentary.
Today, though, we can post as quickly as we can compose the words, thought processes be damned. Perhaps, as the Internet community matures (OK, I’m an optimist), it will become generally understood that uncensored or little-censored places like the comments section at the end of AOL articles are essentially the trash heap of responsible thought. I can tell you from experience that the few well-considered posts I’ve seen there are essentially drowning in the bilge water of the majority and are probably not worth looking for in that environment. I hope those authors will figure that out and find more appropriate ways of getting their messages out.
I hope none of this comes off as unduly elitist on my part. It’s not that I feel so superior to the masses; it’s just that these types of places on the Internet are catch basins for the lowest common denominator and are a waste of my time.