Click. “Comments.” Scroll.
Whether it be on Instagram, news sites or YouTube, we have all jumped to the comment section at some point. It’s a sea of witty one-liners, scathing political takes and sometimes outright insults.
The pandemic has only increased the prominence of these spaces in our lives. Isolated from our peers and discourse, comment sections have partially filled the gap. But for all their excitement and entertainment, these distinctly modern spaces of ideological exchange can unknowingly distort our perceptions and restrict our independence of thought.
Most notably, comment sections prevent us from developing our own initial reactions to content. So many times after we consume a post, article or video, we instinctively search for the comments section. What did other people think? What’s Twitter’s or Reddit’s take? We scroll through an endless chasm of others’ ideas — without taking a moment to consider our own.
Forming judgements means we reflect on topics by considering our values, beliefs and experiences. By allowing others to essentially process material for us, we not only suppress our critical thinking, but we devalue our individuality. We allow others to shape our judgements for us. But how can another person have the exact same reaction as us? We are different people, after all, with different ideas and experiences.
The power of comment sections in shaping our perspective is especially impactful given our assumptions about comment sections. We generally presume that commenters are a perfectly random sample of the nation. However, research has found that those who comment at least once a week on news articles are more likely to be men (64 percent) and to have a high school education or less (53 percent).
Additionally, comment sections fall into the pit of self-selection bias. That is, those who respond at all probably have more extreme viewpoints or emotions that prompted them to respond in the first place. This exacerbates an already polarized landscape. Therefore, comment sections hardly contain a full set of perspectives.
Our false perception of neutrality, then, gives these groups undeserved ethos. And our assumptions preclude us from recognizing many perspectives are missing from the conversation.
Comment sections also exploit our fondness for popularity. Our eyes gravitate often towards highly liked comments. We implicitly equate popularity with most deserving of consideration — a dangerous premise that threatens to exclude unpopular viewpoints, which may differ according to the online spaces we are in.
Additionally, our obsession with comments distracts us from the relevant material. Talia Stroud, head of The Engaging News Project, found that more than half of commenters spend as much or more time on the comments as with an actual story. Commenters may barely digest the facts of a story before jumping in with an opinion; in fact, some don’t even make it beyond a headline. Besides commenters themselves, there are even more lurkers who passively consume dozens of comments in silence. Instead of investigating the issues, we investigate reactions, many of which lack the expertise of the journalists who wrote the article.
To be clear, I’m not saying that platforms should shut down comment sections. Truth be told, comment sections are not the root problem. Rather, it’s that we allow these spaces to influence us and that we hold misguided assumptions upon entering them.
One simple approach we can take is to avoid viewing comment sections. This is one I actually committed to several weeks ago. In the first days, I frequently fought the urge to dive into the comments, but I succeeded in resisting. For example, when Ariana Grande’s album “Positions” came out, I enjoyed forming my own initial opinion on the project before giving Twitter the chance to make that judgement for me. And once I did read the comments, I found that my opinion was different — I thought the album was just mediocre, but the comments were initially flooded with praise.
Nevertheless, I made sure not to consume media in mere isolation. I asked friends of varying beliefs about their thoughts on these topics. These conversations were far more nuanced and complete than any hundred words on a screen. Turning your back on comments is not the same as turning your back on discourse.
Of course, less extreme alternatives exist. It is still perfectly possible to interact with comment sections in a productive manner. You could block out some time before you read comments during which you can reflect on the content on your own. You could also sort the comments in a random order and constantly remind yourself that these comments do not represent the full array of discourse. Better yet, read up on reactions to the topic written by experts in greater detail and with more diverse ideological views.
Discourse is not meant to be solitary. We should engage with others’ ideas, and comment sections serve as a distinctly modern tool to do exactly that. But it’s important to recognize the value of forming initial reactions and independent judgements.
Today, our screen times exceed 11 hours, with media consumption taking up nearly half of our day. It’s never been more important to become informed digital citizens, cognizant of our habits and biases.
So skip the comments and ask yourself, “What do I think?”
EDWARD SEOL is a sophomore in Berkeley College. His column, titled “Threading the needle” runs monthly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.