Reader Comments

Meaning & Judgment

People say things in comments that they would probably never say in the workplace or at the dinner table. Apparently the social expectations for comments are different. What are these expectations? Why do commenters write the things that they do?

Comments, particularly those on news stories, make judgments. In my experience, regardless of the quality of the comment or the topic at hand, most comments judge. They judge the article, they judge one another—and this is expected.

Journalists are expected to be objective. This is apparent in the contrast with news articles, which seldom judge: for journalists are expected to be objective. Although true objectivity is not possible (attempts to achieve it introduce their own biases), what matters for journalists is that they adhere to certain practices: presenting information without taking sides, balancing opposing viewpoints, witholding personal opinions and so forth. When they violate these expectations they are criticized by their audience and their peers.

Most news articles provide facts, a cast of characters and different viewpoints: and then they end. Like a joke without a punch-line, they stop short of judgment. Like a joke without a punch-line, news articles stop short of judgment. The Fox News slogan, "We report, you decide," represents how journalists everywhere see their job. Readers are left to judge for themselves. Comments give them the opportunity to voice those judgments—and they do. Even though the expectation of judgment is unstated, it is implicit in how news stories are told.

Judgment is a necessary step that gives a story meaning. A story matters to us because of what it means to us, not as disinterested observers but as people related to the events described. Objectivity does not bridge that gap. Judgment does. An article tells us Edward Snowden was the NSA leaker. Is he a hero or a renegade? Is the government out of control, or is it protecting us from harm? The article does not come down on one side or the other—but the comments do. The article only recounts recent events, but comments get to the root of an issue that will be with us for years.

But why judge in public? A comment may be seen by a public of hundreds, even thousands of strangers. But do they listen? Hardly anyone ever seems to change their mind. We might just as easily judge silently with the privacy of our own thoughts. So why do it?

Judgments offers and demands recognition. Public judgment offers and demands recognition. When I say my piece, I take a stand. You can disagree with me, but you cannot deny me. My judgment also acknowledges the claims of others. My comment may disagree with yours, but by doing so it recognizes your position. You stand there, I stand here. Comments also recognize the actors in the story. Is Edward Snowden a hero or a villain? That is not for him to decide. Only the public, seeing what he has done, can judge. News stories are about the actions of people. Like the tree fallen silently in the forest, it is the witnesses who give meaning to those actions and to the lives of those who do them.

This is why philosopher Hannah Arendt said that judgment is central to citizenship. For her, politics is not just about getting what we want: it is about a human drive for recognition. Judgment is central to citizenship. If our interests were the only things at stake, an authoritarian leader who treated citizens like children would be as good as a democratic one who listened to what they had to say. Democracy does not guarantee that we will get what we want: but it does ensure that we take part in governing ourselves. Our views are recognized, even if they do not prevail.

For Arendt, public discussion and politics are important even if they do not find truth. Consesus is seldom achievable: we will always have differences. Judgments still matter, even when they are wrong, even when they disagree. Especially when they disagree: because then our differences are acknowledged. Those differences bring us together. When we all agree, there is little to say. When we argue about something, we identify it as something we all care about, and we include one another in that concern. The flury of comments around a story like Snowden's tells us all that surveillance is something that matters to all of us. It is something we should talk about, not remain silent about for fear we might not agree.

The Internet is said to promote echo chambers. Hive-minds wallow in agreement, avoiding contrary opinions. But news stories draw us together: they tell of things that affect us regardless of our sympathies and ideologies. It can be unpleasant to be forced out of our bubbles. Judgments in comments confront us with perspectives we might otherwise avoid. It can be unpleasant to be forced out of our bubbles.

Judgments are more than opinions. There is no need for judgment when I say that I prefer to eat soft-boild eggs from the little end. That is simply a matter of personal taste. But if I say that from the little end is the best way to eat soft-boiled eggs, I am making a judgment. I am making a claim not just for me, but for everyone. I expect that any sensible person would agree. And to imagine what others would think, I must put myself in their shoes, even if only just a little.

When I judge, I imagine that others would agree. Of course I can judge poorly. For instance, I can assume that everyone thinks as I do. Judgment can be bad. It can be judgmental, or it can be prejudice. Some of the most hateful comments are judgments. People with disagreeable opinions are often tarred with accusations of attention-seeking, scheming, greedy, or dishonesty. Women, minorities and various other groups have been regular targets of prejudice in comments.

This is a powerful argument for getting rid of comments. But how can people learn to judge well, how can they learn to acknowledge different viewpoints, if they are never confronted with those differences, and they never have to make judgments? Do reader comments encourage poor judgment, or do they simply reveal a weakness? Do they actually make our judgments worse, or do they give us experience and show that we could learn to judge better?

I think the answer is that they can do either. Not all all reader comment sections are alike. If we want them to be productive, it's up to us to make them that way.