It can be bad for me to read public comments sections of many websites and open forums.

On news and information websites, the comments sections are often filled with “trolls”: people who hide behind the anonymity of the internet to say and do things they would never do in a “real life” social situation.

Some comments sections are basically un-monitored and not moderated. The discussion quickly devolves.

(This is less true if the forum or website is relatively specific in nature: A grammar or writing website, for example, or in a closed forum where everyone is, more or less, trying for the same goal, even if the opinions, suggestions, and strategies for getting there are very different.)

The Debate Debate

I’m all for healthy debate about issues, but most of what passes for “debate” on many un-monitored comment streams has about as much in common with legitimate debate as I do with a potted palm tree.

Finding a place, on-line, where the people involved can actually disagree and/or come to the table with different opinions and yet still treat each other as human can be difficult to find. It takes intentional and specific attitudes and actions by those involved.

To often, online “debate” is just noise. It has no real, meaningful purpose.

Online discussions can often lead to frustration because so many people do not have the skills necessary to write precise, logical, and appropriately expressive sentences.
Online discussions can often lead to frustration because so many people do not have the skills necessary to write precise, logical, and appropriately expressive sentences.

Myopia is Not a Country

I think what gets me riled up more than the angry, name-calling debate is the self-involved, other-denying nature of many online comments. I find it much easier to ignore the angry and bitter comment poster.

I find it much harder to ignore the person who doesn’t understand that not everyone sees every facet of life they way he does.

This was apparent to me when I was reading through what I thought was a fun article on Facebook.

In the last several weeks, there was a “List your favorites…” kind of post going around where people would be “tagged” by their friends to make a list of the books that had most influenced their lives.

Facebook took all of the hundreds of thousands of people who posted their responses to that article and came up with a master list, based on the frequency of how often a book was mentioned as one of the reader’s “life changing” books.

The article I was reading made the point that a majority of the books that were mentioned most often were books written for children, and hypothesized that books have the most noticeable impact when we read them at a younger age.

Then the article pointed to a post on Facebook which gave a run down of the 100 most-mentioned books. That article describes the methods Facebook used to collect the information and compile the list. It describes how they combined some series books into one entry and other methods of data collection and analysis. It is clear that the method used to collect information was, basically, to take the responses that people had already posted, and count them. A complicated process to do what is, really, a simple thing: tally the opinions of people.

These were all interesting things to ponder… Until I get to the comments section.

Most people began by posting, “Oh, this is interesting!” and “Wow, surprising!” and “I’ve only read one or two of those!”

Then came the predictable rants: “This isn’t scientific!” “Who did they ask, a bunch of morons?” “This shows just how illiterate Facebook members are!” and “What kind of list is this if it doesn’t include, x, y, and z famous authors!”

My favorite one, though, was this: “Uh, where is __obscure book title and author__? You can’t tell me that didn’t make this list…and if it didn’t, this list is invalid.”

So It Made Me Rant, A Little, Too

What an insufferable load of crap.

This is the age we live in, though. MY viewpoint is the RIGHT one, even in situations where there is no “right” answer and being “right” makes absolutely no difference to the world.

“MY favorite book should have been on this list…” Really? Why? The list is a systematic look at what the reality WAS for this fun little survey of opinion. There is nothing wrong with the method of collection.

When this reader says, “My choice should have been on this list,” of a collection of responses from a wide range of people, they are really saying, “They miscalculated. They failed in their purpose. They either intentionally left this great book off their list out of spite, or they are so incompetent that they missed the millions of people who surely listed this most obvious book.”

The commenter was referring to, in WikiPedia’s words, “a 1992 philosophical novel…that examines the mythological thinking at the heart of modern civilization…using Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the pinnacle of biological evolution.” It is by an author whose name I didn’t recognize.

Now, I’m not downing the book. I haven’t read it, and even if I had read it and (as I anticipate) didn’t like it, that doesn’t mean the person commenting couldn’t have enjoyed it. Even been changed by it. And I’m not doubting the impact this work had on the life of the particular reader.

But when he says, “There’s no way this book didn’t make the list,” it bothers me. A lot. How short-sighted does one have to be to think that their obscure “favorite” book ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE BEEN ON EVERYONE ELSE’S MIND!?!

I’m all for a comment like, “Oh, you know there’s this book that isn’t on the list, and it’s too bad more people haven’t heard of it!” I can even understand saying, “Well, this isn’t a scientific poll, really, just a gathering of random information.” But to dismiss thousands of data points (and anyone who disagrees with an opinion) just because it doesn’t fit a personal, narrow view of the world…it just makes me a little sad.

So What?

What does this have to do with anything? Especially when it comes to writing and the creative life?

First, don’t let yourself get sucked in to internet comments sections that aren’t beneficial. They steal time. And energy. And joy. If you want to actually discuss things of value, comment here, on this blog, where we can actually discuss things that matter! (Haha!!)

But, really, I think my frustration comes back around to a lack of precise language, even more than it does the idea that someone is so self-centered that they are angry that everyone in the world doesn’t have the same favorite book that they do.

We live in a world where people have easier access to make their opinions and feelings and thoughts known, and that’s a good thing. The problem is, I think, that many people simply aren’t equipped with the tools to communicate effectively, and all of the words spewed out like steam from Old Faithful end up being lost in the noise.

I think words matter, but when they are used without competence or skill, the result can be similar to Charlie Brown listening to any adult: “Wha-wha, wha wha wha wa.”

Sometimes, I Rant
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