Into the Darkness: A Brief Exploration of the Comments on CNN.com Articles

For the most part, the meteoric ascension, unfettered dominance, and resulting omnipresence of the Internet in our lives has been a good thing.  It finds us when we are lost, links us with loved ones when we are lonely, and allows us to watch videos of unlikely animal friendships when we are very lonely — from anywhere with a 4G signal (God help you if EDGE, though).  It keep us intimately connected to the world around us no matter where we happen to be at that moment.  Even more importantly, however, according to the first-year sociology graduate student nearest to you right now after he’s had a drink or two and thinks you’ll be interested, the Internet has proven itself to be the most powerful catalyst for the democratization of human knowledge since the invention of the printing press.  Any and all information is now available at your fingertips and at a moment’s notice (RIP, The Lively Bar Debate, Dawn of Time – 2008).

And look, this is pretty great.  According to that same graduate student, who really should be paying more attention to the latte that he’s making you, but whatever, the free and fair availability of information is the most powerful tool in the world for righting injustice, sharing ideas, and making the world a better place.  Except for one sneaky problem: while for the first time in human history everyone can have a voice, the Internet has also made it abundantly clear that there are some voices out there that we really just…didn’t need to hear in the first place.  Nowhere is that more apparent that the comments section of your average Internet news article, the contents of which constitute perhaps the single strongest argument I can think of for staying in school in this era.  Come, take a deep breath, and let us together journey into the LAND OF CAPSLOCK.  Remember, if you start feeling ill you can close the browser window, clink on the link above, and cleanse your palate with some wonderful, unlikely animal friendships on YouTube.  Just be sure you don’t start reading the comments there, either.

I concede that harvesting inane comments from CNN.com articles (congratulations to those of you who just screamed “REDUNDANT!”) is some of the lowest-hanging fruit out there, and may say as much about the quality of the news source these days as it does about that news source’s readers, the aspirationally titled Top Op-Eds of 2015 (So Far) (implication: prepare yourselves, we’ve got more hard-hitting journalism on the way!) seems like as good a place to start as any.  Without further ado:

The Muse: “Nudity Doesn’t Shock Us Anymore”
Thesis: Nudity doesn’t shock us anymore.
The Commentariat: At first blush (zing), responses to this one are actually very measured.

Sam Good (2/4/15): Should it be shocking? Is there anything wrong if it is not shocking, if we begin to see people in their natural state without freaking out about it?

Well, then, owner of now-defunct chain of record stores.  I suppose that is a reasonable enough approach.

tallulah131 (2/18/15):  Take a few figure drawing classes. After about the 10th naked model, the thrill is gone.

I…that’s a fair point, tallulah131.  Maybe I was wrong about this.  Maybe Internet comments sections aren’t so bad after all, and in fact the

returnreason (4/24/15): The only real answer to sucide bombers is make everybody strip when they get on a plane, enter a store, sports event, cross a border. In any situation where you don’t know or trust someone it should be the custom for everyone to strip naked. This should be the new ritual when people meet like handshakes, “Hello” or any of the other pleasantries designed to assure folks that everyone is friendly.

Oh.

The First Rule of Internet Commentary is that someone will connect the story’s subject, no matter how far removed from terrorism it is, to its implications for…terrorism.  They will also do so in the same matter-of-fact way in which you might recite the days of the week or nonchalantly tell someone how many siblings you have, and they will meet doubt expressed in response to this position with incredulity at best (“R U NUTS”), scorn at second-best (“go reed a book and educate yourself”), and unprovoked non sequitur racism at worst (no, I will not make up an example, and you know what I’m talking about).  Speaking of which:

upsetmom1964 (2/4/15): I caught my son watching some garbage called “Rising Sons: Mile high club” my god, basically it’s a bunch of impossibly perfectly figured japanese girls who are air stewardesses pleasuring some guy on a plane because HE wears jewelry.  My son won’t stop talkin aboug rocks and asian girls now.

Upset mom, indeed!  This sounds like a pretty serious situation!  And an entirely appropriate one to share with total strangers via the Internet!  And definitely related to the subject of the op-ed on which she’s commenting!  Over/under on her son’s age is 12.5.  Puberty is a dark time for everyone involved.

tochris (1/29/15): @PJL500 [Nudity] is not sad. It’s because we are living in a civilized world. We are not in the 1800s where humans wear nothing.

That…is absolutely not how time works.  We’re done here.

The Muse: “Why does ISIS keep making enemies?” [aside: hahahaha]
Thesis: “ISIS members devoutly believe that they are fighting in a cosmic war in which they are on the side of good, which allows them to kill anyone they perceive to be standing in their way.”
The Commentariat: We’re going to start off with a bang here — literally, if some commenters have their way!

Ken Wilson Jr (2/22/15): It may be time to reevaluate our restrictions on tactical nuclear weapons

Uh.  Take it away, Martin Lawrence.

On the one hand, the proliferation of sweeping generalizations is one of the worst side effects of the Internet.  On the other hand, every single Internet commenter seems to have a particular fascination with Islam, and by “fascination” I mean that they are convinced that President Obama is actually running the country according to Sharia law.  In terms of the Five Stages of Xenophobic Paranoia, they have already moved through comically irrational fear, believing all email forwards received in their AOL accounts, loudly talking about their ideas to you in a bar, and making Pamela Gellar their Twitter picture, and now they’re just on to the final stage of grimly stockpiling canned goods and ammunition, jaws firmly clenched.

Sean5000 (2/18/15): We will not wining this war if we continue to be in denial and keep our head in the sand. ISIS, Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, and many others share the same ideologies which are based on teaching of their holly book…change the teaching in Mosques and Islamic schools to promote love and respect instead of hate and resentment.

Who is Sean5000 addressing?  Doesn’t matter!  In the mind of an Internet commenter, their choice to post their eureka moments of policy insight on any news article cause said moments to be transmitted straight to the movers, shakers, and power brokers of the world.  Exhortations to President Obama reach President Obama’s desk that very instant, “holly books” and all.

When it comes to discussing Islam, more reasonable voices are unfortunately drowned out by their hyperawareness of their own copyediting deficiencies.

vinman00 (2/19/15): so you beleave in sticking your head in the sand will help. Idont think so!

vinman00 (2/19/15): Excuse me, miss spelled believe

Gah, you were so close there, vinamn00.  So lose.

The Muse: “A gripping [aside: probably not] glimpse into bin Laden’s decline and fall”
Thesis: USA! USA! USA!
The Commentariat: Let’s see how well we can do with Underexplained Conspiracy Theories here.

noblebutts [aside: hahahaha] (3/14/15): Bin Laden died in 2001.  That’s why all the photos and videos him are vintage 2001 and older.

Go on.

WNOreloaded (3/15/14): Revealed: Obama carefully orchestrated lie about al-Qaida demise to win re-election.

Sure!

SunniB (3/15/15): Where’s the story about the 5 million dollars paid to AlQaeda by the CIA for the kidnapped Afghan diplomat?

Well, have no idea, personally, but it really seems like you might, SunniB!  You started giving us that story, and then — then you stopped!  Why would you stop!?  Don’t you titillate us like that.  I’ve had enough nonsensical Islamaphobia for some day, so in order to avoid losing faith in humanity so early I suggest we move on to something that definitely will not invite such offensive, harebrained reactions.

The Muse: “Is Cindy Crawford’s cellulite photo empowering?”
Thesis: Not really, because people are using it to be mean.
The Commentariat: Nope, not better.  If the author’s goal was to write an article for which the contents of the comments would almost immediately prove her point, I’m unequivocally declaring this article a wild success.  Can I interest you in some casual misogyny?

dangernolan (2/18/15): This picture shows why we pick, pluck, tweeze and airbrush. No one wants to see that.

URwhatisrong [aside: I cannot with this name] (2/17/15): Anybody who thinks that photo is sexy relative to an authentically sexy female is either lying, crazy or has been in prison for too long.

MindOvrMtr (2/17/15): She’s got guts alright.

But don’t worry, others will take the time to explain to you that their sexism is justified.  Bonus points for heavy use of “scare quotes.”

Stuff1 [aside: I think it actually takes effort to put this little thought into your user name, but whatever] (2/17/15): I’ll start caring that women are being ‘objectified’ once I stop seeing dozens of halfnaked guys dressed as ‘firefighters’ – guys that probably gave just as much ‘consent’ for their pics to be thrown across the entire internet as Cindy here flying across my FB feed linked by just about every woman over 30 that I know.

A major part of what makes comments sections so maddening (you know, aside from the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and poor spelling) is that they require not even a modicum of responsiveness.  Instead, comments are treated as a way for people to say whatever is on their brain at that exact moment.  Want to talk about sexy firefighter pictures that annoy you on Facebook?  Sure, tie it in.
Or how about a non sequitur political tangent!
Carnivore123 (2/17/15): Why are liberals even allowed to write columns anymore?
Baseless comparison of relative state population hotness!
FactsRFunner [aside: perfect] (2/17/15): Texas probably has a good amount just due to population size, but those obesity rates don’t help. I’d say CA probably has the most what is considered standard attractive people in the country.
Passion is a strong point of many Internet commenters.  Staying on topic, not so much.
The muse: “What else is hiding in Clinton portrait?”
Thesis: Something about a portrait, who cares, the presence of a buzzword politician gives you license to write whatever the hell you want about politics!
The Commentariat: Willingly!  Speaking of staying on topic, the readers perceive in this article about a portrait just a dizzying number of subjects.  Voting machines!

DanLeeMesa (4/13/15): The last thing this world needs is another Bush or Clinton in the Whitehouse!  America needs to go back to to punch card voting. Electronic voting doesn’t leave a permanent record of each and every vote.

Iraq?  Why not.

filthyfew (3/8/15): I would hope the artist would paint a picture of George W. Bush with the shadow of the hundreds of thousands of innocent people he killed in Iraq hanging over it.

Macroeconomic trends?  Yep.

IMDUMBjohnjr [aside: self-awareness appears to be strong here] (3/5/15): Yeah, doesn’t explain the recession clinton and Cuomo put us in, but that isn’t fun for democrats to hear about is it?

Islamaphobia?  I thought you’d never ask.

glidepath (3/5/15): Oh, you mean the “prosperity” funded by stripping funds from our defense that allowed Islamic Terror to mushroom?

Sure.

Not all news is bad news, however.  Fortunately for all of us, CNN’s loyal readers have got the things that really matter covered.

The muse: “Why blue/black/gold/white dress went viral”
Thesis: Funny, positive, or awe-inspiring things tend to go viral ahead of hard news.
The Commentariat:  If aliens were kind of on the fence before about their chances to attack us and take over the world, the fact that everyone lost their collective minds over a dress has to make them a little more confident.  And suffice to say that the people who feel the pressing, urgent need to weigh in on the subject on the Internet do not help our cause.  Though the op-ed ostensibly discusses why people were so fascinated by the dress, the comments become the latest battleground for the opposite sides the in the blue/black vs. white/gold debate.
TheBlueDressCo [aside: we can only hope that this person created this account specifically to engage in this debate] (3/1/15): It’s obviously blue!

Let’s get a fuller explanation than that, please.

Esther Priyanka PremKumar (2/27/15): i resolved this

Well thank God for Esther, right? Please continue.

Esther Priyanka PremKumar (2/27/15): Initially I could see only White and Gold ,I was going crazy on how people are saying blue and black. So I opened the picture on my phone and I was tilting it in different angles and I could see blue and black. So I can see both combinations now. I am sitting on a couch with a tubleight on top of me , but behind. Because of the light reflection on my phone and an angle I see blue and black.

Well, I’m convinced.  Unless — counterpoint?

cboy619 (3/2/15): it looks totally white and gold to me.

Damn.  Unfortunately, and incredibly, it appears that our ragtag bunch of Internet commenter crackpot investigators will be unable to firmly resolve the color of the dress after all.  Cognizant of the fact that agreement appears impossible, others decided that more sweeping conclusions were likely appropriate.

Alan Douglas (3/1/15): At the same time, the dress whacks people in the face with the fact that THERE IS NO OBJECTIVE REALITY.
Whoa.  For others, the simple and entirely forgettable task of discerning the color of a particular dress quickly gets spiritual via a dizzying logic:
W. Allen (3/1/15): We can’t always rely on our senses and perceptions.  It isn’t until someone who knows the actual color of the dress reveals that truth to us, that we can know what is “right” and what is “wrong”.  In other words, it isn’t until an ultimate Truth Giver defines or reveals that truth to us, that we can know truth from falsehood.
Whoa.  Anyone else?
tooters (3/1/15): You can say whatever color you think or like. You can even say it’s red. It’s all up to you. You can tell people you’re wearing a red dress (but it’s actually a blue dress) and you feel great wearing a red dress. You can even say the sky is purple. It’s all up to you.
This flash-in-the-pan pop culture phenomenon means that color itself does not exist!  Got it.  The most eye-opening comments, though, as is so often the case in life, come to us via people who are clearly stoned in the middle of the day.
whatdoweknow (2/28/15): The dress looks blue to me.  The snow looks blue to me, too, today!  I guess it’s because the sky is blue and the sun is out.  I wonder if people who live in snowy areas see it differently than people who live in summer areas.
A fair amount of commenters, both on this article and in general, attempt to cast themselves as enlightened thinkers (please don’t shout “REDUNDANT,” you already did it once) who are well above the fray, but the problem is that these are the same people who spend an inordinate amount of their time telling total strangers on the Internet that they’re wasting they’re time and ares stupid for doing so.
Opus1999 (3/1/15): Nobody cares.
kishorgala (3/1/15): [The dress went viral] because we the Americans always think, worry more about things that don’t matter.
tochris (3/1/15): I’m out of here..going to clean my toilet, much productive than this silly topic.

Mighty is the modern urge to share one’s opinion in cyberspace, however, and even the most self-aware of all the haters will eventually succumb to the lowest common denominator.
MrsFizzy (3/2/15): The nation is losing its marbles. Dress is clearly blue/black.

So what to do with all of this, other than give up hope entirely by flinging your Internet-connected devices into the ocean and moving to a cozy yet well-appointed cabin in Montana?  Here are three simple suggestions:
  1. Are you considering writing comments on news articles?  
    Do not do this.  No good comes of this.  Step away from the keyboard.
  2. What about reading comments to gain perspectives on how people different from yourself view the world, thereby gaining a greater appreciation and understanding for alternative viewpoints and making yourself into a more informed global citizen?
    Yeah — great idea, noble cause, but poor execution.  Take a community college course or something instead.  There will be way fewer caps-locked citations to Wikipedia involved.
  3. Do you hate-read comments on news articles, purely for fun?
    If and only if you are able to do so without sarcastically engaging, and without allowing it to grab your attention at every time (note: I have obviously failed at this and have come to accept it), and without allowing it to slowly yet inexorably crush your faith in the human spirit, this is cautiously permissible.

Good luck out there.  And remember that if you ever find yourself in too deep, you know what to do.

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