Is the Internet killing us? I’ve thought about this frightening question often, especially lately with the seemingly endless abuses that online trolls — whom Marc Maron has dubbed “unfuckable hate nerds” — continue to dish out to suspecting and unsuspecting targets on the Net. While it’s easy enough to rush to the defense of those who love to comment on anything online, by using the amateurish “First Amendment” trope, what has been the consequence to our humanity from the endless amount of puerile and truculent hate speech that has become part of our daily Internet lives? Where did this interest in commenting on other people’s business come from, and what does it say about us that it’s easy as pie to do so in a space where anonymity rules?
These questions and more form the basis for Joseph M. Reagle Jr.’s cogent and outstanding new work, Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web. Reagle, an assistant professor of communication studies at Boston’s Northeastern University, is a self-confessed nerd, obsessed with technology, pop culture, and media, whose blog is a delight for technophiles. His exhaustive and constantly updated blog is a delight for technophiles; a recent post, for example, was titled “Nerd vs. ‘bro’: Geek privilege, triumphalism, and idiosyncrasy”.
Reading the Comments is one of the extremely rare volumes that satisfies both the needs of academics and the general public. It could easily be an assigned reading in courses on web development, technology, history, psychology, child development, computer science, sociology, political science, philosophy/theory, and communication. But it could just as easily be read by the casual reader, albeit one who already has a baseline interest in the subject matter. According to the author,
“This book isn’t about the future of Twitter, blogs, or YouTube, but it is about comment in the age of the web … Similarly, it’s not about how social media have transformed politics, journalism, or global relations. This book is about the stuff in the margins — the things that ordinary people encounter in daily life.”
Reagle’s exhaustive methodology provides an interview-based, content-analysis focused kind of neo-ethnography of the Internet itself, as if it were some sort of macro-level colony, and colonies of reviewers, fan fiction authors, Facebook and Twitter users, etc. Instead of just glancing over the surface, he becomes a 21st-century muckraker and pierces the heart of the Internet, not as a journalist, but as a philosopher-archeologist. If Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle gave us a glance at the inimical nature of social media via Orwell’s idea of “groupthink”, then Reagle is taking us even deeper into this question of why it is that we love to comment on anything and everything. In his words, “insight and wisdom might not always be found at the bottom half of the Web, but it does have a sample of what some people are thinking, right or wrong, offensive or trite.”
Yet, this book is much, much more than just a conversation and Internet lover’s lament about the advent of what scholar Emma Jane has referred to as “e-bile”. It’s an exploration of comments “as a genre of communication” and covers damn near every possible aspect of comments including the history of rating systems (Michelin, Zagat, Yelp!); CAPTCHA; online dating; Amazon’s mTurk; cybersecurity; reputation management services; Facebook algorithms; Likert scales; review duplication; and spam (a la Monty Python).
Along the way, I picked up an impressive new vocabulary including phrases like “concrit”, “trollplex”, “sporking”, “doxing” and “bashtags”, and concepts such as “preferential attachment”, “Dunbar’s number”, and perhaps most importantly, “intimate serendipity. According to Reagle, “intimate serendipity” is a type of goal of self-realization and seeking where Internet users are always looking for an online space to call their own. It is, in essence, the driving force behind the constant creation of new online spaces for users to claim for themselves, even as their old sites are overrun with trolls, and other manipulators. Analogous to James Madison’s famous comments in “Federalist No. 10” that if people are given the liberty to associate with others, they will likely form factions, Reagle argues that commenting systems will forever be attempting to fortify themselves against abuse … [and] new commenting platforms will continue to appear as people will move in search of intimate serendipity.”
I take rating and reviewing very seriously, but for the first time since I started writing for PopMatters in 2009, I really reflected on what the star system meant (it ranges from “Terrible” (1/10) to “The Best of the Best” (10/10). This is, in essence, that feature of Reagle’s writing that is the most compelling; he frustrates the reader, but not because his prose or attitude is irritating, but rather because he asks the questions that none of us are willing to do when we willfully (and perhaps woefully) underestimate the power of social media.
The only criticism I can offer Reagle is one of organization. While he makes occasional reference to the rise in online trolling, and offers his own theories and those of others from time to time, there’s no focused and extended discussion in the book about this issue. Early in the book, for example, he references Facebook’s decision to only allow users to post with their real names, which is ostensibly a good thing, but he doesn’t explain enough why the use of names doesn’t really appear to thwart anyone from saying how they feel. Later, he mentions that one feature of Web 2.0 culture, as well as the whole gamut of texting and instant messaging, is that “we miss the social cues, content, and information that normally are relied on to regulate interpersonal exchanges.” Still later, he says, “What is unique in the age of the Web is that people can comment from the living room, office, and street via clicks, text, images, audio, and video. This enables a degree of ubiquity and scale never seen before.” But there doesn’t seem to be any connection between these random observations. I would have liked to see a theory section where he looked just at this specific question, which despite the outpouring of ideas, continues to baffle everyone.
In his conclusion to Reading the Comments, Reagle offers a series of questions to ponder. One of those really got me thinking: “Can we learn to occasionally step away from it all?” Every generation is confronted with a technological innovation that changes the mode and method of communication in a lasting and permanent way. But has there ever been anything as quite as omnipotent as the advent of the Internet and its influence on every aspect of our lives, as well as the lives of almost everyone on the planet? While Reagle has only tackled a particular aspect of the Internet, his intense and thorough investigation of the history of comments should give all of us pause for concern over this leviathan that is as much our enemy as it is our creation.