So, the other day, after writing “Dear Netflix,” I forwarded it along to Mike at Hacking Netflix in the interests of mutual back-scratchery. He ran an except from my post — essentially a never-gonna-happen argument that Netflix could use reviews and content to enhance its business — but, reading his excerpt, what got to me were the comments on the piece, which served as just another reminder of why I hate the goddamn internet, and which filled me with a deep and soul-crushing depression that I needed to turn into this brief blast of anger.
Commenting is supposed to be the vital lifeblood of the web, the straw that stirs the drink of conversation, the lively salon of ideas in the public sphere. But, really, it isn’t, any more than prison is an exciting social milieu full of new occasions. One time out of a hundred, a comment is interesting — a civil contribution, a brilliant counter-argument, a salient fact, a pertinent point. The other 99 times?
1. It’s commentary offered by people who didn’t even read the goddamn article in the first place. At hacking Netflix, someone named ‘Me’ noted that my piece was “ummmm … disgruntled former employee ruminations.” Well, if you read the piece, there’ s no rancor or venom in it at all, and it’s coming from a cheerful place of wanting Netflix — ” a company full of people and principles I like,” as the piece says — to succeed; I’m gruntled as hell, “me,” and you didn’t even read a measly thousand words before running your mouth.
2. It’s willfully and grimly anti-intellectual. Now, these examples are specifically about the piece I wrote, but you don’t have to dig too hard to find similar ideas in any comment area. “Things” posted, at Hacking Netflix, his take on the idea of Netflix having content and curation: “No. Movie reviewers, more often than not, try to sound like ultra intelectuals (sic) and are so wordy you can’t tell what they truly thought of movies.” And “Amanda” notes “I don’t pay much attention to professional reviews, anyway. It means much more to me to hear what people like me, people I know, genuinely think about a movie experience than what some guy who is paid for a review wants me to think.”
I hear this a lot. A lot. And you know what? America has always had a strong strain of know-nothing hard-headedness — I don’t need no fancy-lad tellin’ me what to think! — but the fricking internet has turned that cold into a cancer. People who say they don’t read reviews, essentially, are saying “I do not want to risk being exposed to any idea I have not already had, or any fact I did not already know; I don’t want to risk reading a well-crafted sentence, nor do I want to endanger my currently-held ideas and opinions by exposing them to any counter-argument.” And that’s not just on-line, these days. It’s in book shops, in theaters, on radio stations, everywhere. And our culture, as it is organized now (and such as it is) makes it all the more likely that you don’t have to read anything you don’t want to, or that doesn’t conform to your world view or your tastes. (This is why I miss getting The Sunday Times — not because it delivered information, but, even better, because it delivered random, quality information. You don’t get that online, really, and it’s a shame.)
Or, as Harold Ramis said in an interview with The Believer (that fricking fancy-lad Bible):
Harold Ramis: I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”
The Believer: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?
Ramis: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?
3. It’s anonymous. And this is why internet comments are ultimately useless — because, as anyone can tell you, people behave differently when you don’t know who they are. And I know there’s an argument for anonymity on the internet — LGBT youth in isolated and homophobic communities, whistle-blowers, and so on — but really, most commenters on the internet aren’t trying to blow the lid off of The China Syndrome or hide from gay-bashing jerks; they’re just rude, and ignorant, and they’re rude and ignorant because they know they don’t have to say who they are. I think that a site should make its own decision to allow anonymous commenters, sure — but that no site should allow anonymous commenters unless it’s a pure, real necessity. Because most of the time, it isn’t.
And it’s because internet commenters are either lazy, cowardly or stupid that I find myself relying on Twitter more and more. I disagree with lots of people in my Twitter feed — @jenyamato didn’t want to vomit from the Justin Bieber film, @mtgilchrist actually liked Tron: Legacy, @MarkReardonKMOX has a political sensibility so opposite to mine I’m amazed we don’t explode when we shake hands — but they are polite, and articulate and, please note, saying what they do under their real names. I think I’ve given up on internet comments about the things I write — reading them or caring about them — unless they’re from people who use their real names. Otherwise, it’s just opening up your life and brain to too much negativity and stupidity.
Does this sound elitist? I’m sure it does. But, to paraphrase what Tom Tomorrow once said, if ‘elitist’ is how you say ‘not the dumbest melonfarmer in the room,’ then I’ll take that. I’m a grownup. I put my name on what I say. And if you can’t do that, or can’t get why that matters in an age of willful stupidity and inhuman rudeness, then, really, who cares what you bellow from your rotten, wounded, idiot heart?
- James Rocchi