There is a problem in the comments section and I’m certain you’ve noticed it too. For some, these spaces provide a unique opportunity to learn amongst peers and contribute to a wider conversation. For others, it’s simply a place to vent and rage without accountability. Like the bathroom wall of a karaoke joint. Throw something up there because you can, who cares, right?

Just a few days ago a commenter started his message by stating proudly that he hadn’t even read my essay. He’d just seen the title and felt emboldened to act, based on the assumption that I’d probably missed a point which he alone could elucidate. He guessed, probably after peeping my avatar, that this young brown femme writer couldn’t possibly have a thorough understanding of such complex subject matter — red lip, smooth brain, right? Unfortunately for this hero, I had made his point. We can only imagine how embarrassed he might have been if only he’d had the shred of self-awareness necessary for such emotions.

If your bad behavior embarrasses you, congratulations, you can be saved.

I will say that something was refreshing about that commenter’s honesty. In an ocean of individuals spouting off in the response section, many haven’t read the work, but few are bold enough to admit it. On occasion — many — I’ve gone through the effort of pulling quotes from a piece that illuminate the very point that some aggrieved party has just boldly declared I’d missed. Even then most commenters will continue to deny having skimmed or scrolled right through the piece to the response section. Instead, they’ll often choose to argue that their lack of reading comprehension is rooted in the fact, not the unbiased opinion, that I’m just some dumb bitch. From there the conversation devolves quickly.

However, the very fact that these individuals feel compelled to gaslight, curse out, or straight up delete entire conversations to save face means that they, unlike our friend from earlier, are capable of feeling embarrassed. That in itself fills me with hope because if your bad behaviour embarrasses you, congratulations, you can be saved.

I wrote this little number to provide a path for those of you who habitually show up in the comments section as the most obnoxious, entitled, and petty versions of yourself. This simple three-step journey, if you choose to take it, will allow you to engage with the work and with your fellow readers more fruitfully. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I truly believe that it’s possible for you to stop being a self-absorbed, reactive commenter and to start being a receptive, insightful contributor to conversations that don’t completely revolve around you.

Good luck my friend.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

1. Decenter yourself

This is where you remind yourself that the writer probably doesn’t know you and that no one is talking about you personally unless they say your name. Even then, I’d take a minute to consider the likelihood that there’s another Leigh Green out there who just messed up big.

The idea of decentering comes up constantly in conversations about privilege. When Black writers compose essays criticizing white supremacy the comments section is usually overflowing with variations of the following response, from non-black POC and white readers: “Another black person blaming me for their problems. I’ve never even owned a slave and my dog is black! So, stop calling me a bad person!”

Voila. Just like that, a complex conversation about a global issue is reduced beyond all recognition; into something petty, pointless, and small.

The only time your feelings should come up in the comments section is when they are being observed critically.

If I assumed every essay or book about colourism was some sort of personal attack, then it would be really difficult for me to learn anything about the subject. I wouldn’t be absorbing information or empathizing with sources while reading. I would be far too busy composing a defence for myself. After all, I don’t go out into the world intending to harm or devalue other people. I didn’t create the value system of race or choose my skin tone. I didn’t do any of it. So, why should I have to feel bad about it?

When I enter this reactive space it’s usually best to forego the commentary and take a step back. I might close my laptop and have a chat with my sister. Or take a walk around the block for some fresh air. Those feelings deserve to be processed, safely examined, and released. But they shouldn’t take up space in a conversation about a body of work. The only time your feelings should come up in the comments section is when they are being observed critically. When you’re interrogating those feelings about the discussion.

“This subject makes me feel bad” or “I hated this essay,” says nothing about the subject and everything about the reader. A better question could be: “This subject forced me to confront [deeply ingrained belief] is anyone else experiencing this and how are y'all navigating those feelings?”

The latter represents a contribution to a wider discussion. The former is, at best, a temper tantrum.

2. Read the piece

Read it all. Read it twice. Then maybe once more. There is a massive comprehension issue throughout the commenting community. When reading critically, or reading at all, it helps to keep a notepad nearby. There you can track your questions during the first read-through so that during the second you can check them off if/when the author answers them.

I can always tell when a reader has taken their time with a piece. Their questions and comments are far more interesting than the speed readers, who tend to patronize and misrepresent essays that they didn’t even read in the first place. Yuck.

Those with genuine questions are consistently drowned out in the comments section by the least curious minds.

Clearly, I’m still peeved, but this isn’t just about me being annoyed. Speed reading eliminates the ability to capture the nuance of a piece, to entertain its complexity. Skimmers are just catching buzz words and incomplete sentiments, searching for the smallest opportunity to jump in and give their opinion. They don’t enter a conversation to listen and learn, they come in to dominate. To plant their flag in the middle of the discussion before scampering off into the sunset. These guys — mostly guys — are genuinely exhausting. Don’t be them.

If your response is based on a speed read you are just reacting to a piece, which is fundamentally different from engaging with one. Engagement requires careful attention and allows for the possibility that you might actually learn something.

It's disheartening that those with genuine questions are consistently drowned out in the comments section by the least curious minds. There’s unlimited potential for growth in the painstakingly assembled words of another. However, that potential is only accessible if you approach those words with a willingness to fully absorb them and if you allow for the possibility that you might actually be transformed by them.

The only way to do that is to actually read them.

3. Read the other comments.

This is one I struggle with. I tend to think that I am very important — gross but true. I worry that if I don’t pose a relevant question or present a textually unexamined point then no one will! Before I start panic drafting, I find it helpful to read through the other comments. I start at the beginning and usually discover pretty quickly that someone else has made my point for me. Often, they’ve received a response or several. Then I have a choice. If I still have something to offer, I can contribute to that existing discussion. If I don’t, I can just relax and leave the conversation. Content in the assurance that I am not as unique and necessary as my ego likes to insist I am. *Whew*

I know that many commenters on this platform are hoping for a personal response from the author. As a writer myself, I can tell you that it’s unlikely you’ll get that response if you’re the 50th person asking the same question. Not to mention that those redundancies make it hard for the people actually looking for answers to find them. You’ve become the internet equivalent of those kids in class who waste lecture time asking questions that have already been covered in the syllabus.

If an answer really is more important to you than that adrenaline shot of attention, it’s far more practical to dive into the comments. Your answer is probably in there. If it’s not, or if somebody has already asked your question but not received a reply, then, by all means, try again. But, if you’re the 3rd+ person asking and the author remains mum, they’ve likely decided not to engage. Which is well within their rights even if it’s disappointing to you.

Silver lining! If you still have questions you can consult the entire world of the internet for answers! You can read a few other essays and even settle into a topic by reading a couple of books! Then you can write your own well-researched essay and leave it as a resource for other curious minds! Who knows, maybe you can publish it yourself and make a few bucks.

Your options are endless.

And that's that. If you run through these steps before you press post, or publish, you’ll be bringing a whole new you into the comments section! A version of yourself that is thoughtful, receptive, and actually has something to offer. I’m so proud of that theoretical entity already.

Fellow writers, and already respectful commenters, I’m hoping this essay will save you some time so that you can continue doing good work without sifting through as much detritus.

Like what you read?