Constant comments

A flap over a blog post rekindles the debate about online commenting.

Back on May 15, sci-fi author/film critic/thoughtful and entertaining American human being John Scalzi posted a think-piece entry titled “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” to his popular blog Whatever. Using the metaphor of life as a video game, he said basically that if you’re playing the game of life as a straight white male, then you’re playing on the easiest of the game’s available settings.

I found the piece clever. I also found Scalzi’s point sort of self-evident. Of course life is easier for straight white males. That’s why so many of them believe in God — so they have somebody to thank for being straight white males. I thought everybody knew that.

I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.

Scalzi goes out of his way at the beginning of his post to say he will avoid the touchy perceptions of the word “privilege” by not using it. Plenty of his readers inferred more than a whiff of those associations coming off of the piece, though, and the comments section quickly filled with hyperbolic protestations, convoluted rationalizations and bizarre allegations of racism. (At least a few people couldn’t even be bothered to look at any one of the many images on the site clearly showing Scalzi to be Caucasian.) The sheer volume of responses drew the attention of other sites, which linked to the piece and watched their own comments sections grow full of arguments, bile and the occasional well-reasoned reaction.

Most of the original post’s more abusive and idiotic responses were rightly deleted by Scalzi, who refers to extreme comment moderation as employing the “Mallet of Loving Correction.” The reaction also inspired a few follow-up posts, whose comment sections again required their own malletings. And in an ironic kind of circle of life, the malletings naturally precipitated a revisitation of Scalzi’s personal commenting policy, which, naturally, boils more or less down to “my house, my rules.”

The furor over the piece has, in typical Internet fashion, rapidly exhausted its half-life. What goes on, however, is the never-ending side argument Scalzi’s post rekindled over commenting itself.

The discussion of online commenting never completely quiets down. It may drop below the web’s threshold for constant attention for months at a time. But recent changes to the comment systems at huge Internet destinations like the Gawker blog family and the apparent acceptance of the word “troll” into mainstream online engagement lent ample warning that the debate was bubbling up again. And Scalzi’s piece has provided a catalyst for a renewed interest in commenting on commenting. Is it a right, or a privilege? Do authors, bloggers, celebrities and everyone else hosting a site have a responsibility to provide their readers with a forum for response? With all the illiterate, misinformed and downright venomous troglodytes haunting the Internet, is it even worth it anymore?

At the end of the day, it’s up to the host. No one who builds a home online should feel obligated to invite people in when they’re pretty sure most of the guests are planning to shit on the carpet. But those who do let both the right and the wrong ones in, do it because, at the end of the day, they’re hoping for more than proof that somebody stopped by. They’re hoping for ideas, discourse, engagement.

And if they’ve gotta keep the steam cleaner — or the mallet — at the ready, then so be it.

I do think we should make people do just a bit more to earn their opportunity to speak, though. Somebody needs to design a more robust version of that security software that makes you type in the letters before your comment goes through. It should ask a randomly generated common-knowledge question, or even one related to the site’s theme, that each would-be commenter must answer correctly on the first try in order to have his or her comment considered for publication.

I figure if you want to call me a racist impotent socialist hypocrite bastard who would only have intercourse with communist livestock were I even slightly able to get it up, you should have to tell my website who sang “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” first.

Read more Scott Harrell at lifeasweblowit.com and dailyloafblog.com. Follow him at twitter.com/lifeasweblowit.

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