In February 2023 I did an experiment. I was annoyed with how much time I was spending on forum sites and generally reading comments, so I decided to go cold turkey. I wanted to know what it would be like to excise comments from my life for a month, so I did that.
I didn't use any browser plugins or anything like that to hide comments. I relied on my willpower to avoid comment sections of every site I visited (the lone excepion was my fediverse site, which is low-volume enough that it didn't make much of a difference anyway). This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought since comments are everywhere now (presumably to 'drive engagement', which is code for 'getting visitors to stick around so we can show them more ads'). I faltered. A lot. Lots of what passes for articles on websites now flow seamlessly into their comment sections, so it was very easy to let my guard down for a second, sail past the end of the article and land in a sea of comments before I realized what was happening. I also discovered that I had apparently been conditioned to want to know the reactions that other readers had to whatever it is that I was looking at. Do they mirror my reactions? Are they different? Did the author say something completely wrong and is getting corrected by the peanut gallery? Did the discussion drift off on a tangent that is more interesting than the article was?
When I started this experiment and the effort to avoid comments was at its highest, not acknowledging the comments sections felt weird. It took a while to identify why, but everything seemed off somehow. What I started to realize is that I was reading comments more than I was reading anything useful. I was more interested in what people had to say about the thing I read instead of the thing I read. I started to realize that I had been conditioned to skim the article and head to the comments looking for the reactions. I didn't even have to participate in the discussions, I just had to find someone that posted something close enough to what I would have posted if I actually did particpate and I was satisfied. And if I didn't find it, I thought about what I would discuss, but then didn't bother posting it because that would take more effort than I wanted to give (and I don't need to create another account on another website, I have enough usernames and passwords, thanks).
The first week or so was the hardest, breaking old habits takes a lot of up-front effort. But it did eventually get easier. (I've read that it takes 21 days or so for something to become a habit, and this tracks pretty well with my experience during this experiment.)
Comments are everywhere. The internet has become a gigantic forum. Comment sections are on nearly every page of every site. If a site doesn't have comments, it probably has what I call comment sections by proxy (i.e. a subreddit, or every post gets submitted to a news aggregator). I explored this recently, and I didn't like what I found.
I wrote that article because I was exploring my own relationship with the Internet and its forumication. I realized that comment sections embedded in websites are almost always completely useless. Someone will probably point out that comment sections have uses. They can use the article ('article' in this case can mean: article, YouTube video, podcast episode, or any other kind of thing that you do online) as a jumping-off point to start a discussion, the comments can point out flaws in the original article, they can be a direct line to the creator of a thing to let them know what the audience at large thinks of the thing. Sure, those things can happen. Most comment sections aren't like that. Most comment sections are just murmurations.
This is the part where I'm expected to say that avoiding comment sections did wonders for me. I'm supposed to say how much time that I got back, how much better my mental health is, how much time I was able to spend on projects since I was no longer wallowing in multi-hundred-comment threads. And some of that did happen, but it wasn't a profound difference. I did discover that I felt different. The experiment ended before I could figure out for sure if it was a better different, but it probably was.
The experiment ended on February 28th. I started writing this article on March 1st or so, but I didn't come back to it until June. Opting out of comment sections, even the few that I actively participated in, seems to have changed something in my brain. Maybe it's been changed back to what it was before comment sections dominated every corner of our online lives. But when I let myself check comment sections again, it didn't provide the same feeling. I no longer feel compelled to scour comment sections looking for hot takes, I no longer feel the need to spend an afternoon carefully reading 500 comments about anything, I no longer feel the need to point out that someone made an error in their argument (that's not true, I still feel the need, I just don't act on it very often). I even took a longer-than-intended break from updating this blog because I felt like me writing a blog was a distantly-related form of commenting.
I'm slowly easing back into it. Please bear with me.