On 31st October 1517, a German Christian monk and academic did the unthinkable. He wanted to debate the Roman Catholic Church, the highest power of that time, on some of its practices. Being a meticulous professor, he made detailed notes on his radical propositions. He not only sent a letter of his theses to the Archbishop of the Holy Roman Empire, but also nailed it to the door of Wittenberg castle church.
In short, he created tremors in the order of 9.0 Richter’s scale.
His ideas quickly spread like a wild fire across Europe and gained popularity among the masses. It became apparent that he believed the church was not preaching properly and that it put the believers and people in danger. A few viewed his using the academic nature of the Theses as a cover to allow him to attack beliefs while being able to deny that he intended to attack church teaching.
This was the earliest recorded history of seeking commentary on one’s ideas and one that led to a controversial revolution in Christianity. The 95 Theses by Luther Martin, his commentary on the church’s practices, played a pivotal role in shaping a new sect called the Protestants.
Back then, it wasn’t easy to share opinions. The only way academics could share was by posting it in public spaces and that almost always earned them the ire of the ruling power. During the age of the printing press, we had scientists and thoughtful journalists, carefully steering the public discourse of the world.
Today, if you have a good internet connection and the good fortune of literacy, commentary invariably becomes your part-time gig. You can find a niche and even make a living out of it.
These acts of verbal rebellion have plenty of outlets powered by the internet that go by names like “Letters to the Editor” , “Memos”, “Retweet with comments” and the Internet’s favourite: “Comments Section.”
All the world’s a platform. And all men and women are merely commentators.
A writing that neither seeks nor receives comments reduces itself to a passionate soliloquy. A personal diary that draws no praise or dissent from the public eye. A bathroom singing that nobody wants to tune into.
That’s the kind of writing that doesn’t change the world or anything you know about it.
Reading is a form of brainwashing. The easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading and being brainwashed. The hardest one is to leave a comment. A micro-success that every writer discreetly covets.
So it’s a writing that is subject to constant commentary that has a shot to change the world.
With unprecedented access to discover (read) and invent (write) information, new kinds of professionals have emerged who try and alter our lived realities. They optimise for clicks, play status games and cause several cracks in the fabric of our society.
They aren’t journalists or authors. They’re just commentators, like you and me, many without an identity. It’s how they seek a high on the internet. It’s a new kind of opium.
Skip comments is what people say. Think about it though.
When was the last time you bought something on Amazon ignoring the reviews? How often do you watch a YouTube video without scrolling to see the funniest comment? Would you dismiss reading replies to a viral tweet? Algorithms are designed to bubble content that is actively commented upon to the top of your news feed. So you’re left with no choice.
The order of the internet is ruled by comments.
The internet has also invented miserly shorthands for comments in the name of likes, reactions and GIFs. It is the standing ovation of the lazy literates. The monthly targets of brand strategists. These aren’t good measures of a work’s influence.
The true indicator of success for a published work in today’s world lies in its ability to engender more written content. In that sense, the first comment crowns a lone nut (like yours truly) into a real writer.
As much as comments help initiate a dialogue, they turn into sewers collecting anonymous trolls, mansplains, propaganda, hate speech, marketing gimmicks and a shelter for the -ists of the world.
They provide facile explanations to complex topics, hacking our subconscious with their hidden agendas, priming our mind voice to think in 280 characters, and baiting us with the promise of panacea through constant consumption. The act of commenting has become second nature to us that we take them for granted without knowing the power they wield.
The influence of inflammatory comments can have far reaching consequences in public policy and mental health. You know there’s a problem when young people commit suicide for hateful comments online and there are gullible consumers who make purchase decisions going by fake Amazon reviews. Many prominent internet publications such as the Vice, NPR and the Atlantic have closed off their comments section citing to choose respectful and intelligent arguments with long-form writing while social media companies are investing in developing comment quality signals.
The ubiquity of reactionary engines results in a whole range of questions on content moderation and propagation of misinformation. It’s bound to be one of the biggest problems that internet companies will grapple in the coming years.