‘Leave your comments in the section below’ is the sign off that Internet sensation Ray William Johnson uses every time he posts a new YouTube video (every Tuesday, incase you were wondering). It’s a function that’s used across a variety of Internet sites from those full of fodder like 4chan and Reddit, right up to our print media heavyweights like Sydney Morning Herald or The Daily Telegraph. The comments section allows for the average joe to have their say on the articles they’ve just read – in effect it entitles everyone to an opinion in the public sphere that is created. But should everyone really be entitled to their opinion? Does having a comment section allow for a more democratic approach to the Internet – individualising its members as well as the various factions of society? Or is it just a playground for unmoderated and, quite frankly, inane ramblings that are actually detracting from the debate at hand?
Lets take something like YouTube – I typed in David Attenborough, assuming that the comments should be as educational as his documentaries are. Here’s the top two:
This is completely unsurprising, being an avid YouTube user the sort of dribble that gets posted in the comments section is always the same. But what if YouTube had set up the comment function as a way to find out consumer preferences for their videos, or if BBC was monitoring the comments made on their videos in order to create better documentaries for us as the consumers? The problem here for these media corporations, that are seeking to utilise this online dialogue, is how do they begin to sift through the helpful and unhelpful comments? The fact of the matter is that it is an impossible feat, which makes me question the real usefulness of allowing respondents to comment at all.
And this brings me to my title, ‘sorry, you’re not entitled to your own opinion’, with the qualification that an opinion may be allowed if it is informed and can be backed up. There is a difference between blindly assuming that what you’re saying is correct because it’s simply what you believe, and in having a particular view on a contentious issue that is supported by strong evidence that you’re right in having such a belief. Some great debates have come from the ability to comment on posts, with some bringing insightful ideas to the table even for the person who created the original content. What is needed is a way to moderate these debates so that they are fair and worthwhile in contribution – and this can only be achieved by either greater regulation of online content or through the various media platforms establishing their own systems of control (e.g. through the use of up or down voting of comments). If this occurs, there is no reason why the comments section can’t be used to further democratic ideas of free speech.