I have a confession to make. I read the comments. Actually, it’s worse than that. I don’t just read the comments, I enjoy reading the comments. I’ve been getting paid to write on the Internet for more than 15 years, and you, Ungentle Reader—yes, you, the one who used to write “More liberal claptrap!” under my articles and now writes “tl;dr” and “Do you even game, bro?” instead—you are the wind beneath my wings. I’m not joking.
My faith is often tested, I admit. Last week, a reader spuriously accused me of plagiarism (for saying that jumping across the Thames River in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is reminiscent of Frogger). Another time, my Twitter mentions became unusable for several hours because some Gamergaters got momentarily confused (about exactly when I gave a few dollars to a writer on Patreon). Incidents like these waste my time, make me angry, and leave me spent.
On their better days, though, readers have buoyed me through a rough patch, like the time they sent me grateful emails at the end of a grueling presidential campaign a decade ago. They’ve made my work better. They point out mistakes, allowing me to correct the record quickly. They bring me new information without making me work for it. They make smart observations and post them in a place where I will see them and learn from them. Even when I think an avalanche of commenters are being willfully obtuse or otherwise missing the point, I wonder if a lot of negative feedback is a sign that I could have written a better story. I should have made my point more clearly, or rebutted an obvious counterargument.
Even you—yes, you, I’m talking to you, the one who is scrolling past this paragraph without looking at it on your way to make fun of a story I wrote 10 days ago that you didn’t read, either—are a shot of dopamine into my writer-brain, evidence that I exist and am not hurling this page of pixels and letters into the void.
I know good writers who hate commenters, who don’t read comments, who are paralyzed by the anonymous insults and hate speech that have been part of Internet graffiti for as long as I can remember. I don’t think they should be forced to read the comments. It’s true that, on the rare occasions when I am mistaken for a woman—rarer still now that my byline is accompanied by powerful evidence of my handsomeness—the mockery and vitriol increase.
It’s also true, I think, that social media has made comments worse, by making it easier to summon an army of politically motivated users who don’t read the article and aren’t interested in engaging with it or with other readers. These are the drive-by shooters of online conversation. Still, it’s not like I’ve never fired off an angry email to a reporter or columnist, or tweeted something intemperate about an article I didn’t like.
Readers sometimes resent writers because they are right to resent us! Writers occupy positions of power and authority (Write Privilege?), even if our salaries don’t indicate that. We are underpaid because there are too many of us, and there are too many of us because there are people who want our jobs and will do them for less money. They do the work for free. I yelled at play-by-play announcer Joe Buck, and tweeted about Joe Buck, throughout the baseball playoffs that just ended. (Go Royals.) He is still much better at his job than I would be. I’m still allowed to resent him.
The reader is not always right. (I’m the one getting paid here, remember?) Even so, readers who complain are often right about something. The next time my blood pressure rises from reading something one of you write—and I do read them all, really—I’ll remind myself of something Nate Wells, now an art director at Crystal Dynamics, once told me. I was reporting a story for Wired about BioShock Infinite, and he was trying to explain how Irrational Games used player feedback from focus groups. The quote didn’t make the story, but I’ve repeated it again and again in the years since, so it probably should have.
You have to separate their need, he said, from their bad suggestions.
I’ll see you downstairs.
Illustration by Jim Cooke