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Do We Still Need Comments?

They're a powerful tool, but very easy to abuse—as the recent controversy over Genius annotations shows.


The internet is a feedback loop. It’s a room full of empty white boxes, forever asking what do you think? Its backbone is online chatter; the clamor can occasionally deafen.

Which is why it was strange that a service dedicated to annotating articles online, Genius, recently caused a brief uproar. The site began as a way to add explanations to rap lyrics, but they’ve branched out—now, if you’re a registered user, you can annotate any article by adding a prefix before the URL. In its new flagship product, News Genius, the site shows it believes adding marginalia to the top stories of the day is integral to the future of journalism. But some, like Massachusetts Congressional Representative Katherine Clarke, instead saw the potential for harassment and abuse.

This begs the question: Now that everyone’s online, and the web is an essential part of modern life, is unfettered feedback still a good thing? If that anxiety feels a bit Web 2.0, it’s because annotations are the next evolution of the comment section. When the web was still at the fringes of society, comments could sometimes feel liberating; they were a chance for ordinary people to express their voices. It was easier, too, when it was roughly the same type of person on the internet—people with a pronounced interest in technology and the means to get online. Now that more than 3 billion people can take to Facebook or Twitter or any number of platforms to debate anything, feedback is decidedly less revolutionary—and it can quickly turn malicious, as in the case of Gamergate.

Hence the hand-wringing over annotations. With Genius, you can annotate any webpage you’d like; it’s almost as if the company is saying no one really asked for your opinion, but here’s a way to give it anyway. Genius also allows for granular reactions—line-by-line breakdowns of how an argument is constructed, critiques of grammar or style, or fastidious analysis of statistics and supporting points. It seems designed to offer criticism in the most targeted, fastidious, pedantic way.

Another question, then: Who is Genius for? In theory, it’s equally inviting to professional and amateur critics. As a structure for criticism, though, the service seems designed to foster an ego-driven approach—which finds its purest expression in takedowns—in part because it will get shared the most. It’s a drive-by forum. Just as blogs once trafficked in “fisking”, the point-by-point critique of another’s post, Genius seeks to return to that sort of exhaustive (and exhausting) critical method. Our problem is not that there’s too little criticism, but that there’s now too much of it.

It is difficult to understand why, in 2016, Genius is necessary. It’s true that the exchange of ideas is a cherished democratic ideal. But the line between pundit and pedant is a thin one, and is perhaps made thinner by the reach and pace of the web. What’s more: To those who are already relentlessly criticized in comments and on social media, Genius’s granular focus can itself feel threatening—as though commenters already have bats, and someone handed them knives. 

So much of digitally inflected culture beckons a response. We oblige, responding to abstract questions posed by those white boxes—“What are you doing?” and “What’s on your mind?”—because the most basic, human thing to do is to say something out loud and hope for a reaction. There is, despite the protestations of Descartes, no self without the Other. That simple fact is the basis of every social network, from the now obsolete MySpace to Nintendo’s just-released social network Miitomo.

All the same, what starts out as a desire to be heard often quickly morphs into an unreasonably angry demand to be recognized—to inflict a response rather than hope for a reaction. To put an opinion online is indivisible from ego, and, as any therapist can tell you, it is possible to have too much or too little of it. Genius seems destined to favor those with too much. Want to show off how devastatingly smart you are by taking down someone else? Genius is the tool you need. In fact, the entire reason Genius was in the news was because one of its employees took to critiquing personal blogs—a particularly Web 1.0 abuse of power. 

An ongoing difficulty with the internet is that you can often find yourself in a situation where there is an excess of ostensibly useful things. In the case of feedback, there are sometimes too many opinions, too many egos, too many people to respond to, and too many ways to react. Genius provokes anxiety because it’s an answer to a question no one asked, and also because it is poised to enable the very worst commenters. In a society where a surfeit of criticism is the norm, constructing a new community around just that seems pointless, and perhaps even insidious—as if the aim isn’t actually the exchange of ideas, but a way to bolster the egos of those doing the annotating.