Updated: Sep 26, 2020
Those of you who follow my YouTube or SoundCloud accounts will notice that I no longer allow comments on any of my recordings. Reading here, you'll also notice the same applies for this blog. I've gradually observed the effect comments have on online platforms. While positive comments may be flattering, they do little to effectively sell the work to others. Meanwhile negative comments very often have malignant effects beyond a simple "thumbs-down." Here I'll attempt to explain my resulting decision.
I've been following the trend in our broader social sphere of increased division and intolerance. In my reasoning, because of a group atrophy of our ability to process and productively handle disagreement, we have begun to treat such disagreement as synonymous with offense. As a destructive result of this logical failure, free speech has become muddled with hate speech. Its application in society is that liberalism has covertly embraced illiberalism. In an illiberal echo chamber we are removed from compromise and growth.
To explain my perspective on comments I will illustrate the example of a typical journalistic op-ed (on a typical online platform that allows comments below the article). In this op-ed, a writer expresses an opinion on some pertinent topic. I, the reader, am engaged in a one-on-one interaction with the writer as I respond intellectually and emotionally to the article's content. I may agree or I may disagree, but it makes me think—though I cannot respond to the writer in speech, I can dialogue with my thoughts.
This only holds up as long as I ignore the comments section.
The comments section of any online post is, in my opinion, more akin to a group discussion than a list of many individual responses. The public visibility of each comment as well as the shared ability to respond publicly to any comment both ensure the former over the latter. Commenters' contributions tend to either form a consensus for or against the article, or fall into an endless fray of anonymous arguments and insults. The latter is destructive and useless. The former, however, is much more dangerous.
Say, for example, that a journalist has outlined in an op-ed his stance against abortion. I have read the article, and I either find that I agree with his argument or I disagree with it. Perhaps I agree but find his argument insufficient and ponder my own ways to improve it. Regardless, by the end I have internally engaged in the debate and, if I have kept an open mind, I am more broadly well-educated for my efforts.
This is the ideal. Comments, however, instruct the reader how to think. Here's why I believe that:
Have you ever read a piece that resonated with you? Perhaps it's an argument you've tried to make to a friend but haven't found the right words until a trained writer or thinker finally gave them to you. It's empowering; it's as if this writer has helped make you into a stronger fighter for your beliefs. In this hypothetical, imagine then that you scroll below to see that many commenters outright condemn the writer's argument as weak, offensive, careless, or a variety of other adjectives. What would your immediate emotional response be? Personally I often find myself doubting my reactions; my own internal debate with this author, based only on the evidence of a group consensus that suggests I am an outlier. Obviously this could happen in the reverse as well—An article in which you passionately debate the author's assertions only to find in the comments a unilateral support for their words.
This doubt is unhealthy. It encourages conformity, and encourages censorship of personal honesty. In effect, it is illiberal.
In my experience I have never seen evidence that a flattering comment on my YouTube video has convinced someone else to try my music. However I have been on the receiving end of negative comments, almost always using the video as an incidental platform to attack my character. Someone who visits to listen to my piece and then, halfway through a meaningful experience, reads a comment in which someone called me a derogatory term will risk having the purity of their impression tainted just as strongly as if, say, in the concert hall someone crudely whispered to them in the middle of the performance some incriminating gossip.
The primary argument in today's illiberal age is that disabling comment forums is akin to silencing debate. I disagree, and here's why:
I posit that it's quite the opposite: If you listen to my music, or read this blog post, you should have your own reaction. When you engage in my work it's a connection between you and me, and no one else should decide for you what to think. Learn from your exposure to something new. Grow from the process. Free to enjoy a private experience, away from the pressures of a group consensus, you will learn the most about yourself and allow me to spur that growth as effectively as possible, one way or another. (And if you're still itching for direct debate, be it music or politics, next time we meet let's hash it out over a beer!)
A closing thought: I encourage you to pay closer attention to the reviews for your favorite releases on iTunes. There are almost always more 5- or 1-star ratings than anything in between (the opposite of a bell curve). Notice how many reviews are extremely positive (e.g. "Album of the year!") or extremely negative (e.g. "Every track is utter garbage"). I see this as symptomatic of our social tribalism seeping into arts appreciation. Warriors battling for and against every work of art do very little to encourage any art's honest reception. I wonder if it'd be better to remove the battlefield entirely.
Thanks for listening. Thanks for thinking,