Culture Vulture

Reading online comments instead of the text can be revealing and rewarding

SINGAPORE - Last week, I learned that helicopters and pterodactyls have more in common with each other than meets the eye.

I am referring, of course, to how these names for the chopper and extinct flying reptile have the same Greek ancestor: "pteron", meaning "wing".

How did I chance upon this geeky fact? By reading a comment someone had left below a Guardian online article on a quirky alphabet book.

"My favourite thing about the word pterodactyl is that part of it is in helicopter," said the commenter, responding to the title P Is For Pterodactyl.

"I always thought helicopter would be broken into heli and copter to understand its meaning. But it's helico, meaning spiral, and pter, meaning one with wings."

What a revelation, I thought.

Another old favourite of mine is a comment in an open thread on the same website, titled, "What books do you find most attractive in a potential partner?"

Someone, possibly speaking from experience, wrote: "Fans of poetry don't date. They hang out with them[SIC]selves in other people's company."

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that the Guardian website must be home to some of the sanest commenters on the internet, at least if their remarks - often articulate, funny and insightful - are anything to go by.

This means I sometimes click on an article only so I can glance at the comments.

Others seem to suffer from the same affliction.

"My reading habits have changed," one commenter wrote, "to the point where I skim an article for the gist and main claims, then scroll through the comments more carefully, looking for the harder information on the subject."

It's not hard to see how engaging more deeply with the comments, rather than the article itself, has its own set of problems. It's easier to bandy second-hand opinions about than do the mental heavy-lifting of our own.

This reminds me of a terrible habit I have when I visit art galleries. Unsure of what the artwork might be trying to say, my eyes dart reflexively to the exhibit labels, before coming up with my own interpretation of the piece itself.

In my ideal world, the comments section would be a kind of companion piece to the original text, an agora or gathering place where critical thinkers gather to engage with the complexities of a certain issue.

The comments sections of today are, however, at best a (moderated) echo-chamber for a self-selecting crowd, and at worst, a cesspool of the worst of humanity.

"I should have known better than to read the comments," is the lament of many a commenter.

No surprise, then, that news websites, caught between manpower shortages - it's no fun hand-weeding out racist and sexist remarks all day long - and a lack of meaningful conversations below the line, have been disabling their comments sections.

Two years ago (2016), American media company NPR announced that it would be ending online comments.

Even though the audience for its website had grown to between 25 and 35 million unique visitors each month, far less than 1 per cent of that audience would comment, and the number of regular comment participants was even smaller.

"Only 2,600 people have posted at least one comment in each of the last three months - 0.003 per cent of the 79.8 million NPR.org users who visited the site during that period," explained NPR's managing editor for digital news Scott Montgomery.

One only has to turn to YouTube's policies to realise how the comments below the videos reflect the opinions of only a narrow pool of people. The platform allows users to delete the comments other people have left on their channels, hold new comments for review, and even blacklist certain words.

Still, I believe that so long as one knows where to look, and doesn't fall into the trap of believing that what they are reading is a representative sample of public opinion, there are rich gleanings to be found in comments sections online.

It is a communal experience, and you realise that you are not alone in seeing the world the way you do.

This also explains the voyeuristic pleasure I get from the marginalia scribbled by other people library books - the precursor of online comments.

Librarians will hate me for saying this, but I have a fondness for these wry comments, exclamation marks and vertical lines that add something to the reading experience.

Sometimes, they can make you notice things in the text you had otherwise missed - although they can just as easily send you careering down blind alleys.

My own copy of Junot Diaz's The Brief And Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao (2007), from my time at university, is full of words that have been underlined, circled and annotated with notes and arrows - little waymarks in my effort to trace the book's subterranean pattern.

Maybe part of me wishes someone who picks up the book years from now will see these scribblings and find something valuable there.

Or it could be a sign of something else - as Diaz told me when he signed the book at the Singapore Writers Festival last year (2017): "You're such a nerd!"

tohwenli@sph.com.sg