For a while now I’ve found the trite complaint of a closed YouTube comment section to be vapid. (Equally so the stale honor or praise of leaving it open.) But just today I took another step in my understanding of the issue.
When a comment section is closed, to a YouTube user, it feels like their only method of communication (or complaining, harassing, etc.) with the YouTuber has gone. That’s in part why it’s perceived as valuable. It’s the habitat they’re used to; it’s what they see as the clearest, most direct form of feedback.
And to a certain extent it certainly is. My Pavlovian response to a YouTube video ending is to scroll down. This is something I fight, because in the vast majority of comment sections, there is nothing of value below. It’s still the most immediate place to see responses, though.
YouTube comments for a long time have been treated as this “standard discussion forum” across the Internet, available around most videos online, when in fact its evidentiary purpose is for hurling shit and making jokes so lazy they’d make Reddit cringe. The comment box is ubiquitous on the Internet Locus For Viewing Moving Pictures, so it makes sense that it became the collective dumping ground. To see a space carved out to not be made messy (by closing comments) seems counter to the entirety of YouTube culture. PewDiePie crossed that line and quickly went back.
This YouTube culture is the same one that would bring the phrase “free speech” into the equation, even though YouTube is a company that can do whatever it wants with your comments, and comments are on another person’s channel who has full right to delete them or ban people for any reason. Comment spaces are only as free as its owner allows them to be, and they don’t Hate Freedom if they choose to curate more closely or close them altogether.
What makes the whining about closed comment sections even toothless-er, though, are the abundant alternative ways in which criticism can be recorded, shared, and even sent to the creator.
As a gamer, of course I’m thinking about all the hate the Feminist Frequency channel gets on every video. Or at least all the hate one can manage to see in the few-pixels-wide Grey Bar of Dislike that symbolizes the consolidated rage of angry gamer-bros.
Sarkeesian’s closing of nearly all comment sections draws piles of criticism from that corner of the internet, and if you take a step back and ponder the situation, it’s a curious target.
Tons of articles are written about her. Response videos litter any search for Sarkeesian’s work. “Documentaries” are funded for thousands of dollars to reveal “the damage” she’s done. Twitter campaigns send her massive numbers of messages (and harassment). Screenshots with red MSPaint text, circles, and arrows are passed around communities dedicated to stopping what they believe, accurately or inaccurately, that she wants for the video game industry.
There is no shortage of pushback online against what Feminist Frequency (as just one notable example) is doing. So why is it important that one particular space be open? One particular lawn be allowed to be picketed when the rest of the world is available?
It seems what GamerGators truly want is a chance to force their criticism on Sarkeesian, to make her see it. Just like any other groups or individuals that complain about closed comment sections. They want supporters or people watching the video not out of anger but of neutral curiosity to acknowledge their complaints, to see the dislike ratio and heavily-liked detracting comments and think twice.
YouTube comments are a chance to capture people at the source, perhaps even before they watch the video. They are desired by so many for the same reason that bans on election campaigning in a radius around voting centers are law.
I’m not only a gamer; I’m also a skeptic. I’m interested in calling out misinformation spewed by pseudoscientists, fraudsters, conspiracy theorists, or anyone not basing their claims on good evidence. As an advocate for critical thinking and reason, I’d also like to reach people watching the 9/11 Truther film(s) “Loose Change” before they become indoctrinated. I understand the appeal of wanting this ability.
What I don’t do is immediately presume that a closed comment section symbolizes cowardice. If a video espousing nonsense doesn’t allow comments, I recognize a number of reasons could be at work. YouTube comments, as I’ve mentioned, are not known for their intellectual rigor. Even if nuanced criticism were present, it’s awash in a larger volume of less useful if not outright harmful responses.
I find it perfectly reasonable to close comments in order to spare oneself from that proximity. I find the multitude of reasons for banning YouTube comments to be a signal to not assume the purpose, if there even is one explicitly. I also respect people’s right to engage with the media they wish, for better or for worse, without my interference. This is why I’m not in front of the movie theater physically blocking attendees from seeing Pixels.
And again, I recognize that my arguments and thoughts are better served with a comprehensive text editor and in blog post form, rather than in the trenches of comment sections, fighting for the off chance to sour someone’s appreciation of a new video with an accidental glance. Instead I compile my words to present and share them in a space more suitable for meaningful conversation.