Why I Read YouTube Comments, and No It's Not Masochism

When I read this morning that YouTube is starting to clean up its comments section, my absolute first reaction was knee-jerk sort of “Nooo!” And not because I think that the idea sounds kind of self serving (Everybody needs to get a Google+ account to comment? Seriously, stop trying to make Google+ happen. It is not going to happen). No, my first instinct before I knew anything about the plan was to reject it as a bad idea.

I’m one of those strange people who reads the comments. On almost everything. And people tell me that I shouldn’t, that it’s a waste of time and will only make me crazy, and that comments on YouTube are the worst of the worst and why would I do that to myself?

And honestly, I’m not always sure why I do. Is it like a train wreck where you don’t want to look but you can’t look away? Am I just fascinated? And yet it feels like more than that. I’ve always had some sort of vague conviction that reading the comments is important. As though, somehow, I owe it to myself to know what people are saying out there. Even if a lot of what they say is inane or misinformed or downright offensive.

I worry often about isolating myself in an ideological bubble where I lose sight of the people who disagree with me, and therefore potentially miss out on the valuable things they might have to say. Not that there’s much of that on YouTube. But the fact remains that it’s very easy in the age of the internet to only expose yourself to the opinions you agree with. Reading the comments is one of the ways I give myself a reality check.

Of course, if you are going to take a foray into comment land, you need the ability to not take things personally and to emotionally let go of whatever it is that you read. If you can't do that, if you're not in the mood to do that, or worst of all, if you can't resist the urge to comment back, I find it's best to stay out of comment land altogether. Getting into fights with people on the internet rarely, if ever ends well. Watching other people fight, though, can be fascinating.

Of course, don’t get me wrong; I am glad that YouTube is doing something to clean up its comments section, especially given the trend of threatening and bigoted comments directed at female users. And while I don’t really think that the current plan sounds all that great, it’s good that they are doing something.

I also respected websites like Popular Science getting rid of the comments section altogether because they feel it is contrary to the aims of the website. But YouTube is not Popular Science, whose purpose is to share expert knowledge. YouTube’s purpose is to provide a platform where anyone can share anything. And for me, the comments are part of that.

Maybe it’s just because I don’t believe in censorship at all . Maybe it’s because I feel that all voices, even the idiotic ones, have a right to say what they want. Maybe it’s because it’s good to keep in touch with the people who don’t believe what you believe. Maybe it’s because it keeps me humble to remember that some of the people that do agree with me also come off as idiots and jerks. Maybe it’s just fascinating.

Whatever the reason, I like reading YouTube comments. I don’t ever feel the need to contribute or argue back. I just sit back and observe. And even when I think that they’re awful, even when they make me angry or exasperated or close the whole window in disgust, I’ve still never been sorry that I read them.

Image: Spencer E Holtaway via flickr