Free speech. A wonderful concept. Human beings have fought for centuries to be able to express their opinions safely and without prejudice. The coming of the internet heralded the start of a new age for free speech. By its very nature, computer technology and the World Wide Web would democratize communication. The ability to connect with more people than you can imagine, unconstrained by physical boundaries. Sadly for most people, communicating on the internet has become a horrendous experience. While technological advances in communication are a wonderful thing to behold, human nature is ever the same. Misogyny on Xbox Live, cyberbullying via confession blogs on Tumblr, public shaming on Facebook. The list is endless.
Commenting in particular is something that has degenerated completely. There’s always someone that starts a flamewar, always a troll that gets his or her kicks by baiting others. Being anonymous, there are no consequences or repercussions. No punishment for being an ass. Moderation of comments has in most cases proven to be an impossible task. Go to any Youtube video and look at the comments. Most likely they will have degenerated into a horrendous cacophony of mindless opinions. A shoutbox where everyone is trying to scream as hard as they can.
Luckily, when it comes to technology, where there are problems, there are often solutions. Below are three methods that silence the noise. Tools to disable most comments found on the web.
The first is Ghostery, a browser plug-in dedicated to uncovering the “hidden web”, the many trackers advertisers use to follow and index every move you make on the web. Ghostery allows you to discover these trackers and block them, effectively pulling double duty as an ad-blocker. It also has the capability to block some of the most used comment systems on the web, like Disqus or IntenseDebate. Of course, the plug-in doesn’t function with many of the custom commenting fields found on the web, but with the majority of websites out there having switched to standardised commenting solutions, you’ll be able to block the majority of them quite easily.
The second method is directed specifically at Youtube comments. These can be blocked by modifying a piece of software many internet users probably already have installed. By simply adding the following rule to popular ad-blocker plug-in Adblock Plus…
…all Youtube comments comments disappear, never to be seen again (credit for this method goes to Jeff Badge). This also blocks the chatbox during any Youtube Live broadcast. Gone are the religious crusades, racist debates and homophobia you usually find at the bottom of nearly every Youtube video.
Finally we have CommentBlocker for Firefox. The reason this plug-in gets mentioned last is not because it doesn’t function very well. On the contrary, it may actually be too good at its job. CommentBlocker scans every site you come across and not only removes comments, but also any mention of them (including comment counts). The plug-in has a tendency to break functionality on some websites. This very blogpost for example could not have been written with the plug-in turned on because of the word “comments” in the title. Coupled with a whitelist that doesn’t always work right away, make this a plug-in suitable only for the most desperate and comment-averse people out there. Still, if all you’re looking for is a “nuclear option”, CommentBlocker is the way to go.
People often point to anonymity as the main culprit of abhorrent behaviour on the web. With no negative repercussions people feel free to say what they want. Last month The Verge reported that the Chinese government may make real-name registration mandatory for all its internet users. While this policy may be questionable in a nation that has shown a disregard for human rights in the past, it does make one wonder if this system would be feasible in more democratic nations. What if everything you say on the web could truly be traced back to you? Your real name, address, e-mail & phone number. In essence anything you say on the internet would be the same as saying it to someone’s face.
I recently had the opportunity to interview an academic at Ghent University who specialises in citizen journalism. When asked about the value of internet comments he likened it to working in a coalmine. For the majority of the time all you ever encounter is dull, black rock. But in very rare cases you may encounter a tiny diamond, an actual comment worthy of being read. When asked if removing anonymity might allow for more of these diamonds to pop up, he answered that although it would certainly help in the short term and many sites are already evolving towards systems that demand a form of identity validation (like logging in with a Facebook profile) true trolls won’t ever allow that to stop them. There will always be a way for them to sour the conversation.