Social media has enabled us to connect with each other wherever and whenever we want. Some may point out that we are perhaps too connected, oversharing details for which there is no audience. The internet has been fueling the rise of self-expression in the form of not only tweets, Snapchat stories, and Instagram posts but also blogs and sites like Medium and Odyssey that allow any user to contribute articles. Such articles are then often shared by the author and his or her friends, who are invited to read and add comments. Unsurprisingly, it is the content that generate the most discussion which usually end up going viral, attracting more traffic and, like a positive feedback loop, even more comments.
Interestingly however, comments comprise their own corner of the web, a kind of content that powers interaction while being simultaneously fueled by it. While comment sections ostensibly serve as a forum for responses, they have quietly been shaping digital communities and the internet as a whole in a way that media content itself never could. This is because media is selectively published, required to meet certain standards of quality, and as a result reflects the viewpoints of only a fraction of the total population.
Not everyone posts comments, but the fact that there are no such restrictions points to how brutally honest comments can be, showcasing an openness that is at once refreshing yet sinister. In fact, the modern embodiment of free speech may very well be any comment section, proof that so-called ideological echo chambers have not yet dominated cyberspace. However, because comments are so often not taken seriously that their influence is overlooked. They are like shadows of substantive digital media, unable to exist without their counterparts, the YouTube videos, for example, or New York Times articles.
Comments are further complicated by the fact that they may not all be representations of free speech, particularly with the rise of “robo-comments” that are equivalent to spam. These can be recognizable when they are clearly unrelated to the corresponding content, serve as blatant advertising material, or are posted by accounts that have never posted before. More disturbingly, sophisticated fake comments can appear to be posted by real people whose accounts have been hacked. Just earlier this year, in May, fourteen people filed a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission that their names were used in posting robo-comments.
For most of media’s existence, comments did not exist in the way they do today, enabling anyone to interact almost directly with writers and editors, not least with other readers and viewers. We are a generation that grew up with this, adding to comment threads on Facebook posts for hours after coming home from school. To us, they seem disposable – informal tidbits of thoughts and reactions, snippets of our lives at that moment in time. But over time, the body of all existing comments on the internet has been growing as more voices, both human and machine, join into discussions. What this could mean for the future of free speech is anything but clear.