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Episodes: Why I stopped loving comments sections


Emily VanDerWerff

Aug 30 2016

8 min read



Let me show you something dumb I wrote.

Okay, first, let me set the scene.

It's February 2013. I've just finished watching "One Man's Trash" -- the best episode of Girls still, to this day -- on HBO's crummy little DVD screener. I'm at my sister's house. It's snowing outside. I feel like I've seen something monumental, and I can't wait to write about it.

Then I make the mistake of hopping on Twitter, where a bunch of people who've seen the episode are already grousing about its central idea: that Lena Dunham and Patrick Wilson might have a weekend of great sex, then part ways at the end. The episode, though clearly structured as a fantasy that can never last, hasn't passed the "realism" test for so many.

This is, I'll remind you, a thing Girls ran into all the time. (It seems to happen to shows set in New York a lot. The Night Of, for instance, drew a lot of complaining about the route Naz drove in the taxi in episode one, which no New Yorker would ever use. This was seriously held up by some as a serious criticism of the show and not a minor nitpick.) While the show was under the gaze of the media spotlight, it wasn't so much engaged with as idly picked apart. This is not to say there wasn't great, persuasive negative criticism written about the show. There was a lot of it! This was to say that most of the negative criticism written about the show primarily engaged with it on the level of: "Would this really happen or not?" which has always been one of my least favorite ways to engage with fiction. (I was the guy booing all of the "Could The Martian really happen?!" pieces.)

So my first big mistake is that the review I write of the episode is already too defensive, and it's aimed at a readership that, crucially, hasn't been engaged with the arguments critics are having about the episode on Twitter, because why would they engage with that? It's a terrible idea to do that. If I had stepped back and focused on the episode more, the review would have been stronger and likely explained better why I was so blown away by the episode.

So that's all on me.

But then somebody gets into the comments and says something along the lines of, "Lena Dunham needs to stop being naked so often," and I just lose it.

I'll ask you to keep a couple of things in mind here. The first is that The AV Club is, at this point in time, in a period of great upheaval. Keith Phipps's exit has essentially blown the site up, in my mind, and I'm worried about what will come next, so I'm already anxious about my professional life. The second is that I had been dealing with this sort of thing every week for two 10 episode seasons. It's endless and relentless, and the people who make these comments always seem to believe they're the first to have thought of something so clever. Remember how I said even the most innocuous of jokes becomes irritating when multiplied by the echo chamber of the internet? Yeah. This is that, only the joke is sexist.

So I write a long thing about how I feel this unfairly dismisses what Lena Dunham does, and there's some back and forth because I ill-advisedly tag some other commenters into it, who've also said stupid things but not so egregiously stupid, and then I say the thing that -- and I'm not kidding about this -- haunts me to this day. You can read it here.

I will be perfectly honest. When I went looking for this comment, I remembered it as being far worse and the comments section around it as far better (when it was mostly a steaming shitpile). I thought that I had literally said that Lena Dunham should never be criticized, or that one should never be a critic unless they had created art of their own, or something like that. Instead, it's just a poorly phrased attempt to reiterate an earlier point I made that Dunham is expressing her own artistic vision, and if something like nudity makes it impossible for a viewer to engage with that artistic vision, why would they keep watching?

But the argument had already moved past what I was talking about, and people were mostly debating whether Dunham's use of nudity had a function within the story, which is a reasonable thing to argue about. Because of when I posted, though, it made it seem as if I were saying that, hey, we shouldn't criticize Dunham's nudity, because it's what she wants, and artists should never be critiqued for their choices.

And of course, if I literally thought that, it would not only be anti-criticism, but it would be blisteringly stupid. I thought I was reiterating an earlier point, but in another context (or devoid of context), it made me seem like I was saying its exact opposite. I like to think you have to ignore nearly everything else I've ever written to think I literally believe that.

But guess what! When I write something now that people think is terrible, inevitably that specific comment is brought up by somebody as an example of how I'm secretly anti-criticism, or a tool of the bourgeoise neo-liberal left, or whatever you want. There are few better sociopolitical and cultural signifiers in our culture, still, than Dunham, and having really liked her work (or made some stupid comments about it) automatically opens you up for suspicion to some.

(Sidebar: The exhaustion of talking about this every week made me stop trusting any of my critical faculties when it came to Girls. The show's second season was frequently messy, but also surprisingly packed with great episodes that stood on their own. The third was a little dull but had its moments. Yet it wasn't until the fourth and fifth seasons, which I could watch without having to anticipate weekly comment wars, due to moving to Vox, that I realized that, yes, I did really like the show, even if it had warts.)

I would like to presume that people don't hold a statement I made offhand in a comments section one time in inopportune fashion up against the far more carefully considered body of work I've accumulated over the years, but let's be honest: That comment is totally what a lot of people think I'm really like.

And, I should stress, that's fine. To be even a very, very, very, very minor public figure is to invite a lot of this into your life, and every writer will be defined by the worst thing they've written to many. It's the cost of doing business.

But what I learned from this (too slowly) was that participation in the comments section was a no-win game for me. After that particular argument, I tried my best to not get drawn into discussions beyond joking around, and I actually stopped reading comments for some of my more heated sections, as the overall AVC attitude toward the comment section shifted slightly. (In the early days of TV Club, talking to and engaging with commenters was an expected part of the job. But that changed as the site became more popular and the comments section filled with people who were more aggressive, often for no real reason.)

What I realized was that what I typed into comments wasn't always representative of what I thought, because it was an off-the-cuff expression of a small piece of a larger opinion I had. By its very nature, it wasn't as carefully considered, or edited, or written. It was just a thing I wrote very quickly. And if you're defined, to many, by the worst thing you write, then I would rather the worst thing I write be something I could stand behind more enthusiastically (he said in an unedited newsletter he tries to write as quickly as possible).

There are a lot of problems with the modern comments section, most of which were nicely detailed by NPR during its decision to shut down comments, but for me, the comments section eventually became a one-way invitation to career suicide. And I didn't need another one of those in my life. I already had Twitter.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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