Comment Threads: All Agony, No Ecstasy

//by Keith Binkly//

Last great experience you had in an online comment thread, go!

Right. Didn’t think so.

I love the writing on The Last Psychiatrist blog. It’s downright excellent. One of the best offerings in the whole wide blogosphere. I think to myself, You know, I’d like to check out the comment section, because I expect to find some intelligent conversation going on there. Might even jump in myself.

It’s true that the comments–– and the commenters–– are ‘intelligent,’ strictly speaking. But it’s rather tough to stomach because so many reader responses are hiply self-referential to a fault and ape the author’s style to a miserable tee.

When you’re there answering your own rhetorical questions and fashioning yourself a fount of contrarian insight, you better be the original author. If you’re unloading in the comments instead, douche tsunamis are always sure to follow.

Of course, emulation has always been a healthy tool for writers, right up until online commenting. There, everyone else is, too, reproducing the style that’s both the cause of, and forum for, the gathering. Traditionally this has served as great comfort to offline congregations, but it morphs into the coldest kind of comfort for online groups.

For example, Last Psychiatrist commenter Ersatz Critic had this to say:


Ersatz critic is ersatz. 

Kookaburra nonsense?! An inside joke from a longtime commenter, probably, but still nets a negative 10 score from the community.

The bigger picture I’m getting here is this: the members of online social clubs have, in many cases, tread deep into the internet’s treacherous waters, and they bellowed a rapturous


at the first sight of fellow islanders of thought. But once they were ashore, the politics of interaction turned nasty fast. It’s hard to swallow the sense that one’s alienation, the very foundation of one’s uniqueness, is here an experience in common.

Having found others whose expressions are so eerily like my own, I despair instead of rejoice. Why?

It might be that the enlightened and independent thinking which we feel defines us is in fact the ultimate submission to the institutions we proclaim to despise. Communication implodes in a comment section amongst enlightened and independent thinkers because they –– *ahem,* we –– cannot compose a message free of concern for persona,  by which I mean enlightened and independent thinker … I’ll now abbreviate that as an EIT.

When an EIT relies on the go-to conventions of self-deprecating self-reference, and an informed-to-the-point-of-apathy worldview, there is no communication.

Every message curves back on itself. The energy we’re willing to spend writing and re-writing the same comment so that it protects and upholds our EIT-status tends toward the infinite.

We end up creating something like a communication black hole: the energy density within our own mental event horizon gets so dense that the message never crosses space to reach another person. Many social media spaces reinforce this, to varying degree and result.

Is it possible for social media to shape the communications landscape into a regular panopticon and a reverse panopticon simultaneously? (What the hell does that mean?)

By which I mean, can we both watch everyone, and be watched by everyone at the same time? Yes, sure, but only in our own heads.

Bi-drectional panopticism is solipsism optimized for capital. No more and no less. In other words, it’s two-way citizen surveillance, which is the market’s solution for alienation and loneliness. Capitalism can finally herd ‘loners’ and ‘radicals’ onto the grid, and the grid is the market is the grid. Snowden’s leaks confirmed this if it wasn’t blatant enough already.



What’s the deal here? Well, there are three fundamental modes of human experience corresponding roughly to our reptilian, mammalian, and higher human brains. They are the modes of being, seeing, and being seen. Individual humans cannot engage all three states, at least not at the same time. So if we are both the guards (seeing) and the inmates (being seen) in the two-way panopticon of social media, but then no one is free to act as they will (the being mode).

Cults and various exclusive societies exist on an explicit or implicit promise of helping people achieve all three fundamental modes in concert: the allure of entering the exalted plane of being scene— that’s scene with a “C”. It’s that eccentric, almost mystical space that expands around celebrities, and pretty much any larger-than-life personality. To cross the gap into the higher tier of expansive being, that is the core yearning and drive of personal development. YET easily it gets distorted, obscured, pacified.

Recently, researchers at Yale confirmed that the uncelebrated masses will irrationally clamor for a famioso’s ritual talisman. No goddamn it is not “just a fork”! It was in JFK’s mouth and I’m willing to shell out for that!

Could this explain celebrity endorsements and ‘signature’ products? No shit, dude.


In the footnotes of David Foster Wallace’s giant novel Infinite Jest, amidst the James O. Incandenza filmography, we find a gem of an experimental film called The Joke. The audience is involved as “reflexive cast.” Cameras at the front of the theater point toward moviegoers, and the feed is projected onto the silver screen.

The theater audience watches itself watch itself, get the obvious ‘joke’, and become increasingly self-conscious and uncomfortable and hostile. Ring a bell? Watching and being watched. Two-way surveillance.

This description nails the dynamic of online conversations before they existed. For reference, AOL Instant Messenger launched in 1997, a year after the book was published.

To connect back to the start of this diatribe, when I read The Last Psychiatrist’s comments, I felt in my gut the same reactions as The Joke’s fictional audience. It was the strange sense that we were all watching ourselves watch ourselves, and that was incredibly uncomfortable.

Luckily, most online communities do not themselves have to deal with these nasty, vouyeristic sensations.

They avail themselves of corporate marketing divisions, those peppy teams who busily build community management strategies, and perform A/B tests for optimal snappiness, optimal sleekness. Whatever it takes to keep the audience engaged with itself, and to channel their uncomfortable self-consciousness and hostility toward a productive outlet, and by that I mean yet another thing to consume.


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