“You should never read the comments”
So the cyber-gurus say
Here’s a little consolation
If you read them anyway:
It’s a self-selected sample
Of the loudest of the loud
In a context that rewards those
Leaving bloody but unbowed
And it’s not a good idea
To extrapolate too far;
Badly biased observations
Don’t resemble who we are
Take the worst of our behavior
(For that matter, take the best):
It may tell us, really, nothing
In the least about the rest
So… If you ever read the comments
And you’re left in deep despair
Remember, the majority
Are not reflected there.
That doesn’t make us better
But it doesn’t make us worse…
If you only read this site, of course,
All godless write in verse!
James Wood, of The New Yorker, was interviewed at Slate. It’s a good read, but I’m not really going to talk about it; today’s verse was inspired by something he says at the very end:
I am actually one of these people who really likes watching those YouTube videos with titles like, “Christopher Hitchens owns idiotic Texan religionist” or whatever. I actually watch that stuff and enjoy it. But when I drift down to the comments section, I’m always amazed anew that there are quite so many atheists in this country, and that they are quite so completely fanatical. That is to say, if you are unwise enough, as I have been, to write a sort of plague on both their houses type of piece, in which you are mildly critical of certain elements of the new atheism as well as being fairly obviously critical of religiosity, you get no quarter from the atheistic camp. That always sort of surprises me. There really is no space for any—I won’t say middle position because it isn’t a middle position. I’m a nonbeliever. But that there is no tolerance for the remotest whisper of rational discourse about the fact of religious practice, about the existence of religious practice, is dismaying to me.
Now, I’m sure Wood knows already–this was not a polished piece of writing, but an answer to a question in a interview–but the youtube comment section would be the last place on virtual earth where you would expect to see a representative sample of any given population.
There are two bits of good news here: first, that there are not just as many atheists as are seen in youtube comments, there are many many more! And secondly, these many many more are probably not the intolerant bullies exemplified by those commenters. My goodness, the ratio of readers to commenters on youtube, or on Pharyngula, or on The Digital Cuttlefish, preclude any sort of generalization from the self-selected commenters to the self-unselected lurkers (let alone the self-unselected infrequent visitors). If I generalized from my commenters, then people are mostly atheist, frequently poets, and preponderately highly intelligent, well spoken, and immune to flattery. I have said it before: I have the best commenters on the internet. (Actually, I have recently seen a few sites with astonishingly good commentary, and some twitter streams with remarkably well-cultivated follower lists, putting the lie to the notion that it cannot be done. It just takes work, and probably a good dose of luck.)