One of the most common pieces of advice when it comes to the internet is simply, “don’t read the comments.” Whether it’s arguments about Justin Bieber on YouTube music videos or angry and insensitive comments on an article about a sensitive topic, comment sections can become minefields. It makes sense that we’re advised to ignore comment sections. However, while that’s generally sound advice, I think that it’s a mistake to believe that comment sections do not matter at all, especially in our current environment where social connections (both strong and weak) are made through online media.
Nowhere is this more relevant than with sites that utilize live chat feeds, such as Nico Nico Douga and Twitch. The difference between watching a game on Twitch with and without chat is basically the difference between watching alone or watching with a crowd. For those who want to share in the excitement of something as it happens (like a virtual crowd at a pro wrestling event), it becomes a vital part of the spectator experience. At that point, it’s not just about wanting to see comments or not, it’s about being a part of a collective bonding.
If you want to know how important the live chat is to Twitch, you only need to look at one of their more recent developments: saved chat logs for VODs. In the past, if you wanted to see what the chat was like for a previously recorded stream, your only hope was that someone captured it with the chat in progress. Now, anyone can step in a week or a month after a broadcast and see what people were saying at the time, and in many ways it enriches the experience. Imagine watching an old football game or something and having the crowd muted out. It certainly wouldn’t be the same, and while I understand that by not watching it live the experience changes anyway, there’s now a middle point.
This brings me to what I really wanted to talk about: the degree to which Twitch chat can become an unwelcoming place, and the potential harm it can cause. For me, personally, I experience this when I watch a Smash 4 tournament, and the chat is inundated with comments about how boring the game is, and how people can’t wait for Melee. It doesn’t matter how interesting the actual game being played is, people are ready to criticize and diminish its value. I think Smash 4 is awesome, and to some extent the trolls are just being trolls, but it results in an inhospitable environment that can turn away people who potentially have interest in a game. Perhaps they see huge portions of the chat calling the game a snooze fest, and think, “If this many people are saying that, maybe it is boring after all.” Or perhaps they just don’t want to deal with all of the nonsense and would prefer to watch another game with a chat that isn’t secretly hoping for the clown from Showtime at the Apollo to drag away what’s currently on.
That’s only a “your game vs. my game” scenario, though. Consider the tendency for Twitch chats to explode with comments whenever a girl appears on stream. I understand, lots of guys are horny, and by connecting to Twitch through one’s own personal devices, be they computers, mobile phones, or whatever, there’s a sense that what you’re seeing is merely an extension of your private space. Talking with your friends about how that girl was incredibly hot isn’t a bad thing, but stream and chat become this nebulous space where private and public intersect, and it’s not surprising that women would choose to hide their identities in chat, or prefer not to participate in the zoo that is Twitch chat (though that zoo can be fun and positive too).
In fact, I think comments online in general are a kind of extension of private space into public territories that can be both welcome and unwelcome. In a way, this blog is doing the same thing, as is Twitter, Facebook, and wherever else people are placing a part of themselves into their words. Social media and the internet as it exists today is not a separate entity from the real world. Ignoring elements of “IRL” space can be done too, but it usually comes with the awareness that it is cutting you off from a certain experience and resonance with others. Doing the same online might be necessary at times, but we shouldn’t act like the solution is to just encourage everyone to turn their eyes away from the problems that exist. The problems themselves need to be addressed too.
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