Internet commenters, despite being the dregs of the Earth, hold a dear place in my heart. Part of this is a lifelong, anthropological fascination with fringe cultural groups (particularly male ones) — MRAs, PUAs, unhinged NFL fans, Redditors, 4chan bros, personal finance obsessives, Trump supporters, simulation theory adherents and frat boys who share photos of their hickeys, to name just a few. The other part of it is that while I never leave internet comments, I relate to internet commenters on a personal level. I, too, enjoy the perverse thrill of saying something just to get a rise out of people.
But also: Internet commenters are scum. At worst, they make cynical, coordinated attempts to cyberbully people and institutions into bending to their will, and they epitomize the kind of bad faith arguing that has made rational political debate more or less impossible. Lately, I’ve been tuning into Breitbart’s Facebook livestream of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ daily White House press briefing, just so I can read the insane comments. (On a related note: I hate myself.) Look at the sheer level of lunacy on display here:
Even when commenters say something nice, I’m still a little put off by them. Why comment at all? With the exception of a few Gizmodo Media sites, comments go widely ignored by just about everyone, including the authors themselves. Leaving a comment has zero impact, and thus, it makes you question why anyone would do it. The simple assumption is they’re lonely and starved for attention, or a narcissist (or both).
Yet I decided to do the one thing everyone advises against: Engage with the commenters. Specifically, I sought out Jeffrey Field, the internet commenter who has given me the most flak during my time at MEL. He’s a 72-year-old retired journalist living in Garfield, New Mexico. He now frequently writes poetry and publishes it on Medium, the same platform MEL publishes on, and where Field is an active reader and commenter.
For a time, he was also my biggest troll. On June 9, 2016, Field slid into my Twitter DMs to ask me if I wanted “go a few more rounds.” I said thanks, but no thanks. My beef with Field started one day earlier when he left a comment on a Q&A I did with author Chuck Klosterman about Klosterman’s new book, But What If We’re Wrong? Klosterman and I discussed his belief that rock ’n’ roll will one day come to be remembered by a singular figure — in his estimation, Chuck Berry — and that everyone else in the genre will be largely forgotten. I relayed Klosterman’s argument about why Bob Dylan won’t be remembered as well, and in the comments, Field and another commenter said they think Dylan is “overrated.”
I understand why someone would consider Dylan overrated. Jann Wenner seemingly made it his personal mission to deify Dylan as a man whose music is unassailable and of the utmost artistic import. That’s a hard legacy to live up to in people’s minds.
That said, Bob Dylan is an unparalleled musical talent, and the fact that some doofus would call him overrated on the internet is hysterical. I responded to them with a troll of my own: “I wonder what Bob Dylan thinks about your talents as an internet commenters.”
Field told me I was “full of myself” (accurate) and “silly” (also, accurate). He then slid in my DMs because he wanted some more. I politely declined his offer to engage further. But Field has kept reading MEL since then, and I wanted to see if his perception of me has changed because of it, or if he still considers me an arrogant buffoon.
Jeffrey, at long last, I’d like to go a few more rounds.
Sounds good. So, I’m curious: Why are you Johnny on Twitter, and John on MEL?
I’ll ask the questions around here, pal. So how did you discover MEL?
It may have been the time you insulted me after I left a comment on a piece you wrote. I think it was about movies. You called me a “genius,” and although at first I bathed in your glow, I soon realized you were making fun of me, so I strapped on my guns, jumped on my horse and came after you. [Author’s note: This never happened. I never sarcastically called Field a “genius.”] Let me add that you’re a talented writer, and I enjoy your work. But I’m still gonna see that film you dissed starring Bruce Willis, Death Wish.
Here’s the piece where we first interacted. Were you aware of MEL before then?
I’m not certain. I’m fairly scattershot when it comes to Medium. The headline “Why No One Will Remember John Lennon, The Who or Queen in 50 Years” caught my eye and I clicked on it. I’m guessing that was my first time on MEL. Now, let me ask you this: Who is MEL?
That’s confidential. Also, again, I’ll do the asking around here. So you’re a regular Medium user, and you discovered us that way, correct?
Yes, I am. I was a journalist in the 1970s and 1980s. Writing helps me purge the demons. I was the first host ever picked by Howard Rheingold to be a part of Electric Minds. I was known as Fatty Moon. I talked in gibberish. People liked it. Go figure.
I don’t know what literally any of that means. Rheingold? Electric Minds?
Hold on whippersnapper, I’ll update you. Electric Minds was named one of the top 10 sites back in the 1980s. Howard’s on Twitter. Find him. He’s a wild man. I’ve been to his house in Mill Valley, CA. We had a falling out later, but that’s been resolved.
Your “whippersnapper” comment speaks to why I found your initial comment so obnoxious. I thought, Here we go. Another crusty old fart is here to lecture me about rock music. So I responded with a comment of my own, and it was a pretty sick burn if you ask me. I was proud of it.
It was a sick burn. Hence my subsequent responses. Oh well, spilled milk won’t clean itself. So now we’re here chatting amiably.
Why even leave that comment about Bob Dylan?
Geez, I dunno. I just wanted to be loved by you! Seriously, I like leaving comments if something resonates. You wrote, “Bob Dylan will not be known as the most culturally resonant songwriter in American music history.” I responded, “I never thought he was. So many others eclipse him, imo.” I was agreeing with you.
But wait, I was paraphrasing an idea expressed in the book I was writing about. That wasn’t my own opinion. That illustrates my main beef with internet commenters. They always hone in on one detail and miss the entire fucking point of the story.
What’s the book about?
You would know if you read the article!
Oh, now I see.
What compels someone to leave an internet comment? What do you get out of it?
On Medium, leaving comments helps build community (so I’m told). I’ve become friends with people like Mike Essig (poet) and several others. When Mike writes a poem that hits home — or that bothers me — I’ll leave a comment.
I like when people comment on my posts. And sometimes, they enlighten me. Are you saying you don’t like it when people comment on your work at MEL?
Only if the comment is about what a genius I am. But seriously, I learned years ago to not put much stock in what commenters say. I do, however, get a fun kick out of trolling them back.
I’ve been doing this computer stuff since I got my first Mac in 1985. You’re comparatively new here. So it’s quite likely we’d have differing views on the subject of commenting. Maybe thoughts on commenting vary by generation. Also, there’s that word again: “Genius.”
What was your impression when I responded to your comment?
I understood you were being snarky, and I took offense. Why wouldn’t I? Did you expect me to roll over?
No, not necessarily. There are two things going on here for me. One is my general distaste for all internet commenters. Internet comments section are, with few exceptions, a teeming cesspool. Second, I get a perverse kick out of riling people up. I’m a bit of a troll myself. So seeing you get upset about my comment gave me a cheap thrill.
Agreed that comments on YouTube and some gaming sites are cesspool worthy. I’d think that comments on Medium would be of a higher caliber. And yes, I like that you get that perverse thrill. I too get that thrill, but it usually involves a video game I’m playing. To each his own.
Why don’t you just turn off comments on your stories?
Because at the same time, I have a strange affection for internet weirdos. They amuse me. I’m fascinated by their psychology, even when they’re obviously unhinged.
Okay, this is fascinating. A few years ago, I became halfway convinced the Sandy Hook shooting was a false flag. Seriously, I was questioning the official narrative because of all the off-the-wall conspiracy shit I was reading. I started watching Alex Jones at InfoWars and began questioning other official narratives.
It was only in the past couple years I realized I’d been sucked in — like the internet was screwing with my head. I haven’t had a TV since 1973. I think that’s been a good thing. But the internet has, in a way, been my TV, so I need to be on guard. I need to use common sense when it comes to my online activities.
Do you still believe that about Sandy Hook?
Of course not. My birthday, December 14, is a dark stain now. On that day, five years ago, I fucking cried and cried and cried.
What was your perception of me after that initial exchange?
I followed you on Twitter and asked if you wanted to go a few more rounds. You declined. My perception at that point was that I’d beaten some sense into you!
That just affirms my opinion of commenters as trolls starving for attention and validation.
Of course I want attention. Trolls want attention, too. But there’s a vital difference between me and a troll. Do you know what that difference is?
Trolls only want attention. They don’t care about having an honest, intellectual exchange.
Well, then I’m not a troll.
Now that we’ve been chatting, I see where you’re coming from. And, fact is, I’m the same way. What I believe to be correct is correct and fuck ’em if they don’t agree. However, even though I inwardly believe all of my righteousness, I’ve learned to couch my responses in gentler terms. I don’t wish to offend people, and hence, I don’t like being offended.
And I see now you’re not a troll. Your motivations are genuine. What do you think of me now?
I think you’re just a good writer looking for … acceptance.
My perception changed for the better as time went on. If I’d thought you were a total shit I’d never have continued reading you. I think you’re an okay guy. You’re young; you’re full of drive; you want to be somebody; you want to be recognized; and you want to be admired.
This feels like therapy.
Ha. Maybe it is.