Negative comments

Here’s a theory for why there are so many negative comments on the Internet: We train people to write them.

By negative comments, I don’t mean purely nasty comments like those on YouTube. I mean the comments that are common on Hacker News. These comments are reasonably well-written but boil down to “here is why X is wrong” in the best cases and “X is stupid” in the worst. These comments are negative in the traditional sense of the word: They aim to deny a point, or disagree.1

Learning how to disagree with and challenge ideas was a core part of many of my college classes. To this day, when I read something my mind immediately starts searching for contradictions and errors, trying to find everything it can to challenge. This is habitual for me, and is more a reflex than a conscious decision.

Indeed, Western culture trains us to disagree as part of learning to be critical thinkers. Critical thinking in its current form was first championed by the great progressive educator John Dewey, but its roots date all the way back to the Greeks, when Socrates spoke about the importance of critical self-examination to find errors in our thinking.

There’s a legitimate danger to uncritically consuming ideas floating around us. Without a critical eye, it’s easy to start believing things we’re taught unthinkingly, and I am a huge believer in the importance of critical thinking skills. But I fear emphasis has shifted from critically reflecting on and examining our own beliefs to simply criticizing and pointing out errors in other people’s work.

This shift is understandable because it’s so much easier to challenge other people’s thinking than our own. Finding errors in our own thinking is hard: First because it means discovering our personal blind spots, and second because it means admitting we’re wrong. In contrast, writing negative comments feels good: It exercises our critical thinking skills without challenging anything we hold dear.

The cynical explanation for this is that people write negative comments to show off how clever they are or how much they know. But I don’t think that’s enough to explain how dedicated many commenters are to posting negative feedback. Instead, I think people do it because they believe it’s the right thing. Our cultural obsession with critical thinking compels us to point out errors when we perceive them; errors are injustices that we must right.2 Someone is wrong on the internet, and duty calls.

But pointing out all the places other people are wrong rarely teaches us anything. So next time you read something, try this: Instead of looking for the parts you can prove are false, try to find pieces you can learn from.

Incidentally, I think this in part explains why the Hacker School community is so much more positive than the world at large: People come here firstly to learn new things, not to dispute them. This suggests an interesting question: Could you build a site like Hacker News with a community focused on learning above all else?

  1. Negative comes from the Latin negativus, meaning “that which denies.” A negative comment is a comment that denies (or disagrees with) a part of what it’s responding to.

  2. Some errors are injustices and should be corrected, but most are not. Worse, many “corrections” in comments are themselves wrong, and suggest a preference for finding things to dispute over understanding what an author is trying to say.