‘Never read the comments!’

Image, Person sliding through vortex.

Resist the vortex. Image by Anthony DeRosa / CC0

On social media and websites, we’ve all ignored this sage advice about comments — and been sucked into a vortex of opinion, negativity, and personal attack.

But what about comments being used ‘for good’? At Write we strongly support communication that readers understand. Recently I’ve been heartened to see the comments function being used to explain concepts that many of us struggle with.

The Road Code

It’s fascinating to see people questioning and clarifying provisions of the Road Code for driving in urban and rural environments — the ins and outs of roundabout indicating, giving way, using passing lanes… Usually commenters include commercial drivers and people who can refer reliably to the legislation supporting their position. We all like an opportunity to complain long and loud about other drivers, but there’s also plenty of helpful explanations for those confusing situations such as four-way Stop signs.

Image, Stop sign with 'SMILE' on it instead of 'STOP'.

Best advice for four-way Stop signs? Image by bernswaelz / CC0

Immunisation

Yes, people can get carried away by both pro and anti arguments, but in comments I’ve read some fabulous explanations of herd immunity and disease transmission and mutation, written by people who understand the subject and want others to understand it too. People’s own stories also add a human element and help us to think about the people involved alongside the science.

MMP

Among all the predictable reactions to the final New Zealand election result, you can find simple and straightforward explanations of how MMP works; descriptions of other political systems around the world; and also people defining popular but nebulous labels such as ‘neo-liberal’, ‘socialist’, and ‘conservative’. People contribute who have experienced different political systems. Others with an interest in history or sociology discuss how people react to change in government. Older people who remember earlier ways of doing things, successful and unsuccessful, remind us of what we’ve already tried and how life in New Zealand used to look.

Learning from each other

Even on popular New Zealand sites such as Stuff, commenters have often lived in different countries and have seen other transport, medical, and political systems at work. Comments come from people of varied ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. The wealth of information available can be used to attack and ridicule — but it can also be used as ‘education by the people, for the people’. Democratic communication sounds like something we at Write can applaud.

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