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How does commentary affect the world around us?

“The Comments Section” on SNL: Is It Really That Funny?

Last weekend, SNL ran a skit called “The Comments Section,” which used a talk show format to irrelevant three types of internet commentary: negative commentary, embodied by a overweight, balding older man; immature sexual commentary (consisting mostly of “boobz”), embodied by a nerdy-looking young man; and irrelevant political commentary, embodied by an overweight, unkempt woman. The “talk show” host reviewed the comments each “guest” had posted online, and asked the guests to explain their thought process or motivation, which each summarily failed to do.

The skit even confronted the first commenter with one of his “comment victims,” a grandmother whose hat fell off during a birthday celebration. The comment–“Dumb ass old lady! Haha, her hat fell off. Kill yourself.”–motivated the grandmother to simply pronounce the commenter “rotten”–an accurate assessment.

The skit effectively pointed out the mean-spirited absurdity of much online commentary, but didn’t go much beyond that. Given the general portrayal of the commenters as stereotypical “losers,” nerdy and overweight, and lacking a girlfriend (in the case of the second commenter), the implication is that people without “real” or offline lives attempt to make themselves relevant by persistently posting negative and/or irrelevant comments online. But given the incredibly widespread nature of inane online commentary, it seems likely that a larger group of people is responsible.

The fact that online commentary is being recognized as largely irrelevant on a mainstream show such as SNL suggests that its uselessness is widely acknowledged. Still, the question remains, what can be done about this? Is mocking irrelevant commentary–already a widespread practice in comments themselves–a potential solution? Or does it just perpetuate a focus on thoughtless commentary (and am I doing just that right now)? I would propose that no problem can be resolved without being identified, and I do think that insipid commentary is a problem–it wastes time and doesn’t lend to the conversation. But it may be doing more than that, by inuring people to thoughtless exchanges and, perhaps worse, offensive language.

An AP-MTV poll found that although 51% of teens encounter discriminatory language on social networking sites (which are largely just strings of status updates and/or comments), many of them dismiss such language as people simply trying to be funny. Two-thirds of teen respondents said discriminatory words used against black people were mostly jokes, while 75% said negative language used against women was intended to be amusing, and the majority of teens are not offended when something is called “gay” in a negative manner.

In the SNL skit, one of the guests was portrayed as having commented “mad gay yo” on a video of a horse rescuing its owner from a dangerous situation. When asked what was “gay” about the video, the commenter responded, “the horse.” Even putting aside the question of what words are offensive, this use of language clearly demeans language itself, in that it removes significant meaning and creates a very limited vocabulary of words used only to mock or bring down, not to contribute to the conversation.

In a world where we have TV shows mocking online comment mocking anyone–where does the meaning lie? Perhaps in examining each situation to see what, if anything, we can learn from it. And if there’s no meaning, in recognizing that, and in working to create more meaning in our next comment, skit, blog post, or conversation.

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October 2011
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