Once upon a time in May 2012, a highly anticipated movie was released to the satisfaction of most everyone who saw it. That movie went on to make all the money ever, despite a very small pool of critical reviews that deemed said movie somewhat less-than-stellar. In the first few days in the week leading up to its release, The Avengers had a near perfect score on movie review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes, with lone reviewer Amy Nicholson giving the film it’s first dreaded score of “Rotten” instead of “Fresh.” Naturally, that critic was maligned by the worst sorts of Internet commenters - those with more opinions than sense, and who’s hatred and vitriol could make even Daniel Tosh blush - the ones who spend a good chunk of their free time trolling the RT boards. Sadly, these people seem to only have free time.
When I self-righteously compiled the worst of the worst of those comments, nearly all misogynistic in tone if not content, I noted that this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for either that site or the Internet in general. In fact, it seemed obvious that the same thing would also happen to the first critic who gave Christopher Nolan’s final Batman chapter, The Dark Knight Rises, one of those messy green splats instead of a ripe red tomato. It turns out I was more right than I ever imagined. Thanks to the over abundance of hateful responses to two negative reviews published at around the same time this past Monday - a mere four days before the film’s release, but a lifetime to fans who are desperate to see and weigh in on it - Rotten Tomatoes has decided their best course of action is to close down all comments for The Dark Knight Rises for the foreseeable future. For that site, which houses the greatest collection of anti-Armond White rants on the web, this is an unprecedented move, even if it doesn’t prevent anyone from migrating over to a review’s source to continue their 1980s high school villainy. But it’s entirely welcome.
Not every comments section can be filled with as many smart and clever people as we have at Pajiba, regardless of whether you remain anonymous or not. Writing as a former lurker-turned-commenter-turned-contributor, I say that with the utmost authoritative pandering. We’ve had our fair share of jerks (hi, BigTodd!) but we’ve rarely, if ever, descended into the virtual barbarism that happens elsewhere. When Internet comments begin moving away from true criticism or simple expressions of disagreement and dismay, moving toward suggestive violence and death threats to those being commented upon, then those comments no longer serve a function worth maintaining. Cries of hindering freedom of speech, should there be any, don’t hold any water. No website is obliged to offer a commenting system much less show support for the worst the Internet has to offer by staying silent. Doing nothing only allows the bullying to continue unabated. And that’s what trollery is, when it comes down to it: bullies lashing out at a world they hate and do not understand, because its always easier to hit someone than consider they may have a point.
So, for those who stand by the old standby that “this is the Internet, what do you expect” and don’t understand why horrible comments should be exposed under the harsh light of day or that it’s a frequent topic of conversation, that’s your answer. Bullying.
We give money to a school bus monitor so she can leave her job and not be forced to withstand the brutal insults of children. We make videos telling many of those same children that life gets better the older they get, when our differences supposedly bring us together rather than drive us apart. We prosecute grown ass men and women when they harass teenagers so harshly online that the harassed commit suicide. We support movies on this very topic, regardless whether we’ve actually seen them. Just because Christy Lemire and Marshall Fine write reviews for a living and ought to have thick enough skin to withstand a deluge of negative reactions, that’s no excuse to simply allow death threats to continue, or to support it with the silence of inactivity. The real world may be full of assholes, but nobody is as big an asshole IRL as they are when commenting anonymously online, with the exception of Rush Limbaugh. There’s a simple reason for that: We’ve decided that, as a society, we don’t like bullying and have shamed people enough, and continue to shame people, for behaving that way. There’s no cachet in calling for somebody’s head on the evening news, so why should there be any for doing it on the Internet? There’s a saying that goes something like, we are who we really are when we’re alone. You may feel alone when you’re on the Internet, but you’re not, ever.
Cheers to Rotten Tomatoes for taking a stand, even if it was only due to the constraints of being unable to manage the comments on all the various reviews. They’re now reconsidering the site’s comments from square one, with an eye toward making anonymity that much harder to hide behind. The Internet is both the best and the worst thing mankind has ever done, and just because it is so often lazily described as the new “wild, wild west” doesn’t mean we have to let violence overrun our tubes. Kurt Vonnegut said it better in A Man Without a Country, even if he wasn’t writing about pop culture blogs: “What made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.”
Oh, and it should be noted that Amy Nicholson, the reviewer who mildly razzed The Avengers has given The Dark Knight Rises one of its most glowing reviews. Without looking, can you guess how many comments, hateful or otherwise, that post has as of this writing? I’ll give you a hint, it’s less than two.
Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He can’t wait to read and comment on Dan’s review tomorrow.