BY JENNA JARDINE–His eyes flash down to the corner of the screen, to the little box showing his end of the video chat, checking his reflection. Australian social media buff Ben Walsh quickly adjusts the collar of his button-up shirt which had been laying just a little skewed, then straightens his gaze. “I absolutely am a commenter,” Walsh said. “I cannot help myself.”
In his twenties, Walsh has made a lifestyle out of commenting on social media posts from news organizations, following and participating in threads on Reddit and building a reputation of respect in the online comment community. Overtime he developed a philosophy around positivity in commenting, combating the age-old trop of ‘trolls’ with an optimistic, informed and kind alternative. Wholeheartedly believing it is the people who make the comment section, Walsh tries to keep commenting productive by encouraging people to make contributions that move the conversation forward, not stagnate it with trolling. Even if he feels someone is wrong, Walsh chooses to respect their right to an opinion while providing his own information in a take it or leave it fashion.
“I try to come to the ‘rescue’ of individuals being trolled or abused by acknowledging a perspective and asking for further productive criticism,” Walsh said. “We all need to be as positive and contribute as best we can. Be open-minded, knowing that not everyone is going to agree and we can all learn from that disagreement.”
A self-identifying computer nerd, Walsh spends time online gaming and commenting, but he also attends Thai boxing classes and lectures at his local universities in Canberra, Australia. Truly self-educated, Walsh counts the hours he spends taking in articles, books and audiobooks, reaching 1,368 hours last year.
It took time for Walsh to develop to this point however, bullied throughout his school-age years, both online and off, he chose to cut himself off from people as a method of self-defense. He describes it as the “typical story” being cyber-bullied by classmates for many years and falling into depression, contemplating suicide. He nonchalantly speaks of continued self-harm and drug use as he got older.
“My ambitions were shot,” Walsh said. “My general view of humanity and the world was destroyed. Then after some soul searching I decided I had had enough of feeling sorry for myself.”
It has taken him almost three years to the day to progress from his rock bottom, social recluse, drug addicted university-dropout being arrested and getting in a car accident that put him in the hospital, to a clean, outgoing, public service employee for the Federal Government who spends his free time bettering himself and trying to be a positive influence on anyone who will listen. Walsh looks back with no regrets, believing that if not for his past experiences of being bullied online he would not have understood the tremendous affect social media can have on people and would not have chosen to commit himself to making that affect a positive one.
Now, Walsh experiments with his own social media as the guinea pig for his positivity philosophy. He has harnessed his Facebook Newsfeed, following only ‘verified’ pages approved by fact-checking websites and uses social media tools that scour his likes for any pages that are known offenders. He has even unfollowed all individual people, from family to close friends, opting for a news covered Newsfeed and access to life updates from them only by searching for their profiles.
“It started slowly,” Walsh said. “Ultimately I found that as I read more information, I was less interested in a person’s breakfast than I was in reading news articles.”
Now Walsh only allows himself to follow news and science sources, including peer-reviewed science journals and news sources verified by the social media platform. Walsh believes this kind of social media curating can lead to a more positive environment online, crediting it with teaching him how to interpret news biases and engage in informed, productive discussion.
“I’m proof that this can be taught,” Walsh said. “If teaching people to use social media effectively was an actual thing.”
Walsh firmly believes that a lack of education on how to use social media effectively can be blamed for negativity online and that it often causes people to feel lost in the digital sphere. Walsh emplores people to imagine the possibilities that could come from comprehensive education on how to manipulate social media sites. Today’s youngest generations have never lived in a world without social media, Walsh says educating these students in this way could provide a catalyst for moving the current education system into the future.
“Just imagine all the positivity,” Walsh said. “This could provide an informed future to a world drowning in misinformation and selfish rhetoric.”
As of last year, just over two-thirds of Americans reported getting at least some of their news from social media says a Pew Research Center survey. Walsh emphasises that at this level of engagement with social media news it is becoming essential for the education system to adapt to the information age, or as he says the “misinformation” age. He believes this needs to go beyond classes on social media literacy, which have come into fashion as a way for older generations to catch up to the youngsters. Walsh stresses the need to teach young people about social media too, how to make their social media reflect their interests, engage in productive conversations online, fact-check information and how to distinguish bias and opinion from fact.
Others have taken on some of this perspective, in collaboration with Project Tomorrow Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts has begun to use social media in lessons. Teachers have conducted lessons using Skype to communicate with students around the world, but they do not necessarily teach students how to use social media to their advantage, as Walsh suggests. The George Lucas Educational Foundation, Edutopia, has taken a step toward teaching social media to students, collaborating with Facebook on a set of guidelines for social media use in schools. Many are hesitant however, fearing that the toxicity seen in social media will negatively impact students.
Walsh does admit that all too often comment sections become a negative space, regardless of how much he tries to foster positivity, but attributes some of this to a lack of education on how best to use social media. He says this can be defeating but that even reaching one person, injecting a hint of compassion and understanding, is enough of a reward for him, and enough of a reason to keep pushing forward.
“I have simply been ‘trolled,’” Walsh said, with harsh air-quotes around ‘trolled’ to emphasize his dislike of the phenomenon. “You learn to be impartial to those who only criticise and do not attempt to join the conversation.”
Walsh says this negativity can really rear its head when someone has been proven wrong, or even admits it themselves by changing their opinion in a long-fought thread. In comment circles this is called “changing your narrative” and it is widely condemned, leading to troll-like ridicule. Walsh says he doesn’t mind being wrong, and knows he often is, but dislikes the pushback against changing narratives, believing it can be a tool instead.
“That’s part of the process,” Walsh said. “It means they’re trying to be adaptive, considerate and learn!”
Nowadays, Walsh says his positivity is gaining traction. Many of his comments boast upwards of 100 likes and are accepted by other commenters with little argument. Walsh attributes this to the straightforward, simple positivity in his comments, saying people can tell he is just trying to encourage conversation and give support to interesting perspectives.
Walsh says he feels he gets more out of commenting with this approach. He preaches benefits of inspiration and human connections across long distances, making sure to mention his three new Turkish friends who he has “learned a lot from” and has to “translate-communicate” with.
Walsh lives off his feeling of involvement. His eyes widen and his chest rises faster with each breath as he speaks about interacting with others in comment sections. He likes being able to express himself in comments and meeting like-minded people he can converse with about his positivity philosophy.
“I love to see if I can sway anyone to feel as I do about approaching the space more collaboratively and with less hostility,” Walsh said.
Walsh also uses his sudo-status as a positive commenter to influence conversations where he can. He says throwing his weight into an argument can often change its trajectory. Whether he types out a quick mediating comment, acts as a facilitator to bring the argument back to its core question, or uses his own knowledge to inform other commenters, Walsh says it is always appreciated. Sometimes he simply provides a positive word or two in support of the commenters or of what he sees as a productive discussion, attempting to create positive momentum.
“The more I comment the more people are likely to be considerate,” Walsh said. “It’s basic human psychology that if you neglect to understand someone and force your own perspective upon them it will be rejected, usually with a heated and unproductive response which can escalate to full blown argument and hysteria.”
Walsh holds tightly to this philosophy, believing in the power of positivity to promote intelligent conversation. He thinks the first step toward a more productive narrative in comment sections is to be considerate of other commenters and listen to opposing opinions rather than be dismissive.
“It’s a good way to slowly change the world,” Walsh said.