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J.S. Mill’s Guide to YouTube Commenting

December 4, 2010


The vast majority of us have visited YouTube and scrolled through viewer comments, snickering at many users who have built up an infamous reputation for their often immature, illogical, and/or radical views. Likely, we have been quick to dismiss their views as utter nonsense. However, John Stuart Mill has a different philosophy about how to respond to our video-commenting peers. According to Mill, “It is not too much to require that the wisest of mankind, those who are best entitled to trust their own judgment…be submitted to by a miscellaneous collection of a few wise and many foolish individuals, called the public.” (On Liberty, Ch. 2) Each opinion that is stated, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, is highly valuable because it allows us to gauge just how accurate our own opinions are. In other words, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race…of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth.” (Ch. 2) As Mill explains, if we do not debate ideas, even if they are popular and widely-held, they become a “dead dogma” and a form of prejudice.

 If a commenter explains to us why Elvis is still alive, we review our own factual knowledge, and strengthen our belief that he is dead. If a commenter believes a video to be “lame”, such as the image above, we are led to question our own opinion of the video, and formulate a stronger conclusion. Nearly every comment serves as a valuable tool for testing our own beliefs. As such, almost any comment is fair-game, unless commenters fail to stick with what Mill calls “fair discussion.” The bounds of “fair discussion” are anything short of a departure from civil discourse. The image below displays a directly-stated death threat- clearly failing to meet the criteria of civil discourse. It is therefore unacceptable.

Additionally, as Mill (and Socrates) explain, there exists the ever-present possibility that the common idea turns out to be false. If a YouTube commenter explains his reasoning for why September 11th was an inside-job, we must accept the possibility that he is correct. For the same reason, those who challenge the law of gravity have a right to speak their mind. Any comment is valuable be


cause we don’t know anything for sure, and anything could end up being accurate. This therefore makes our own opinions no less powerful than theirs. As such, criticism of their comments is not justified. 

Mill uses the historical examples of Socrates and Jesus Christ as two individuals whose unpopular beliefs were suppressed by society.  In our society today, very little has changed in this respect. It’s a stretch, but each YouTube commenter we disregard may end up becoming the greatest philosopher or idealogue of the 21st century. We must respect every opinion for that reason as well.
We are obligated to respect our commenting-peers, for “on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” (Ch. 2) In light of Mill’s philosophy, we should all take a moment to think twice before “voting down” a YouTube comment.
  1. Jed Erwin permalink
    December 4, 2010 4:48 PM

    Your points are very interesting. It’s true that Mill states that all opinions that do not stray from the civil discourse are valid, but who is to say which youtube comments cross the line. Does saying something is “lame” fit within the civil discourse and make use think, or is it a simple minded insult meant to be destructive? You said that saying “I will kill you all” obviously crosses a line. But should this be seen as strictly a death threat? It is not likely, but isn’t there still a possibility that this is just criticizing the video like the comment “lame” is? There is not really a clear line, is their?

  2. greguff permalink
    December 4, 2010 5:30 PM

    This article makes some interesting points comparing Mill’s thoughts with ridiculous youtube comments. However, I do not think Mill’s theories can apply to most youtube comments. Mill did not want to suppress anyone’s thoughts and believed everyone had a say. It is true we do not know anything for sure, but some comments on youtube can be purely childish and completely irrelevant. Mill wanted people to express their thoughts, but i believe this is a little too far-fetched.

  3. Lorna Malja permalink
    December 4, 2010 5:51 PM

    This was such a fascinating post, i really liked it alot. I definitely agree with Mills that others opinions are almost always valuable because we do not know everything for sure. If someone disagrees with us, then we have the power to disagree back, but then it just makes our opinion stronger and better; because then we have to back up what we are saying. It is always great, i think, to debate ideas and topics because this is how people form powerful opinions and learn from others. It’s a fascinating process and definitely helpful. As far as YouTube goes, if people offer unpopular comments/opinions, well then thats fine. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and opinions; but we should take them into consideration because it’ll just make us think more. Expressing oneself is important!

  4. reedmarcus permalink
    December 4, 2010 7:13 PM

    I think this is a very relevant and i think that the thoughts of Mill correspond very well with the ridiculous youtube comments. However, for the most part, i am not sure if Mill’s thoughts completely connect with the majority of youtube comments because he felt that people should feel free and have the right to express themselves in any way that they choose. Although it is definitely true that we do not know everything for sure, many comments made on youtube have nothing to do with the video that a person used to try to express themselves and in fact are very immature and irrelevant to any situation. Mill wanted people to express their true feelings based on their actions and the situation, not crude unnecessary comments to attempt to seem funny or to just display immaturity.

  5. December 4, 2010 9:06 PM

    I liked your post here. It’s a very good modern application of Mill and it would incredibly interesting to hear what he would think about the internet in general and sharing opinions over it. I do agree with Jed Erwin though, that the comment “I will kill you all” may be interpreted as a death threat but it could also just be a comment to the lame video. The line definitely isn’t clear when we can regard comments as valid ones and when we can’t. That being said, I’ll keep this post in mind next time I laugh at any ridiculous youtube comments.

  6. yequan permalink
    December 5, 2010 2:18 AM

    Although Mill would encourage people to argue and debate, some information on internet is kind of junk infor. I think Mill prefer people to argue rationally, as John Locke believed that people are born rational. However, many comments on facebook or youtube do not make any sense. So I think Mill’s theory does not apply efficiently on youtube.

  7. saralustberg permalink
    December 5, 2010 4:46 PM

    Wonderful post. It ties in so many different ideas, and puts into perspective the concept of not judging others opinions and being open to new things. I never thought about the fact that when you hear an opinion very different from your own, it gives you the ability to formulate a stronger conclusion on your own thoughts. I doubt these youtube comment posters provide these comical posts in order to open our minds to new opinions, however along the way they happen to accomplish this without even trying. This is proof for how all the small, seemingly insignificant factors in life play a role in the conclusion of everything.

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