Goldmine or gutter? The debate over online comments

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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The backlash against online comments continues.

Just the other day a post here noted Robert Fisk’s rant against their “digital poison”, together with Brian Edwards’ rage at the “democracy of the gutless”. To their ranks can now be added the Guardian’s beloved Charlie Brooker, who reckons that “enabling reader comments is the worst thing to have happened to newspapers since – since the last worst thing that happened to newspapers”.

And something more: actual evidence, from proper scientists.

Dominique Brossard and Dietram A Scheuffle, authors of a study published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, call it “the nasty effect”.

They asked 1,183 people to carefully read a news blog post which soberly explained “the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver”. They were also tasked with reading the comments.

Half of the participants were presented with comments in the voice of “civil readers”; the other half encountered “rude comments”. The commenters’ perspectives were essentially identical, but those read by the second group were peppered with insults and swear words.

The results were “surprising and disturbing”, explain the authors, professors of science communication at the University of Wisconsin, in a followup for the New York Times.

Uncivil comments not only polarised readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

Those exposed to rude comments … ended up with a much more polarised understanding of the risks connected with the technology. Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

They conclude:

Reader interaction is part of what makes the Web the Web — and, for that matter, Facebook, Twitter and every other social media platform what they are. This phenomenon will only gain momentum as we move deeper into a world of smart TVs and mobile devices where any type of content is immediately embedded in a constant stream of social context and commentary.

It’s possible that the social norms in this brave new domain will change once more — with users shunning meanspirited attacks from posters hiding behind pseudonyms and cultivating civil debate instead.

Until then, beware the nasty effect.

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While many are spitting out the reader-comment Kool-Aid, however, those who speak their minds “below the line” still have a friend in Rob Manuel, co-founder of the splendidly irreverent British website B3ta.com.

Yes, there are plenty of foul and intemperate comments to be found, he says, but writers should be willing to wade through it to pick out “the good bits”. What’s more, there’s a kind of class politics at play in bolting the trapdoor on the comments, argues Manuel.

I can’t help but see the class issues here. It’s even in the language and the structure of the page, “the BOTTOM half of the internet”. Like the servants’ quarter in a Victorian house; below stairs.

The power structure is the columnist at the top of the page, and the horrible ‘pond life’ (a phrase also commonly used by TV producers) who do it for free at the bottom. Don’t read them, the columnists say. They say nasty things about us.

Well of course they say nasty things. They’re given a smaller voice by the class system encoded into the very structure of article (top) + comment (bottom). All they can do is lob word bombs up the page whilst the columnist gets to write out their entire opinion at the top of the page and beam it to 100,000s of readers via a popular news site.

My advice to high profile columnists is remember you are in a lucky privileged position. Writing isn’t dreadfully specific skill – it’s taught to millions via our schooling system. And opinions? Well I’ve yet to meet people without opinions. Yes you are probably quite good at your job and you probably struggled to get there, but it’s a bit like being a successful actor or popstar – plenty of people have the ability few get the opportunity.

 

***

Ally Fogg, a regular on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site, mounts a similar argument. “Do not despair, dear commenters, because the fightback has begun,” he writes, crediting Manuel for beginning it.

He adds:

I’ve learned a hell of a lot from reading the internet, and I’d guess that I’ve learned at least as much from the comments and amateur blogs as from professional writers … As a journalist, I am forever picking up nuggets of information on topics of interest from below the line. Of course, many turn out to be somehow (or entirely) inaccurate or misunderstood, but a significant minority are immensely useful. I find it genuinely unfathomable that other writers would cut themselves off from this goldmine of knowledge …

Across the spectrum of news media, there is near endless provision of fantastic writing, intelligent analysis, informed wisdom and brilliant wit. There is also near endless provision of dross that can be easily ignored, and ugly and offensive opinions that probably should be. Sound familiar?

Over at Salon, meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth Williams demurs, picking up on Fogg’s goldmine image.

The thing about goldmines … is that they’re unpredictable. You can strike treasure – or just wind up going very, very far into a very, very dark place. And though the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication study suggests that neutral, “civil” comments have no strong “polarising” effects, that’s a payoff that doesn’t seem worth it anymore for some of us.

I love debate; I love a strong case for changing a person’s mind about a topic. I just don’t find that buried within the “This is crap, you homo” that seems to dominate so much of the conversation out there, nestled just beneath the stories. And I admit I’m still searching for the definitive defence of online commenters written by a woman. I suspect the vision of gold varies according to how many times strangers have called you a whore.

Even more than I don’t like hazarding the infectious misery that commenting so often spreads, I don’t like giving power to that vocal, influential plain old “rude” population. That’s the reason that whenever I’m tempted, after reading a story, to devote any time to the comments, all I have to do is think about notorious Reddit troll Michael Brutsch. In an interview last fall, he noted that “There are hot-button topics that you can make a comment about and just enrage people … Apparently I have a gift for pushing buttons.” Maybe I’m missing some great stuff, but it’s OK. It’s a small price to pay for keeping a person like that away from my buttons.

 

***

 

As Fogg points out, Manuel’s arguments in defence of online comments have inspired the creation of a Tumblr blog called The Bottom Half of the Net, which showcases some of the most intelligent, incisive and intriguing comments posted on sites. Mind you, if you type that name into Google, it will take you to a Tumblr with a very similar name, The Bottom Half of the Internet, but a very different function – a “compendium of the ridiculous, insane, angry, bitter or just plain mad comments littered across news sites, which make up the bottom half of the internet”. There are many.

 

***

For some people, however, comment threads can become a dangerous obsession, a medical condition, even. They fill you with an indignant fury, and yet you just can’t stop reading the confounded things. A remedy of sorts can be found in the form of a Twitter account, Don’t Read Comments (@AvoidComments), which issues a helpful daily reminder of what you should not be doing.

An example:

If comments are so useful, why is the ‘report abuse’ button right next to them.

Another:

You’ve read your article, now stop scrolling and just close that page. There doesn’t that feel better?

And:

You have time to create something beautiful. You have time to read the comments section. You do not have time to do both.

***

One more thing: an amusing (if not very accurate) Guardian comment generator.

 

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2 Responses to “Goldmine or gutter? The debate over online comments”

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