January 13, 2013

The Problem with Comments

By Cynthia Alkon

When I read news articles on-line I now make a conscious habit of not reading the comments.  It turns out this is probably a good thing for more reasons than just that the comments are often annoying.  As one commentator noted, “The online peanut gallery can get you so riled up that your ability to reason goes out the window.”

A recent study by George Mason University, using a story about nanotechnology, concluded that rude or “flaming” comments polarized the audience and made people entrench in their own beliefs so they are less open to listening to the other side.  According to this study, merely reading the comments makes one respond emotionally and the thinking process is therefore more defensive.

I wonder how much this “on-line culture,” in which nasty, rude, and inflammatory comments are the norm, has contributed to the overall partisan nature of politics in the USA.  I wonder if  disabling the comments section for newspapers—forcing people to go back to the “old school” methods of letters-to-the-editor (which are not all published) might be helpful.  Or is the genie so firmly out of the bottle that there is no going back?

The recent piece, “The Science of Why Comment Trolls Suck,” describing the George Mason study can be seen here.

 

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Comments

  • Jen Reynolds says:

    I’ve been trying to think of a funny comment for two days now. Nothing.

    I will say, though, that although I don’t always read comments I like it when I read through a bunch of flame and come upon someone with a sensible, non-flaming contribution. I wouldn’t want all the sensible folks to abandon comments sections to the flamers because that seems like it could exacerbate the problem described in the article.

  • J.R. Johnson says:

    I Evelyn Wood thru the trolls. However, I love the comments, as I know my opinion, but really like it when my thoughts/conceptions are challenged in a meaningful way.

  • Lawyer Jim says:

    I think you have a valid point there. It is a well-known fact that the weakest link will pull everyone else down. Trollers are very weak links who hide behind the anonymity of the internet. Weak-minded people they are and cowards on top of it.

    I don’t blame you for not reading the comments.

  • J. Robin English says:

    Yes, anonymity combined with “off the cuff” responses have led to a more adversarial and unsafe environment in comments. Comments are generally not made in the coolness of reflection, but in the heat of the moment. I sometimes read them for light entertainment value, but usually ignore them as you do. The letters-to-the editor had more accountability, more time for reflection, and some filtering by the editor. Although returning to this method may help, I agree that the genie is already out of the bottle. Maybe technology can at least help to weed out the trolls by installing some safe guards like a new “troll button” for commenter control.

  • Jonathan Kincaid says:

    I think the study may implicate something broader about the way information is distributed on the internet. Internet articles have a tendency to be written in a hurry with limited information. The editor can always go back in and change or update it later. This incompleteness of information lends itself to a variety of interpretations many of which are often completely false. Therefore the comments share the same degree of lackluster attention.
    With a newspaper the print is permanently inked to the page and subjected to the control of an editor. The only way to correct the information is to issue a retraction. Therefore printed articles have a higher standard for information gathering.
    Newspapers are also largely local. If you comment on something in a newspaper you usually do so with your identity attached. People know who you are and they can respond directly to you. They can also understand more of context of what you are saying. Online you can be completely anonymous.
    Looking at online commentary it is impossible to determine a serious comment from a joke. It is hard to tell if a conflict really exists at all. For all we know two jokers could be having it out, thinking they had coaxed someone that actually had that viewpoint into a debate.
    On the other hand the anonymity may just allow people to reveal their truly uneducated or socially awkward ideas on issues. Maybe this is a good way of getting conflicts and misunderstandings out in the open because it gives us insight into opinions we did not realize were so prevalent.
    Personally I think the old soap box in the park was far more productive.

  • Chris Brown says:

    I try to avoid the “flaming” comments and look for comments that can be personally helpful. For example, if there is a positive or negative story about a local business, such as a new restaurant review, I will look to see if there are any testimonials from other patrons who either refute or back up what the story says. These comments can oftentimes benefit the consumer. A newspaper writer cannot possibly talk to more than a handful of people for each story he or she writes, and a restaurant review is usually only the opinion of one person. By reading the comments, it allows for a well-rounded discussion because anyone with an opinion can post a comment. In the case of a bad restaurant review, the restaurant itself can post a comment saying that the problem identified in the review has been fixed, or a patron who goes to the restaurant a week later can then post either that the problem at the restaurant is still there or that it has been fixed. I look forward to reading stories online rather than in the newspaper for this very reason.

  • Mark Clasby says:

    I have a debate almost weekly with a friend about the type of person that comments on an article or a Facebook status, and what it says about them or society in general.

    I love that we have the ability to instantly communicate with other readers and the author. The potential to add more substance is incredible, but the trolls really do get old.

    I expect to encounter them on some sites and usually can read them and laugh or create a back story to what is going on in their life that they felt the need to post such rantings, but sometimes they really do bother me that people can say some of the things they say without having to post their name.

    The internet has certainly changed the world in so many ways for the better. But I personally would give up everything the internet gives us to go back to the nightly news and newspapers. The letters to the editor are my favorite sections in periodicals. I do not think website comments are related to letters to the editor, because they often seem so warped.

    That being said, Chris, I do look for reviews in comments sections, but would gladly give that benefit up and go back to word of mouth without hesitation.

  • Matt Fronda says:

    The irony of commenting on a blog about commenting is not lost on me. However, I find that the comments can be useful in certain contexts. For example, I find that the anonymity can flush out hidden extremist beliefs that otherwise would not, and admittedly probably should not, be expressed. But I do think that it is important to know that they are there so that people can fully understand the issues being discussed.

  • Lawyer Jim says:

    Yes, a very unsavory part of internet life. Psychological intimidation has been given a new meaning.

  • Britney Tomberlin says:

    The ability to tell someone off without having to look them in the face, does appear to have bred a collection of individuals who seem to think that they now have free rein to say whatever they like without any regard to how disrespectful or rude they are being. I avoid comments as well for this very reason. Not only does it raise my blood pressure but also it lessons my overall hope for humanity. I’m sad to say that I do not only see this kind of rudeness and crudeness on social media sights but on professional sights as well. I had hoped, as a student, that maturity and mutual respect would have increase in a more professional setting. However, unfortunately, from what I have gathered from some sites is that the comments are just as disrespectful, but with a more sophisticated vocabulary. I’m hoping this is just my own personal experience and that others find that professionals tend to act professional, but sadly I’m afraid my experience is more the norm than the exception.

    That being said, I do think comments have the potential for being a place for meaningful conversation and debate. It is necessary for people to disagree and have different views. Nothing would ever change or improve if that were not the case. However, the idea that one catches more flies with honey appears to go out the window (along with the fly) when people start reading and replying to comments in the heat of the moment.

    Unfortunately, I think we are beyond the point of going back to the “old school” way. When people had to actually put pen to paper and pay for postage (trying saying that 10 times fast) in order to go on a rant. But, maybe that’s the answer. Maybe requiring people to donate a dollar or even just requiring them to pay the price of postage would cause them to stop to think and reflect a little bit more before they post. Or, if not, at least we may have found a way to end world hunger.

  • I disagree with the sentiment of this blog. Yes, there are those out there that log on only to turn off, but by responding and not just simply ignoring one only feeds into their trap. After one or two sentences/words one can realize that the comment holds no merit and simply move on. There is no need to exhaust passive aggressive feelings towards a complete stranger, do not let them dig into your own personal bubble. Conversely, if there is a valid reason for discussion then in a calm and respective manner, discuss.

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