Comments made it possible for an author-reader relationship to develop.
Comments also facilitated reader-to-reader dialog and a community, one that could be (often was) far more focused than a discussion group (email or web board).
Comments facilitated a new, public conversation. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel wrote about what the phenomena meant for business and marketing in Naked Conversations (2006).
But those were the early days of the Net, so to speak.
As the millennium dawned, there were about 361 million people online globally and only about 108 million in all of North America. And even then, comment trolls were a problem. The WashingtonPost closed comments on one blog in 2006, the same year Naked Conversations was published. Yet that same year, Newsvine launched, with user-generated content at the center of its business model.
By 2010, Gawker was building digital speed bumps to make it harder to see and reply to comments.
And when we entered 2013, network effects were in full force, with 7 billion users worldwide and about 750 million in North America.
Scale happened, and with it came ever more trolls, ad hominems and an obvious lack of education (or disregard of same) about how to “argue”. Has the percentage of boorish behavior changed since the early days of Usenet? I’ve not seen data to support or discredit that question, but undoubtably the sheer numbers can turn some digital spaces into hostile environments.
An economist might call this phenomena a negative externality. Certainly, most of us think of it as noise. I doubt I’m the only person who avoids mega-sites like the DailyCaller, HuffPo and the like because of the volume of comments, even though there are gems hidden in the page-upon-page of scrolling required to scan them all.
Panning for gold might yield tangible riches (evidence: the California Gold Rush).
Panning comments can yield great ideas, but ideas reward the brain/soul, not the pocketbook. And panning is costly in terms of attention, something at a premium in today’s economy.
So people and organizations began shutting down comments. Some strategists now advise businesses to keep comments closed. And research suggest comments aren’t a primary draw for news site readership.
The latest media site to jump off the bandwagon is Popular Science, which is faced with the double whammy of scientific illiteracy and trolls. Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is sobering:
[About 1,200] people were asked to read a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments. All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.
“Disturbingly, readers’ interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story,” wrote authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele.
“In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself.”
And to this unnerving knee-jerk response (emotional, not rational) a staggering statistic: about 60 percent of us say that the Internet is our primary information source “about specific scientific matters.”
Public policy decisions surrounding issues of technology and science are growing in number and long-term importance. This universe encompasses everything from stem cell research to life extension, from robots to artificial intelligence, from nanotech to bio-weapons.
So how can we learn how to publicly discuss these issues without resorting to name-calling if the spaces that attract readers with dissenting views close their public room doors? If the only place people can discuss a controversial subject are sites with like-minded people, the odds are that our nation will become more polarized. Yes, research shows this sort of bandwagon effect.
Is the situation as hopeless as it feels right now? I don’t trust “technological” solutions when the problems rest with human behavior.
How do we move forward?
Edited for clarity.
A spot-on Twitter comment:
— Doug Thompson (@Dusanwriter) September 25, 2013