Comment killers do the science on user content
It was the age of information, it was the age of misinformation; it was the age of constructive debate, it was the age of destructive trolling; it was the age of useful amendment, it was the age of straw man attack; it was the age of fanatic adoration, it was the age of anonymous harassment; it was the age of free speech, it was the age of demagogy; it was the age of interaction, it was the age of alienation; it was the age of creative marketing, it was the age of parasitic spam.
It was, of course, the age of user comments.
Commentary and controversy
These days, news sites, personal blogs, commercial blogs, online magazines, social networking platforms and all manner of other internet fare are not to be found without their comments sections. The purpose of these features? To encourage argument and to give people a means of expressing opinion on the content in question, as well as to boost interaction between businesses and their customers.
But the explosion of online commentary is certainly a source of controversy – partly because of widespread bullying (covered extensively in the media of late), but also, according to scientific magazine Popular Science, because of pragmatic concerns about how comments direct debate.
Hitting the off switch
Popular Science has taken a drastic step and removed comments from its articles. It’s the opinion of those behind the website (opinion backed, as you might expect, by scientific research carried out by Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin-Madison) that bad comments do more bad than good comments do good.
Brossard’s research suggested that “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.”
According to Suzanne LaBarre, online content director of Popular Science:
“If you carry out those results to their logical end, commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded – you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.”
What’s new in the Popular Science story is the fact that the magazine is relating comment controversy to real-life issues about funding. The platform for misinformation, which is precisely the same platform for useful information, can determine which areas of science earn support and which don’t – a dangerous thing when you consider that comments do not have be informed in any way. They hold sway over opinion without the necessary qualifications.
Although the spokespeople stop short of saying that readers are too impressionable, this is undoubtedly one of the problems and it’s an effect that could easily relate to industries other than science and technology.
Experimenting with solutions
Popular Science’s stance is an interesting one and it’s obviously sparked debate, largely on the comments sections of news sites reporting on the story. Some think comments are a problem we could all do without, while others think the positives outweigh the negatives. The middle ground seems to hold that it’s better to fix what’s bad about comments than to wipe them out altogether.
Two possible solutions come in the form of policies being rolled out by Google and news site the Huffington Post. The former is seeking to tie the comments made on YouTube to users’ Google+ accounts in order to refine the debates users are exposed to – those made by ‘personalities’ and friends will have higher priority than everything else. Meanwhile, the latter now obliges commenters to verify their identity in a bid to marginalise trolls.
Both approaches have their critics, but it’s encouraging to see creative responses to the problematic nature of comments.
So, what next?
Even some of the staunchest supporters of online debate, marketers and content strategists, recognise the pros and cons that come from letting anyone and everyone opine and critique on the articles they publish, though few are prepared to go to the lengths endorsed by Popular Science.
It remains to be seen how the online world will adapt when it comes to encouraging useful commentary and suppressing the spurious and the unsavoury.
The irony isn’t lost on us when we say we’d love to hear your suggestions – just promise two things: keep it clean and keep it relevant!