The debate over Internet commenters–ban them? Edit them? Give them jobs?–has heated up in a very public way over the past year. There’s been precious little scientific research done on the subject, though, so a study published in The New York Times on Sunday is a welcome respite from the escalating din of opinions.
In a study called Comments and Concern: Online Incivility’s Effect on Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies, a group of scientists investigate something the Times describes as “the nasty effect.” 1,183 participants were asked to read a fictitious blog post about something called nanosilver, an emerging technology that had both benefits and drawbacks. Half of the subjects read an article with civil comments, half read comments that were personal and mean (“If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot”). The effect of the nasty comments was shocking:
Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. … 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.
While it’s hard to quantify the distortional effects of such online nastiness, it’s bound to be quite substantial, particularly–and perhaps ironically–in the area of science news. An estimated 60 percent of the Americans seeking information about specific scientific matters say the Internet is their primary source of information–ranking it higher than any other news source.
Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges–and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know.
As the Times notes, this kind of data is particularly important for topic-specific news sites about science or even design, like the one you’re currently reading. Most readers understand that a nasty comment on a post about a current event is mere opinion. But posts about an emerging designer or technology are much more susceptible to “the nasty effect,” simply because of the nature of the topic (it’s emergent, or not yet established as valid).
The study could be read as supporting the idea that commenting can be flat-out bad for certain news platforms. If a reader gets used to seeing virulently negative comments on a site, it’s inevitable that they’ll instinctually absorb the idea that what they’re reading is implicitly bad. That erodes the quality of the site’s brand, and over time, could affect the quality of reporting.
In response, some sites are going so far as to dismantle their commenting systems completely. Popular tech blogger Matt Gemmell turned off comments on his site in 2012 and never looked back. “I’ve seen many more responses published on others’ blogs, which is good for everyone,” he wrote in a follow-up, where he also noted that his traffic has actually spiked. “In a nutshell, it was definitely the right move.”
On the other hand, commenting has been a vital ancillary to online publishing since the dawn of the Internet. It’s a way for experts to weigh in and communities to thrive–a particularly important element of a topic-driven news site. Some sites, like The New York Times, are attempting to amplify those positive effects by featuring particularly interesting threads, or designing systems that allow commenters to self-moderate.
There’s plenty of writing being done about the subject by people within online publishing, but I’m curious about readers’ opinions, too. So tell me: As someone reading a design-focused blog, how do you think commenting should be treated?
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