IN the beginning, the technology gods created the Internet and saw that it was good. Here, at last, was a public sphere with unlimited potential for reasoned debate and the thoughtful exchange of ideas, an enlightening conversational bridge across the many geographic, social, cultural, ideological and economic boundaries that ordinarily separate us in life, a way to pay bills without a stamp.
Then someone invented “reader comments” and paradise was lost.
The Web, it should be said, is still a marvelous place for public debate. But when it comes to reading and understanding news stories online — like this one, for example — the medium can have a surprisingly potent effect on the message. Comments from some readers, our research shows, can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place.
What an arrogant piece of writing from the New York Times.
Paraphrased, they say that they used to enjoy being able to tell you what to think, and then some idiot let you express your opinion, and… shock horror, you opinion can change what people will think about the article that may be at odds with the author’s original intention.
And they think this is a bad thing?
Here at Whale Oil Beef Hooked I’m not afraid of what you think or what you write. In fact, it is actively encouraged.
But isn’t it nice to know that publishers of any ilk can introduce the topic, but they can no longer control the message?
Long may it last, too.
But here, it’s not the content of the comments that matters. It’s the tone.
In a study published online last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, we and three colleagues report on an experiment designed to measure what one might call “the nasty effect.”
Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”
The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized 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.
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.
What the story doesn’t show is that those ‘nasty’ comments aren’t all one-sided. Throughout the debate, there is balance to it.
To simply remove all ‘nasty’ comments, no matter what side of the debate they took, isn’t much of an experiment other than to lament the fact that they can’t control the message.
The New York Times does show that you have a chance to change public opinion with your contributions, and apparently, if you show passion and are committed to your particular point of view, you will be more effective at changing people’s perceptions.
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.
The arrogance of this piece astounds me. How is this any different to a Council meeting, a protest or the discussions at a union picket line?
They treat the reader, and commenter, as some sort of unintelligent, meek vessel that requires protection from “nastiness” and somehow needs to only have carefully crafted information poured into it, by, dare I even say it…
And your opinions my dear readers and commenters? They don’t want them unless you are nice and compliant. How dare you ague what they have so carefully crafted for you to consume and accept without resistance.