“Don’t read the comments” might as well as be the first and foremost rule of the Internet. For many, the comments sections below fan forums, news sites, and sports blogs are where trolls live, waiting to trap well-meaning Internet users in debates that more often than not veer dramatically into racist, sexist, and most assuredly unpleasant territory.
For Joseph M. Reagle Jr., a communications studies professor at Northeastern University, the matter is not so cut-and-dry. Reagle sees Internet commentary — the short, reactive statements by users under videos, blog posts, or articles on the Web — as a valuable window into how people engage and interact with one another in a digital age. While comments can often be hateful or abusive, they can also provide valuable and ubiquitous feedback to businesses and individuals alike, in the form of product reviews and online tutorials. Fans and content creators can connect on a scale never seen before. Ultimately, these new means of communication could have a profound impact on people’s lives far beyond the Web.
Reagle explores this new frontier in a new book, “Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web,” out this month. Ideas reached Reagle in Cambridge via Skype. Below is an edited excerpt:
IDEAS: Is it worth reading the comment section at all?
REAGLE: I’m not necessarily saying that everyone should read the comments, but I think we can learn things about human behavior from them. Comments can improve us, inform us, shape us, alienate us, amuse us.
IDEAS: People have been rating and reviewing things for as long as there’s been a publishing industry — just take Michelin’s famous stars as one example. How has that tradition evolved online?
REAGLE: The Web has made reviews much, much more accessible, both in terms of posting comments and also being able to review comments. Reviews have always been around, but the number, the accessibility, and the ubiquity today are almost unimaginable. There are apps out there that allow you to rate basically everything in the world. And I’m actually a little concerned about this. I worry about us as social beings who live in a world where everything we do is quantifiable and ranked and open to comment by other people. It has implications for our ability to focus on things, implications for self esteem, and how we view our relations with other people.
IDEAS: The Internet is essentially an environment where both the reviewer and the reviewed can interact in real time. Is that a new phenomenon?
REAGLE: The variables are similar, but the extent and speed to which these conversations travel is significantly greater. That qualitatively affects our experience. I talk about the website Goodreads.com and a controversy they have had. The site was trying to cater to readers, but also to authors as a way to market their works. That ended up being a recipe for disaster. I don’t know if you can actually serve both of those constituencies because, on one hand, you want people to be able to talk about what they like and don’t like. On the other, you want authors to not get too upset about what people are saying about them. If you are trying to accomplish both in the same space, you’re going to run into trouble. For example, seemingly innocuous things like allowing users to create lists resulted in readers creating lists of “authors I won’t read.” And then the other side ended up creating lists of readers who were abusive.
IDEAS: Have people always been so nasty to each other, like one sees so often in YouTube comments? Or is there something unique about how comments work online that allows people to be especially cruel?
REAGLE: Since the 1990s, social scientists have been trying to figure out what happens to us when we’re anonymous. There are two big categories of theory. The first speculates ordinary people can act poorly because of the unique context online. The second, however, is that we’re coming to understand that there are people who have antisocial personality disorder or other personality disorders that are not good people to interact with. And they, too, are online, and it seems like some antisocial people might, in fact, comment more than ordinary people and have a disproportionate effect.
IDEAS: So perhaps the comment section gets a bad rap sometimes? Are there examples of sites with good comment sections?
REAGLE: I like [the community blog] MetaFilter. They’ve done a couple of good things. They started out as a relatively small community that fostered a civil social culture. They have a $5 signup fee. That’s not going to discourage someone who really wants to cause trouble, but it does discourage the sort of drive-by people who want to leave an awful comment and then leave. And it also has professional moderators who can intervene when things go awry.
IDEAS: What should other sites take away from MetaFilter’s experience?
REAGLE: Many comment sections were first put up as a libertarian, free speech space, where people could say whatever they wanted to say. I think we recognize now that that was naive. If you create a space and leave it unattended, it’s going to get tires thrown into it, and weeds will grow. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer and blogger for Atlantic Magazine, has likened the comment section to gardens: You’ve got to tend it and prune it if you want to see flowers.