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Don’t read the comments! (Why do we read the online comments when we know they’ll be bad?)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Why did he read the comments? | CC, Photo by Troublemakers, Inc. Click on image for license and information.

One of the best things about the web is that it allows people to share ideas across boundaries. Right at this very moment, there could be someone from Saudi Arabia and Peru and Australia reading this article—and as a writer that is immensely cool. However, there’s no obligation for all three of those folks to agree. And because the web is not a one-way portal, they’re free to share their opinions in response.

Most comments are benign (“Cool idea!” or “This was interesting!”) and some are engaging in that they ask questions or share their own learnings on the topic in a friendly, conversational way. Some are less benign but harmless. For example, the person who goes through the trouble of logging into the commenting system to tell you that he wasted his time reading an article or that she was bored by the topic or goes on to list all the ways that you were wrong. But occasionally, someone will read something that they just don’t agree with—maybe it challenges her world view—and then all bets are off. Logic and reason seem to disappear. All that matters is that she lets you know how wrong you/the topic/the perspective/the subject is. And what a terrible reflection this is on society overall. Just like that the comment has become a rant. And it will snowball as someone will inevitably try to reason with the commenter or challenge her position or just plain call her names.

This is possible because we can bypass social norms online. We can get angrier online than we might in real the world, and say things that might be politically incorrect because we’re cloaked by a degree of anonymity. Although with the growing prevalence of linking social accounts to log-in protocols, this cloak is shrinking. For now, it can be cathartic to speak your mind though these outbursts rarely solve the source of the conflict. While the original commenter may hang around for a few volleys, he or she can depart the site and never return. There is no getting to the root of her discomfiture, no reasoning, and no resolution. There is so self-reflection. Ultimately, you’re among strangers. While you may be familiar with some of the personalities behind recurring screen names, if you have not made an attempt to integrate yourself with the retinue of regular commenters there is no obligation to observe the niceties required when relationships exist.

The thing with the web is that we don’t have to engage. We can choose to “walk away.” Many writers I know have a policy of not responding to comments—it’s something I myself do sparingly here on SciAm (though I do read them all) but was thoroughly enjoyed doing on the old home of Anthropology in Practice. But many readers I know routinely skip the comments, particularly for material that touches upon controversial topics. When they do read the comments, their response is typically some variation of “I read the comments. I shouldn’t have read the comments. Why did I read the comments?!”

This lament suggests they knew they were going to encounter in the comment thread. People can disagree about everything—from the media coverage surrounding the birth of Prince George to the best type of pets. There are some passionate people online. Still, something compelled them to read the comments. It might be a bit like watching an accident happen: they’re powerless to stop it, but won’t look away. And once the “crash” has occurred, some bystanders jump in to try to help, while others watch. The motives are simple really: curiosity and entertainment.

Comments help us understand where we fall in the range of perspectives about a particular view. We can agree with the poster (privately) and see how other people treat him when he shares his views. This can give us some indication for how our peers may treat us–unless they share those views. Sharing the same perspective as some of the commenters (whether it’s at the original poster or a rebuttal) can help us feel less isolated, particularly if our view is held by the minority. It can encourage us to seek out people who share these views and form isolated groups for support. Or we can disagree with the poster and find comfort in knowing that we belong to some sort of social collective–that our responses are in line with the larger social order.

There is also an entertainment factor to watching people make spectacles of themselves as they doggedly support erroneous facts. It gives us a chance to feel superior. The catch is of course we don’t know if the person is serious—whether they actually believe what they’re saying or are doing it to get an intentional rise from the audience. So our sense of superiority is short-lived, but it gives a chance to say “I would never do that,” even as we shut the tab in our browser.

Related posts:

Oracles Past and Present: Our Means of Managing Information

How Do We Wait?

Unmasking the Truth in Caricature

Science and Technology in Television Cartoons




Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. k banco 10:45 pm 07/29/2013

    I feel a bit silly commenting on this article but I felt I had to add that the funniest most ridiculous comments are found on youtube. They are the worst in every sense.

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  2. 2. gacorley 11:28 pm 07/29/2013

    k banco has a bit of a point — different online communities have different levels of comment quality. Political sites can often be laden with trolls and jokers. My own podcast comments are often quite constructive and useful, but it’s a highly niche subject with a very small listening community, so there aren’t many random jokers to really try trolling. It all depends on what community you end up with: how big it is, what it’s interested, and what unwritten social rules develop there.

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  3. 3. anumakonda 3:31 am 07/30/2013

    Very poor comments on Comments. I am a prolific reader and writer of comments. I had over 3000 comments in over 90 Journals in the last 3 years including Scientific American. My comments in many cases are more in size than the article! I have a blog. There are thousands of viewers in countries like US,UK,Germany,France,Russia,China etc.I share my comments in Facebook.

    The author does not know that there are many who read the articles and comment scientifically and innovatively.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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  4. 4. c marie 8:24 am 07/30/2013

    This story came up on the other day in a discussion of emboldening anonymity on the internet. A proposal to study female tropes in video games sparked such a backlash that social groups formed around terrorizing the researcher. But there is a happy ending.

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  5. 5. rkipling 4:43 pm 07/30/2013

    That pretty much sums up the comments reading experience. My experience with blogs and comments is limited to the last year or so. At the dawn of the internet, I looked in on a few chat rooms. I compared the chat room experience with watching grass grow. The grass was both more exciting and educational. (No. Actual grass not weed.) When I found the SciAm website, I began to read comments as well.

    It doesn’t take long to make the observations you have written about. There may be a natural progression from reading to participation. At first you don’t know which usernames are frequent flyers or have intractable positions. After a while you notice some people show up everywhere and must live on the web. Some seem to consider themselves renaissance men/women.

    Although some comments are truly educational in content with a positive tone, this comment category is frequently in the minority. Among the wide range of other comment types, entertainment may be found.

    Once you begin to recognize the usernames, you realize some commenters have formed informal teams that engage in daily combat over their favorite topic. Over at the Energy & Sustainability blogs you can find such a reality show almost daily. I would have thought they would eventually tire of the name calling and vitriol, but the last time I looked in they were still at it. At first I tried my own efforts at moderation between the sides. I quickly came to the conclusion that they enjoy fighting. Maybe a psychologist could explain what motivates them?

    Then as you say there are those who seem to need to impress the writer or readers. One of those already commented here. My guess is that if you have to tell people how fantastic and accomplished you are, there may be an unintended subtext to that message. But hey, what do I know?

    It’s true you know many comments will be bad before you begin to read them. But, it doesn’t take long to learn which to ignore. Occasionally you learn something or get a new perspective. Sometimes a commenter can be funny. I guess people repeat actions that fill psychological needs. Must be lots of different ones of those to fill?

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  6. 6. David Cummings 7:08 pm 07/30/2013

    I’m often surprised at the low number of comments on SA. When I first started reading this site (not that long ago) I expected a lot more participation than there is. What there is is generally good, but it just seems like there should be more of it. At least to me. Anyway, I really enjoy this site and many of the regular bloggers and I comment about 5 times a week. I would do more, but I’m too busy on the job.

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  7. 7. Prairie Dog 1:46 pm 08/2/2013

    Maybe I’m the only one, but I read the comments for a reason nobody seems to have mentioned and Krystal only indirectly implied. Amidst the arguments, the pet theories (because the writer is all wet), the outright wackos, the protests that such-&-such doesn’t belong in SciAm, and so on, often enough there’s actually something to think about in a comment or thread. It doesn’t matter if I agree with the comment or not, those think-abouts make reading the comments worthwhile.

    Oh, and some of the rest are so silly or outrageous that the comments make for good comedy relief.

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  8. 8. Quinn the Eskimo 4:52 pm 08/14/2013

    Skipped right to the comments! You?

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  9. 9. babzmasz 10:51 am 09/25/2013

    There’s definitely a distinction between intelligent discourse and using the internet to vent your rage and hate, with not just the subject matter but toward the commentator as well. Mix that rage with immaturity and mediocrity and you have a psychological Molotov Cocktail.

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