Later this week at ScienceOnline 2013, Emily Willingham and I are co-moderating a session called Dialogue or fight? (Un)moderated science communication online. Here's the description:
Cultivating a space where commentators can vigorously disagree with a writer--whether on a blog, Twitter, G+, or Facebook, *and* remain committed to being in a real dialogue is pretty challenging. It's fantastic when these exchanges work and become constructive in that space. On the other hand, there are times when it goes off the rails despite your efforts. What drives the difference? How can you identify someone who is commenting simply to cause trouble versus a commenter there to engage in and add value to a genuine debate? What influence does this capacity for *anyone* to engage with one another via the great leveler that is social media have on social media itself and the tenor and direction of scientific communication?
Getting ready for this session was near the top of my mind when I read a perspective piece by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele in the January 4, 2013 issue of Science.  In the article, Brossard and Scheufele raise concerns about the effects of moving the communication of science information to the public from dead-tree newspapers and magazines into online, interactive spaces.
Here's the paragraph that struck me as especially relevant to the issues Emily and I had been discussing for our session at ScienceOnline 2013:
A recent conference presented an examination of the effects of these unintended influences of Web 2.0 environments empirically by manipulating only the tone of the comments (civil or uncivil) that followed an online science news story in a national survey experiment. All participants were exposed to the same, balanced news item (covering nanotechnology as an emerging technology) and to a set of comments following the story that were consistent in terms of content but differed in tone. Disturbingly, readers' interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story. Exposure to uncivil comments (which included name calling and other non-content-specific expressions of incivility) polarized the views among proponents and opponents of the technology with respect to its potential risks. In other words, just the tone of the comments following balanced science stories in Web 2.0 environments can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself. (41)
There's lots to talk about here.
Does this research finding mean that, when you're trying to communicate scientific information online, enabling comments is a bad idea?
Lots of us are betting that it's not. Rather, we're optimistic that people will be more engaged with the information when they have a chance to engage in a conversation about it (e.g., by asking questions and getting answers).
However, the research finding described in the Science piece suggests that there may be better and worse ways of managing commenting on your posts if your goal is to help your readers understand a particular piece of science.
This might involve having a comment policy that puts some things clearly out-of-bounds, like name-calling or other kinds of incivility, and then consistently enforcing this policy.
It should be noted -- and has been -- that some kinds of incivility wear the trappings of polite language, which means that it's not enough to set up automatic screens that weed out comments containing particular specified naughty words. Effective promotion of civility rather than incivility might well involve having the author of the online piece and/or designated moderators as active participants in the ongoing conversation, calling out bad commenter behavior as well as misinformation, answering questions to make sure the audience really understands the information being presented, and being attentive to how the unfolding discussion is likely to be welcoming -- or forbidding -- to the audience one is hoping to reach.
There are a bunch of details that are not clear from this brief paragraph in the perspective piece. Were the readers whose opinions were swayed by the tone of the comments reacting to a conversation that had already happened or were they watching as it happened? (My guess is the former, since the latter would be hard to orchestrate and coordinate with a survey.) Were they looking at a series of comments that dropped them in the middle of a conversation that might plausibly continue, or were they looking at a conversation that had reached its conclusion? Did the manipulated reader comments include any comments that appeared to be from the author of the science article, or were the research subjects responding to a conversation from which the author appeared to be absent? Potentially, these details could make a difference to the results -- a conversation could impact someone reading it differently depending on whether it seems to be gearing up or winding down, just as participation from the author could carry a different kind of weigh than the views of random people on the internet. I'm hopeful that future research in this area will explore just what kind of difference they might make.
I'm also guessing that the experimental subjects reading the science article and the manipulated comments that followed could not themselves participate in the discussion by posting a comment. I wonder how much being stuck on the sidelines rather than involved in the dialogue affected their views. We should remember, though, that most indicators suggest that readers of online articles -- even on blogs -- who actually post comments are much smaller in number than the readers who "lurk" without commenting. This means that commenters are generally a very small percentage of the readers one is trying to reach, and perhaps not very representative of those readers overall.
At this point, the take-home seems to be that social scientists haven't discovered all the factors that matter in how an audience for online science is going to receive and respond to what's being offered -- which means that those of us delivering science-y content online should assume we haven't discovered all those factors, either. It might be useful, though, if we are reflective about our interactions with our audiences and if we keep track of the circumstances around communicative efforts that seem to work and those that seem to fail. Cataloguing these anecdote could surely provide fodder for some systematic empirical study, and I'm guessing it could help us think through strategies for really listening to the audiences we hope are listening to us.
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As might be expected, Bora has a great deal to say about the implications of this particular piece of research and about commenting, comment moderation, and Web 2.0 conversations more generally. Grab a mug of coffee, settle in, and read it.
 Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, "Science, New Media, and the Public." Science 4 January 2013:Vol. 339, pp. 40-41.