Late last month, I pondered the implications of a piece of research that was mentioned but not described in detail in a perspective piece in the January 4, 2013 issue of Science. [1] In its broad details, the research suggests that the comments that follow an online article about science -- and particularly the perceived tone of the comments, whether civil or uncivil -- can influence readers' assessment of the science described in the article itself.

Today, an article by Paul Basken at The Chronicle of Higher Education shares some more details of the study:

The study, outlined on Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, involved a survey of 2,338 Americans asked to read an article that discussed the risks of nanotechnology, which involves engineering materials at the atomic scale.

Of participants who had already expressed wariness toward the technology, those who read the sample article—with politely written comments at the bottom—came out almost evenly split. Nearly 43 percent said they saw low risks in the technology, and 46 percent said they considered the risks high.

But with the same article and comments that expressed the same reactions in a rude manner, the split among readers widened, with 32 percent seeing a low risk and 52 percent a high risk.

“The only thing that made a difference was the tone of the comments that followed the story,” said a co-author of the study, Dominique Brossard, a professor of life-science communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The study found “a polarization effect of those rude comments,” Ms. Brossard said.

The study, conducted by researchers at Wisconsin and George Mason University, will be published in a coming issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. It was presented at the AAAS conference during a daylong examination of how scientists communicate their work, especially online.

If you click through to read the article, you'll notice that I was asked for comment on the findings. As you may guess, I had more to say on the paper (which is still under embargo) and its implications than ended up in the article, so I'm sharing my extended thoughts here.

First, I think these results are useful in reassuring bloggers who have been moderating comments that what they are doing is not just permissible (moderating comments is not "censorship," since bloggers don't have the power of the state, and folks can find all sorts of places in the Internet to state their views if any given blog denies them a soapbox) but also reasonable. Blogging with comments enabled assumes more than transmission of information, it assumes a conversation, and what kind of conversation it ends up being depends on what kind of behavior is encouraged or forbidden, who feels welcome or alienated.

But, there are some interesting issues that the study doesn't seem to address, issues that I think can matter quite a lot to bloggers.

In the study, readers (lurkers) were reacting to factual information in an online posting plus the discourse about that article in the comments. As the study is constructed, it looks like that discourse is being shaped by commenters, but not by the author of the article. It seems likely to me (and worth further empirical study!) that comment sections in which the author is engaging with commenters -- not just responding to the questions they ask and the views they express, but also responding to the ways that they are interacting with other commenters and to their "tone" -- have a different impact on readers than comment sections where the author of the piece that is being discussed is totally absent from the scene. To put it more succinctly, comment sections where the author is present and engaged, or absent and disengaged, communicate information to lurkers, too.

Here's another issue I don't think the study really addresses: While blogs usually aim to communicate with lurkers as well as readers who post comments (and every piece of evidence I've been shown suggests that commenters tend to be a small proportion of readers), most are aiming to reach a core audience that is narrower than "everyone in the world with an internet connection".

Sometimes what this means is that bloggers are speaking to an audience that finds comment sections that look unruly and contentious to be welcoming, rather than alienating. This isn't just the case for bloggers seeking an audience that likes to debate or to play rough.

Some blogs have communities that are intentionally uncivil towards casual expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. Pharyngula is a blog that has taken this approrach, and just yesterday Chris Clarke posted a statement on "civility" there that leads with a commitment "not to fetishize civility over justice." Setting the rules of engagement between bloggers and posters this way means that people in groups especially affected by sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., have a haven in the blogosphere where they don't have to waste time politely defending the notion that they are fully human, too (or swallowing their anger and frustration at having their humanity treated as a topic of debate). Yes, some people find the environment there alienating -- but the people who are alienated by unquestioned biases in most other quarters of the internet (and the physical world, for that matter) are the ones being consciously welcomed into the conversation at Pharyngula, and those who don't like the environment can find another conversation. It's a big blogosphere. That not every potential reader does not feel perfectly comfortable at a blog, in other words, is not proof that the blogger is doing it wrong.

So, where do we find ourselves?

We're in a situation where lots of people are using online venues like blogs to communicate information and viewpoints in the context of a conversation (where readers can actively engage as commenters). We have a piece of research indicating that the tenor of the commenting (as perceived by lurkers, readers who are not commenting) can communicate as much to readers as the content of the post that is the subject of the comments. And we have lots of questions still unanswered about what kinds of engagement will have what kinds of effect on what kinds or readers (and how reliably). What does this mean for those of us who blog?

I think what it means is that we have to be really reflective about what we're trying to communicate, who we're trying to communicate it to, and how our level of visible engagement (or disengagement) in the conversation might make a difference. We have to acknowledge that we have information that's gappy at best about what's coming across to the lurkers, and attentive to ways to get more feedback about how successfully we're communicating what we're trying to communicate. We have to recognize that, given all we don't know, we may want to shift our strategies for blogging and engaging commenters, especially if we come upon evidence that they're not working the way we thought they were.

* * * * *

In the interests of spelling out the parameters of the conversation I'd like to have here, let me note that whether or not you like the way Pharyngula sets a tone for conversations is off topic here. You are, however, welcome to share in the comments here what you find makes you feel more or less welcome to engage with online postings, whether as a commenter or a lurker.


[1] Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, “Science, New Media, and the Public.” Science 4 January 2013:Vol. 339, pp. 40-41.

DOI: 10.1126/science.1160364