There's a great post full of insight and observation on negative blog commenting that was recently published at Scientific American. The discussion addresses how the tone of commenting threads affect a reader's comprehension and overall blogging experience.
First, there's an observation about the how the frequency of blog commenting has dropped with the advance of other forms of social media.
As many of you may already know, there is this thing called a 1-9-90 rule of online participation. In any given online community, about 1% of the participants produce most of the content, another 9% participate regularly by editing (e.g., on a wiki), commenting (on blogs and articles), occasionally producing new content (in forums, etc), and the remaining 90% are ‘lurkers’ who do not publicly participate but only read (though these days, many of them participate a little more publicly, if not creatively, by “Liking”, tweeting, and otherwise sharing the content in ways that are visible to others, but without adding any thoughts of their own). The exact proportions vary from site to site, but are usually close enough to 1-9-90 for the general rule to hold.This is definitely a trend that I've seen over the last year or so at SFDB and one that Obalesque noted recently as he frustratingly announced a hiatus for an indefinite time. I used to get numerous responses to my Questions of the Day and more provocative posts but these days comments are limited to a few, regular, and mostly combative, commenters.
Many people have noticed that the quantity of commenting, especially on blogs, has sharply decreased over the last couple of years. One reason is that discussion of the article or a post is now happening elsewhere – on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus…) or online communities (Reddit, Digg, Fark, Slashdot…), and are not physically attached to the original post. The trackback functionality is disabled on many sites due to enormous amount of spam.
Some new commenting systems are trying to re-attach such detached discussions back to the original post, but that is still not completely technically feasible – one can certainly not bring in a conversation happening on someone’s private Facebook wall. Some of those 9% of readers, instead of commenting on the post (at least a brief “Nice post, thank you”) are now sharing the link elsewhere and perhaps discussing it elsewhere, without the author of the original article ever being able to see that discussion.
Instead of “silent” participation leading gradually to more active participation as one becomes more comfortable with the site, it seems the opposite is happening: mildly active users are now becoming silent users as it is easier to click “Share on Facebook” than to post a brief comment.
But there is another problem here – most of the good, nice, constructive commenters may have gone silent and taken their discussions of your blog elsewhere, but the remaining few commenters are essentially trolls.
So what about the tone of those comments? How do they affect readers?
An article about nanotechnology, a topic most people know very little about and usually have no a priori biases for or against, was presented to the test subjects. Half the people saw the article with (invented) polite, civil and constructive comments. The other half was given the same article but with uncivil comments – essentially a flame-war in the fake commenting thread. The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.In other words, readers were getting wrapped up in the flame wars and not really picking up anything from the post.
The assumption is that on hot topics, like climate change, readers already come to the article with pre-concieved notions, and thus the civility of the comments would have no effect on them – they are already polarized. Choosing nanotechnology as a topic was a way to see how comments affect “virgin minds”, i.e., how the tone of comments starts the process of polarization in new readers.
Uncivil, aggressive comments resulted in quick polarization. Readers, although still not well informed about the topic, quickly adopted strong opinions about it.
Which is where comment moderation may come into play.
And even within the USA, the concept of free speech does not mean everyone has the right to say everything everywhere. It does not mean you have the right to say your stuff on my blog. It means you have the right to start your own blog. Just because I have commenting functionality on my site, does not mean you have the right to post whatever you want on it. Every host of every site has the right to delete, edit, or modify any comment in any way, to ban users, and to implement whatever moderation norms and techniques one wants.Word.
Commenting is a privilege, not a right. You have to earn it.
My blog is my living room in my home. I set the rules. I determine the tone. I determine the topic of conversation. When you post a comment on my site, you agree to abide by my rules, you stick to the topics I determined, and you keep the tone I deem OK to be used in my home (imagine reading out loud your comment in front of my wife, mother and kids). I have the right to warn you and to kick you out of my home – it’s my party, after all. You have no right to be here, no right to say anything – it is up to me to welcome you here, and up to you to ensure you are welcomed.
There's a lot more in the article, including a video on commenting, that anyone with a blog, particularly a blog trying to establish a commenting policy or better understand commenting behavior, will find extremely interesting and useful.
-H/T to Bark Bark Woof Woof