Tag Archives: comment sections

Comment sections vs. Facebook

Today was a very special day. Today I handed in my master thesis in Digital Culture. I’ve been researching comments on news articles, trying to determine what is the difference between commenting on news articles on a newspapers comment section and its Facebook page. And by the end of it, I ended up creating a website where i present the research, as well as a creative work illustrating the difference between comments on the two platforms, called Comments and Platforms.

Now, after reading and researching comments for what seems like forever, I am left with a new outlook on commenting. I used to think, as many others, that comment sections were vile and horrible places, filled with racism and sexism. But this has not been my experience while researching them. I have read many comments over the past year, and read a lot about them, and I have rarely seen what I would call uncivil behavior. Now, it may be that I’ve been lucky: that the newspaper I have been studying has very civil readers (doubtful), or that its moderators are quick and effective at deleting what may be a swarm of derogatory comments. The latter is more likely, though if that was commonplace I would expect to see signs of it: weird “gaps” in a communication, like replies to comments that aren’t there.

What I have found among the thousands of comments I have read is mostly positive or neutral. There are certainly quite a few idiots writing comments on news stories, but there are also some genuinely informative comments that have shed new light on a story. And of course, there are those comments that are just entertaining to read. And even if 80-90% of the comments are pretty much useless, isn’t that also true for media in general? I’m sure that most of us scroll by most of the content presented to us on Facebook, news sites, YouTube, Spotify or wherever, only being interested in a fraction of it.

I have come to believe that comments, and the comment sections they are written in, can be quite valuable. The world wide web gives everyone a voice. But comment sections gives everyone a voice – and an audience of as much as millions of potential readers. And journalists have reported that comments have positively impacted their work in several ways, including providing enhanced critical reflection and new story leads (Graham and Wrigth 2015).

But there is a problem. Even if I haven’t seen much of it myself, uncivil behavior in comment sections do exist. And anonymity is often blamed for this – wrongly, according to my own research. So many news sites began to use a Facebook plugin to power their comment sections – requiring commenters to user their Facebook profile. And worse: it means that it’s becoming more and more common for a Facebook account to be reqired for participation in public debates.

Some news sites have decided to close their comment sections in favor of using their Facebook pages to engage with readers. This was the reason for my own research. I think it’s important to know what such a move to Facebook is doing to the democratic quality of commenting. What I found was that there is more conversations, debates, questions, arguments and informative comments on a newspaper’s comment section that its Facebook page. Comments on Facebook are shorter, more reactive, and rarely fuel discussions.

So the quality of commenting is much lower on Facebook than a newspapers comment section. But what does improve on Facebook is the spreadability of an article because of the higher number of interactions through commenting, likes and reactions – all of which are automatically shared and spread to other people. The cynical side of me is tempted to think that this is the real reason for some news sites to shift their focus to Facebook.

In the end, the question is what do we wan’t with comment sections. Do we want them to be a place for public debate? Do we want them to be a safe space? Or do we want them to be removed because they’re not really good for anything? Personally, I’m in favor of keeping and trying to improve those platforms that facilitate public debate. And what I have found is that comment sections, even with their shortcomings, are better at facilitating public debate than commenting on articles on Facebook.

 

Sources

Graham, Todd, and Scott Wright. 2015. ‘A Tale of Two Stories from “Below the Line”: Comment Fields at the Guardian’. The International Journal of Press/Politics 20, no. 3: 317-338. DOI: 10.1177/1940161215581926

 

Can news papers create better comment sections through social influence?

It’s an almost established truth that comment sections on news papers are filled with trolls that write hateful and hurtful comments. In my own research, I have been reading dozens of comment sections. And I must say that I don’t recognize this description. In fact, I have seen very few hateful or hurtful comments. This could be because the moderators on the news paper I am studying are doing a good job, or that trolls simply do not comment here.

But of course, I know that trolls are out there and that their commenting is a problem. And while I haven’t seen much of this myself, I have observed a lot of meaningless comments that do not add to the informed discussion that comment sections should be.

So, if we want comment sections to be a place for discussion, sharing of informed opinions and argumentation, what can the news papers do? Moderators is not the answer. They can delete comments that violate community guidelines, but not much else. And you don’t have to brake any guidelines to post a comment that does not contribute to a good discussion.

 

An answer may be found in the importance of social influence, specifically indirect social influence. This is the phenomenon where a person’s opinions and behavior is affected by the information about other people’s action (Cheng et al. 2015, 2). What this means is that people, especially when they are uncertain about a situation, look to other people to find clues about how to act. Cheng et al. found that users of an online bulletin board were affected by indirect social influence. The users conformed to trends in the bulleting board by adopting both positive and negative information.

So how can the effects of indirect social influence be used to better comment sections? In his book, Net Smart, Howard Rheingold writes about virtual community organizers, and compares them to party organizers: “You don’t automatically throw a great party by hiring a room and buying some beer.” (Rheingold 2012, 165). On news paper comment sections, the news papers them selves are the community organizers. And they have “thrown parties”, or created the platforms, by setting up the technical possibility of commenting on articles. But Rheingold writes that the party organizers also needs to “invite an interesting mix of people, greet them at the door, make introductions, start conversations, avert fisticuffs…”

As community organizers, the news papers could potentially better the quality of commenting by being good party organizers. They could set the tone of the discussion by starting the conversation with a well thought-through question to prompt some informed replies in the first comments. And if Cheng’s findings about indirect social influence are correct, this might be enough for later commentators to conform to an established intelligent conversation.

I don’t know if this idea would work, and of course: trolls don’t conform to anything positive (which is where the moderators come in). But I would love to see this at least being tried by a news paper. I’m sure plenty of news papers already start comment sections by writing a generic question like “What do you think?”, or “Are you happy with the election results?”. But I would like to see the journalist ask a more thoughtful question based on unresolved issues in the article, one that forces any potential commentator to stop for a few seconds to think.

Again: I don’t know if it would work, but I think it’s worth trying.

 

References

Cheng Shu-li, Wen-hsien Lin, Frederick Kin Hing Phoa, Jing-shiang Hwang, and Wi-chung Liu. 2015. “Analysing the Unequal Effects of Positive and Negative Information on the Behavior of Users of a Taiwanese On-Line Bulleting Board”. Plos One 10, no. 9. Accessed May 7, 2017. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137842

Rheingold, Howard. 2012. Net Smart: How to thrive online. Camridge: MIT Press