Distraction Free Reading

Killing Comments: Back to the Future with Web 1.0

Two new strategies for dealing with online comments have set the interwebs a-buzzing. The first is the decision by Popular Science to shut off comments on articles on their website, arguing that they are bad for science. The second is Google’s announcement that it will significantly modify YouTube’s comment system by featuring more “relevant” comments up front, and providing new tools to moderate comments. While some people expect these decisions to usher in a new public sphere, others see them as harbingers of a return to the age of “Web 1.0” (if you’ll forgive that term), which still holds the connotation of highly-restricted forms of online participation.

According to Popular Science, although many insightful comments are posted, studies show that people experience more negativity toward certain announcements about science after seeing rude—even if substantively unrelated—attacks. In fact, “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.” According to the authors of one study, “uncivil” comments tend to polarize readers and distort their interpretation of a scientific story. The researchers found that, “Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”

Interestingly, one set of researchers quoted by Popular Science examined responses to a hypothetical article on nanotechnology. Yet this is already a highly loaded and controversial subject in the U.S. popular imagination. It would be interesting to examine the researchers’ findings on other scientific topics.

The site noted that there are other ways to “talk back” to Popular Science, including social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, email and other sites. In this way, commentary is redirected to other social media sites, rather than shut off completely. Yet, such a redirect does not ensure that the public will engage in civil interaction on matters of science. What happens when uncivil commentary on these sites potentially distorts readers’ perceptions of science? They will not be consolidated in one site for examination. What happens when social media sites change the parameters of discussion in ways that complicate participation? Is it possible that this decision, while motivated from a sincere concern about scientific knowledge circulation, may ultimately worsen the problem? Is it possible that bile is simply repositioned and ultimately controlled by social media entities that in turn, are discouraging free-form, online participation?

Take the case of YouTube. Google recently announced that “comments from people you care about will rise up where you can see them,” and the site will provide new moderation tools. Such tools include the ability to speak publicly or privately, or auto-approve comments from known fans. Instead of having comments listed in chronological order, Google will now sort them for your convenience, and put the more “relevant” ones closer to the top. Are you watching a video by Justin Timberlake? You will be more likely to see the comments he posts to his own videos right away. It does not appear that the other comments will disappear, but it is another step in an ongoing process to control what viewers see.

Obviously this announcement is brief and does not provide details for a proper evaluation. But certain aspects of it prompt concerns. For example, how is the Google Engine going to decide what is more relevant for me? According to the YouTube blog, comments moved up front will be those from the “video’s creator, popular personalities, engaged discussions about the video, and people in your Google+ Circles.” Maybe I don’t care what Justin Timberlake or a celebrity like Katy Perry said about a political video as much as I care about what a person criticizing the video has to say. Why is that information going to be buried? To bring the more “relevant” articles written by supposed friends in one’s Google+ circles feels like the move has more to do with promoting the floundering Google+ service than ensuring civility.

Of course these decisions already come on the heels of moves to eradicate any kind of pseudonymity for YouTube account holders. My account is AnthroVlog, and the service is constantly pestering me to choose a “better name,” meaning my real name. Yet why should kids who are learning to participate civically online always provide their real name to strangers? What about victims of stalkers who may wish to politically weigh in on certain questions brought up in videos? Why should they be pressured to use their real names? Should they be silenced just so that more advertising can be streamed through social media sites?

Some people still hold on to the myth that if everyone just used their real name, perfect cordiality online would ensue. Everyone knows the names of certain outspoken TV personalities. Are they always more civil? Even if this myth proves to be true in select cases, pressure to insist in every case on real names arguably precludes certain exchange of controversial opinions or views from vulnerable viewers that may nevertheless need to be circulated and discussed in a public sphere.

Although I deeply appreciate concerns about popular perceptions of science as shaped by comment systems, I am not convinced that flipping comments over to social media companies—which are increasingly finding ways to shape interaction platforms to promote their own services—is in the best interests of scientific knowledge circulation. Taken together these announcements may be ushering in a “brave new world” of retro-Web 1.0 that may ultimately complicate people’s ability to speak.

What do you think?

Comments welcome.

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