Comments, Trolls, and Teaching

John_Bauer_1915_TrollsA month ago or a little more Popular Science discontinued comments their web site. BioLogos has been considering the idea, although deciding to retain comments for the time being. The reason is the effect that comments and commenters can have on readers – whether they themselves comment or not. And, of course, only a small percentage, something less than 5%, of the readers actually comment. The influence isn’t always positive or inline with the aim and purpose of the site.

The opinion piece This Story Stinks in the New York Times last March explains the problem.

The Web, it should be said, is still a marvelous place for public debate. But when it comes to reading and understanding news stories online — like this one, for example — the medium can have a surprisingly potent effect on the message. Comments from some readers, our research shows, can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place.

But here, it’s not the content of the comments that matters. It’s the tone.

The authors of this piece, Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, professors of science communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are two of the coauthors of a study The “Nasty Effect:” Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies published in the The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. The purpose of the study was to explore the way that “nasty” (uncivil) discussion in the comments on a blog or news article contributed to impressions the readers. They examined the effect on the participants in the discussion and on lurkers – those who simply read the article and the discussion. The results are not surprising perhaps, but should make us stop and think.

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.

This piece, Down with comments! Popular Science makes the right call, at the Washington Post supports the Popular Science decision although others complain that it smacks of censorship. Another NY Times editorial Comment Ban Sets Off Debate published just after the Popular Science announcement dug a bit deeper and looked at the ways other publications have dealt with the problems inherent in open commenting.

Scientific American uses what Mr. Guterl called a “sort of soft approach.”

Writers of articles are asked to participate in the comments and “add their own voice to them,” he said, so “you can set a tone without having to be dictatorial.”

Scientific American’s blogs editor, Bora Zivkovic, said communities of commenters sometimes aided the cause of science, solving math mysteries or helping spur retractions of poor-quality scientific papers. But if sites don’t have “the time and energy to really work on comments, then it’s better not to have them,” he said.

As a scientist I am interested in the issues of communication and science education. But as a Christian I am even more interested in the impact that commenting and the attitudes and tone expressed in comments can have. The problems run deep and the impact of a negative commenting environment is substantial. Zivkovic noted that before they began active moderation and engagement at Scientific American “it was a real cesspool in the commenting threads.” The real shame is that such cesspools are rather common. It is not possible to have a useful conversation without active engagement and moderation. Left alone the tone will rapidly degenerate. Effective engagement takes time and effort, which is why all commenting on these posts is confined to Jesus Creed.

Of course there are benefits to comments as well. At heart (and I venture by gifting) I am a teacher and scholar. It is hard to beat the satisfaction of a well engaged comment section with back and forth and the refinement of ideas, including mine. The next best thing to face-to-face interaction. I’ve learned a great deal from many of those who comment on my posts (and on Scot’s). Without this human exchange I rather doubt I would find the energy to write and post on a regular basis. Questions, clarifications, and pushback can make the medium both personal and productive. Bring on the disagreement and dissent, let me know when, where, and why you think I’m wrong (or right). Challenge other commenters as well. But leave the insults and personal attacks (even the mild ones) at home.

What do you think?

Are comments a productive part of online communication? Vote yes or no.

What needs to be done to create a productive conversation?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you would like to comment please see Comments, Trolls, and Teaching at Jesus Creed.

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