The future of comments

Is the end of online commenting on blogs at hand? Probably.

Multiple online sources are reporting on the fascinating result of a recent study that shows what people take away from a blog post depends on what early comments are attached to it.

The research hasn’t been presented formally yet but in short, researchers took a post on nanotechnology and showed it to people. In one version, nice comments were added to the post. In another version, a flame war of comments was added.

“The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article,” Scientific America blogger Bora Zivkovic writes.

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. Chosing 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.

They specifically chose a topic about which most people know very little and do not already have any opinion. Neither the article nor the comments contain sufficient information to turn the readers into experts on the subject. So they have to use mental heuristics – shortcuts – to decide what to think about this new subject. Uncivil, aggressive comments resulted in quick polarization. Readers, although still not well informed about the topic, quickly adopted strong opinions about it.

Complaints about comments online have been registered for decades, now. But defenders insisted falsehoods would be corrected by the overwhelming audience. That does not appear to be happening, especially — as Poynter’s journalism blog points out — there are so many places for reactions to be posted.

Smart people with something constructive to say about your article may be posting their thoughts to their Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr. Your comments section could be left as a second-class wasteland suitable only for logical fallacies and trolling.

Over to you Vi Hart: