Don’t read the comments: A few notes on “online incivility”

Judging by the nature and scope of some of the project ideas I’ve received so far this semester, it’s clear that a lot of you are enthused by the opportunity to create something. To put your work, and thus part of yourself, out there, and control a tiny piece of this vast mediasphere. To connect with an audience of people who you can both teach and learn from. Good! That’s the perspective you’ll hopefully gain or maintain by the end of this course. More than any other medium, social media is about empowerment.

Empowerment, however, can be a double-edged blade.

Good advice from the Honest Slogans Tumblr blog.

The title of this post refers to a rule of internet conduct that’s becoming increasingly relevant as social media culture ‘matures’. It’s prompted, of course, by the ugliness that regularly sullies, and often dominates, feedback sections on blogs, message forums, Facebook pages and, infamously, YouTube. Under the cover of anonymity, some internet commenters storm past the boundaries of strong disagreement, and occupy a realm where obscene, abusive language, death threats, racism, misogyny and other (sometimes potentially deadly) expressions of deep hatred are seen as acceptable ways to engage in debate.


Trolls and comment section flame wars are as old as the internet itself, but the subculture has become increasingly salient as internet culture and offline culture converge. The subject really took off two years ago when Popular Science announced that it would no longer host comments under articles on its website. The highly-regarded magazine cited a 2013 mass communications study which suggests that “online incivility” in a comments section can significantly influence a reader’s perception of an article’s content.

In other words, beyond simply hurting and scaring the individual targets of their vitriol, abusive commenters can perpetuate misconceptions and misinformation regarding important issues, which can in turn actually influence public discourse, and ultimately, public policy.

It’s a scary thought.

The xkcd webcomic’s popular take on the topic.

While we’ve rarely encountered incidents of abusive feedback during this course, it’s important that you become aware of the harsh realities of internet comment culture. More of you are dealing with topics, like sexuality and politics, that tend to attract harassment. We’ll talk about dealing with that in class soon. Until then, open a notepad and listen to the most recent episode of the Cracked Podcast (which contains some salty language, just so you know).

(Here’s a download link. Listen to it on your phone on the maxi later!)

In their typically intelligent and irreverent fashion, the humor site’s writers discuss the and broader implications of the negative aspects of internet commenter culture. They argue (somewhat controversially) that the unparalleled freedom to express offered on the internet…can actually pose a danger to freedom of expression.

Their point is part of a much wider debate regarding the www.lividlili.comdeterioration of rational debate online, and they touch on some notorious examples of commenter malice and misconduct. The writers also talk a bit about their own experiences as creators who regularly have to deal with abusive feedback. One editor reveals that several freelancers even quit writing for the site after experiencing the vitriol of hundreds of angry commenters. Two of your own colleagues were similarly discouraged by obscene and inappropriate feedback last semester, but learned from the experience and pressed on with their projects.

Here’s some further reading on the topic:

How Comments Shape Perception of Sites’ Quality – and Affect Traffic. (The Atlantic)
Comment sections are poison: handle with care or remove them. (The Guardian UK)
Don’t read the comments! (Why do we read online comments when we know they’ll be bad?) (Scientific American blog)

And in case this post is leaving a bad taste in your mouth regarding social media, here’s an example of what a more benevolent commenter community can achieve.


One response to “Don’t read the comments: A few notes on “online incivility”

  1. Point well made Kayode, but human to human interactivity on sites is a plus. People do not realize that freedom of expression comes with responsibility.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s