Science Says: Nasty Commenters Can Destroy A Website's Brand Over Time

You must be stupid if you don’t see the significance of this new study!

The debate over Internet commenters—ban them? Edit them? Give them jobs?—has heated up in a very public way over the past year. There’s been precious little scientific research done on the subject, though, so a study published in The New York Times on Sunday is a welcome respite from the escalating din of opinions.

In a study called Comments and Concern: Online Incivility’s Effect on Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies, a group of scientists investigate something the Times describes as "the nasty effect." 1,183 participants were asked to read a fictitious blog post about something called nanosilver, an emerging technology that had both benefits and drawbacks. Half of the subjects read an article with civil comments, half read comments that were personal and mean ("If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot"). The effect of the nasty comments was shocking:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. … 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.

While it’s hard to quantify the distortional effects of such online nastiness, it’s bound to be quite substantial, particularly—and perhaps ironically—in the area of science news. An estimated 60 percent of the Americans seeking information about specific scientific matters say the Internet is their primary source of information—ranking it higher than any other news source.

Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges—and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know.

As the Times notes, this kind of data is particularly important for topic-specific news sites about science or even design, like the one you’re currently reading. Most readers understand that a nasty comment on a post about a current event is mere opinion. But posts about an emerging designer or technology are much more susceptible to "the nasty effect," simply because of the nature of the topic (it’s emergent, or not yet established as valid).

The study could be read as supporting the idea that commenting can be flat-out bad for certain news platforms. If a reader gets used to seeing virulently negative comments on a site, it’s inevitable that they’ll instinctually absorb the idea that what they’re reading is implicitly bad. That erodes the quality of the site’s brand, and over time, could affect the quality of reporting.

In response, some sites are going so far as to dismantle their commenting systems completely. Popular tech blogger Matt Gemmell turned off comments on his site in 2012 and never looked back. "I’ve seen many more responses published on others’ blogs, which is good for everyone," he wrote in a follow-up, where he also noted that his traffic has actually spiked. "In a nutshell, it was definitely the right move."

On the other hand, commenting has been a vital ancillary to online publishing since the dawn of the Internet. It’s a way for experts to weigh in and communities to thrive—a particularly important element of a topic-driven news site. Some sites, like The New York Times, are attempting to amplify those positive effects by featuring particularly interesting threads, or designing systems that allow commenters to self-moderate.

There’s plenty of writing being done about the subject by people within online publishing, but I’m curious about readers’ opinions, too. So tell me: As someone reading a design-focused blog, how do you think commenting should be treated?

[Image: Hands via Shutterstock]

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  • Belinda de Souche

    Hey first I really like your blog, sometimes I wish you wouldn't post that much interesting stuff, it is often too much to read! 

    So on that particular topic I would position myself behind those who wants an internet as free as possible, so to me not allowing people to post comment isn't an option. I want to read about what people think, often I think the comments can be as interesting as the topic. 

    I agree on the point that it should get managed, because people being anonymous on the web makes them say things they would never say in real life, so I would tend more to a solution where other persons can rate the comments so that you can actually see which comment as the most support and so also the most value. 

    Anyway, the most important is that we keep our internet free!

  • Bryan Seow

    I think its great that an experiment has been conducted on this 'phenomenon'.  I read a lot of different blogs/tech/sports/web news, and I addictively sometimes read the comments section.  I find that most of it is vitriolic, but I still read it anyway.  Sometimes it's amusing, sometimes it's appalling, but for some reason it keeps me hooked on.

    If I think about general decline of the website's reporting quality itself, I'm not sure if they have.  I read Gizmodo a lot, and the commenters give the writers a fair bit of flak, sometimes well-deserved.  Maybe their influence is giving me the opinion that Gizmodo's articles have dropped in quality over time.  Or maybe they really have!

  • jonsenc

    Not sure if you've noticed, but a few former Gizmodo writers from years ago are writing for this site!

  • leoyork

    I had a stalker on my site and my friends told me not to worry about him. I eventually banned the stalker because of his hateful messages and negative comments against my company. When I banned him he sent my personal emails attacking me and telling me he was going to shut the business down. He created website pages, Reddit pages, Facebook posts, posted our personal messages to the public and even an imitation of my website. He felt he deserved an apology because I banned him. Finally, I had enough of him trying to destroy my companies brand, so I pursued legal action against and informed him. One day later he took down everything and quit pursuing me.

  • Nkupras

    At first I thought this was an interesting and insightful article, but then I read Pagolami's comment and now I'm questioning the integrity of Co.Design...

  • Bebas Nue

    It's clever comments like this that make the whole concept worth it for me. Although I'm questioning the integrity of the comment made on the integrity of Co.Design. It's conflicting.  May as well resign to nastiness.