Comments & Platforms

Bad comments

Comments often make an impression on us when they are an irritating element to be disables or an offensive element to be ignored (Reagle 2015, 3). Several studies have found that there is a significant amount of offensive, aggressive and deviant messages in online debates. It is difficult to find an exact number of uncivil comments, as reported numbers vary from 4 to 22 % (Vergeer, 2015). . While comment sections and online forums can provide people with a great community, successful platforms suffer from the negative effects of platform growth. The cognitive limit of how many relationships a human can maintain is around 150. And when an online community where all members know each other grows too big, people complain that the “magic is gone” (Reagle 2015, 3-4).

Because comments have such a bad reputation for being a place of trolling, critique, anti- social and anti-democratic behavior – what I have chosen to call derogatory comments - a lot of the research on commenting focuses on how much bad behavior there are in comments, and the reasons for it. Bad behavior online is not a new concept, and some qualitative research was done on the subject in the 1990’s, as the world wide web became popular. Phillips (1996) explored how a newsgroup used flaming as a defensive measure when faced with difficulties from new members that were challenging established norms. John Suler developed theories about why people behave badly online – ranging from the pathological to the healthy - (Suler and Phillips 1998), and his separation of anonymity and invisibility (2005) has been the theoretical background for later studies (Lapidot-Lefler and Barak 2012; Gonçalves 2015; Buckels, Trapnell and Paulhus 2014).

Later studies have used experimental situations and statistical analysis to look into the subject of derogatory comments and anonymity. Lapidot-Lefler and Barak (2012) concluded that the lack of eye-contact was the biggest factor contributing to bad behavior. Gonçalves (2015) looked at how comment sections are affected by anonymity and hierarchies and found that hierarchical systems with moderation by the users themselves lowered the number of derogatory comments, but that such systems are susceptible to abuse when users try to rise in the hierarchy. There seems to be some validity to the argument of anonymity leading to bad behavior online. The theoretical background provided through psychological research and the theories of Suler is backed up by some research results. Sites requiring users to log in with their real names to comment are found to have more civil content than sites where commenting is anonymous (Stroud, Muddiman and Scacco 2016, 3). Santana also found that being anonymous made users more likely to be uncivil (2014), but Rowe argues that the observed effects may be explained by other factors, such as geographical differences (2015, 126). The persistent belief that anonymity leads to incivility is why many newspapers have moved from anonymous comment sections to integrated Facebook comment sections that require commenters to use their Facebook account, and it has been found to have a positive impact on the civility of commenting (Sonderman, 2011).

The focus of alot of research on comments is bad behavior, and this behavior is often explained with anonymity. The current research, however wishes to look at other ways to study comments and explain online behavior with more than just anonymity.


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