Commenting on Comments

24 09 2012

Commenting on Comments

“Today’s Wednesday at DailyGrace and you know what that means – commenting on comments, commenting on comments, commenting on comments!” – Grace Helbig of the YouTube channel, DailyGrace

Comments. They’ve been a part of the online community since it was founded. Comments are an easy way for people to discuss and share what’s been written about online, and to foster a community.

Comments can be fascinating and wonderful. Some blogs rely heavily on comments and in others the comments are the best part.

But at the same time, comments can also be vicious and hurtful. In a space where anyone can write what they’d like, with often little moderation, it’s expected that there will be some hurtful, nasty posts. And comments on larger posts – say a post from a major news network or site – there can be a large amount of nasty, vicious comments.

Recently I’ve seen a few people discussing online about how they often avoid comments. They say that reading comments, especially in larger spaces where there are more vicious comments, are annoying and don’t provide anything extra to their reading experience. There have been many people moaning,

Why haven’t I learned not to read the comments?

This implies that the comments are horrible, vicious, and/or do not bring any new, exciting discussion. And that comments should be avoided and ignored – they’re useless. This, to me, seems inaccurate and oversimplified. There are good comments, and there are good discussions through comments.

But at the same time, I could understand this complaint. I’ve read the horrible comments – the linkbait, the trolls, the “f— you” comments many times.

The idea got me thinking, and led to me eventually writing this piece. From my thinking and comments, I came up with four questions that seemed germane to the discussion.

  • What are comments?
  • How do they work?
  • What are the good and bad sides of comments?
  • Are comments helpful and useful?

***

First, the most obvious of the questions – what are comments?

We can look at comments from a variety of perspectives. You could look at comments in the most basic, obvious way – words that have been written online in response to something else. This “something else” could be anything – writing, a video, a link, another comment. Just something that has been responded to.

Another perspective is taking comments from a discussion standpoint. They are pieces of writing that create a discussion, wherein people discuss and share with one another their ideas and thoughts.

If we combine these two perspectives, at their very broadest, comments are words that have been written online in response to something else and words that foster discussion.

***

The second question I posed was: how do [comments] work? This question is also fairly obvious, but important.

Comments work when a group of people see something – an article or a video – and decide to write something in response to what they saw. They simply type out a few words, a paragraph, link a photo, respond to others who have also commented.

How does commenting work? People write words. The end.

If we look at how commenting works from more of a digital perspective – ie how commenting is designed and run – well, that depends on the site that is hosting the comments. There are different commenting systems, all with their benefits, and most of them are free. Most are designed similarly: one types in a comment, and then others can reply to the comment or block/report the comment.

***

The third question: what are the good/bad sides of comments?

Because I’m optimistic, let’s start with the good side first.

To find examples of good discussion, I went through my RSS reader. From there, I was able to find two blogs that I read, follow (and occasionally comment) that have strong discussion/generally good comments.

These blogs: Making Light, a blog run by editors Patrick and Teresa Neilsen Hayden, and Boing Boing, which is run by a group of editors (most notably Cory Doctorow. Teresa Nielsen Hayden also helps with Boing Boing as well).

The first thing I did when researching these blogs was look to see if they had any kind of comment policy or remark on the comments/discussion in any way throughout the site. As both of these sites heavily depend on comments, I expected that they would mention the comments somewhere.

Making Light encourages the comments, stating (in a prime spot in the front page),

We all think that the comments are the best part of this weblog. If you aren’t reading the comments, you’re missing half of the fun.

The writers on the site – Teresa and Patrick Neilsen Hayden, Abi Sutherland, SF writer Jim Macdonald, and Avram Grummer – also constantly cite the comments in their pieces and urge people to comment.

The site also creates a monthly “Open Thread”, where people are encouraged to comment on anything that they’d like and create their own discussions. The threads are incredibly popular, most averaging three hundred comments, and these discussions can often be fodder for posts on the site.

As for a comment policy, Macdonald moderates the spam comments that are received, and Sutherland moderates the “approved” comments, but there is no official comment policy.

As for Boing Boing, they have written an extensive, in-depth comment policy that is constantly updated.

The editors state that they enjoy comments, and that the goal of comments is:

Our goal in the discussion threads is to have good conversation, with “good” meaning fun, constructive, informative, entertaining, or all of the above.

They also state what they believe are “good” comments, ie comments that help enrich the discussion, and give a list of ways to enrich the discussion. A few of the ideas that they suggest:

New developments about the subject of a post. As the old comic strip goes, “It isn’t that (we) don’t like current events. There have just been so many of them lately.”

• Opinions that move the debate forward. Disagree with what we or another commenter has to say? Let’s hear it! But please be respectful.

• Comments that connect the dots. We appreciate you linking the subject of one post to other posts, even (especially!) when the connection isn’t obvious!

• Factual corrections! We make mistakes, we fix ’em.

They also list the “bad” comments, which are encouraged to be avoided. Most of these are fairly simple – don’t use inflammatory language, don’t spam, don’t get tangiental. They also reference blocking, ie people being unable to ever post a comment again. The editors state that spamming and inflammatory language automatically get someone banned.

All of the comments are moderated by the editors.

So there are differences here – Boing Boing chose to create a much more nuanced policy while Making Light does moderate and police comments but does not have an official privacy policy. This, partly, I think is the size of the sites – the former is much larger than the latter and much more well-known.

But the key principles are the same: the sites remove and discourage inappropriate comments and champion good, constructive comments.

Now, onto the comments themselves. I chose two random articles from both sites and examined the comments from both.

The articles are:

“Gardening on the Moon,” written by Maggie Koerth-Baker on June 19, 2012, from Boing Boing

and

“Robert M. Fletcher of Boca Raton, Scammer, Part IV,” written by Jim Macdonald on August 28, 2012, from Making Light.

Both articles received around 25 comments. The main differences, of course, are when the articles were written, as well as the subject matter, which is of course because of the random selection. The former is science-related and the second is related to writing and scammers that attempt to con writers.

First, “Gardening on the Moon”. This piece details how astronauts had once attempted to grow vegetables on the moon, in the space shuttle days, and how another group of astronauts attempted to grow marigolds on the moon. Both attempts failed.

The comment thread is peppered with jokes and science-related questions and answers. The thread launches with a query from commenter “Chen-Jih Chen”, who asks:

Hang on, isn’t moon dust pure poison?

His response is given by “Michael Smith”, who explains that

http://boingboing.net/2012/06/19/gardening-on-the-moon.html

No. Apollo astronauts were covered head to toe with the stuff when they returned from the moon. Many of them are still alive.

“Chen-Jih Chen” then responds by cracking a joke, stating that

How would you like to make $60, cash?  Are you ready to make some science?

Several others respond to his comment, cracking other space-related jokes. The next few part of the thread is others asking moon-related questions and getting responses from others. A few others make sarcastic jokes, like this ditty from “phalkon11”:

Moon material isn’t magic pixie dust that you can spray on things to make them awesome? Shocking.

The overall feeling of the thread is a well-educated sarcastic bunch. The answers are knowlegable and understanding about scientific issues, referencing studies and films. There are also plenty of self-depreciating/sarcastic jokes thrown around. Overall the comment thread is positive.

Onto the article from Making Light, “Robert M. Fletcher of Boca Raton, Scammer, Part IV”.  A bit of background on this article is needed before discussing it. Robert M. Fletcher, the man in question, is a scammer – as evidenced from the title. His brand of scamming is by working as an “agent” and scamming his clients, and forcing them to pay him money or enter confusing contract negotiations.

If you want to read all about Fletcher’s scams, the ladies of Writers Beware have you covered.

This particular installment detailing Fletcher’s crimes talks about a lawsuit that he had pushed against the ladies of Writers Beware. The ladies had detailed his crimes in detail and his reputation sunk. Fletcher did not approve of this and claimed that the women were slanderous and harming his reputation and business.

The majority of the series on Making Light details his crimes and also the lawsuit. This particular post in the series talks about when the lawsuit against Writers Beware were dropped. A happy situation.

So it’s not surprising that the comments are generally joyful and happy. A sampling (names are not used this time)

‘YES!”

“So happy for you A[nne] and V[ictoria].”

“That scammer finally got what he deserved, and I’m so glad this was resolved peacefully and happily. Much love to you, Anne, and Victoria, and thank you for being so strong and championing for writers everywhere.”

Again, this comments section is cheery, happy, and full of insights and celebrations. There’s also a bit of ribbing against Robert Fletcher, with users throwing all sorts of insults his direction. To be fair, he probably deserves it.

So here we have two, happy, pleasant comment sections. There’s general joy, happiness, and respect. There is sarcasm and ribbing – at the expense of commenters or the people in question – but the general theme is happiness, excitement, and good discussion. Questions are raised and answered, people strike up conversations.

The next step is to address the bad side of comments. To address the bad side of comments, I decided to search on some of the larger news sites. These often are pointed to as the ‘bad” sites for discussion. I chose two articles that were current of this writing:

“Ancient Text Reveals Jesus Secret” from the Huffington Post

and

“The Biggest Fall Trend is Patterned Jackets” from Styelist.com

I picked these two articles in particular. These are from huge news sites that receive thousands of views a day and thousands of comments – their outreach is much larger than that of Making Light and Boing Boing. [Note: yes, Boing Boing is a huge and long-running website, but they aren’t the world’s biggest website.]

Let’s start with the first one from the Huffington Post. “Ancient Text Reveals Jesus Secret.” This article details how Jesus, according to an ancient text, may have been married and had a wife.

As for the comments, I’m just going to get straight to it. Facts: 6,700 comments, tons of shares on websites [Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc, what to be expected with a major news site]. Okay, here we go on the comments. I recommend that you read the comments, though they are lengthy.

Poovoh

70 Fans

28 seconds ago ( 7:47 PM)

Yay! The truth is finally coming out!

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Richard Ritter

0 Fans

1 minute ago ( 7:46 PM)

Jesus took on the weight of the whole world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus had to save the whole world he didn’t have time for a wife. He was the sacrificial lamb to save people from their sins. He had to be pure in every way.

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trythetruthtoday

28 Fans

1 minute ago ( 7:46 PM)

Don’t you need to validate before you call something true?
“Before the year 400”, I think we would have known about it before then, as it would have been in the gospels or the apostle Paul’s letters. You couldn’t hide something like that.
The Bible does say that Jesus will be married to the Church, but even that has not happened yet.

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shrinktalkingheads

Battling misinformation since April 9, 1865

1773 Fans

3 minutes ago ( 7:45 PM)

“Look, I know they’re painting the last supper, but it’s my night to car pool the soccer team.”

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jdclamped

5 Fans

3 minutes ago ( 7:44 PM)

If jesus walked down the street right now Would you ask him if he was married or IS IT TIME. The average person really doesn’t care If he was The average believer just hopes he can bring peace to thier life and hope they live long enough for his return

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HUFFPOST COMMUNITY MODERATOR

Simondj

С днем рождения, мой брат!

403 Fans

1 minute ago ( 7:46 PM)

Since there’s a resurrection, what does it matter if you’re alive for the second coming or not?

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stephen morgan

We’re all bozo’s on this bus.

49 Fans

5 minutes ago ( 7:42 PM)

Maybe he was married. Would be nice if he was, considering all the suffering he had to go through from the political and religious leaders of his day. Maybe he had some good times, somebody to come home to at the end of the day. If some people are upset by the very idea of jesus Christ being married, that says a lot more about them than it does about the nature of Christ.

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Eric Silverman

49 Fans

17 seconds ago ( 7:47 PM)

What leads you to conclude that the depictions of jesus in the bible are based on truth? You seem to simply adopt as a reality that your version of jesus is accurate…but why?

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dolphins1441

49 Fans

6 minutes ago ( 7:41 PM)

Finally those poor priest can get it on!

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kritteracres

1405 Fans

6 minutes ago ( 7:41 PM)

Oh my if this is true……what excuse does the Catholic Church have to keep women from being Priests? This has to rattle the old coots cossacks.

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ArborialBiped

There is no spoon. But there’s a spork.

564 Fans

1 minute ago ( 7:46 PM)

Which is why this possible revelation will be denounced, mocked and/or suppressed by the doctrinaire Church patriarchy from the get-go.

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Eppylover

0 Fans

6 minutes ago ( 7:41 PM)

Feh. I’m still not convinced this jesus dude even existed. Scripture and mythology? Same thing. Wake up, people.

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Cammeron Ripley

2 Fans

2 minutes ago ( 7:45 PM)

read “The Case for Christ”

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Aries Warrior

1042 Fans

7 minutes ago ( 7:41 PM)

I don`t like how HP allows open discussions of EVERY religion….except ju da ism.

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Eric Silverman

49 Fans

3 minutes ago ( 7:44 PM)

I know…those jews that own the universe and meet secretly to control threads on the Huff Post are a threat to all of us. You fool…..pay attention and participate in threads that cover issues relating to the many stories that involve jewish people and Arab/Israeli squabbles. There have been many of which I personally have participated in.

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YoMama

Om

499 Fans

7 minutes ago ( 7:40 PM)

Priests are quaking in their Pradas.

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Dennis Fisher

0 Fans

7 minutes ago ( 7:40 PM)

What blasphemy is this Huffpost Social News firstly Lord JESUS was not born through Luciferian sin in the first instance which is based upon him Lucifer being as the sex demon Dagon with in mankind’s hearts known as the serpent god Ouroboros – Lucifer – Shaharit known as the Jewish Messiah.- Yod – G-d. Secondly He lord JESUS The Head Cornerstone of the Universe manifested to the cursed earth to destroy the Jewish Luciferian Yod – g-dhead and his New World Order conspiracy plan (1 John 3:8) that originated from the scripture prophecy of Jeremiah 11:9-10 so please tell your antichrist system Huff Post Social News the truth will set you all free from your blasphemy and propaganda.

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mishi

93 Fans

3 minutes ago ( 7:44 PM)

“Blasphemy” only applies to believers. The rest of us are kinda stuck on rational thought. You can stand there and yell in your hoo-hah echo chamber till you’re blue in the face…you believe in a Bronze Age myth, that’s all.

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bxgrrl

139 Fans

2 minutes ago ( 7:45 PM)

This is no way to get fans.

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EDS530

84 Fans

8 minutes ago ( 7:40 PM)

Jesus was married? What can any thinking person say but, Duh!

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Acleacius

101 Fans

8 minutes ago ( 7:39 PM)

Iirc it also fits with the gospel of philip. The apostles were jealous of jesus spending time with mary. he replied with the poetic allegory of the blind man.

“The Saviour answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”

Anyone else find it odd (laughable?) right wing religious extremists whether preacher or believer never mention or worst completely obvious to, philip?

Hypocrisy? There’s a poetic allegory for that too? Oh yeah, baby! 😉

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\

HUFFPOST SUPER USER

GNOLOGY

beliefs are the seeds of evil

312 Fans

8 minutes ago ( 7:39 PM)

Jesus would have had to have been married in order to be taken seriously in rabbinical Israel but Christians don’t take Jesus seriously so they have invented a cartoon character to replace him.

Okay, so admittedly this is a hard topic and one that is hard to discuss – in real life and online. These types of articles usually end up being pointed to as one that is an example of a bad comment thread. Religion – like this piece – and politics are the ones mentioned most for “bad comment thread” awards.

Let’s examine this.

  • The thread is mostly mocking/ignoring the discovery. The majority of the people in this thread are atheists.
  • There are a lot of jokes about God, Jesus, and how the church community will respond to these allegations.
  • The thread is generally an annoying, mocking tone.
  • There is a lot of anger and arguing about whether or not this is true.
  • Both sides are represented – there are those that believe this is false, those that are deeply religious, and atheists (the majority)

So generally, this hits every WHY COMMENT THREADS SUCK button.

Next article, “The Biggest Fall Trend is Patterned Jackets” by Styleist.com is exactly what it says: a slideshow of patterned jackets that were showcased at the 2012 New York Fashion Week from a group of fashion designers. This article simply explains the trend and then shows examples of it.

Most of the comments are, as expected, fashion related – and the majority dislike the style, saying,

“I expected more”

or

“Ewwwww, gross, end this NOW” and the like. There weren’t many positive comments and positive ones were shot down with, for instance, “b— sit down”.  They also made a lot of comments about the models themselves, saying that these models were frumpy, ugly, and looked overweight (“huge”).

So generally a downer thread – the worst part being the idealization of the models and the comments on them.

The final question is are comments useful and helpful?

In the end, I think it really matters what’s being discussed. Look at the differences between the Jesus thread and the fashion thread. While both of these could be considered “bad” threads that use hateful language and comments, these threads use different types of hateful language/comments and attacks – religious attacks on the first and body weight attacks on the second.

And what about the community? Boing Boing is a large community with strict rules, but the Huffington Post is much larger and is generally more lenient with comments. Compare also Making Light and Styelist.com; the former is much larger and has a bigger community.

In the end, I think that comments can be helpful and interesting and provoke discussion, but they can also be cruel, taunting, and mean. It’s a double edged sword. Thus ends this comment on comments.


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