March 9, 2013

On The Benefits And Privileges Of Anonymous Commenting

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What is the issue?

“I was always shocked by how mean people could be when they were allowed to make comments anonymously online,” said Zooey Deschanel in an interview with Mashable about her website HelloGiggles last year. Now I’m sure a couple of you will head below and leave comments about how annoying Zooey Deschanel is; on this website, that’s something you’re free to do. When Deschanel and her HelloGiggles co-founders Sophia Rossi and Molly McAleer were creating the women-centric site, which posts essays, criticism and news items, they decided they would create a comment system that only allowed posting through Facebook. It was a bold move, making a fledging community (albeit one with star power) beholden to a social network populated by friends, family members and peers. Facebook has an annoying habit of posting comments you leave on other sites to your profile, unless you go through the trouble of making sure this doesn’t happen. Having your face and “real” identity tied to your comments ensured HelloGiggles would be a more positive, nurturing community.

I don’t think this approach is entirely necessary. So-called competitor sites to Hello Giggles, including The Hairpin, where I was a founding writer, and Rookie, both require commenters to register with the site (handing over an email address, but not exactly one’s identity). On these sites, people routinely hide behind avatars. That hasn’t added some snarky or trollish overtone to the comment threads. On the contrary, both communities are what I would call positive and nurturing. In a ridiculously over-serious article on the website of n+1 a couple of years ago, a writer argued that the reason these “ladyblog” communities are positive is because the editors try too hard not to disappoint anybody. I think it’s more likely that these websites, from the beginning, have known what they are and who they are catering toward. The commenters know what they’re there for. For the most part, they’re not there criticize or “hate-read.”

We have a different thing happening on Thought Catalog. As you well know, to post a comment on this site, commenters need only type a username and an e-mail address. It doesn’t even have to be a valid one. The results can be wonderful: in anonymity, people feel more comfortable sharing their personal experiences. People are kind and generous, applauding writers, thanking them, writing poetic responses to articles. We don’t shy away from many topics on this site, and they are topics that readers want to relate to. But the comments can also be dastardly, horrifying. A few weeks ago, one of our pseudonymous news writers, Charlie Morrigan, published a post called “Please Stop Bullying Me,” in which s/he detailed some of the nasty things commenters have written about his/her work, which aims to highlight the day’s funny, entertaining or uplifting bits of media. Morrigan writes:

As is common knowledge, people vent their frustrations and exploit their anonymity in comments sections, to the fullest — it’s a cesspool of id. It’s part of what makes the internet great and what inspires people to blame the internet for making people stupider. The very things people hate about the internet — the omnipresence of irony, irreverence, and so many other tones as to create a confusing, unpredictable morass — is exactly what I value about the internet. Here’s why: it challenges the widespread notion that there are correct ways to do, think, and act.

Morrigan’s hecklers are justifiably concerned that Thought Catalog is trying too hard to be more like, say, BuzzFeed, which is a river of cash but which is also overloaded with viral junk, or gems, depending on your opinion. BuzzFeed is doing two things: creating hundreds of pieces of (they hope) viral content a day, and creating a few dozen pieces of more thoughtful, long-form content a day. Thought Catalog is nowhere near as incessant with its viral content, but we appreciate BuzzFeed’s model: the viral content generates the money that allows BuzzFeed to (quite generously) pay its long-form contributors.

The number of people who have time to read quality essays about women’s rights, relationships or music is never going to come close to the number of people who have time to read a (pretty great) photo post called “If Britney Spears Can Get Through 2007 You Can Get Through This Day.” That’s just a fact of the world we live in. But we need long-form journalism. How do we pay for it? Should we apply for a government grant? Should we pay all our staff members $0 per post and just hope that we can “some day pay” our writers, as startups always claim in Craigslist job ads?

On websites with wild-west comment sections, like this one, the editors and writers benefit from a community of kind, indifferent and irascible people with things to say. We take the bad with the good because it fosters dialogue, however inspirational or angry or devolved, and it attracts attention to what we’re doing. Sure, sometimes it’s negative attention. A lot of Thought Catalog readers are disappointed by the number of lists, articles with the word “20s” in it, and short viral news items the site now publishes. But guess what: people want lists and articles about their 20s and short viral news items. They have time for them. These formats are quick and digestible. They also have the potential to be as affirming and uplifting as a 2000-word essay, as Morrigan mentioned.

Commenters have the power to change things, and the power of a quick and anonymous comment-posting system is that Thought Catalog has far more feedback than, say, HelloGiggles or GQ.com have. (The websites of magazines including GQ tend to require a long, irritating registration process, which usually results in you being sent magazine subscription offers to your e-mail address and possibly house. Observe there are not a lot of comments on GQ’s website).

There is a frustrating psychological component to the taste-making nature of comments, as pointed out in an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times last week. Its authors, two researchers at the University of Wisconsin, wrote about a study they published last month in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, which showed that, “Comments from some readers…can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place.”

The authors write that the “content” of comments seems to have little bearing on what readers think of an article; it’s the “tone” of the comments. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon on Thought Catalog and elsewhere. If the first comment on an article is negative, it’s quite likely that the subsequent few comments will be negative. If the first comment is positive, shortly thereafter a flurry of other positive comments tends to appear.

In the study, the authors set up a scenario in which study participants read an article and were asked to “respond to questions regarding the content.” After reading the article, the participants were exposed to either negative comments, which included “nasty” content like insults and swear words, or positive comments containing praiseful words. “The results were both surprising and disturbing,” the authors write. “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself” (emphasis mine).

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

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.

Thought Catalog parallel: “Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make a Thought Catalog reader think that an article was shitty.”

Sometimes the article is shitty. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes we don’t read it carefully enough to really know where we stand. I don’t know if this will ever change, but people shouldn’t hide behind a pseudonym because it makes them brave enough to say something nasty or cruel. It also goes without saying that if you are a “regular” of nasty commenting on Thought Catalog, you probably shouldn’t be reading this site, because it is a waste of your time, whether you recognize it as such or not. People should feel they can hide behind anonymity if they want to share something really personal.

I think negative commenters feel that they have some kind of power over the writer. Guess what: you do. That’s why Charlie Morrigan used the verb “bully” in the title of that post. Negative and positive comments actually affect writers’ opinions of themselves and also affect future decisions about the types of articles they’re going to write and the styles of writing they’re going to try. This is unfortunate. So we do sometimes succumb to the pressure to please as many people as possible. Thought Catalog’s audience is quite a bit larger than the audience of Rookie or HelloGiggles, which means the identity crises our writers go through can be pretty severe.

But it may be the case that the biggest hecklers flock to articles by writers who insist on doing things as they always have, who do not change or bend to feedback or traffic numbers. The trouble with being a writer, particularly a young one, is that you don’t necessarily know which feedback to listen to and which to ignore. You haven’t found your voice yet; you haven’t found what you really want to write about and what you really enjoy writing about. Commenters, continue to say what you will anonymously, but take a moment to think about that. For the most part, we don’t publish our articles anonymously, but you get to comment on them anonymously. You may say that it’s a luxury for a writer to get published and/or paid for an article that you think is crap. But it is also a luxury that you get to say anything you want about that article, and with a speed, effortlessness, and lack of self-awareness that few writers can themselves afford. TC mark

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