Reading the Comments

Joseph Reagle 


Reagle knows his subject and sprinkles enough curse words throughout his book to make it almost NSFW if you were going to read it aloud. – David Strom

A book motivated by WTF?!?

Amy I Ugly?

What’s the Web coming to?

Facebook began as…


“I was incredibly impressed with HOTorNOT, because it was the first time that someone had designed a website where anyone could upload content that everyone else could view. That was a new concept because up until that point, it was always the people who owned the website who would provide the content.” –Jawed Karim (Cloud (2006))

It was more

People could comment on that content

To understand the Web

we should understand comment

What is comment?

It’s reactive

“What am I doing with my life?! 10 hours of breathing!” (xxxCRAZYchannel (2012))

It’s short


FIRST!! – Anonymous

It’s asynchronous


Ah, sorry - I caught the tail end of your tweet and didn’t see the whole chain. Sorry, sorry! (Tucker (2015))

It’s the stuff at the bottom of the Web

there’s a reason that comments are typically put on the bottom half of the Internet (AvoidComments (2012)).

Sifting the comments

Grabill - Washing and panning gold

we can learn much about ourselves
and how other seek to exploit us

I’ve read the comments

Half Dome

so you don’t have to

I visited: Amazon reviewers, fan fiction authors, online learners, scammers, freethinkers, and mean kids

Our mission

  1. Why do people abandon comment platforms?
  2. Why are comments often so awful?
  3. Can we trust comments?
  4. WTF?!?

Why the boom & bust?

Trent Reznor

I decided to lower the curtain a bit and let you see more of my personality…. I approached [Twitter] as a place to be less formal and more off-the-cuff, honest and “human.”

I will be tuning out of the social networking sites because at the end of the day it’s now doing more harm than good in the bigger picture and the experiment seems to have yielded a result. Idiots rule. (Reznor (2009))

He’s not alone

Geocities, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat, …

Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, Hacker News, …

It begins

At its start, Twitter felt edgy and intimate.

  • users were flush with encounters with a celebrity who had retweeted their comment
  • others (especially the famous) were thrilled to be able to authentically express themselves

People like talking about themselves

We spend 30-40% of our interactions speaking about subjective experiences

41% of tweets are of the “me now” variety (NaamanBoaseLai (2010))


gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible. (Dunbar (2004))

Why big brains?

Not our environment, our use of color vision to find fruit, the distance traveled while foraging, or the complexity of the omnivore’s diet.

But group size, the one measure of social complexity available to me at the time, did correlate with neocortex size (Dunbar (1996))

How many can we gossip about?

The answer turns out to be groups of about 150. (Dunbar (1996))

  • “who brought that guy”?
  • what’s with the spam?

Intimate serendipity

Many of us (most of the time) want to express an authentic sense of self without fear of attack, manipulation, or unusual exposure …

… while remaining open to things that will surprise and delight us.

Metal sludge

Trent Reznor

Looks like the Metal Sludge contingency has discover Twitter! Finally! … Metal Sludge is the home of the absolutely worst people I’ve ever come across.

It depresses me to think my art and life’s work can attract this kind of scum, … you trolling, cowardly pigs – you’ve succeeded. (Reznor 2009)

Lots of people disabled comments

  • Boing Boing (2003)

Th qck brwn fx jmps vr th lzy dg.

  • Washington Post (2006)
  • Engadget (2010)
  • Popular Science (2013)

Including Dave Winer

David Winer by Joi Ito

I finally decided today that even though sometimes I get some value from having comments here on Scripting News, in balance they’re not worth the trouble. So I’m turning them off.

There may be times in the future when I want to solicit input from readers. I’ll find another way to do that. (Winer (2012))

The search continues

…I’ll return to the “ads” bit soon…

The origins of “sludge”?

Kathy Sierra

author, blogger, speaker
The great Kathy Sierra
  1. supported pruning comments
  2. a woman

“I’m at home, with the doors locked, terrified.”

Kathy Sierra's Canceled Talk -- Bummer.

It began just over four weeks ago, when something shifted. It started with death threat blog comments left here (which some of you may have seen before I deleted them) including: “Comment: fuck off you boring slut… i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob” (Sierra (2007)).


Keeping it simple

  1. “Good” people acting badly
  2. “Bad” people acting out

Good people acting badly

Kathy Sierra is a hopeless dipshit. (Locke (2007))

CMC/Media theories

  • media richness (multiplexed cues, quick feedback, personal focus, natural language)
  • social presense (awareness of other as a person)
  • social information processing (rate of info exchange)

Behaviorial theories

  • disinhibition
  • deindividuation (loss of inhibiting norms)
  • depersonalization (reorientation to more salient norms)
  • moral disengagement (rationalization)

Before that…

Gollum model

and even that…



Bad people acting out

Kathy hollers like a stuck pig as she wonders why the trolls escalated to magnitudes which she could no longer control. The answer is obvious: she fought the LOL. The LOL won – Andrew Auernheimer (weev (2007))

The Dark Tetrad

  • two online studies (total N = 1215)
    • compare commenting/trolling to narcissism, sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism
  • 41.3% were non-commenters; 5.6% said they enjoyed trolling

Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behavior. (BuckelsTrapnellPaulhus (2014))

##Luka Rocco Magnotta

The trollplex

Our Troll Family 14/365

an attack by a spectrum of people exhibiting varied behavior, but who share a target, culture, and venues. (Reagle (2015))

Sierra’s trollplex

  • MeanKids: “criticism, pointed and insulting satire”
  • trolls: making mischief with no other instrumental purpose
  • haters: hurtful hostility
  • kibitzers: peanut gallery

Dont’s say DFTT


Can we trust comment?


Corporate Astroturfing

“Samsung fined $340,000 for faking online comments” (Souppouris (2013))”

“Samsung buying off StackOverflow users for publicity” (Marvin (2013))

“Samsung admits to posting fake user reviews on the web” (Knight (2013))

State Propaganda

  • U.S. Airforce’s sockpuppets
  • China’s “50-cent party” 280k members
  • St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency
  • Thailand’s Rangers Task Force 45
  • South Korea’s NIS’s 1.2M tweets in 2012 election

10-30% of reviews are fake


Vine reviews

The Social Graph

Nick Bergus’s lube

The Search for Intimate Serendipity

The platforms themselves…

will chase away their users

as profit seeking leads to exploitation and “extortion”

we’re in a world where the mainstream social networks want any and all people to boost user numbers for the big selloff and are not concerned with the quality of experience. (Reznor (2009))

Extortion 2.0

“Yelp and the business of extortion 2.0” (Richards (2009))

“Are Yelp extortionists giving restaurants the shakedown?” (Muneno (2012))

The social graph will not save us

… but make shills of us all

(Widder (2010))


Perplexing people


4 out of 5 stars

Stupefying systems




Rachel Maddow: “Is it possible that this started out being a private photo of yours?”

Rep. Anthony Weiner

It could be. Or could have been a photo that was taken out of context or was changed and manipulated in some way.

People get hacked all the time and it happened to me. (Reporter (2011))

What’s going on?

Comments are…

  • reactive: knee-jerk responses
  • short: confusion
  • asynchronous: frequent immediacy & pile-ons

… most importantly ….


  • comment is often hypertextual (i.e., beyond-textual)
  • it is also often hypotextual (i.e., under-textual)
  • the link between a comment and its object is easily broken as it circulates
  • we are often promiscuous in applying different frames of interpretation

Expedition’s End

What have we learned?

  • How to avoid awfulness?
    • Cultivate a comment community (like a garden)
  • What examples should not be followed?
    • Be a beta-reader, not a Mean Kid
  • What dangers are revealed beneath the silt?
    • Manipulation

by reading the comments at the bottom of the Web

I’ve come to the conclusion

comment is as “commenterrible” as we let it be



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