The Psychology of Online Comments

Written by Don Pogreba
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Maria Konnikova at the New Yorker writes about the problem created by anonymous online comments: on one hand, they increase interaction and contributions, but on the other, they encourage rude, hostile behavior.

As someone who consumes a fair amount of online news and can’t seem to help but read the comments on stories I know I shouldn’t, I think I have gravitated to the position that anonymity is an overall negative  for online discourse. At my own site, for every time an anonymous commenter posts a fair critique of one of my posts like Pogo’s critique of my focus on Republicans in this post, there are six personal attacks, off-topic rants, and unsupported insinuations.

Anonymous (or pseudonymous) comments are generally far worse, but certainly don’t have an exclusive hold on the kind of comments that derail thoughtful discussion of issues.

The New Yorker cites research that anonymous commenting tends to generate this kind of hostility, citing the work of John Suler, who researched what he called the “online disinhibition effect.” It makes sense—it’s simply a lot easier to attack people from behind the cover of anonymity or a pseudonym, because there is nothing risked. Without any jeopardy to your reputation, it’s a lot easier to engage in hostile, harassing, bullying, or just plain rude behavior.

While the article raises a number of interesting claims about the nature of online commenting, one point that particularly resonated with me was the idea that the most important issue was less the anonymity of commenters than the overall weight the tone of comments at a site can influence discussion and readers:

What the University of Wisconsin-Madison study may ultimately show isn’t the negative power of a comment in itself but, rather, the cumulative effect of a lot of positivity or negativity in one place, a conclusion that is far less revolutionary. One of the most important controls of our behavior is the established norms within any given community. For the most part, we act consistently with the space and the situation; a football game is different from a wedding, usually.

That seems like the most important issue about comments and their moderation. While I have considered moving to the Facebook platform to make comments more likely to be associated with real identities, the most important issue seems to be one of climate, not one of anonymity or individual rude behavior. If the climate of the comments section is hostile, it will encourage more hostile comments—and I am simply tired of dealing with them. I’m also tired of getting drawn into fights that are a profound waste of my time—and embarrassing to be involved in.

To that end, I’m simply going to return to applying the moderation policy I wrote some time ago. While it’s probably over-developed, the central rule is easy to follow: if you can’t debate a topic without personal attacks, you probably won’t see your comment last too long. If you choose to comment anonymously, the leash will be a bit shorter.  I’d love for people who comment here to criticize my posts, each other’s comments, and the ideas raised in both. That’s how we learn from each other, after all. So fire away. Just do it like a minimally respectful person who can engage on the ideas, not the personalities involved.

Some will no doubt immediately leap to the accusation that moderating blog comments is akin to totalitarianism. I call it encouraging civility, and the difference in our views is probably the best illustration of why I plan to moderate a bit more thoroughly in the future. If that’s not to your liking, the commenting policy spells out an option to consider, too:

In the end, you may find our comment moderation inadequate or oppressive. That’s what’s wonderful about the Internet. There are literally dozens of other sites out there and we urge you to explore them.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

43 Comments

  • The evil of anonymous commenting is what keeps me from adding automatic commenting features to Flathead Memo.

    Writing under one’s real name does not ensure civility in all cases, but it does ensure some measure of accountability. But anonymous commenters are overwhelmingly people trying to escape accountibility for their comments; the kind of people who ask not whether something is the right thing to do, but whether they can get away with it. So while I receive anonymous comments from time-to-time, I never publish them.

    I don’t cut the person behind Pogo Possum (and I now have an idea who that person is) any slack. PP is civil, but PP is hiding something, and in my opinion, is up to no good.

    Moderating comments and enforcing norms for civil discourse makes sense and has my full support.

  • I don’t think that anyone should post anonymously. Put it out there for the world to see. Hell, as I’ve mentioned many times, I’ve had slimeballs attempt to get me fired from every job I’ve ever had. That simply comes with the terrority. One of the absolute WORST offenders was that mary jo fox woman who used to work for marky ratco. She started by sending endless e-mails to my principal who just laffed them off. (I was teaching at GF Central at the time.) THEN, she sent them to the school board, who apparently didn’t pay much attention. THEN, she started sending them to the freakin’ bishop! She is one very sick woman!

    But the problem is that I never GAVE A SHAT what people like mary joke fox thought. I always knew that if I got fired…..AGAIN….I would simply find another job, for I have a good set of skills that always allow me to find employment. And the rightwing nutjobs like mary joke fox HATE me for that, for I laff my ass off at them!

    • p.s. To finish the story, I finally left Central ’cause they started gettin’ all weird into that 1950’s Catholicism. But I left of my own accord. I could have stayed if I had wanted. But the good news is that I am much happier now doing what I do! And so, I would like to publicly THANK mary joke fox for her crusade against me! No longer working at Central has allowed me even MUCH more freedom to do the writing that needs to be done. God really DOES work in mysterious ways, and mary joke fox can now look back on her life and see that it wasn’t a TOTAL waste! She created a writing sensation!

  • While we all grew up with some kind of nickname as kids… when you get to be adults, society has structured us to say what we mean in this country and back it with your name. As old fashion as some might think it, I believe it gives credibility to what you say, a kind of Clarity…. Using an anonymous name to comment does not.

    And before we all go off in tantrums about Cowgirls website, that is branding which to me is a totally different thing….Nobody’s known as Ap, or Politico yet I have see anyone complain about their names, and these Orgs do sit up and listen, when cowgirl posts…so save it. I have heard those arguments before.

    This is about commenters on Blogs

    I have heard countless times from people who say they do it to protect their job….My bosses knew what I was gonna say before I wrote it because I discussed it with them. They knew from the get go who they were hiring. and Countless jobs, had confidentiality Agreements they had better brought a lawyer too…cause it was gonna change. I understood product and design were a no no to talk about, but you don’t get to muzzle free speech in other subjects period.

    Not very many people know you can alter those outrageous kinds of agreements…. and most people don’t try. If a company didn’t want to hire me because I wanted it to change the agreement before I signed it to reflect my free speech in other areas….. I was more than happy to walk away…. after all only I have the right to take away my free speech…. me. It never would be worth the money anyone paid me to lose it.

    Another reason most people use an anonymous name is, they have no Idea what they are talking about socially they just parrot what they heard….Others don’t have the guts to face minority neighbors or co-workers the next day for crap they say as a bigot, or racist. anonymity is kinda like wearing a white sheet with eyeholes cut in while you burn a cross on someones virtual lawn. Cowards, who never grew up.

    Lastly if the Phrase “Consider the source” means anything, I don’t consider people who comment anonymously credible sources. I also notice an abundance of people who use multiple “Anonymous ” names in the comment zone to bolster an already weak argument they had, or try to talk over others who got the better of them in the debate. we all know one in particular who uses his real name here but he has a crapload of buddies who do the same thing?
    Really? If your argument is that weak why not admit to being wrong and move on…. Just saying

  • You all make good points regarding anonymous commentators.

    My experience following a number of blogs is that the frequency and degree of moderation/censoring of comments often tends to be directly proportional to the degree the commenter disagrees with the political views and statements of the moderator. Uncivil commenters (even those prone to childish name calling) tend to be tolerated much more if they do so while defending the moderator and trashing anyone daring to raise a counterpoint.

    One of my old law professors had a fondness for quoting Justice Black. It is worth considering for anyone thinking of accross the board banishment of anonymous comments.

    “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books
    have played an important role in the progress of mankind.
    Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout
    history have been able to criticize the oppressive practices
    and laws either anonymously or not at all… It is plain
    that anonymity has sometimes been assumed for the most
    constructive purposes.”
    Justice Hugo L. Black

    • I think Black had it right when he said that anonymity has sometimes been assumed for the most constructive purposes. It’s also often used by people who simply want to engage in destructive personal attacks without any jeopardy to their own reputations.

      My plan is not to ban anonymous commenters, but to be more aware of a moderation policy that’s already in place.

    • And I quote myself. Man UP, Pogo! This is Montana, dude. We don’t hide………..unless of course you’all are women folk! In that case, bring the feminine perspective! We’re ready. We can take it.

    • I try very hard to enforce name-calling and profanity evenly. I’ve censored Mark and Rob in one of their fights, and Larry once. I generally make a rule never to remove comments entirely, and not to remove that which offends or annoys me, only things that are generally offensive to others.

      • Matt’s a lot more even-handed than I am. I just prefer to skim and delete once I am following the moderation policy.

        If you’d prefer that I not delete comments, let me know and I will go back to ignoring them. I figure either works just as well for me, and the latter saves me time. 🙂

      • I don’t understand the need to do anything but apply a little reason. This hovering you guys do, the quick hook, is just part of the crosswalk guard syndrome, self-important, whistle, big stop sign…

        At my blog I don’t do much, let them have at it. I feared the kralj, as he came around after being banned at Cowgirl, so I set up simple rules for him: No caps, no nicknames. He abided mostly, even wrote reasoned sometimes. I did delete some of his comments when he started down that path. Funny, I delete him, you tolerate. Hmmmmmm

        This isn’t about manners, you know. You’re going to take down this comment too, even though it is not rude. You feel like what … you’re not in control? So what? You put up hundreds of posts, most drawing 0-5 comments (all abiding by your rules, I suppose) and it’s pretty boring. When people come in, have at it, go back and forth, and you get all officious on us. I don’t understand the psychology of your behavior!

        Down she goes. (People subscribed by email will read this Pogie, and see your inconsistency.)

        • The guy who states unequivocally he has edited comments of someone else out his Blog, telling you not to edit because he is different? Bwahahahaha!

          How hypocritical can you get Mark?

        • I do enjoy the fact that you seem to believe that anyone following comments is interested in my inconsistency when it comes to moderating your rants.

          I still wonder, though, why no rancor for the sites that have banned you outright? Your fellows over at 4and20blackbirds won’t even let you post. I’d really enjoy reading a treatise on their political and psychological tendencies.

          • You’re the one who wrote on the “psychology” of commenting, Don. honestly, I sometimes think you are without a modicum of self-awareness. I was quoting you.

            I have in the past been irascible and consequently was banned at 4&20. I am currently banned there because of JHWgirl, herself a RnF Dem like you, and petulant towards those who are critical of the party. I was banned at cowgirl near election time as it was the Democrat’s time to rally the troops, and I was an impediment. That’s all I can figure there, as I was neither rude nor out-of-lime, but rather merely speaking the wrong message for the minions.

            Mostly Democrats want to have tea with Democrats, as do Republican with their own, and ne’er the twixt shall meet. The degree of confirmation bias and group think is astounding.

            The money quote is this, from Pogo:

            “My experience following a number of blogs is that the frequency and degree of moderation/censoring of comments often tends to be directly proportional to the degree the commenter disagrees with the political views and statements of the moderator. Uncivil commenters (even those prone to childish name calling) tend to be tolerated much more if they do so while defending the moderator and trashing anyone daring to raise a counterpoint.”

            This is your psychology (your word) of commenting. You are looking for cover stories to get rid of people whose comments you don’t like for unstated reasons, easily discerned.

  • I don’t think that psychology has much to do with it, and pseudonyms are fun and not the real bogie man here. The real problem is that people either have forgotten or have never been taught that the ad hominem attack is not a logical argument to make your case. The personal attack is really just a public admission that you just lost an argument.

    As for me, I prefer to remember that Jesus said,

    “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
    (Matthew 5:11–12 ESV)

    Personal attackers, like screaming demons, just go with the territory for me.

    • Lets face it brother, you are attacked because you openly protect the meek, the hungry, the sick…. as moral believer of GOD. Correct? you are sworn to take the path not taken often…. and you use your name

      As Liberals We take the same path, not having to….. or believing in a different god, or no God at all…. and we use our name as well. We seek to do the same things as a moral obligation following a golden rule…..

      Accepting responsibility for your life, means using your name. Know that it is you who will get you where you want to go, no one else. Even the good Samaritan was known sir, because he traveled the same roads many times…..

      • “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

        Martin Luther King

        • King said,

          “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.” MLK

          “But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.”
          (Matthew 27:12–14 ESV)

          Is this silent victim guilty?

          • I was asking you father, not Jesus, in both of your replies you have not given me what you have incorporated in your own life, but what you believes Jesus expected of you? you have yet to back it up with your own experience

            Republicans openly attack anyone who goes out of their way to protect the less fortunate, it was exactly why Jesus was attacked in his day because he gave hope, and feed the poor who followed them

            Gabrielle Molina,12,hanged herself in her Queens,New York home after being viciously cyber-bullied by her middle school classmates, was she not innocent?

            El Paso teen Brandon Elizares, age 16, took his own life on June 2, 2012, according to family and friends. Bullied into suicide for being gay. Was he not innocent too?

            Alot of nasty things done to these children were anonymous in nature.

            Matthew 25:37-40
            37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

            40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

            Even Paul encouraged the early church by holding up the Macedonians as an example of a Christian community that, despite its own extreme poverty, was a living example of Christ-like giving to others… are you telling me now that it was only for people who became christians? Really?

            • Using the strong arm of the IRS to take money from some, and then doling it out to others through bureaucratic systems should not be equated with Christian charity.

              They are different things. Entirely.

              As far as my good deeds:
              Jesus said, ” “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,”
              (Matthew 6:3 ESV)

              • “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Also Part of Mathew brother,

                2 Timothy 3:16
                16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

                • “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” Matthew 22:21

                  Jesus wasn’t against paying taxes either!

          • I’m pretty sure Jesus did quite the opposite of passively accepting evil. Those who do, however, are punished. Remember, the goats don’t go to Hell for doing anything bad – they go to Hell simply for not doing anything good.

            • Sorry everyone, we are way off topic, and my main point.

              “Remember, the goats don’t go to Hell for doing anything bad – they go to Hell simply for not doing anything good.”

              Please reread the text more carefully, paying close attention to Matthew 25 verses 40 and 45. Isn’t Jesus judging by two different standards? The blessed did good to at least one, the cursed may have only miss one! Why?

              • There is no Christian faith that claims to know unquestionably what happens to animals when they die. because they do not follow the old testament

                but reading the book of Noah pretty much proves that the new covenant God made with NOAH he made with with every animal as well.

                Note that in Genesis 7: 2 – 4, God not only orders “two of every kind”, but also orders “seven of every clean animal”. Why?

                Now look at Genesis 8: 17, 10-22. Noah’s first act, upon setting foot on dry land, is to sacrifice one of every clean animal. Perhaps it was not Noah’s behavior that set him apart from the other people who were condemned to the flood… perhaps it was the fact that he was “righteous by the blood” of sacrificed animals. Noah is certainly not portrayed as sinless, yet he pleased God. Hmmm….?

                Now, in Genesis 9: 1 – 5, God makes His covenant with Noah. In verse 1, He reminds Noah of elements of the covenant with Adam. This new covenant does not replace the old, but augments it.

                Then, in verse 2, He does something that may seem strange. “And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given.”

                You see, up to now, animals were NOT wild. They were unafraid of man. This is the reverse of what we were taught – that wild animals were tamed and domesticated… but it seems that first, it was the other way.

                In verse 3, God institutes meat-eating. Now, here is the reason the animals needed to fear man… and also the reason there were SEVEN of the clean animals. Man will now eat the clean animals, and sacrifice them to God, and more were needed, so that they could survive and reproduce.

                Verses 5 – 6 establish that those who commit murder are required to die, and this goes for animals that kill man, also.

                Now, after the Covenant has been defined, God states WITH WHOM the covenant is made… ( vs 9 & 10) “Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.”

                Again, the fate of the animals is one and the same as the fate of mankind. therefore they do have a soul. … which means they do go somewhere in Gods protection, and that might very well be heaven

                • This is why wildlife preservation is so important to me. They were given the same rights as men and were supposed to be protected and handled with great care because they were given to us as a great gift.

                  Thats why the Native indians are right today to pray over the buffalo, and other game animals to thank them for their sacrifice so that the indian may eat. I do it when I hunt, I also shoot with the presence of mind to cause as little suffering to the animal as possible.

      • You said, “Lets face it brother, you are attacked because you openly protect the meek, the hungry, the sick…. as moral believer of GOD. Correct?”

        No, Jesus is clear. I bear the name of Jesus, therefore I suffer. If Jesus had just protected the meek, fed the hungry, and healed the sick he never would have been crucified. Also when I speak up for, or help those in need I have never been persecuted, but instead am praised. But speak the words of Jesus, who was God in the flesh, who suffered willing and meekly to bring God’s righteousness to us, then people utter evil about me on account of Jesus.

        • Lastly you are not supposed to suffer, because jesus suffered for you.

          James 1:2
          2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds,

          Philippians 4:8
          8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

          Some of you, teaching today, those who would be faithful, Teach way too much fear.

          • You said, “Lastly, you are not suppose to suffer…”

            Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.”
            (Matthew 10:24–25 ESV)

            • See there is that fear crap again. know you no good news?

              JOHN 8:31: “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.'”

              • Good! And here is some more.

                “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?””
                (John 11:25–26 ESV)

                • No Actually I don’t. I am a jew, we don’t consider Jesus the Messiah.

                  Most of us have read the bible cover to cover and find it to be a horrible misinterpretation of the Torah.
                  Christianity believes that God came down to earth in human form, as Jesus said: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

                  The Torah states that God cannot not take any form.:

                  “You will not be able to see My face, for no human can see my face and live” (Exodus 33:18-20)

                  “You did not see any form on the day God spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of fire” (Deuteronomy 4:15)

                  As little as we may know about God’s nature, Judaism has always believed that God is Incorporeal, meaning that He assumes no physical form. God is Eternal, He is Infinite; above time and beyond space. He cannot be born, and cannot die.

                  The Christian idea of a trinity contradicts the most basic tenet of Judaism – that God is One. Jews have declared their belief in a single unified God twice daily ever since the giving of the Torah at Sinai – almost two thousand years before Christianity.

                  The trinity suggests a three part deity: The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (Matthew 28:19).

                  In Jewish law, worship of a three-part god is considered idolatry; one of the three cardinal sins for which a person should rather give up his life than transgress. The idea of the trinity is absolutely incompatible with Judaism.

                  I could go on and on and on. this is why most Jewish leaders find the Jefferson Bible as the most effective book for people who place there trust in Jesus.

                  Thomas Jefferson’s version was without all the Magic and scary you keep spouting, and passed out to all new politicians for over 50 years in washington DC.

  • My, oh my. So Mr. Pogreba really is going to invoke pop psychologist Maria Konnikova as an authority on internet commenting behavior?

    If so, maybe he has previously been influenced by one of Ms. Konnikova’s previous blog articles for Scientific American?

    “Thomas Wolfe liked to masturbate before each of his writing sessions: the activity, he said, helped inspire his imagination and put him in the proper mindset for writing (a “good male feeling,” he called it).”

    I’d offer that Mr. Pogreba seems to have a “good male feeling” with much of his writing as of late.

    • Obviously. you didn’t read the article Jackie. She was talking about new research on peoples ritualistic tendencies before doing their work. she was merely citing some of the more odder traits people freely said they did before going to work, doing their jobs etc.

      Sorry science is so squeamish for you?

    • You managed to combine demonstrating an incapacity or unwillingness to read an article you linked and an unnecessary, juvenile attack in one comment.

      Well done.

  • I comment under a “handle” for simplicity’s sake. I have never tried to hide my real name and never will. Given the length of time I have used an internet avatar (since the early ARC days for those of you who are into that kind of thing), it is simply easier for me.

    I moderate the comments at my blog and always have. This isn’t to squelch dissent to my point of view but to reduce the stupidity that always follows an unmoderated blog. I do not claim to hold the golden key to crapper but I do insist on civility in the comments section. Personal attacks are never allowed whether you agree with me or not.

    One of your commenters has often claimed the “right” to comment on my blog. Excuse the vernacular, but that is simply bullshit. This isn’t a public service. I pay for my server, I pay for the dns listing and I get to decide what occurs on my blog. Those that don’t like that can simply go somewhere else.

    These may be hardline stances but this is the stance I took when I started my first blog in Montana almost eight years ago (has it really been that long?… WOW). I do not regret not having the readership of Cowgirl or even the posting frequency of your blog because I write basically for myself. Others have different goals.

    Often I am faced with a choice of contributing or even reading a blog due to the comments left by others. I have a love/hate relationship with the Cowgirl blog for this very reason. The posts vacillate between fluff hit pieces and very important stories but the real issue for me is the almost incomprehensible comments to the posts. When one or two commenters take it upon themselves to dominate the comments – chasing off many who have valid points to raise – the value of that blog decreases almost to non-existence. Frankly, the only reason I currently come back to that site is that it the most viewed blog in Montana. Any posts written there will be seen by the most people and anything I have to add to an issue will also be seen. Even then, it is difficult to deal with the inevitable backlash that always occurs when you disagree with one of the personalities that have taken over the comment section.

    I salute you, Don, on moderation. While your blog does not enjoy the readership that the Cowgirl blog does, your posts are always well reasoned and well written. Even though I do not comment much here, I do read this blog on an almost daily basis.

    • the crap at Cowgirl between Rob and Norma is incredibly embarrassing and can’t be good for readership. why the cowgirl let’s it devolve is beyond me.

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