March 18, 2016

Sometimes, when Joseph Reagle reads terrible, hateful comments on the Internet, he needs a unicorn chaser. Yes, a unicorn chaser.

“That’s when you see something awful online, and you have to go look at a webpage full of unicorns, or kittens, or puppies, to sort of cleanse it from the palate.”

Reagle, the author of Reading the Comments, has studied the ‘bottom half of the Internet’: the Amazon product reviews, the comments on blog posts, and communities like Reddit or Metafilter. And though comments (sometimes justifiably) get a bad rap, Reagle believes that they’re a lot more important than we give them credit for.

“They’re breadcrumbs throughout our lives,” he says, “and even if we don’t spend time looking at the comments below the article, they affect us. We’re being rated and ranked.”

How important are comments? Amazon product reviews have a huge influence on what we consume. Comments can impact a site's traffic. And according to Reagle, there are web brigades that try and shape online conversation.

“Russia and China have thousands of people who just do nothing but propagandize and push Putin or the Communist party and attack people who leave contrary opinions on a blog post,” Reagle says.

Russian and Chinese propaganda isn’t the only reason the bottom half of the Internet can be a scary, hateful place. Trolls, racists, and just plain terrible people continually spew bile in the comments section. In fact, places like Re/code, Reuters, and Popular Science have phased out their comment system, or punted it to Facebook.

But Reagle says that comments aren’t just an important part of our lives, they can be a force for good. Reagle brings up sites like Metafilter, and certain fanfiction communities that are smart and supportive. He says that people often blame the technology behind comments, but Reagle thinks that commenting is an inherently social act, with all the positive and negative issues that implies.

Which means that, on the whole, there may be hope for the bottom half of the Internet. “For the most part, I think people want to be good, decent people.”

comments, Joseph Reagle, Sci and Tech

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