Reader Comments

The Myth of Community

Community is often held up as the ideal of online interaction. CBC describes their commenters a community, as do the Guardian, CNN and the New York Times. If community is the goal, then trolling and incivility are bad because they harm community. The imagined solution, then, is stronger community.

Community feels good. It brings people together with shared values identities, perspectives and attitudes. People in our community seem more sensible, better informed and more decent because they are like us. And they are: because community is defined as much by what (and who) it excludes as by what it includes. Communities work hard to avoid political disagreement. Communities seek harmony. Our mothers tell us not to discuss sex, religion or politics at the dinner table, because frank discussion about these things produces division and hard feelings. Research confirms that in North America we work hard to avoid political disagreement, hiding our true feelings from our communities. We talk freely about politics when we agree, but not when we might not.

But when it comes to public discussion about news and politics, diversity, inclusiveness and representation can be more important than the development of personal relationships, solidarity or shared identity. Frank political discussion among ordinary people, so rare elsewhere, is what news comment discussions offer. They are among the only spaces that do so. The news article they respond tell stories of general interest, attracting people with very different attitudes and beliefs. Comment sections are among the only spaces where ordinary citizens talk freely about politics. In our workplaces, with our friends, in our homes and on social media we hold our tongues. But in reader comments we are thrown together with people whose views may be very different from our own. These are typically strangers, not acquaintances or friends. There are no relationships at risk. Even if we remain silent, these are spaces where we see others taking a stand, and where we can silently cast a vote or a like without offending anyone we know.

Reader comments lack community qualities. Studies of various comment sections found that news comment discussions are less like communities than are Twitter hash tags or that they lack a “complex community structure”. News comment discussions are less like communities than are Twitter hash tags. In my own research I have found little indication of community, and that comments mostly disagree with one another.

This this lack of community makes comment sections valuable. Talking with strangers, without the social expectation that everyone will get along, they free us from the worry that we will offend our friends. These public spaces take us out of our comfort zones where we go along to get along, and confront us with diversity and difference.

Measures that increase the sense of community in reader comments may well reduce trolling and incivility. They will probably make us feel good about ourselves and those we interact with. But they are also likely to reduce the diversity of views, and the willingness of participants to expose their sincere opinions. Consider anonymity, which is often seen as a solution to bad behavior. A commenter on a New York Times article about trolling wrote that "Anonymity embodies the exact opposite of human community." An academic study found that 73% of journalists thought that comments should not be anonymous.

Yet in another study, nearly forty percent of commenters said that they would stop participating rather than reveal their names. Nearly forty percent of commenters said that they would stop participating rather than reveal their names. Who are these anonymous people? Are they the trolls, the sexists, the racists, the sadists and homophobes? Some of them surely are. But it may also be that they write some of the most informative and insightful comments, for infrequent commenters are likely to have the most to offer.

Regular commenters, who register with a site and participate because they like the company or enjoy the cut and thrust of debate may behave more responsibly, but there is no reason to think they have special knowledge about the matter at hand. The person who actually witnessed the car accident, the expert in the field, the space shuttle engineer—people like these can make invaluable contributions. For reader comments, lack of community is a strength. That engineer is not a site regular: he or she joined the site the day it ran a story about the Columbia disaster, and never commented on anything else. On Wikipedia, while most changes are made by a tight-knit community of editors, it appears that drive-by edits by strangers contribute the bulk of the site’s content.

I am using anonymity to illustrate a point, not arguing that it should be preserved in any particular case, or even in general. Bad behavior is a serious problem. Sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice surely push people away and reduce diversity. The cost of anonymity may not be worth paying. But I do not think that anonymity is bad because it undermines community, or that community is the solution to bad behavior in comments. For community results in social pressures and exclusions that reduce the diversity (and disagreement) that are so important to healthy public discussion. For reader comments, lack of community is a strength.