Monday, August 19, 2013


I have been thinking this week about the endless geyser of vitriol that is Internet comments. There has been a steadily growing stream of stories about people getting abused on pretty much every social media platform available. It turns out that many people's first response to reading something that they don't like is to abuse/threaten/type incoherently at the person who says it in the most vile way they can think of. Personally, my reflexive action when I read a tweet is to think of some sort of glib joke. Mostly I don't follow through on that reaction because I feel that a few hundred smart ass comments a day probably has long term effects on one's soul. I am especially careful to filter my reaction when it's something I disagree with because that makes me far more likely to make an asshole comment rather than a smart ass one. There is a certain class of person, however, who prefers death threats and capitalised mis-spellings of every slur they know and these people are also unsurprisingly prolific in their abuse.

There are lots of fascinating aspects to explore when it comes to figuring out why people engage in such behaviour. There are obvious culprits like anonymity, access, entitlement, different social rules, and so on that discussed widely when talking about cyber-bullying and its close relatives. The one I find most interesting (for the purpose of this post at least) is the speed of it all. The Internet has obviously facilitated fast communication; that may not be the point of the Internet, but it's right up near the top of the list. I don't know exactly how long it would take to write a "*$&% U DUMB #%*)&% PIECE OF @#*@$@ IMMA #%^@^ #%^&*#^*" type comment, but I'd guess with the right (read: wrong) autocomplete, probably under five seconds. Combine this with the knowledge that the message will often be delivered (if not received) in under a second, the ability to satisfy whatever your knee-jerk reaction is to somebody else has increased by orders of magnitude over the last few years. There are lots of really good things about this but when it comes to the quality of the content being communicated I think it's provably bad. Simply put, second thoughts may not always be better, but even if they're only sometimes better not having them at all makes your overall communication quality (in terms of content) worse.

There is a reason people advise taking a deep breath before responding, or waiting a day between writing an angry email and sending it (or even better waiting a day before writing it in the first place). I wonder what the level of discussion in comment threads would be if you had a system where a person could not comment on a post/article/video within 24 hours of first reading/viewing it. A person comes along, reads the article, maybe reads the existing comments if there are any. They could then tag the post as one they want to respond to and get an automatic notification when they are allowed to respond. I'd probably cut it down from 24 hours once the first response has been made by the specific reader (ie they have to wait 24 hours for the first comment, but once they are engaged can respond to other people's comments after an hour), but the delays would be something you'd let the author set in the first place.

Obviously such a system would destroy "audience engagement" or whatever the correct term is for letting people spew thoughtless characters into a text box is, and would render a service like twitter meaningless, but I'd be interested to see the results in a blog or YouTube comments scenario where the author wants to engage in some sort of meaningful discussion with the audience. My premise is that most of the people willing to come back a day later aren't going to do so just to write "#@#& &^@#$% @#^#%$^".

Next week's word is quixotic.

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