shouting-guyWriters need to think about more than the quality of their writing. They need to worry about the quality of the comments on their content. A recent experiment produced an interesting finding: the presence of low-quality comments on an article caused the article itself to be considered lower in quality.

Adam Felder, writing at The Atlantic, had two groups of subjects rate the same article. One group saw the article without comments, and the other saw it with a batch of obnoxious comments. Even though the instructions only told the subjects to read the article, those who read the commented version rated the article itself about 8% lower in quality.

There could be a variety of explanations for the article content being degraded by comments. One rational explanation: perhaps being exposed to alternate viewpoints made a few readers question the validity of the article a bit more, even if those viewpoints weren’t expressed in a particularly elegant manner.

Is Stupidity Contagious?

At a non-conscious level, there could also be a contagion effect. If placing kitty litter, tampons, or lard next to chocolate chip cookies in a shopping cart (see Product Contagion and Product Contagion in Action), it’s not a big stretch to think that a bunch of moronic comments could “infect” the adjacent well-written content.
product contagion

In particular, dissatisfaction has been shown to be spread rapidly. In Contagious Dissatisfaction, I describe how one dissatisfied diner can cause many others to report the same complaint. Obnoxious commenters are often dissatisfied with both the article’s points, the author, and other commenters, so a little of that spreading to the readers would be no surprise.

If some kind of subconscious contagion effect is to blame, then it’s possible that even benign but poorly written comments could impact the perceived article quality. Commenters, perhaps non-native English speakers, might leave a thoughtful comment riddled with grammar or spelling errors. Even in a well-moderated comment environment, these would usually be allowed to remain.

Similarly, comments that demonstrated lack of understanding of the topic or article might have a deleterious effect. This is speculation, of course, as it wasn’t specifically part of Felder’s test.

The Averaging Effect

Another weird thing our brains do is blend multiple items together and “average” them even when that process makes no sense. For example, when we view an expensive product bundled with a cheap item, we often estimate the value of the bundle to be below that of the expensive product seen alone. (See The Hidden Danger in Product Bundles.)

When bundles don't add up
So, it’s possible that the same thing happens with dumb comments. Our brains may average out the mass of content, and decide that it’s less than the sum of its parts.

Content Marketers, Beware

One risk area for content marketers is that inappropriate comments could degrade the perception of their content. An author hoping to be seen as a thought leader might be subconsciously downgraded to a mere pundit. A brand creating content may not get the same lift in brand perception as it might in a comment-free environment.

On the plus side, few sites of with this type of content have entirely unmoderated comments or attract the kind of unpleasant exchanges Felder describes.

Should We Eliminate Comments?

There’s no doubt that beyond any psychological effects on readers, comments present other issues for website operators. There is a never-ending flow of spam commenting that needs to be scrubbed. Moderating for other factors, like civil behavior, can be time consuming and cause additional negative reactions. I’ve administered and operated online communities since the late 1990s, and keeping discussions positive and productive isn’t easy. Or quick.

Felder’s article also produces some counter-intuitive data: eliminating comments caused an increase in pageviews and return visits.

Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, though, it’s worth noting that building a community around a forum or blog can also have great potential for keeping readers engaged with the site. The key, in my opinion, is some level of moderation. If you can keep discussion positive, people will tend to follow the community norm and stay positive themselves. More people will join the discussion, too, if they are confident they won’t get attacked or mocked.

In addition, for many readers it’s a big plus when they can interact with the author of an article. That doesn’t happen often on news sites, but both here and at my Forbes blog, Brainy Marketing, I try to join in any discussions that develop.

One interesting thought: could articulate, intelligent comments actually cause an article to be rated higher in quality?

In the last few months, both blogs and news publications have made news by removing the ability for readers to post comments. News sites in particular seem to bring out the worst in many commenters, with discussions degenerating into rants and insults. In general, I disagree with eliminating reader comments, particularly on blogs, but Felder’s experiment suggests there’s risk in allowing commenting that isn’t well-moderated.

What do you think? Leave your (high quality) thoughts in a comment!

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