Dumb Comments by Others Make YOU Look Dumb


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!

  1. Danny Brown says

    Interesting thoughts, Roger. I read that article and a similar one last year (think it may have been over at TechCrunch), and it’s clear that group think definitely sways opinion. How much can often depend on the recipient of the comments and how they handle.

    One thing I do disagree with is switching comments off altogether – there are many excellent solutions like Livefyre that enable social sign-on to encourage accountability (the more a commenter is tied to a public account, the less likely they are to spam).

    At the end of the day, if a blogger isn’t overseeing comments for quality (including defining a valid comment albeit one that suffers grammatically or language-wise), then they deserve any poor perception they receive.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Turning off comments is certainly a mistake from a community viewpoint, though I found it interesting that traffic metrics increased without comments on the news site Felder talked about. I wonder if it’s as simple as visitors only allotting so much time to reading, and if they read a lot of comments they access fewer articles. Or, their dissatisfaction increases as they read moronic comments, and are more inclined to leave.

  2. Tommy Landry says

    I have a very similar opinion about comments as a whole – once they are live, they become part of the original story as well as the related conversation. We are very cautious about what comments we allow on our own website and blog, and that goes beyond just spam.

    That said, we will allow a less well thought out comment or something with a grammatical error, but only if I have the time to go in and personally respond back to it. Since we switched commenting systems to Disqus over a year ago, we have much less tomfoolery to deal with overall. The comments, when they do come (which is less frequent with Disqus, a tradeoff we had to go with), tend to be from established users with good feedback or questions to add to the discussion.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Removing anonymity is a big factor in improving comment quality, Tommy. It changes behavior for most people. Some people, of course, are jerks even in real life and don’t really care what other people think. 🙂

  3. Colin Ferguson says

    Hey Roger,

    Interesting article, based on interesting research. And this has serious legal impacts, I think.

    But first, I think that at this stage we’re fairly mature in how social media is handled. If an article has negative comments, then the perception is that the creator doesn’t care about it. Or at least doesn’t care about it enough to clean up the spew from trolls.

    I’m sure there are other factors, but good communities signal their vibrancy through various factors, and moderation of comments is one of them. A big one. Investing your time in building a good community should be considered building up an immune system for the trolls idea viruses.

    My legal question comes in how to handle poorly moderated third party sites? You can scrub results with SEO, but review sites aren’t as easy. Every Industry has review sites, and in our case Google Play has reviews about our games, and moderation. Some are opinions that differ from ours, and that’s cool. That’s the point of these sites.

    But others are clearly racist, sexist, and full of personal attacks on moderators who remove trolls form the main community. You know, all of the stuff that trolls put out there. Since Google Play’s spam notifications are a joke, and Europe at least is demanding Google take control of their online content where it smacks up against human rights, well, that means lawsuits will be on the way sooner or later.

    Where this relates here is that the more research that is out there showing an economic cost, the closer I see some law firm going after Google’s deep pockets.

    Oh well, just my thoughts. I am curious on others’ insights though.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good point, Colin. Sites that host user generated content generally have some protection from lawsuits, though it’s not blanket immunity. I would expect that the presence of racist/sexist commentary in reviews will eventually be detected and removed. No company wants to host that kind of content.

  4. Nathan Tothrow says

    To allow unqualified comments from third-party observers to color your perception of an author’s work is a bit short-sighted. But I have no doubt that it’s occurring. My colleagues and I began avoiding “reader comments” on most channels long ago as they are biased and generally unrepresentative. But you elicit some good points in your review. “Moderation” is French for “editing” which is Dutch for censorship. If I read a student’s article on building airplanes out of stones and criticize the building methods, my comments could easily be deleted for being negative and lacking the harmony of supportive thought. True, a good alternative is to increase accountability by limiting comments to the “community” but that further biases the sample of responses as a ratio to the total readers. It also begs the question as to what is the motivator for a casual reader to fill out registration and remember a new password for the honor of commenting. Is the desire to add her thought sufficient motivation? The most frightening takeaway from this article is that it seems to encourage writers to write to the audience, implying that only agreeable ideas (read as ideas not likely to generate alternative thought) will be acceptable. A psychiatrist friend has hypothesized that serial commenters (popularly referred to as “trolls”) exhibit a narcissistic need to see their words on the screen.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Completely agree about the trolls, Nathan! One way of dealing with persistent forum trolls who won’t stop violating forum rules is to place them on “global ignore” – they can post, but other members don’t see their posts. Confirming their narcissistic nature, I have seen these people write long, involved posts over a period of weeks, and interpret posts from other members as replying to their points (even though they are invisible). They are so self-absorbed they will engage in discussions with members who have no idea anyone is talking to them!

      Moderation at its best (from a community building standpoint) involves minimal editing and a lot of positive interaction – welcoming new members, facilitating responses to questions, etc. Unfortunately, in our less than perfect world, it also includes a lot of spam deletion, spammer banning, and dealing with members who violate the site’s TOS.

  5. […] Ultimately, everything on a blog contributes either positivity or negatively to its brand. 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. … 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. –  Read the full article Dumb Comments by Others Make YOU Look Dumb […]

  6. Nikhil says

    Exactly the thing I have observed before with my blogs. And to be honest I too sometimes read comments first to find out whether the content is worthy to read or not. I really appreciate you Roger that you have presented such interesting thought, this is really constructive way of blogging.

  7. Dee says

    Dear Roger

    Your article is very interesting, and naturally my first response to it was to view the quality of the comments it attracted.

    I am speaking purely from opinion and not from any research, so excuse my comments if they sound very amateurish.

    I would only decide whether or not to disable reader comments based on the type of blog I am posting, and then also the purpose of the blog. For example, if I wrote an article about myself, my products or my business, it would be very wise to disable comments, because in that situation a negative reflection on your content can be very damaging.

    If I had a blog about something like restaurants, where I discuss my experience at a venue, it would be useful to be able to open it to the world to add their own experiences at the same venue. This would then become useful to anyone who visits the site as they get a broader spectrum of input and thereby a better idea of what to expect.

    At the end of the day I think your article demonstrates a valuable point that all bloggers need to take into consideration, but by looking at the comments below your article, I am also reminded that in general (not as a rule of course) intelligent people will be drawn to intelligent articles. If there were stupid comments below your blog, they would have stuck out like a sore thumb and their own stupidity would have been emphasized as opposed to rubbing off onto your work, and downgrading its quality. I think if the article itself was lacking some substance or meaning and you then have an intellectually challenged person commenting on it, your writing would have a far higher chance of being contaminated by stupidity.

    Interesting food for thought, thank you for your article.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for the thoughtful (and quality-increasing!) comment, Dee!

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