This is why we can’t have nice things, Part II: Popular Science turns off comments

I’ve written before about the problems we have with online comments on our YouTube channel (and the other high-quality channels we import into Socratica.com).  We have chosen to moderate comments, swooping in and deleting all the “you’re so hot!” and “why is a girl teaching math, drrrr” posts we get on our videos.  I know that personally, as a viewer, whenever I read a comment like that, it stops me in my tracks and I am left with a sick feeling.  I usually leave the page immediately.

We simply don’t want that experience for our viewers.  I don’t want that for our actors and content creators, either.  It shows incredible disrespect for all the time and effort that goes into making these videos.  Everyone who makes videos for Socratica is proud of the work that they do – and it just isn’t right that some bozo has defaced their work with mean-spirited comments or misogynistic drivel or ignorant ranting.  We want the people who work with us to be able to proudly share what they do with their friends and family without fear of a troll’s nasty comments embarrassing them.

It does feel strange to be targeted by these cowards.  I know, of course, we can’t take it personally.  This is a problem for everyone who puts content online.  Today, Suzanne LaBarre announced in Popular Science.com that they are turning off comments on their website. She writes

Cars Without Wheels, July 1959

Cars Without Wheels, July 1959 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former,diminishing our ability to do the latter.

I have to admit, I was surprised to find that even a publication like Popular Science has found this problem overwhelming.  I would have expected the nature of their publication to attract a “better” class of commenters – people interested in better living through science and technology implied to me better living in general, including being more civil.  Boy, I guess I was wrong.  There are meanies everywhere.

Ship on Stilts Rides Above Waves, January 1936...

Ship on Stilts Rides Above Waves, January 1936, by Edgar Franklin Wittmack (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

LaBarre brought up another important point, citing a study on the effects of reading insulting comments on comprehension and opinion of scientific articles from Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, which suggests that comments are more than merely distracting. As they summarized in a New York Times editorial:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

It seems that the trolls do have power – if we let them stay on the page.  Do we have to go the way of Popular Science and do away with comments altogether to take the power back from the petty cowardly trolls?   We do want our viewers to be able to comment and discuss their interests –  to tell us if they found something confusing, and to let us know what topics they would like to learn about next.  Until Google/YouTube gives us the tools to properly filter comments, we will continue doing it the old-fashioned way – taking out the trash one comment at a time.



5 thoughts on “This is why we can’t have nice things, Part II: Popular Science turns off comments

  1. This is a really thoughtful post, Kimberly, highlighting a growing menace: potentially free discourse threatened by the determined actions of cyberbullies. It can’t be impossible to filter out comments by some mechanism — after all, Akismet manages to do it with WordPress — but each WordPress site is run by individuals or a group of individuals whereas YouTube pages are in theory accessible to all.

    There was all that fuss with Twitter in the UK where specific outspoken women were hounded and threatened by trolls, revealing the inadequacy of Twitter UK’s complaints processes at the time (supposedly improved by now). I think we’re all frustrated by service providers’ inability to safeguard our online social interaction.

    • Thanks for your ideas, calmgrove. It does feel like many of the bigger providers (Twitter, Google/YouTube, major newspapers) have fallen down on the job here, whereas some of the little guys have really stepped up.
      I ran a discussion board for years for my classes, and it used primitive software that matched and flagged abusive language for review. We are capable of much more sophisticated algorithms now. It is clear to me that it is a choice to *not* offer those options. I don’t buy this all or nothing solution we have been offered.

  2. While I agree that troll comments can be damaging, most of us are able to rise above them and ignore ignorant rants. I don’t buy the argument that negative comments can change a person’s interpretation. If an article is well crafted and includes strong documented facts, negative feedback will be meaningless. I’d like to see these studies. Do these same people change their mind when offered conflicting information? I’d bet these same people have a hard time drawing their own conclusion and always look to others rather than think for themselves. This is what bothers me about PM turning off their comment section. It is as if they do not believe the majority of their readers can think for themselves.

    • Yes, sarijj, there is a real paternalistic property to these ongoings here – “we have decided on the one, correct, viewpoint to present, and there shall be no others.” That’s not what PM would choose to say outright, but that’s the end result.

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