Why do people comment?

with 2 comments

I’m genuinely perplexed. Why do people comment on news websites? On the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’, on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF), on the Telegraph’s View or on the various others?

The overwhelming number of comments on many of these (not all by any means) are one-sided, often aggressively one-sided, and often aggressively one-sided against the publication in which they’re commenting. Many of the community commenting on the Guardian’s CiF appear to feel little but contempt for the publication. Take a look, for example, at responses to Polly Toynbee’s piece about the ‘Miserablist’ media today. Since this is probably not a fair example – many commenters targeting their aggression at the columnist rather than the publication – have a look too at comments on David Cox’s fascinating piece a few months back, ‘Media and the Mob’.

Is it cathartic? Does leaving a comment attacking the column – or columnist – relieve some of the anger of the commenter? People have, it is true, spent so many years unable to respond in real time to opinion pieces to which they object that this may simply be a natural reaction to the many years mainstream media has filtered, censored and suppressed the public voice.

Still, there is a peculiar lack of balance that suggests big media have not yet worked out the best way to structure comment spaces. Responses to today’s Telegraph View, ‘What is the BBC for?‘, for example, though not anti-Telegraph, are overwhelmingly anti-BBC. Are Telegraph readers really that hostile to the BBC? Do the vast majority of them think the Corporation is “just another feature of the revoltingly decayed British state” (Jake). Or that its primary purpose is “Leftist propaganda” (Luke) and “the dissemination of left-wingery, political correctness and soft porn” (RS). These, by the way, are some of the more polite comments.

And yet, do an analysis of the media consumption of Telegraph readers and you find the majority of them consume significant amounts of the BBC and, in surveys at least, appear to like quite a lot of the news it provides and the programmes it makes.

Perhaps, as Jeff Jarvis told the ‘Future of Journalism’ conference, news organisations simply need to get much better at hosting debates. “We need to figure out who the smart people are – it’s not just about creating content but also curating people.” By this he means (I think) that news websites need the odd David Dimbleby to help frame a discussion and encourage those to speak who might otherwise lack a voice.

Equally, better that people vent their anger on the web than on the street. Perhaps we do need the odd Speakers’ Corner after all.

Written by Martin Moore

June 24th, 2008 at 3:20 pm

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2 Responses to 'Why do people comment?'

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  1. Comment is Free recently did under-go some reorganisation, in the hope of incentivising a higher level of debate (the sentence I’ve just written would no doubt be trampled into the mud for elitism by a horde of frustrated columnists, were it on CiF). It now automatically collects the comments on an author ‘profile’ page, so that his (sic) behaviour can be assessed over time. This is a reputation-building mechanism, that might potentially lead people to be more consistent, less aggressive and more conscious of how they are perceived. It also confirms that the most fervent Toynbee-bashers take their work pretty seriously, indeed many of them seem to stay up into the early hours waiting for her column to be uploaded, so they can be the first to trash it. Weird. CiF is clearly popular with non-Guardian readers, which is a virtue. But it also results in the ‘angry white man’ problem you see in American politics. Despite having a circulation that is maybe 15% (?) that of the Daily Mail’s, the latter’s readers would prefer to believe that the country is swarming with homosexual liberals, while they are the ones on the back foot. So CiF suffers particularly from the problems you identify.

    Will Davies

    25 Jun 08 at 9:36 am

  2. Thank you very much. This was a great help.

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