Saturday, 2 October 2010

When Social Media turns Social Mob

What is it about online comments that turns otherwise civilised (I assume) people into attention seeking trolls? Probably the best known example of this phenomenon is the comments section on YouTube videos. On pretty much any popular video, you can see the comments descending into anarchy with random arguments erupting on any number of subjects, often completely unrelated to the video.

Is this due to the pseudo-anonymity of YouTube users? The surprising thing is that you’ll find this kind of behaviour even on Facebook, when generally people use their real names. Check out any group discussing a controversial topic and you find your fair share of offensive and bizarre commentary. Now possibly these people are like this in real life, but I suspect they’re probably a bit more careful about mouthing off their opinions when faced with flesh and blood people.

In an increasingly open web where people are unlikely to go to the extra effort of maintaining multiple identities online, are we going to see higher quality debate, or are we going to drop to the lowest common denominator and learn to accept that’s just how people behave? The rise of 3rd party authentication via facebook, twitter etc along with 3rd party commenting services like Disqus mean that more and more of us will end up putting our real name down next to what we write and establishing an online reputation which we might be hesitant to tarnish.

One site that hopes that using real names will improve the quality of user generated content is question and answer site Quora. The current king of question sites, Yahoo Answers, can be a mixed bag, and certainly at the moment Quora appears to be producing higher quality content. Of course this may just be because it’s less popular, and once it hits the mainstream it’s possible that we will see the quality drop off in the same way.

I suspect the main reason we don’t behave like YouTube commenters in real life is because of community enforced norms, and perhaps this is the key to high quality comments. Back in the day, long before YouTube, there were some usenet groups which had high quality discussion and content, whilst others suffered from a low signal to noise ratio, and typically this was due to the presence of a strong user community to enforce norms and teach newcomers the rules. In hit-and-run comment sites with widely dispersed content (as on popular YouTube videos), there is no such community, whereas sites which are focused on a particular subject are more likely to attract a stable body of core users who can establish the ground rules for acceptable behaviour.

Reputation and community appear to be the key to maintaining high quality comments, and hopefully the trend of merging web content with social graphs and gaming will produce a better experience for us all.

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