Online Comment: Likers, Haters and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web

Explore how online comment can inform, improve, manipulate, alienate, shape and perplex us, shedding context in their passage through the Internet, prompting readers to comment in turn, “WTF?”

| September 2015

man with megaphone

Joseph Reagle examines how comment is puzzling—short and asynchronous, these messages can be slap-dash, confusing, amusing, revealing and weird, shedding context in their passage through the Internet.

Photo by Fotolia/dechevm

Online comment can be informative or misleading, entertaining or maddening. Some comments are off-topic, or even topic-less. In Reading the Comments (MIT Press, 2015), Joseph Reagle urges us to read the conversations “on the bottom half of the Internet” to learn much about human nature and social behavior.

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Comment: The Bottom Half of the Web

There’s a reason that comments are typically put on the bottom half of the Internet. —@AvoidComments (Shane Liesegang), Twitter

“Am I ugly?” This question has been asked on YouTube by dozens of young people, and hundreds of thousands of comments, ranging from supportive to insulting, have been left in response. The Web is perfect for this sort of thing, and it has been almost from the start—even if some think it alarming. Over a decade ago, some of the earliest popular exposure that the Web received was through photo-rating sites like HOTorNOT. “Am I Ugly?” videos continue this phenomenon and remain true to YouTube’s origins. YouTube was conceived, in part, as a video version of HOTorNOT. YouTube cofounder Jawed Karim was impressed with the site “because it was the first time that someone had designed a Website where anyone could upload content that everyone else could view.” But not only could people upload content: others could comment on that sophomoric content. And if the word sophomoric seems haughty, Mark Zuckerberg was a Harvard sophomore when he first launched Facemash, his hot-or-not site that used purloined student photos from dormitory directories, what Harvard calls “facebooks.”

This uploading and evaluating of content by users is now associated with various theories and buzzwords. Social media, like YouTube, are populated by user-generated content. Facebook is an example of Web 2.0 in that it harnesses the power of human networks. The online activity of masses of ordinary people might display the wisdom of the crowd or collective intelligence. Books on these topics claim that this “changes everything” and is transforming the Internet, markets, freedom, and the world. Yet I continue to be intrigued by what is happening in the margins—the seemingly modest comment. But what is comment?

As I use the term, comment is a genre of communication. In 2010, for instance, YouTube lifted its fifteen-minute limit on videos, and since then, there has been a flurry of ten-hour compilations of geeky, catchy, and annoying audio. Under a hypnotic video of Darth Vader breathing, someone commented: “What am I doing with my life?! 10 hours of breathing!” From this we can see that comment is communication, it is social, it is meant to be seen by others, and it is reactive: it follows or is in response to something and appears below a post on a blog, a book description on Amazon, or a video on YouTube. Although comment is reactive, it is not always responsive or substantively engaging. Many comments on social news sites are prefaced with the acronym tl;dr (too long; didn’t read), meaning that the commenter is reacting to a headline or blurb without having read the article. Comment is short—often as simple as the click of a button, sometimes measured in characters, but rarely more than a handful of paragraphs. And it is asynchronous, meaning that it can be made within seconds, hours, or even days of its provocation. Putting aside future transformations, comment is already present: comment has a long history (some of which I discuss briefly), and it is pervasive. Our world is permeated by comment, and we are the source of its judgment and the object of its scrutiny. There is little novelty in the form of comment itself, but its contemporary ubiquity makes it worthy of careful consideration, especially given online comment’s tarnished reputation as something best avoided.