Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, by Joseph M Reagle, MIT Press, 240 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-0262028936
Is the opening up of comment in sites hitherto considered authoritative a liberation or a curse, or something in between?
Joseph Reagle’s book promises to deliver nuanced and thoughtful analysis of an online space that is typically something less than nuanced and thoughtful ‑ the comments section. Instead he falls into a common trap of academic writing, which sees scholars eager to show that they have grasped the full complexity of the subject matter ‑ unlike the popular polemicists before them ‑ but soon finding themselves unable to say much of anything.
When a book is published by MIT Press and comes with a list of quotes from people like Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman you can be assured that its content will be free of heresies against the teachings of utopian social media populism. Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and former WIRED editor, writes that “Reagle demonstrates how complex online commentary actually is”, while MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman praises him for giving the subject the seriousness it deserves. Already the reader can feel the life being drained out of a vital new subject area.
Like so much of what is considered correct academic writing today, the introduction turns into a list of what the author is going to do for the rest of the book. And there is plenty of potentially interesting material there. Give that the book overall leans toward a more positive view of the opening up of comment online ‑ though this is never made entirely explicit – Reagle begins with an exploration of those who inform, through Amazon reviews, hotel ratings, upvotes and downvotes. Then we meet the sockpuppets, individuals who use an online identity to deceive others, to attack others that they can’t openly attack or to spread rumours or even to talk positively about themselves, the puppeteer. Reagle contrasts the world of trolls and online abuse in comment threads to the somewhat calmer spaces that have improved online etiquette through technological solutions, such as discouraging anonymity and enabling blocking and reporting.
Some of the chapters start with interesting questions. In one, Reagle asks if the culture of selfies and the proliferation of other photo- or identity-based platforms amounts to a culture of narcissism and more broadly if the online world is shaping our “real life” culture of manners and expectations, but disappointingly he shies away from taking any position, instead opting for description. The book includes funny cartoons about online life and the recounts some of the more absurd flame wars of recent years.
Clay Shirky wrote that “comment systems can be good, big, cheap – pick two”, a line that Reagle quotes. Big media companies and platforms have been grappling with this problem for years, as the economic compulsion to open up the forum as much as possible can often lead to a chaos that eventually drives readers and writers away. In 2007 Kathy Sierra made the case for comment thread moderation to address the problem of abusive comment. Today her suggestions have become the norm, where most newspapers allow comments but ensure they are moderated, weeding out the trolls. But at the time she offended the libertarian nerdish culture of “information wants to be free” and as a result she was threatened, stalked and abused to such an extent that at the height of her career she had to withdraw from public life.
Seeming to wish to be seen to take a moderate and nuanced position on all things, Reagle admits these problems exist but suggests that the solution is a technical one and compliments those, like Laurence Lessig, who have worked with major social media corporate giants to try to impose manners through technical tricks. One example of this type of technical solution is integrating Google+ into YouTube, where a site of abusive commentary and bullying is being tamed by discouraging anonymity. It’s also an expansion of corporate ownership of a “free” space. What Reagle doesn’t explore is that the libertarian trolls who attacked Sierra share the libertarian ethos of WIRED magazine, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other now respectable net utopians. Arguing for a technical solution may be the least worst option but it also dodges the bigger question about where this anger and viciousness is coming from.
As far back as Plato’s Republic, we have wondered about the nature of moral behaviour – would we behave morally if there was no risk of getting caught doing otherwise? The typically anonymous or pseudonymous conditions of online comment have given us precisely this hypothetical scenario and the results sometimes don’t look good for us. Hardly a day goes by without news of an innocent person becoming subject to torrents of abusive comments, even receiving personal threats. Reagle writes that “we sometimes prefer not to look into the reflecting glass of humanity” in this case meaning online comments, but that we should, because the comments reveal and illuminate. But if he managed to glean any such insights into humanity from studying the world of online comment, he doesn’t share them in this book.
Those, like Reagle, who don’t want to stray too far from the intellectual wing of Silicon Valley have trouble thinking about such questions. Because the abusive trolls who attacked Sierra are a product of the same libertarian hacker utopian idea of the internet preached by those now respectable figures, in which the bursting forth of user-generated content was supposed to dethrone the captains of the culture industry still languishing in dreary elitist old media formats. Instead, what this “democratic revolution” often produces is closer to the world of Lord of the Flies and much of what is reported as mass opinion on Twitter because it has a hashtag attached actually represents the niche cultural interests of a few hundred young underemployed knowledge economy workers. These social media personalities often lead shaming campaigns against those guilty of ideologically impure speech, as Jon Ronson has documented, while mocking less tech-savvy government ministers for calling for online censorship.
It is not a necessary condition of the principle of freedom of speech that The Irish Times should print my letter, nor should they be required to publish my comments below articles. The brattish notion of elevating ill-written, false or abusive comments to the status of serious commentary is often feebly passed off by the net utopians as part of the leaderless revolution against a cultural elite of writers and editors. On the contrary, it is precisely an expression of hegemonic thought in an age of the self, in which everyone must be given an A and everyone must have their say while in material terms the concentration of power continues to get smaller and smaller. Had Reagle made such an observation however, the big IT names known for preaching the anti-elitism of the net who have lined up to praise the book on its back cover would probably not have been there.
Angela Nagle is a researcher at the School of Communications, Dublin City University. She is an Irish Research Council Scholar and has written for publications including The Atlantic and The Irish Times.