New Rules for User Comments: The Bottom Line for the Common Good?

In the past few weeks various Internet sites, such as YouTube, Goodreads, and Popular Science, have announced new approaches to user comments, either regulating, deleting, or getting rid of the option altogether. In response to negative reactions from regular users and commenters, these sites all defended the switch by emphasizing a desire to improve Internet communications, and by doing so to promote a common good. As leaders of society, they are taking the initiative to set new standards on how to interact in a virtual public square and cultivate a just and fair online culture.

Their arguments were quickly weakened, however, when it came to light that such changes were actually motivated primarily by bottom line interests. For instance, YouTube presented their change as “better commenting.” As the YouTube Official Blog on the matter states:

“Comments will soon become conversations that matter to you. In the coming months, comments from people you care about will rise up where you can see them, while new tools will help video creators moderate conversations for welcome and unwelcome voices.”

They insist that they are improving the common good by ridding their sites of irrelevant and vacuous comments that, in the past, went pretty much uncensored; the new policy is meant to promote relevant online discussion that will now be under the user’s control. In the same breath, however, it revealed the real impetus for YouTube’s change, which was prompted by their integration with Google+ rather than a deep ethical desire to create a more meaningful community. It’s interesting to note that creating a meaningful community is certainly an added benefit, albeit a side thought, to their bottom line.

Does it really matter? Although YouTube’s vapid user comments were often quite entertaining, it most likely comes as a relief to know that they will be confined to their well-deserved user-directed purgatory. Overall, it is a good change even as it presents a very interesting question and pressing concern. What exactly is fueling and shaping online culture, and who exactly is calling the shots and deciding what kinds of discussions should be important and valuable for society?

The example of Goodreads isn’t as cut and dried. Users were not quite so calm when they learned that the guidelines on reviewing authors had changed. In fact, there was quite a backlash from readers when they realized that their comments on authors were being deleted without consent. After all, Goodreads was built on the underlying principle that readers sell books, and so the readers’ reviews and opinions were central to its ethos. Therefore, readers liberally lent their views on everything, including their opinions about authors, and Goodreads never felt the need to hinder them before. As Laura Miller writes on Salon.com:

“As these readers see it, Goodreads exists for them to keep track of their books and reading and to exchange thoughts about it with fellow readers and friends who share their tastes. The shelves… are like the shelves in their own homes: their business and no one else’s, apart from invited guests. These users create most of the content that makes Goodreads more than a mere database of book information, and furthermore their relationships with each other are in many ways the true locus of the site’s value.”

Alongside that, Miller notes that Goodreads was also a meaningful platform for writers, especially independent writers who needed the vote of confidence from readers for promotional reasons. It also provided authors a platform to network with other authors for support and encouragement. This collaboration worked for a while until authors received harsh reviews and retaliated. This led to an all-out war. Therefore, when Goodreads changed its guidelines, it also made a compelling argument that they were motivated to promote the common good by preventing cyber-bullying. That is a good motivation . . . and it’s also fair to wonder why they were never motivated to do anything about it before Amazon bought them out. As online site Gigaom states, “Some users think the new policy is evidence that Goodreads now values authors, publishers and advertising dollars over members.” It also points out that soon, “Goodreads will be integrated into the new Kindle Paperwhite… [where they’re] likely to see another surge in members soon.” Once again, the issue isn’t so much that their new stance on cyber-bullying is wrong—because any type of bullying in any kind of community, online or offline, is bad—but apparently they didn’t base their decision on ethical concerns so much as bottom line interests.

Finally, the most interesting example of this is Popular Science’s announcement to get rid of all user comments completely. As Suzanne LaBarre explained on the site, “[c]omments can be bad for science,” because, “[e]ven a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.” Her point is that scientific “certainty” is not up for interpretation and therefore should not be debated because questioning “bedrock scientific doctrine” harms the good of the community. Although those impassioned statements naturally stirred lots of heated debate, they were interesting and even seemed noble until it was revealed that the true motivation for the decision came down to: money. LaBarre argues:

“Another, similarly designed study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers’ perception of science. If you carry out those results to their logical end—commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded.”

This case seemed the most disturbing, because LaBarre, and consequently Popular Science, is defining a vision of the common good that will no longer take into account public opinion. They are purposefully promoting viewpoints that don’t question “a wide variety of scientifically validated topics” such as “evolution and the origins of climate change,” so that they can directly control the specific projects they deem worthy to receive funding. They are making a value statement for the community defining what “real” scientists should believe, promote, and fund, because everyone else—the average commenter—is “a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them.”

Motivations behind decisions matter, and when such decisions for the common good and the shaping of culture are made based primarily on the value of money, then societal values are being built on shifting sand. It’s not that the two must be mutually exclusive. There’s nothing wrong with growing a successful business and making money, along with using that opportunity to create more meaningful community. It’s always an added benefit when business decisions promote safe and fair community discussions. But it would be even better that the common good and these ethical concerns also be part of the foundation from the start, not only as a side thought to commerce.

photo credit: Sybren A. Stüvel via photopin cc

About Anita Kobayashi Sung

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