The Bad Apple in Comments

This from Derek Powazek:

He is discussing blog etiquette and the Bad Apple. So true. What’s your wisdom?

In his 2009 study published in Research in Organizational Behavior, Will Felps found that one bad participant can have a negative effect on an entire group. His research was about real-life, in-person meetings, but it’s entirely relevant to online community.

He identified three types of negative participants: the Jerk, the Slacker, and the Depressive Pessimist. The Jerk insults others, the Slacker displays disinterest, and the Depressive Pessimist complains and says it’s all pointless. (Sounds like a typical comment thread to me.)

Felps conducted experiments where he put groups of volunteers into a room to work together on a task for a financial reward. Unbeknownst to the group, one of the members was an actor who embodied one of the three types of negative participants.

The conventional wisdom said that groups are more powerful than any one individual, so one bad apple should not have much of an impact. Felps found the opposite. Groups with the bad actor performed 30 to 40 percent worse than groups without. In addition, the bad actors caused team members to emulate their behavior. When the actor was a slacker, others would slack. In short, our behavior is like a virus. The behavior of one participant is replicated.

What this means online is that moderators should be in place to guard against negative participation, especially early in the conversation. I’ve found that the first comment effectively sets the tone for all that come after, so I recommend holding all comments in a queue until there’s a good standout comment, and then ensuring that comment appears first. Moderators should be vigilant about looking out for bad apples, recognize the destructiveness of their participation, and treat it accordingly.

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  • Rick

    Terrific post! :^)

  • attytjj466

    Well, first, the broad brush sterotype labeling of group members is not helpful. Second, not all imput is going to be positive, but employers and leaders often dont want to hear that so they label it, surpress it, demonize it. I could add other categories too, like the person in the group who always speaks and acts just like they know their boss or leaders wants them speak and act. Gee, I wonder what we should label that? I suppose this comment will get buried at the bottom so as not to negatively influence other comments.

  • Kande Koogle

    And of course now we’ll all be seeing if our comments get selected to post first! Now that’s healthy competition.

  • RJS4DQ


    I think you are missing the point. It isn’t agreement that makes a comment good. Many of the best comments on my posts are ones that challenge me.

    But there is a tone and attitude that makes comments bad. If we don’t moderate the whole tone of the conversation drops – sometimes to the level of gutter and trash talk contests.

  • And thus the tone is set. 😉

  • attytjj466

    A piece critiquing gutter and trash talk is fine, appropriate, but that is not what the above study was focusing on as I read it, other than perhaps the bit about “jerks”. Rather it labels those not interested in the approved agenda or task as slackers, and a whole other group of comments that are not sufficienyly onboard as deppressive pessimists. Really? This is helpful and insightful? I see this kind of stuff alot in business and corporate settings. It is just another of profiling and dismissing people with imposed and artificial and superficial labels.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Hmm – am I the only one seeing the obvious here? 🙂

  • PLTK

    Still missing the point and probably reading your own negative experiences into the study. First, you need to take into account the referenced study was focusing on work groups (an extension was made to blog comments by Scot, in the final paragraph). Second, the behaviors described are not at all what you reference in your response. Slackers are those who don’t care about completing the task and freeload off of others. (This is very different than disagreeing with an agenda.) Depressive pessimists are those who dump on every new idea and complain about tasks that have to be done (again, very different than “not being sufficiently on board”). These types of “contributions” can greatly hinder group productivity. Putting forth alternatives, voicing constructive disagreement, etc are not the negative qualities described at all.

  • attytjj466

    Not reading a personal negative experience into it, but the experiences.of many others whom I have represented through the years….yes.

  • attytjj466

    Wow Klasie, making it personal….that is not at all classy on your part, now is it.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    But see how easy that was?

    I have been commenting on blogs (and had my own) ever since they became common place (I think I started around 2003). The characterization above is quite accurate, I have seen countless threads go south because of a bad apple. This blog is actually quite good insofar as that kind of thing is concerned – there is that one fellow who sometimes derails it, but that is not too often.

  • Susan_G1

    One bad apple can indeed spoil the barrel, which is why wise keepers separated all the individual apples from each other with an insulating material. Uninsulated bad apples will continue to exist in commenter sections as long as there are commenter sections. Some blog sites disallow comments. Books/written material disallow comments. Interaction is what allows us to question and learn. That’s why book clubs are fun. That’s why Bible studies are helpful.

    What should a blogger comment be to be ideal? Obviously, it should be respectful. I was once called blindingly stupid and a flat earther for having an opinion. While it was likely a catharsis for the commenter, this is probably best avoided. Some people like to throw bait around. Humor, when appropriate, is likely appreciated. But above all, flattery, I mean, thoughtful commentary which advances discussion is welcome, right?

    I like the story of The Invisible Man. He started out somewhat corrupted but ended up an abomination. It took a village (literally) to stop him.

    We can all, to some degree, be invisible (irresponsible) on the internet. I know the large majority of us hope to have something helpful to add when we comment.

  • Marshall

    Really depressing that modeling bad behavior is more influential than modeling the good, but that is the common observation. Makes one wonder how Humanity has gotten as far as it has, and worried for the future. Should make one wish to be careful, seems to me.