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Gold nugget gone toxic
They certainly still do exist: the gold nuggets in the great torrent of comments flowing through the internet – valuable individual contributions that add to the original content below which they are posted. But the nuggets have long ceased to swim in a calm river in which nobody is harmed. Today, they are often drowned in a maelstrom of abuse, malice and threats.
“For a long time, online commenting was a feature that met with euphoric applause and was supposed to enable participation,” says Professor Johannes Paßmann. The media scholar from Ruhr University Bochum explores how the function has changed over the years. He conducts research at the Collaborative Research Centre “Transformations of the Popular”, based at the University of Siegen. Together with his colleagues Martina Schories and Lisa Gerzen, he is developing new methods to review the history of online commentary.
Data from the Internet Archive
The researchers are aided by the Internet Archive, which many users are familiar with as the provider of the Wayback Machine. This application allows users to call up web pages from the past. Since 1996, the Archive has been recording millions of web pages at different points in time over and over again and storing the data for posterity. Paßmann’s team is primarily interested in websites of online media and blogs that enable commenting. However, the researchers are not looking at the content of the comments. They are much more interested in finding out how the technology itself and the way we use it have changed.
The first stage of the project involves viewing an insurmountable amount of data supplied to the team by the Internet Archive. The researcher is oriented towards the grounded theory methodology. First, they select a specific data set, for example the websites of several major German media, and sift them through for specific features. As new hypotheses emerge from the findings, they request a new data set to address them. This, in turn, may raise further questions and require yet more data sampling. This is how the process advances step by step. “Our goal is to get the media themselves to talk,” as Johannes Paßmann describes the research. “The iterative process means that we can ask much smarter questions at the end than we did at the beginning.”
Software helps detect changes in comment feature
In order to automate the evaluation of the data sets, Martina Schories has programmed a software called Technograph. It searches the HTML codes of the websites for the comment features, or more precisely for updates in the comment features that indicate changes. The researchers then examine these passages more closely. “We noticed, for example, that there came a time when a major German daily newspaper started to disable the comment function at night,” says Paßmann. Such findings inform the next step of the work process. Johannes Paßmann and Lisa Gerzen conduct structured interviews, for example with former employees from newspaper editorial offices who were in charge of the comments on the pages of the respective medium.
No comments at night
“In such interviews, people generally tend to tell you that everything they were responsible for went really well,” says Paßmann. “Thanks to our research in the Internet Archive, we can approach the conversations from a completely different angle, because we can ask questions that wouldn’t have occurred to us otherwise.” For example, regarding the reasons why the comment feature was disabled at night. “The newspapers have a responsibility for what happens in their comment sections,” points out Johannes Paßmann. If a user denies the Holocaust there, the medium could face legal consequences. For a long time, however, this did not apply to the platforms. Today, the operators of comment platforms are expected to take more responsibility to prevent misinformation and hate speech.
This is one of the reasons why the commenting feature became more and more a top priority, as Johannes Paßmann has learned from the interviews: “A head of the comment management department of a large daily newspaper in Germany told us that his department was still located in the basement in the 2000s, next door to technical maintenance. According to him, they moved up the ranks over the years and are now often based in the newsroom. “A former editor-in-chief told us that, starting around 2014, the first thing he did when he came into the office in the morning was to check what kind of comments had poured in,” adds Paßmann. “This illustrates how high-stakes the issue had eventually become.” At some point, the medium decided to disable the function altogether at night to make sure they could react promptly to problematic comments.
The end of the gold nugget metaphor
The evaluation of the data and the interviews is still ongoing, but one thing is already evident: 2014 marked a special year – a year in which the metaphor of gold nuggets came to an end. “One of the people we interviewed referred to this year as the ‘big bang of the post-fact era’,” quotes Johannes Paßmann. It’s still too early to draw definitive conclusions, he says, but: “2014 was the year of the annexation of Crimea, and we can see signs that activities from Russia became stronger at that time. “It’s not yet clear whether these events triggered changes in the way we approach comments. According to Paßmann, other factors must also be considered: the social networks Facebook, Twitter and Instagram grew rapidly at that time, mobile devices became cheaper. This attracted many new users.
Whatever the reason for the shift, the researchers are convinced that something changed in 2014. They see this reflected in an analysis of the corporate self-presentation of the company “Disqus”, too. It’s one of the world’s largest providers of comment features that customers can integrate into their websites. Paßmann’s team examined how Disqus promoted its products between 2007 and 2021.
New metaphors signify urgency
Initially, the dominant mood was one of euphoria and optimism, even though interview partners already pointed out the danger of trolling. Disqus spoke of having to fish out valuable comments like gold from the mass of harmless rubbish. At the same time, the company initially advertised that its technology helped customers to prompt discussions. Later, the purpose shifted. Now, Disqus advertised that its tool would facilitate the moderation of discussions.
As the gold nuggets disappeared in the company’s self description, new metaphors emerged, such as in 2014 the concept of “healthy communities” that are immune to the polemical debates led by certain users. In 2016, the term “toxic communication” took root, and war metaphors such as “hate speech must be combated” were also introduced. “We call them ‘metaphors of urgency’,” says Johannes Paßmann. “The choice of words suggests that we can't go on as before.”
The research project is interested in such changes, because a change in how we talk about technology is no less important than the change in the technology itself. Both indicate how the internet has changed over the past decades. “In many cases, it has not lived up to our expectations. Some of the conflicts have become unbearable,” says Paßmann. Even so, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that many of the conflicts are the very things that makes the internet so valuable even now.
Often, arguments in which people try to convince each other remain the gold nuggets among the rubbish.
The researcher cites certain academic discourses as a positive example. This is an area where online comment features have created productive conflicts: “Often, arguments in which people try to convince each other remain the gold nuggets among the rubbish.” But you have to find them first. Whether or not the comment features are always conducive to this process is an open question and we should keep an eye on it.
Johannes Paßmann, Anne Helmond, Robert Jansma: From healthy communities to toxic debates: Disqus’ changing ideas about comment moderation, in: Internet Histories, 2022, DOI: 10.1080/24701475.2022.2105123
24 April 2023