Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 13 Sep 15 13:10
Inkwell welcomes Joseph Reagle, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern. Hes been a resident fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard (in 1998 and 2010), and he taught and received his Ph.D. at NYUs Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. Dr. Reagle is joining us to discuss his latest book, _Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web_ (MIT Press, 2015). He's also author of _Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia_ (MIT Press, 2010). As a Research Engineer at MITs Lab for Computer Science he served as an author and working group chair within the IETF and W3C on topics including digital security, privacy, and Internet policy. He also helped develop and maintain W3Cs privacy and intellectual rights policies (i.e., copyright/trademark licenses and patent analysis). Dr. Reagle has a Computer Science degree from UMBC, a Masters from MITs Technology and Policy Program, and Ph.D. from NYUs Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. Dr. Reagle has also worked on short consulting projects for Open Market (electronic commerce protocols), McCann-Erickson (Internet and interactive media), and go-Digital. He has been profiled, interviewed, and quoted in national media including Technology Review, The Economist, The New York Times and American and New Zealand Public Radio. His current interests include life hacking, geek feminism, and online culture. Our conversation with Dr. Reagle will take place over the next two weeks, and is led by Jon Lebkowsky, who has been active in digital culture and media for over 25 years, and is currently focused on strategic digital consulting and development as member and CEO of the Polycot Associates web development cooperative. He is also known as an activist, sometimes journalist, and an authority on the future of the Internet, digital culture, media, and society.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 13 Sep 15 13:20
We're having this discussion on the WELL, which is mentioned in an early section of the book, where you mention Fred Turner's argument that "much of the Internet's culture is rooted in the West Coast movement from 'counterculture to cyberculture.'" Can you trace the origin of the "comment culture" of today's Internet to online communities like this one?
Joseph Reagle (joseph-reagle) Mon 14 Sep 15 06:33
Yes, this coincidence is quite "meta"! Indeed, the whole project has been rather meta. For example, my treatment of the Amazon Vine Reviewer program has been widely discussed by Amazon Vine Reviewers, since we participated in that program. With respect to The WELL, it's not so much about tracing a linear origin, but seeing rhizomic tendrils. As I write in the book, "likers" are those who share recommendations rooted in love and experience. When people first employed digital networks, I didn't think they anticipated that the technology would be used in this way. But the motive to talk about stuff that you liked was apparent even in the earliest days of digital communication. Internet pioneer Vint Cerf noted that "when e-mail showed up in 1971 on the ARPANET, we discovered instantly that e-mails were a social network phenomenon." How so? With the quick appearance of two email lists dedicated to "book reports and restaurant reviews" (i.e., the SciFi-Lovers and Yum-Yum lists). With respect to The WELL, I think we see these impulses to share in the careers of Stewart Brand (the Whole Earth Catalog), Kevin Kelly (Cool Tools), and Mark Frauenfelder (Boing Boing). Each of these guys have worked together, which creates a span of commenting about things loved from 1960s print, to 1980 zines, to early BBS systems, blogs, and online recommendations today.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 14 Sep 15 08:49
If you look at early blogs that focused on reviews and recommendations, like Boing Boing, you can see the influence of the Whole Earth Catalog and Coevolution Quarterly/Whole Earth Review in the structure of those posts: a brief review and a pointer to the book or product, in this case by linking. And the WELL Gopher was an early example of curation of nontechnical content on the pre-web Internet. So I think the influence of the "Whole Earth" project on the evolution of the Internet was substantial. Katie Hafner also dug into that background for her book about the WELL. Did research for your earlier book about Wikipedia, _Good Faith Collaboration_, have any bearing on your research for the current book? Said another way, how did you decide to write about online comments and commenters?
Joseph Reagle (joseph-reagle) Mon 14 Sep 15 10:22
In a way, the Wikipedia book did lead me to the commenting book. However, it wasn't research about online community as much as my surprise at part of *Good Faith Collaboration's* reception. The Wikipedia book was well and widely received. However, there was one group of folks who hassled me; these were former (embittered, often banned) users of Wikipedia who could not tolerate positive reports of the Wikipedia community. Hence, some of them left bad book reviews without having read it, and, more oddly, photoshopped my likeness into pornographic comics. (The comic was slightly clever in that they used images of penises found on WikiCommons; the presumption was that if I liked the Wikimedia projects, I must like these penises as well.) I can laugh about it now, but I did find it distressing at the time. This was one instance in which I realized how we live in an environment of ubiquitous comment. There is almost nothing, literally, that cannot be commented upon, rated and ranked. This is why I was so amused by the (satiric) Jotly app in which users could rate trash cans, slides, ice cubes. "Take for example this glass of water, which ice cube is the best? According to Jotly: that one, it's melting the slowest. Helpful!" Even though it was a parody, there were similar apps out there, and eventually Jotly became a real app. All of this is to say that comments and reviews had existed since humans have been communicating, but the ubiquity, speed, and ease with which we can now make them does signal a significant social change.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 14 Sep 15 21:12
How do you think about the signal to noise ratio, when there's a firehose of comments? Thinking of Reddit, for instance, where a post may have hundreds or event thousands of responses. There are many comments, but who's reading them?
Joseph Reagle (joseph-reagle) Tue 15 Sep 15 05:23
Once a community grows beyond scale (i.e., some variation of Dunbar's number) you will inevitably have the the signal-to-noise ratio problem. Typically sites deal with this via some form of karma or up/down voting. Of course, that brings its own difficulties. As I write in *Reading the Comments*, I came to appreciate this over a decade ago on the social news site Slashdot. Like many sites, Slashdot permits active users to rate comments, which have a cumulative score from worst (-1) to best (5). Readers can then filter out comments below a threshold. While the system keeps the worst comments from being visible, I noticed that some of the most informed comments were also hidden. This *rush and slash effect* privileged comments written within the period most people were likely to rate them. Since those likely to rate comments were the most active users, they typically did this within hours of a story's posting. After that, the raters had moved on. In fact, I found that the average age of a comment with a rating of "4 or higher" (where I set my reading filter) was just over an hour. I typically wouldn't see *any* comments older than eight hours. Early comments often get more attention than they deserve. Also, once you deploy a voting system, cabals of one sort or another arise. Elsewhere, I write about this problem at the site photo.net . They grappled with how to prevent people from "mate-rating" friends and "revenge-rating" enemies in evaluations of photos. From this community, I discerned a handful of characteristics of evaluation in the digital age. The third of which was that "fixes" to manipulation have their own, often unintended, consequences and are also susceptible to manipulation. In this case, one they moved from anonymous ratings to non-anonymous ratings (to increase accountability), the ratings of new photos were much more inflated. Consequently, when you searched for the top photos, you'd see no works before the move away from anonymity---it's as if all those photos now sucked! : http://reagle.org/joseph/2013/photo/photo-net.html
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 15 Sep 15 07:39
Administrivia: If you want to share this discussion, the short link is http://bit.ly/inkwell-reagle. If you're not a member of the WELL and you have a comment or question, one option is to join the WELL, and join the conversation directly: http://www.well.com/join.html However you can also participate by sending your comment or question to inkwell at well.com. Let us know if you're okay with us posting your full or first name.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 15 Sep 15 07:43
Following up on Slashdot, at some point they included meta moderation (i.e. rating moderators' decisions), which was supposed to mitigate the effect you describe (informed comments voted down). Did you study the effectiveness of meta moderation?
Ed Ward (captward) Tue 15 Sep 15 08:46
Could someone please define "Dunbar's number" for the non-tech crowd?
David Gans (tnf) Tue 15 Sep 15 08:51
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number> Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.
Kevin Wheeler (krome) Tue 15 Sep 15 08:55
Hi, Joseph. I will start by just thanking you for providing lots of data describing the reasons for my knee-jerk distrust of much internet commentary over the past 30 years.
Joseph Reagle (joseph-reagle) Tue 15 Sep 15 09:27
This is how I describe Dunbar's number in the book: > The origins of YouTube and Facebook demonstrate that people like to talk about one another: we gossip. While gossip might seem like a trivial thing, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar argues it is central to understanding our humanity. Even if you don't know who Dunbar is, if you participate in online communities you might've heard of his eponymous number: 150. People invoke *Dunbar's number* when a community, such as an email list in which everyone used to know most everyone else, gets too big.... However, Dunbar didn't set out to coin an aphorism about online community; he sought to answer the question of why primates, especially humans, are so smart. Why is it that our brains are about nine times larger, relative to our body size, than other animals? Some suggested it was related to our environment, our use of color vision to find fruit, the distance traveled while foraging, or the complexity of the omnivore's diet. When Dunbar looked at all of these variables among primates, he found no such pattern. But the size of primates' neo-cortex did correlate with the size of their groups and the time spent grooming one another.
Joseph Reagle (joseph-reagle) Tue 15 Sep 15 09:30
@jonl, I think meta-moderation has provided a useful layer. However, it too might contribute to the rush-and-slash effect (no new comments are voted up) and you'd still want to be careful about the formations of cabals.
Joseph Reagle (joseph-reagle) Tue 15 Sep 15 09:31
@krome, I hope I don't come off as cynical or overly pessimistic. There are informing, helpful, insightful, and funny comments out there. It's just not the default. :-)
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Tue 15 Sep 15 13:22
administrivia, Jon that bit.ly link is no good.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Tue 15 Sep 15 13:23
Joseph, thanks for being with us. This should be great. Could you talk a bit about how the move from anonymous comments to known commenters has or hasn't changed the world of commenting?
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Tue 15 Sep 15 13:26
And another question. Is it just the digital world that shows such muck in commenting - do people behave differently online than in flatland? Or is it more broadly human at all levels of interaction?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 15 Sep 15 18:21
The bitly link is kind of correct, but somehow the system included the period at the end of the sentence, which makes it incorrect. Here it is again: http://bit.ly/inkwell-reagle
Joseph Reagle (joseph-reagle) Wed 16 Sep 15 11:12
@tcn Anonymity is probably one of the most discussed and studied aspects of online communication. There's decades of writing and research on it. In fact, in the book I talk about Gyges (thousands of years ago) and Gollum (decades ago) and their rings of invisibility. In any case, I'd summarize as follows. - Anonymity serves an important role and realname policies can be problematic. - But that doesn't mean every discussion platform has to support anonymity. - When folks have moved to systems like the Facebook comment plugin  I think they generally see the quality of commenting improve. (Although I had to see the Web dependent on a proprietary platform for netizens to discuss.) - Even identifiable people can be asses online. I try to synthesize all of the research on aberrant online behavior by way of two categories. 1. *good people acting badly*: absent a rich media, social cues are filtered out leading to an attenuated social presence such that we don't appreciate our effects on others and feel less accountable. 2. *bad people acting up*: some of what we see online is the disproportionate effect of a difficult minority.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 16 Sep 15 12:21
That's very interesting. Perhaps there are some additional complexties. I have observed what looks like bad anonymous actions by people whom (I expect) have always been good out of a fear of being caught or a desire to have an excellent reputation. Taking away any social cost means you don't have to bite your tongue in certain interactions. Even if you are "good."
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 16 Sep 15 14:48
There's an interesting dimension of exploration in this part of the book that brings in the "obedience to authority" experiment, which I thought was conducted by Stanley Milgram but in the book is attributed to Philip Zimbardo. In this experiment, people thought they were administering electric shocks to others. "Participants who wore large lab coats and hoods were more willing to shock others than participants who wore name tags." This was seen as "deindividuation: a loss of a sense of self and social norms." There was also an experiment by Zimbardo where some students were given the role of prisoner, and others, guard. They so got into their roles that the experiment was called off. I can see how this relates to that idea of "good people acting badly." This is not so much about anonymity as it is about the adoption of a role, but the two might be connected: a person who feels anonymous might also feel free to slip into a less civil "self" and act out a bit, unable to see potential consequences (as in others' damaged feelings). I wonder about the "lack of social cues" referenced above and in the book. Are some people better than others at expressing and reading social cues in an environment that's primarily text? "Reading between the lines," so to speak?
Kevin Wheeler (krome) Wed 16 Sep 15 14:49
What I don't understand is how people get bopper off FB. I mean I regularly go off on the cops, but no one has ever threatened to kick me off for a month. I've got a few friends who have been blocked for far less.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Wed 16 Sep 15 15:21
Caught two things off my twitter stream today pertinent to this discussion: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2015/09/jeweler-tries-to-sue-anonymous-woma n-who-left-1-star-yelp-review/ Apparently anonymity can't keep you from being sued for poor comments. Wondering about the repercussions of that. Also, from your book I gather 1st amendment rights have not been clearly settled as to whether or not comments fall under free speech or how they are delineated. http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/09/what-happened-after-7-news-sites-got-rid-of-r eader-comments/ This seems new, moving to social media sites as a forum for comments. Any thoughts on if this really the direction media will be adopting?
Dodge (dodge1234) Wed 16 Sep 15 15:42
I've been blocked for the past month and have no idea why. Doesn't bother me as i can read my FB but every time I want to LIKE a country decor site or some such, it comes up with this pink bar telling me I can't. Have sent messages but not motivated enough to call or anything.
Joseph Reagle (joseph-reagle) Thu 17 Sep 15 07:31
@gail on the question of anonymity and accountability, I think you'd be interested in a study by psychology researcher Tatsuya Nogami. He attempted to: > tease apart the differences between identity, such as your name, and anonymity, an inability to associate you with your behavior. As part of a clever take-home assignment, he asked over a hundred university students to flip a coin twice. Some students were asked to identify themselves on their coin-flipping report and some received a reward (a coupon book) for getting two tails, which should happen 25% of the time. Nogami considered all subjects to be anonymous since he could not know if any individual cheated. Instead, he could only infer cheating based on the aggregate statistics. Of the non-identified subjects who could get a reward, 46% reported flipping two tails. Some of them obviously cheated. However, he was surprised to find that those who had identified themselves (but still could not be associated with cheating) did not choose to cheat: only 21% reported getting two tails, statistically indistinguishable from the expected 25%. Those in the latter group were just as "anonymous" and unaccountable as those of the first group because no individual could be blamed: any single person getting two tails isn't that unlikely. Nogami concluded by suggesting that asking people to identify themselves perhaps prompted them to be more self-ware and cognizant of their ethical standards even when they couldn't be linked to unethical behavior. You can read it here: http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=tpr
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