Researchers from George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison set up a fake blog with a news item on a new (and also fake) technological product called nanosilver that had several benefits and several risks. They then created two versions of the news post, one with comments that ran the gamut from supportive to skeptical but were civil, and one where the comments ran the same gamut but contained rude outbursts, obscenities and attacks on other commenters.
Then they had two groups read the article, followed by one set of the comments. Those who read the civil comments were more likely to hold the same opinion about nanosilver they'd held before reading the comments. The readers of the uncivil comments were more polarized, more likely to change their minds about nanosilver and to focus on its risks.
Though it's not clear from the study whether a string of notably positive comments (if such a thing ever exists) would make readers concentrate on nanosilver's benefits, at least one thing seems certain — boos and jeers are infectious. That led the researchers to label their findings "the nasty effect."
I've been railing about online comments for a while now — the ones I receive as well as those I can't seem to tear my eyes away from after reading some particularly hate-baiting piece of writing on the Internet (reliable topics: the Obamas, Lena Dunham and anything in which "childfree" and "sanctimommy" appear within two paragraphs of each other).
And while I will admit that comments can range from genuinely illuminating to definitely subhuman (with most occupying an in-between territory), I've long figured that they inflict damage well beyond the wearying effects of reading about "libtards" and "rethugs."
As the researchers found, rude comments don't just affect mood or frame of mind. They affect how the mind frames ideas and processes information. As I've observed it, they have a dramatic effect on how writers write and, perhaps more important, on how readers read — especially those who don't remember a time before electronic media.
When I talk to students or young writers about the importance of being unafraid to take controversial positions, I'm struck by the degree to which they can't entertain a thought, much less commit one to paper, without imagining the cacophony of snark they'll get in response. Worse, they say it's rare that they read something online without scanning the comments to gauge the public response before forming a personal opinion. Sometimes they only read the comments. Having come of age in a "nasty effect" world, the idea of reading or listening or viewing and just taking it all in, without input from a crowd-sourced peanut gallery, is barely imaginable.
Though it's gratifying to see my long-standing suspicions about the end of independent thought backed up by scientific data, meaningful solutions are hard to come by. As someone who wasted the better part of 15 minutes this morning following a trail of foaming-mouth remarks about Florida in general and sinkholes specifically, I'm certainly not in a position to offer any.
But with enough imagination, online comments may at least have the potential to be reappropriated into a kind of "found art." Jesus Sanchez, publisher of the neighborhood blog TheEastsiderLA.com, whose posts about gentrification attract comments along the lines of (yes, this one's real) "A message from us hipsters…. Buh BYE! Hope la puerta doesnt hit you in the tush!," was planning an event this past weekend in which actors were to read from the blog's more colorful comments.
"I have to say," Mr. Sanchez told me, "some of the rudest comments are often the best written. Sometimes I think, 'Wow, I wish I could write like that.'"
A magnanimous attitude, to say the least. Because if you think most journalists feel that way, I have some nanosilver to sell you.
Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.