Losing the Thread

“You f***ing a**hole!”
“You ignorant sh**”

Someone posts a video clip on Facebook. Someone writes a blog post or starts a discussion thread. A few people reply. Then along comes someone who makes a bigoted remark or tries to provoke, or even is plain misunderstood by those reading. Several replies later the discussion has descended into all out verbal war and exchange of expletives.

Interestingly, the design of nearly all unmoderated discussion threads is based on showing the most recent posts first. One then scrolls down and often has to click on links to earlier pages (sometimes manually, page by page) until one finds the original, more considered and relevant replies and threads.

I did an experiment this week on a range of platforms – YouTube, Facebook, and several news platforms which allow unmoderated commenting (or where the moderation lags in time behind the actual posting). In 9 out of 10 cases the most recent comments were an abusive war of words between posters who had, I suspect, never met, and the abuse was in most cases not even “on topic” in relation to the original posting. This renders the commenting and follow up threads next to useless.

It amazes me that the structure of threaded commenting hasn’t changed or has hardly been innovated at all in the broader field of social media. Attempts at tagging and ibtelligent automated moderation are mostly poor. Even where content is aggregated and “hot topic”posts are collected (such as Leaderboards on Ning), these are primitive forms of automated aggregation based on the counting up of how many times someone has posted, or how many replies to a particular thread there are. So, if you are abusive ten times in a row, or if a bunch of people correct the spelling of someone’s misspelt name, this content hits the top ten as “hot content”.

Without more intelligent, artificial-intelligence inspired automated moderation, or without real time human moderation, it seems the notion found in “wikis” of crowd wisdom falls flat. We cannot usually moderate each others’ comments in a discussion thread, and it really is fascinating and sad to watch how many threads descend quickly into a kind of commenting road rage among strangers.

Recent news stories about the topic of evolution nearly all have comment threads where creationists are trading poorly worded insults with Atheists and Darwinists. It is nigh on impossible to find the few intelligent and considered replies hidden among the 200 or so angry retorts. Where it goes wrong isn’t where the retorts are based on anger and insult towards the original posting and poster. This can be useful to see, showing strong reaction in terms of that post. It goes awry where the comments become detached from the original posting and become clunky versions of chat room fights or sms arguments between the responders. The thread is lost in that process and the platform loses its originally intended usefulness.

It is time for designers of microblogging platforms to imagine something better and come up with some innovation. Tagging has largely failed because posters and responders tend to hit the submit button too quickly, or can’t easily access the useful tags in regular deployment in a particular community. A good concept in real life is to ask people who start arguing to “take it somewhere private” and to offer a “private channel” option that those people can then choose to make public or not. We might also need more superusers who police threads. Currently I see no substitute for wise, community minded moderators, who tend to threads like gardeners.

But if comment threads continue to become overloaded with abusive arguments between responders, and recent posts have most prominence, then the platform essentially behaves as a kind of lost soul with little or no longer term memory, as replies most related to a post disappear over the horizon and quickly get lost in hard to access lines of history.

Thread Rage Syndrome, as I shall call it, deserves further study. What is it that causes strangers to transition so quickly into mutual abuse, accusation hurling that really is very akin to road rage? I think one answer might lie within the notion of road rage. Not everyone is good at multitasking and they tend to slip into colder default behaviours. Some drivers find it hard to drive and smile (or be social) at the same time. Driving for some is a technical and demanding activity. So when someone causes them to slam on their brakes, they pitch into immediate irritation. Adrenalin may already be up. Hormones may be bubbling. Similarly, when someone reads an original post AND reads a reply to it, they find it easier to respond to that which is easiest to respond to. One task is less demanding than two. They then lose their own thread (responding in a more considered way to the original post’s content) and instead find it easier to get drawn into a shorter, often cooler reaction to a more recent reply. Soon a kind of domino effect kicks in and small irritation develops quickly into a war or words, and even death threats! Chinese whispers develops quickly, a virus of deteriorating connection to the original impulse of the first post. The key thing is that the original thread is lost. People under the pressure of more than one thing claiming their attention often go into a reactive, fire-fighting mode, and respond to that which is most immediate, recent and perhaps easiest to respond to.

I’d suggest one solution is for discussion threads to somehow forcefully remind responders of the content of the original post and also repeatedly highlight one of two of the first and most considered replies. The key measure of that would be relevance to the original post, and perhaps some editorial license from a moderator that decides on a range of responses that cover the whole breadth of all responses being headlined along with the original posting. We could tag themes, not just in the first posting, but also in emerging groups of relevant and compelling threads and replies. The aim is to draw later responders at least to the attention of the original discussion thread more effectively. If new threads have emerged, it becomes important to either then give these new discussion identity in their own right, or to create an easy narrative path back to the original thread, and to weed out lost threads, many of which are just threads of rage.

Thread Rage Syndrome is killing off discussions and commenting for many people and organisations. They tend to demotivate and become threads in their own right, detached from first content, on occasionally only compelling for their voyeuristic allure. It’s time for some imaginative innovation and change.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on March 21, 2011, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Elizabeth Marsh

    Perhaps it would help if one’s comment wasn’t published immediately. If there was a 1 hour delay, for example, and the commenter had to come back an hour later and click a “yes I really meant it, that’s what I wanted to say” button that would help. If people didn’t bother to come back and do this that would speak volumes about their comment (and remove some of the ‘noise’). A sort of digitally engineered pause or reflective moment. It would take away some of the immediacy and, of course, it would be better that we each took the pause for ourselves – but it might help?

  2. Horseracing is obviously the greatest form of emotional response to the nihilistic tendencies of the previous generations leading me to believe that the original post is the work of a total arsehole. 😉

    PS. God is truly great… and it’s not just because she is black.

  3. No comment.

    What about the so-called reputation and recommendation systems such as the thumbs-up and thumbs-down. Do they fare better than others in deterring (or at least demoting) the disrespectful, I wonder?

  4. You want slashdot. Well actually, you *don’t* want slashdot, because it’s a forum for complete geeks (I assure you – not one of them would be offended to hear that I’d said that). But it has a remarkably effective system for marking posts up and down, which genuinely does promote the good stuff and demote both repetition and ranting.

    slashdot’s system is essentially a souped-up version of thumbs-up/thumbs-down voting, but with some very well thought-out additional ideas. For example, you can’t rate a post in a discussion you’ve also contributed to. And if you get enough thumbs-ups from other people, you can earn the right to *occasionally* give a thumbs-up to your *own* posts – letting you give a boost to things you really, really want to say.

    The disadvantage? The more subtle and complicated the rating system, the more ratings it needs to work properly, and the larger readership you need to sustain it. It might work on the Guardian, for example, but it wouldn’t work on an average WordPress blog. Perhaps there’s some scope for a system which lets people take their reputation from blog to blog – in the same way as Gravatar ensures my happy smiling face accompanies me everywhere I go.

    Paul says: I’m just adding the relevant link for what Richard is talking about. http://slashdot.org/

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