Social science, it seems, is catching up to our experience. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have verified what all of us know to be true, uncivil comments don't help in online conversation. It's the second such study we've heard of  this year. I think we might be on to something. 

When we started The Civic Commons nearly three years ago, we recognized there was, broadly speaking, a community problem online. We would meet with newspaper editors, and, to a person, each articulated a sincere dissatisfaction bordering on disdain for the primary mode of engagement their sites provided: the post-story comment thread. We had seen it, too, in our own lives. We could have a substantive, civil dialogue on Facebook (remember when that was possible?) but the likelihood of that happening on one of the local news websites was infinitesimally small. 

Now I suppose it's useful to have our gut feeling about online engagement backed up by science. Under the headline This Story Stinks, two of the five UW-Madison researchers explain their research and findings. Employing a bit of fictitious science reporting about something called nano-silver as research fodder, they sought to find out what happens when readers are exposed to trolls (you know, those people who just like to try to get your goat in the comment threads). 

Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”

The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. 

When the first study was covered in January, I wrote a bit about how and why we baked civility into the design of our site. A second study is making me think that we're not alone, and that we all might be headed in the right direction as a society. The Internet is still really young, after all. True Internet natives are barely graduating high school, so we really have a long way to go. Nevertheless, the choices are always in front of us: will we engage online in places that allow trolls? And when we do, will we actually engage with trolls?  When we're in the host position, will we use that power to enforce civility? And where, of course, will we choose to host online conversations and invite others to be engaged?

The whole point of The Civic Commons is to have a place where there are rules and standards, where you know the dialogue will be civil and productive. And that idea of productive? I'll get to that next week. Unless some social scientist beats me to it.


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