Earlier this week, Mother Jones published an article destined for internet virality. In "The Science of Why Comment Trolls Suck," environmental writer Chris Mooney explains recent social science experiments that demonstrate, somewhat conclusively, that when online dialogue becomes uncivil, people have a hard time being reasonable. Well, who'd have guessed?

It's worth taking a look at the experiment itself. Here's Mooney:

Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were "civil"—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: "If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you're an idiot."

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn't a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people's emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

That's not all that surprising, but it's nice to see it laid out and backed up by social science. We've all experienced this in our life. Who among us hasn't gotten into a conversation about politics or policy with someone on the opposing side, and, when entrenched beliefs get challenged, one side or the other says something like, "That's crazy," or "That's ridiculous," which in face to face conversation with, say, a member of your own extended family, is similar to flaming online. Suddenly you and the person you're talking to are doubling down, and neither of you is likely to shift off your position.

This is all why we designed Civic Commons the way we did. When you sign up for an account, you sign off on our principles, which include a commitment to transparency ("We don't do anonymity...") and civility ("We tackle the issues, not each other..."). That starts us off as a very different place than most online environments where neither of those requirements exist. On top of that, we make a commitment to optimism in a way that is focused on "what's going right and can be improved." In other words, we look for solutions, not problems; after all, you find what you're looking for.

Another way we encourage productive dialogue that has the power to move people from entrenched positions is in our rating system. I love explaining this to people when I go out to talk to groups or give demos of the site. Whenever I do, I can see and hear the lightbulbs go on in their heads. Rather than a Like button or a thumb-up-or-down option, we give three ways of thumbing up: informative, persuasive and inspiring. What we found it what we hoped--knowing that you'll be judged on these criteria makes you more likely to contribute to conversations in ways that are persuasive, informative and inspiring. We believe our design helps remind you of your better angels and makes all of our participants better conversationalists.

To be sure, that's harder than flippantly flaming one another, but the payoff is much, much greater. Our partners at Kent State University who recently used our site to gather input on their Academic Affairs Strategic Plan, told us that they'd never been a part of an engagement process in which people were actually responding to one another and building on one another's ideas. Needless to say, we're proud of that. It's a far cry from the traditional public meetings one local public education leader refers to as the "Stand and Scream."

Back to Mooney for a moment. His point isn't entirely clear. His conclusion:

The upshot of this research? This is not your father's media environment any longer. In the golden oldie days of media, newspaper articles were consumed in the context of…other newspaper articles. But now, adds [Dietram Scheufele, a professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison], it's like "reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it."

To be sure, we all retain the option of not reading the comments. Which, in light of the latest research, is looking smarter than ever.

I appreciate Scheufele's analogy, but what he says and Mooney's final point undermine the essential opportunity for online dialogue that the study points to. As Civic Commoner Nancy Reeves noted on my Facebook page, the last line is "troubling (and contrary to the gist of the rest of the article)." Reeves worries "we are at risk of losing sight of the fertile ground for scientific discovery which takes place at the boundary of what can be proven by science and what casual observers notice."

And she concludes:

But by not reading the comments, we turn ourselves into pseudo-scientists - shutting out anything which falls in the region between established causation and observed correlation – precisely the area in which we need to be most active in order to expand our scientific knowledge.

Rather than just not reading the comments, we need to find out a better way to change the tenor of comments – and the willingness of each side to engage with each other at the edges of our respective camps.

We couldn't agree more. 

photo: flickr.com/cali4beach

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Copyright © 2013 Dan Moulthrop; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

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