internet comments

Keyboard Epidemiology

On nearly every article about a coronavirus related closing or cancellation, there are people on Facebook reacting about ‘how stupid’ it all is and cracking up via laughing emoji at the ‘sheep who panic.’ They complain about massive overreactions, implying they know better than everyone, and making the spurious flu comparison ad nauseam.

Of course, they don’t know better. It’s clear from even a cursory look at the evidence that this is serious and that it’s smart to collectively try to reduce the spread of the virus to our high-risk friends, neighbors, and strangers, so that they don’t die.

Regardless of their online lolling, social-distancing, as slow and rocky as it is happening in many cases, is going to save people. It likely already has. It’s going to make the virus less deadly. It’s going to mean less people get sick. It’s maybe going to mean most of us won’t know anyone who’s health is affected even a little.

But there’s a downside to effective social mobilization in the face of contagion. When, hopefully, there are less cases than we are being warned possible, less death, then many of these smug, ignorant keyboard epidemiologists are going to say “see, I told you it was no big deal you tools.” Maybe it will be them saved by this smart, collective action, but they will continue to act as if they were above it all. They’ll act as if they knew better all along, ignoring the possibility (reality) that it was all the cancellations and caution that reduced the spread of disease. A lot of them will likely blame “libs” and the “nanny-state” for ruining the economy, as if they are also experts on global financial systems and wise investing.

One of the biggest challenges to doing ‘the right thing’ at the collective level, as a decision maker, or just a conscientious citizen, is that there will always be ignorant naysayers who care more about being ‘smarter’ than they do about doing what experts advise according to science and reason.


What I’ve learned from reading the comments section of the Syracuse Post Standard

This is a very short post because I think what I’ve learned can be summed up very quickly: Everybody thinks everybody else is an idiot, and everybody just wants some more common sense.

Obviously, that is somewhat tongue in cheek because I’ve said before that the interaction on these web forums is actually quite complex. There are questions of authority to be explored, of friendship, of deliberation, of play, and of the consequences of pseudonymity for everything else that happens on the web. Still, I do think that aphorism sums up some of the cognitive dissonance I see pretty regularly on those boards. There are subtleties you can discern when you start to understand the various tribes of posters. Posters keep returning for some reason, and they like and even respect some of the other posters. They even enjoy a good troll. When they say ‘everybody,’ they don’t really mean everybody. When they say ‘common sense,’ they don’t really mean common. There is a lot of interesting sociology to be done discovering how these identities and boundaries are formed and enacted.

Now, back to the boards.




Where nobody knows your name: communities of the anonymous

Anonymity is often identified as a key variable for explaining the quality and content of online interaction.  I’ve done it myself in this article written with Le Moyne political scientist Dr. Delia Popescu and appearing in Information, Communication & Society.  Anonymity is conceived by some as a cause of the well known Internet activity of trolling or flaming, but others see it as the key ingredient of what they view as the revolutionary potential of the Internet.  Revolutionaries are thought to be empowered by their ability to hide from authority figures, while Internet bullies are portrayed as those cowering behind unidentifiable screen names and tossing insults they likely wouldn’t in a face to face setting. Of course, these claims need to be considered skeptically. Governments, or the more powerful revolutionary factions, can shut down the Internet if they choose, and the government still has tanks and tear gas. Anonymous trolls, like Reddit’s Violent Acrez, can be tracked down, site administrators can delete accounts, and we hear as much about bullying on the non-anonymous Facebook as we do on other websites.

The offline consequences of Internet anonymity are only part of what is sociologically fascinating about online social life. In terms of web mediated social interaction, if we stop after pointing out that screen names are often not ‘real’ names, I think we miss some of the richest action on the Internet. I spend a lot of time on the web forums of the Syracuse Post Standard reading the threads that appear after most articles, and sometimes commenting. (more…)

Here’s how this happened

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for a few weeks now after I read another blogger convincingly suggest that it’s a great way to work through one’s thoughts.  I’m a sociologist and I’m hoping to move in some new directions with my research (I’m the first one who has thought to do that, right?), but shifting fields is a big, confusing task.  The amount of work I anticipate has been making it hard for me to really get started in this new direction, but it also (pathetically?) was probably keeping me from even starting a blog.  I’m afraid I’ll end up just doing what I’ve always done (discipline-wise), and that my blog will fade away after 3 to 5 unread posts.  Still, I started it just now.  Well, why?

I’m a baseball fan, and this year I’m taking a new approach to baseball.  As a Brewer fan, typically there comes a point in a season when I give up on them and stop watching the game altogether.  That’s too bad because I like baseball simply as a game.  So, this year I’ve decided to take a purer approach and just appreciate ‘the game.’  As part of that goal I started reading a blog called ‘And That Happened‘ in which Craig Calcaterra (who is fantastic) briefly summarizes all of the prior day’s games.  It’s great, and not only that, it typically has a number of funny and even insightful reader comments.  Internet comments are rarely funny or insightful.  Often they are ignorant, hateful, or just too random to make much sense.  In fact, this is one of the things I’d like to start thinking and writing about when I move in my ‘new direction.’  What kind of ‘conversation’ happens on the internet?  Can there be ‘deliberation?’  Can there be anything like the emotional and personal connection that can develop off-line, even among relative strangers?  I don’t know right now, but I’d like to.  Others have written great essays about these questions that I need to read.

But, still I haven’t answered the question: why did I start blogging today?  Well, it’s because I read And That Happened and had the urge to make a comment.  A snarky, one-line, stupid joke of a comment about the DH being socialist.  To comment I had to register, and that happened to be with Word Press, and so I went through the steps for two reasons.  The proximate cause was my desire to make a snarky, stupid web comment.  The ultimate cause, I hope, was that I’d like my sociology to be a craft, and maybe a blog will help.


Addendum: I see that my stupid comment has 1 thumbs up, and 3 thumbs down.  I think that’s a positive thing, really.