if you’ve contributed to any of the major social news sites, you are probably aware of the fact that the commenters on these sites are not the most articulate or the most civil members of the social web. in fact, in many cases, on sites like digg, the commenters are juvenile and downright abusive. for most people, this is a deal breaker because of which they refuse to participate in social news, or seek out the social news audience as potential readership. in fact, many big companies are actually afraid of being picked up by a social news site because of this potential backlash and the potential for brand suicide at the hands of the rioters.
it’s fitting then, to use the example of the baiting crowd as laid out in the wisdom of crowds, to analyze this subset of the social news audience. surowiecki explains, borrowing from a study conducted by leon mann, that baiting crowds are formed mostly at nighttime, when it is both easier to go unidentified and but also for each individual to imagine himself as a part of a bigger group. the crowd on digg, for example, acts similarly. the most abusive users are those who have very little invested in the community, are virtually anonymous, and are usually opining as a part of a larger thread rather than a single contrarian voice.
their willingness to riot depends on what other people in the crowd are doing. specifically, it depends on how many other people in the crowd are rioting. as more people riot, more people decide that they are willing to riot, too.
there are, of course, some people who will never act in this way. people who are invested in the community, those who actually take the time to read the comment and want to make a substantive contribution to the discussion, or are simply not radical by their very nature.
what is interesting as a content producer, is to look at the reaction of a social news audience, and then compare it to the reaction of your regular readership. the main difference, apart from the very nature of loyal readership, is that commenting on blogs is less anonymous. you can require people to enter certain pieces of information before they comment (although this information can be faked), and you can always record people by ip addresses and ban them from commenting if they abuse the system. the extra steps they have to take to leave a comment, and the ease with which you can eject them from the threads if they misbehave make a lot of people think twice before they mouth off.
even more interestingly, the kind of comments you get depend on the culture you create as a content producer. i have been published on a vast number of different sites but the nicest and most productive comments and criticism i received were quite unsurprisingly from the problogger audience. similarly, the crowd on stumbleupon tends to be much lest hostile than the crowd on reddit, which tends to be much less hostile than the crowd on digg. as surowiecki concludes,
…if there are enough people in the crowd who will not riot under any conditions–that is, whose actions are independent of the crowd’s behavior as a whole–then a riot will be far less likely, because the more people who do not riot, the more people there will be who don’t want to riot.
apart from creating a culture of constructive input and criticism–which is easy on your own site but not easy on a social news site–you as a content creator can set the tone for the rest of the conversation by commenting yourself or you as community members can prevent unnecessarily hostile babble from taking over the discussion threads simply by voicing your sane opinion before the fools take over. (more on influencing discussion) ultimately, the main problem many of these sites face is that the rioters tend to scare the more sane people away and therefore can run wild with their opinion. the best way to fight it is to be a part of the community and actively start your own discussion threads or talk back to the rioters. if enough sane people step out and voice their opinion, they can change the tone of the entire community.
this post is a part of my journey through james surowiecki’s the wisdom of crowds.