Here’s a study finding that should concern online writers of all sorts: Comments made by early readers of your piece may significantly affect the way later readers perceive what you’ve written.
The Guardian, Scientific American, and others have come to this disturbing conclusion.
Scientific American, for example, recently studied the response of readers of an article on nanotechnology. The article was sent to two groups of readers. For the first group, it was accompanied by “polite, civil and constructive comments”; for the second, by “uncivil comments.”
In writing about the study in a January 28 post, Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at the magazine, said:
The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.
The finding is concern enough—at least for me, and I would assume for other writers and their readers. But added to this conclusion is this belief by many people who study the practice of commenting on blog posts and other online content: The quality of comments has deteriorated over the past few years.
Many of those who once took advantage of the comment section to share their thoughts about a post now put their comments on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, or have stopped commenting all together—leaving only trolls to comment on the actual site of the content. (A troll, according to Wikipedia “is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, misconstrued, or off-topic messages in an online community.”)
So, it seems that even if you write about a topic that readers approach with no preconceived opinion, there’s a good chance that they will misinterpret what you write and will decide not to trust your content because they have been influenced by comments made by trolls.
This potential for misinterpretation and distrust worries me, as I think it should anyone concerned about open dialogue and discourse. It’s not easy to write clear, concise content that gets across to the reader the exact message you hope to convey. It becomes almost impossible to deliver the desired message when someone is undermining your attempt to do so.
If, for example, you’re writing about the role PR can play in establishing your company’s brand within your community of stakeholders, you want your readers to know that both PR and a company’s brand are good things and can help the company grow its customer base, industry leadership, and profits. You don’t want someone who hates PR to comment incorrectly that PR is lies, untruths, and a snake-oil saleman’s fast-talk and that it develops a made-up “brand” as a gimmick to sell customers what they don’t need or want.
A thoughtful comment about the pros and cons of public relations by someone who knows what he or she is talking about might encourage your readers to think more thoroughly about what you’ve written. That result, in turn, could add to the conversation within your community of readers. It may also help you better think through your message the next time you write about PR and branding.
But “inflammatory, extraneous, misconstrued, or off-topic messages” help no one. And they may, in fact, make conscientious bloggers and other writers of online content think twice about whether they really should write their posts in the first place. If they decide not to write them, we all lose.