Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web

All it takes is one mis-sent Tweet to reveal just how muddy the context for engaging in social media discourse really is.

Excerpted from Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, by Joseph Reagle, published by MIT Press (footnotes omitted). Copyright 2015 Joseph Reagle. Excerpted by permission of MIT Press. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

Oops: “This Is What Life Is Like in the World of Social Media”

In October 2011, Rainn Wilson made a mistake. The actor known for playing Dwight Schrute, a paper salesman and beet farmer on NBC’s The Office, tweeted to his assistant: “Joanne — tell @DelTaco I will accept $12,000 to plug their sh***y food. Thanks, Rainn.” A number of reports concluded that this faux pas was a failed direct message. The mistake of publicly tweeting a private message is easy to make, one need only fail to prefix the message with the letter d (direct). The consequences of such a mistake can lead to more than embarrassment. A few months before Wilson’s gaffe, Anthony Weiner was forced to resign from Congress for tweeting an inappropriate photo of himself to a young woman. The public tweet and close-up of his bulging underpants were quickly deleted, and the next day his spokesperson stated that Weiner’s accounts had “obviously been hacked” and the story was a distraction from “important work representing his constituents.” Weiner said that “People get hacked all the time and it happened to me, I don’t think it is the end of the world. This is what life is like in the world of social media and I will still be using Twitter as I think it helps me do my job.” Eventually, he conceded that the photo could be of his crotch: “It could be. Or could have been a photo that was taken out of context or was changed and manipulated in some way.” Finally, he admitted to inappropriate online relationships, resigned from Congress, and apologized to all involved, including his wife. Two years later, while campaigning for the New York mayor’s office, he had to apologize again — with his wife standing by his side — for having continued his sexting. In addition to being pathetic, this story touches on the bemusing issues of mistakes, context, and excuses.

In Twitter’s early days, its creators were not sure about the model of openness and communication they should adopt. Was tweeting like emailing (a private exchange) or blogging (a public broadcast)? Journalist Steven Levy spoke with some of Twitters’ original designers, who recalled their initial uncertainty and their initial decision to keep users’ profiles private by default. As people became increasingly comfortable with public profiles and open exchanges, Twitter followed suit: users’ tweets, followers, and followed were made accessible to others. The concession for private exchanges was that a person could directly message a follower by beginning a message with d — easy enough to forget.

Even beyond slips of the finger, people openly post appalling comments. These are not only shocking for their bigotry but for their candor. For instance, news of Obama’s 2012 reelection was followed by some racist tweets. The pop-feminist blog Jezebel found that many of the tweets originated from teenagers whose “accounts feature their real names and advertise their participation in the sports programs at their respective high schools.” Jezebel published information about some of the tweeters and “contacted their school’s administrators with the hope that, if their educators were made aware of their students’ ignorance, perhaps they could teach them about racial sensitivity.” This revelation of the teenagers’ identities was controversial and raised an issue that people find confusing: context. Jezebel did not reveal anything about the tweeters that was not already available online, but the question was whether including these comments in a critical exposé somehow took them out of context.

As noted in earlier chapters, online comment is typically reactive, asynchronous, and short. Because comments are reacting to something, they are inherently contextual. Yet comment’s asynchronicity and shortness often confuse readers as to what that context is. Online comment is often portable, as well, and transcends space and place as it is forwarded and retweeted. All of this often obscures the author’s intention — an ephemeral human feature in the best of cases. Paul Chambers was annoyed when snow closed his local airport in England. He tweeted, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” Airport staff as well as two courts found the message to be sufficiently menacing to merit his arrest and conviction, but the decision was overturned by a high court panel that wrote that such a comment was hardly menacing when most would likely “brush it aside as a silly joke, or a joke in bad taste, or empty bombastic or ridiculous banter.”

In a related case in the United States, reason has yet to rule. Eighteen-year-old gamer Justin Carter had been arguing with friends on the League of Legends Facebook page, and when someone wrote that he was “insane” and “messed up in the head,” he sarcastically agreed. His father, Jack Carter, claimed that his son responded: “Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head, I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts,” followed by “LOL” (laugh out loud) and “JK” (just kidding). Someone in Canada saw the message, found Justin’s address, and reported him to the authorities. His father said, “These people are serious. They really want my son to go away to jail for a sarcastic comment that he made.” Speaking to the temporal aspect of online comment, Jack stated that his son had been unaware of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting a few months earlier and “was the kind of kid who didn’t read the newspaper. He didn’t watch television. He wasn’t aware of current events.” He also touched on the issue of place: “These kids, they don’t realize what they’re doing. They don’t understand the implications. They don’t understand public space.” (Justin spent five months in jail, where he claimed to have been beaten and sexually assaulted, and was eventually freed on a $500,000 bond thanks to an anonymous donor. His trial has yet to start.) As noted in an earlier chapter, scholars would describe this as a collapse of contextual integrity: the trash-talking context of teenage boys had been lost. Perhaps this is why, in 2014, the U.S. Secret Service, which is charged with protecting government officials from harm, asked researchers for tools that can detect sarcasm and “false positives” in threatening online comments.

The timing of comment has also prompted controversy. On the morning following a shooting in a Colorado movie theater (during the Thursday midnight opening of the The Dark Knight Rises), a National Rifle Association (NRA) affiliate tweeted, “Good morning shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” The NRA removed the tweet and responded that “A single individual, unaware of events in Colorado, tweeted a comment that is being completely taken out of context.” The claim that the quote was “taken out of context” is an interesting one. For what context does a short comment, broadcast to the world, actually have? Is it the context understood by the sender or that used by the recipient? Communication theorists, notably Stewart Hall in his 1973 essay “Encoding/ Decoding,” have long argued that information is not simply transmitted and received. Instead, messages contribute to a constructed meaning that depends on various interpretative frames. Although comment in the age of the Web is often hypertextual (beyond textual), it is also often hypotextual (undertextual). By this I mean that the while the relationship between a digital comment and its object is often explicit, this link is easily broken as the message circulates. Additionally, people are often promiscuous in applying different frames to the message’s interpretation. (Scholars label the multiple meanings of a signifier as multivalent or polysemous.)

Around the same time as the NRA incident, comedian Louis C.K. was accused of defending the offensive antics of fellow comedian Daniel Tosh, who allegedly made a rape joke during a performance to which a female audience member objected. When Tosh responded that she probably had (or should) be raped herself, a weeklong debate about rape culture, the prerogatives of comedians, and the ethics of taste ensued. Several comedians tweeted their support of Tosh, and Louis C.K. tweeted: “@danieltosh your show makes me laugh every time I watch it. And you have pretty eyes.” Digital comments are hypertextual in that they often include context-setting links. For instance, email messages have “In-Reply-To” and “References” headers. Blog postings can have links and trackbacks. Retweets are bound to the original tweet. (Though the meaning of a retweet is not always clear: some people include “IRT” in their message to indicate an ironic retweet, which ironically enough, has other meanings as well.) In this case, C.K. addressed Tosh by his username but did not use the hashtags circulating at the time that designated the rape-joke context. For instance, in a follow-up, Tosh tweeted, “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies.” This hashtag signifies the context of a discussion about the ethics and prerogatives of making jokes about awful things. (This tag is used to designate many other contexts as well, including abortion.) Those who objected to Tosh’s behavior used the tag #ToshPointNo. However, C.K. told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that he was unaware of the ongoing controversy:

I was in Vermont and I was watching TV in a hotel room and Daniel Tosh’s show comes on. It’s making me laugh; it’s a funny show. So, I wasn’t reading the Internet at the time because that’s how I go on vacation. I really hate the Internet, so I just stopped reading it. But I’m watching TV and Tosh is making me laugh, so I wrote a tweet to say “Your show makes me laugh.” And then I put it down, and two days later I come home and I read these bloggers and Hollywood Reporter: “Louie CK Defends Daniel Tosh Amid Rape Joke Controversy.” I had no idea he got in trouble for making some jokes about rape!

Tosh later claimed that he had been misquoted and tweeted: “All the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologize.” But as is often the case with tweeted apologies, what exactly is being apologized for is not clear.

Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University and the author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (MIT Press).