If You Can’t Say Anything Nice Save It for the Internet

On the Internet, both scholars and non-academics alike find something about the genre of comment to sink their canines into.

Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web
Joseph M. Reagle Jr
MIT Press
April 2015

I begin my review of Joseph M. Reagle Jr.’s book Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web with a question for the author: Does he trust me? As an analytic reviewer commenting on a text dedicated to the analysis of reviews and comments, I can’t help but be acutely aware of the potentially vicious circle I am entering by writing my comments on his comments on everyone else’s comments.

Reagle confesses that he does read the comments and says he loves reviews if they’re trustworthy, so I can’t help but wonder if I am worthy of his trust. Will the bottom of this web page be filled with comments on my comments on the author’s comment about a comment? I’m suddenly very self-conscious.

Reagle treats “comment” as a genre of communication—rhetoric in the classical sense— that begs for closer examination, especially given its reputation on the internet. Reagle’s central research question for the text is straightforward: Are we really better off for adhering to the old axiom “Don’t read the comments”? His answer is a cautious “no” followed by a really big “but”. He notes that “inescapable judgement is a consequence of ubiquitous comment, which becomes ever more pervasive with the spread of mobile devices” so it’s no surprise he spends the length of the book defending his answer to that deceptively simple question and concludes that it is “wise” to understand the comments, even if you don’t read them all. Comment, he argues, is not something to simply be avoided or ignored.

Early on, Reagle provides his readers with a working definition of comment to assist them in navigating his text. Comment is not missing the letter “S”, but is Reagle’s attempt to distinguish between two different concepts: a genre of writing (comment) and a collection of examples within that genre (comments). If readers can get used to seeing the singular word used as a plural, their reading experience will be an educational one. In fact, Reagle’s distinction between “comment” and “comments” is an early bump in an otherwise smooth road. He explains the difference well enough; it just takes some time to stop thinking the missing letter is a typo. Despite this uncomfortable linguistic beginning, his scaffolding and use of guideposts throughout make the complex analysis of the misunderstood genre accessible and thought-provoking.

Reagle is clearly an expert, and the scholarly foundation Reading the Comments demonstrates a level of credibility even the most vindictive of Goodreads reviewers would find difficult to (legitimately) criticize. The harshest of stodgy old rhetoric professors will want to give Reagle’s text a good grade. His expertise is borne out time and again as he deploys theoretical perspectives as support for his claims. These perspectives include Erving Goffman’s notions of performativity and Stewart Hall’s concept of encoding and decoding language, which come from academic disciplines like sociology, rhetoric, and communication. Reagle’s liberal use of this critical material makes the text especially appealing to academics. However, the scholarly and historical content of the text will appeal to non-academics, as well. He quotes dialogue from The Princess Bride, name drops Xena: Warrior Princess and J.R.R. Tolkien, and howls wolfishly at enough Amazon moons (at least three), that even casual readers will find something meaty to sink their canines into.

Reagle’s tone is both instructive and conversational; he provides a great deal of background information on numerous forms of social media as well as the history of a variety of internet sites, including Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Boing Boing, Amazon, Yelp, and Twitter. Of note is his assertion, which he backs up with a good bit of evidence, that the writing now present on the web, including gossip, criticism, and feedback, has been present offline for a very long time. For example, he traces the origin of awarding stars to hotels and restaurants to denote relative quality as was the case in the early 20th century with the Michelin ratings. In short, the comment is nothing new to human interaction; the internet is just a newer and faster delivery method.

The phenomenon of comment, though old in origin, is more abundant than ever before in the age of technology. Reagle states that “there is little novelty in the form of comment itself, but its contemporary ubiquity makes it worthy of careful consideration, especially given online comment’s tarnished reputation as something best avoided.” He argues that the proliferation of love and hate in the age of cyberspace makes the study of this form of communication essential, especially since comment is social and reactive, but is also short, asynchronous, and lacking in context, making it difficult to map. Among the types of comments analyzed are gossip; reviews and feedback; fakery and manipulation; and the kind left by bullies, haters, and misogynists.

Reagle also discusses the impact and consequences of anonymity, suggesting that sometimes the fear of exposure is more powerful than a consistent moral philosophy. He asks and answers a lot of important questions: How do websites cultivate good feedback in a hostile environment? How do consumers find legitimate product reviews in a nest of paid advertising? How do authentic people navigate a sea of bots telling them to pluck, shave, or spray away the blemishes of reality? How did comments get to be a monetized thing, anyway? Reagle fearlessly tackles these questions, though he acknowledges they are difficult, and it’s clear he often walks a fine line with respect to overtly calling a troll a troll.

From hash crashing, tag clouds, trending, memes, and cries of “I was hacked!” to all manner of other language on the internet, Reagle explains the history and technology behind comment and defines important terminology to give the reader a strong sense of how the genre has come to be the dangerous neighborhood through which we all now walk. The concepts he discusses are ones that savvy social media users should know, and Reagle makes sure to school up his readers.

The sometimes surprising nature of comment he uncovers is multi-fold. He explores “the extent of the awfulness” in comment, the lack of anonymity often present in the vitriol, but also the genuine desire to be helpful, as well as the paradox of choice and how a “bonanza of information” can be paralyzing in a world full of options with not enough time to read all the reviews. He also examines how commentors may desire to prop up their self-esteem through comment yet receive feedback, which has the opposite effect. Reagle wants most of all to analyze how we (as an online audience) respond to comment and how the genre has shaped and continues to shape our definitions of self and our participation in larger communities. He asserts that “alienating and hateful comment is not likely to go away any time soon, but we are beginning to give greater attention to how to respond to it at a technical and communal level.”

If readers ever wanted to know the history of CAPTCHAs or how likely an online discussion will turn to Hitler and the Nazis (a.k.a., Godwin’s Law) this is the book for them. An interesting evolution the author traces is how hippie communes helped spawn the computer revolution. Reagle explains that this movement from “counterculture to cyberculture” was a natural progression in a leaderless and collaborative environment of the web. Crowdsourcing, it seems, is rooted in a Woodstock ethos of free love. Some of his discussions, however, delve deep into the dark heart of the internet and are so troubling that readers may find themselves wishing to stay blissfully ignorant of such inner workings. This feeling is most intense when the author explores the nuts and bolts of how marketers, reviewers, companies, and other players manipulate comments to their own advantage. He even discusses the “loss of innocence” on the part of the reviewers themselves who are being paid for their comments. Readers may wish, too, that they hadn’t learned that Facebook started as a way to rate people as “hot or not”.

In keeping with the book’s subject matter, readers may expect to see a critique of the controversial site Wikipedia, given its collaborative and argumentative evolution, but will be disappointed that Reagle gives it only a couple of brief mentions. Similarly, higher education evaluation sites like RateMyProfessor.com were conspicuously absent, especially since his profession is in higher education. In chapters where Reagle explicitly discusses the interaction between students and teachers, this absence is especially noticeable.

In contrast to these few topical omissions, Reagle hits online harassment and misogyny head-on. He notes that the “trollplex”—his neologism for a cyber-place inhabited by individuals sharing a target for harassment—“appears to be the province of men” with nearly all victims of online harassment being women. Interestingly, he presents data from research conducted in a pre-online environment, which demonstrates that harassment of this kind is hardly new. Despite online groups like the well-known GamerGaters believing they’re preserving some kind of ethical integrity, the evidence suggested their harassment follows an established pattern of cognitive dissonance, moral disengagement, and dehumanization of their targets that has been a feature of harassment and victimization for longer than the internet has existed. It appears that theorists in the ’90s had the GamerGaters pegged long before 4chan was a thing. Put away your Fedoras, bros. According to the data, you’re just the same old abusers wrapped up in a Web 2.0 package. Reagle subtly states his position about this type of comment while still maintaining a discrete distance from the subject through the use of extensive third-party evidence.

Both academics and non-academics will be left with plenty of ideas to chew on by the end of Reading the Comments. Readers are cautioned against being “that guy” who has to read every possible review before making a decision. (That goes for the review of this very book, as well as lengthy product analyses of bacon-flavored toothpaste.) The history of comment as a genre has never been treated with such care and stewardship as it is by Reagle, despite his tendency to induce a feeling of lost innocence and skip over some potentially ripe discussions. He is careful to repeatedly remind his readers to proceed with caution. His caveat is not one of avoidance but of discernment. He often reiterates the idea that “our relationship to online comments is more complicated than ‘Comments are bad, Avoid.’” The bottom line on the bottom of the web: Information, no matter how seemingly credible, can’t be taken at face value.

Reagle concludes the way he starts: by reminding the reader of his definition of comment as “reactive, asynchronous, and short” and contextually portable. The “bottom of the web” is a war-torn countryside full of all manner of folk, some friendly, others not, and if one chooses to venture there, one does so with caution. At some points, Reagle notes, it may be advisable to turn off of technology and ignore social media for a time. This book even made me consider deleting my Twitter account. I haven’t yet; I’m still reading the comments.

RATING 8 / 10
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