Podcast Transript: Is comment thread redundancy OK?

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Oct. 3 2011 4:35 PM

Hey Buddy, Check the Comment Thread (TRANSCRIPT)   

Farhad Manjoo and Emily Yoffe discuss whether it’s necessary to read back through the comments before chiming in yourself.

Emily Yoffe: Hey, buddy, read the comments before you post one yourself.

Farhad Manjoo: I'm Slate's technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.

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Emily: I'm Emily Yoffe, Slate's Dear Prudence advice columnist, and this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad: This week’s question comes from a man who notices a certain redundancy in Internet comment sections. He writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, if I want to post in the comment section of an article I read online, like Emily’s Dear Prudence column, am I obligated to read through all the previous remarks to ensure that the points that I’m making haven’t already been discussed?  Comments on Dear Prudence can run into the thousands. No way do I have time to read through every thread, but is it rude to cover the same ground others have already discussed?  I apologize if you have already covered this topic in an earlier discussion.” Signed, A Cautious Commenter.

So, Emily, you get thousands of comments on your column, do you read them all and do you hate when people repeat other people’s comments?

Emily:  I do try to read them all, but I don’t expect other readers to read them all. They probably don’t have as personal as an interest in the column as I do. However, last year I had a Dear Prudence letter from a father of a young boy, and the boy wanted a skirt for Christmas.

Farhad:   Oh, I remember that.        

Emily:  Yes. It got a lot of attention. I said the father should give the boy a skirt but explain the skirt is only for special occasions in the house, etc. I did not mention a kilt. I would say about 750 readers mentioned get him a kilt. So many people said it that, until this day, that was a year ago, every week there’s a running joke in the commenter section of Dear Prudence about “I think a kilt is the answer here.” Let me just say this on the side: I heard from the father. He did get his son a kilt and his son loved it.

Farhad:  Oh. So, the commenters were right?

Emily:  The commenters were right, but they started each other crazy because then there were 750, “Get him a kilt,” and then there were 750, “Have you noticed 750 people have said get him a kilt?”  So I obviously don’t think people who comment need to read all the previous comments, but it helps to read the previous 10-15 just to see if your brilliant point has already been made. Then you can say, “I second it,” or not bother to post.

Farhad: Yeah, I feel the same way. I get comments on my articles; I try to read them all. I think it would be nice if the commenters try to at least spend ten seconds perusing the previous comments to make sure that they are not repeating others, but the web is large. Chances are that something you’re going to post on the web is not original, so, if we were all sort of trying to make sure that what we were saying on the web is original, none of us would say anything.

I think it’s a technological issue. It’s not very easy to peruse the thousand of comments on Slate or pretty much any other site. It takes a lot of time to scroll through it. It would be better if the comments were threaded and in a better way, and perhaps the technology could tell you if you’re repeating it in some way, but it’s not there yet. I think it’s just demanding too much of commenters to read everything.

Emily: I totally agree, but it is nice when a conversation does get going. So even if you agree with a previous commenter and would make the same point yourself, if you see within a few comments that someone has said it, then you can add your different take on it because there are an incredible number of repetitive comments. This happened recently on Dear Prudence with a young pregnant woman knowing she was going to have a girl, she wanted to name her Lolita because she loved the book, but she said, “Is the association too negative.”

Several hundred people said, “Name her Delores. That actually was Lolita’s real name.” Now, if you want to name your daughter Lolita, you’re probably not going to name her Delores. But, again, other people started to get angry and say, “Yes, 500 people have said name her Delores. Read the comments.’” So, I agree with you. You’re not obligated to read them all, but you’re joining a community by entering the comment, so you should at least be slightly cognizant of the most recent comments.

Farhad: it’d also add one more thing which is sometimes there’s value in the repetition. Like in the kilt case, the fact that many hundreds of people kind of suggested it’s a good idea and perhaps that’s why the father got the kilt.

Emily:  It suggested I blew the answer. And, actually, the reason I didn’t say kilt was I had talked to gender experts and one of them said, “Look, a boy who’s asking for a skirt wants something pink and flouncy and wonderful, not a kilt, because a kilt’s not a skirt.”  So I didn’t even bother it, and I was completely wrong not to mention it as the commenters observed. I was even more wrong because the boy loved the kilt.

So there was a case where the comment section corrected me. They were right; I was wrong. But there were many hundreds of them.

Farhad: One of the things I notice when I’m looking on forums online, someone will ask a question and then very snottily someone else will come alone in the forum and say, “We discussed this a while ago. We discussed this three years ago. You should have searched the forum.” I really hate that attitude. It seems like people are reflectively against new people coming into the forum.

I think that there’s a sense that anyone who’s sort of new to a place shouldn’t be well acquainted with the custom. So I don’t like when people say that. I do appreciate when you ask a question – this happened recently on a garden forum. I posted pictures of my beleaguered tomatoes and I asked what was wrong with it and someone pointed me to another thread where that explained the problem. It turned out that it was fungus. So I do like when people nicely help you and point you to a previous discussion.

Emily:  I agree. I’m on Neighborhood List Serve and people all the time say, “Can anyone recommend a plumber?” And this comes up several times a year, but you can go back and spend a lot of time trying to look in the thread and hat plumber maybe out of business. So, if you have a problem, post it and see if someone has an answer. I do think it’s rather unpleasant to say, “Well, didn’t you search our archives?”

Farhad: Yeah.

Emily:  So, Farhad, we agree that commenters are not obligated to go back and read every single comment in the comment section. You want a fast, lively, quick comment section, but it probably is a good idea just to check the most recent post to see whether or not your point has already been made. And if you want to make a point about a kilt, maybe you should hold off on that.

Farhad:  Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com.

Emily:  You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Farhad:  And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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