Off-topic comments. A symptom of our narrow-mindedness?


When blogposts are suggested to us they often come accompanied with the warning “don’t read the comments”. Some of the best articles attract a large conversation, but if the author of the post referenced some controversial topic: e.g. an article on immigration mentions the arrival of refugees into Australia, then good luck finding comments which make sense or are even in the context of the article.

Most likely the comments will be a sea of the “illegals are swamping us with their terrorist ways” and a descent into petty point scoring. The opportunity for valuable conversation on an interesting subject gets lost and many are left wallowing in their own narrow-mindedness.

In my own narrow view of the world, the conversation often takes place instead on twitter. Over there we can associate the conversation with a hashtag and block or ignore the trolls and comment spammers. Applications such as Echofon go further and allow us to simply “mute” conversations and people on certain topics.

On the one hand this has the opportunity to let us curate our own conversation to ensure the off-topic bits can be ignored. But if we go too far with said cultivation we are in danger of narrowing our evaluation of the topic. Excluding all contrary thoughts preserves only our confirmation bias and leaves us with the same result as in the badly moderated comment streams of popular blogposts.

Many years ago I was a regular contributor to the [sic] list. A list which talked all things QuarkXPress. Humans being humans, we often extended our conversations beyond the topic on hand, but generally and despite the list being unmoderated, the conversation remained generally on or about QuarkXPress related topics.

For the rest, there was invented a number of short tags to indicate something subtly or greatly different: [OT] (off topic), [TAN] (tangential) and the like. If you’ve ever been in a forum or a listserv it’s likely you’ve seen something similar. It was a nice way of being able to have a conversation with likeminded people while signalling to those who didn’t have time or interest to look at non-QuarkXPress topics they should “look away” from those other items.

I know some blogs use promoted comments to present those which either the moderator, the commentors or both have indicated are better. Others use reputation filters to promote regular commentors posts to the top of stream. Perhaps a better tactic is for the moderators and the commentors to instead mark said comments with tags like [OT] and [TAN].

Free Speech is preserved, but enough information is presented to allow those who want to limit their interest in the conversation to comments ON TOPIC and conveniently ignore the rest.

Without something, “Don’t read the comments” becomes a rule rather than a guide. And that only preserves the tunnel-vision which occurs due to our inability to refer to the bigger picture being discussed.

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