Reading the Comments
Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web
What we can learn about human nature from the informative, manipulative, confusing, and amusing messages at the bottom of the web.
Online comment can be informative or misleading, entertaining or maddening. Haters and manipulators often seem to monopolize the conversation. Some comments are off-topic, or even topic-less. In this book, Joseph Reagle urges us to read the comments. Conversations “on the bottom half of the Internet,” he argues, can tell us much about human nature and social behavior.
Reagle visits communities of Amazon reviewers, fan fiction authors, online learners, scammers, freethinkers, and mean kids. He shows how comment can inform us (through reviews), improve us (through feedback), manipulate us (through fakery), alienate us (through hate), shape us (through social comparison), and perplex us. He finds pre-Internet historical antecedents of online comment in Michelin stars, professional criticism, and the wisdom of crowds. He discusses the techniques of online fakery (distinguishing makers, fakers, and takers), describes the emotional work of receiving and giving feedback, and examines the culture of trolls and haters, bullying, and misogyny. He considers the way comment—a nonstop stream of social quantification and ranking—affects our self-esteem and well-being. And he examines how comment is puzzling—short and asynchronous, these messages can be slap-dash, confusing, amusing, revealing, and weird, shedding context in their passage through the Internet, prompting readers to comment in turn, “WTF?!?”
Reagle demonstrates how complex online commentary actually is, from questions of identity raised by selfies and sockpuppets to online debates both serious and silly. Reading the Comments makes it clear how vital the web's marginalia has become as a cultural outlet.
Clay Shirky, Associate Professor, New York University, and author of Cognitive Surplus and Here Comes Everybody
Reagle approaches 'the bottom of the web' with the insight—and humor—the topic deserves. By urging us to take seriously an aspect of the digital ecosystem many of us try to ignore, Reagle skillfully navigates a landscape of virulent abuse, shameless promotion, and legitimate insight hidden in the comments and reviews of the web. This is a must-read for people trying to understand the challenges of encouraging productive participation online.
Ethan Zuckerman, Director, Center for Civic Media, MIT
In Reading the Comments, Joseph Reagle exposes the powerful social, cultural, and political implications of comments in the digital age. Entertaining and informative, critical and insightful, this book is an eye-opener for anyone who has ever written a comment, clicked the like button, or asked 'WTF?' when reaching the 'bottom of the web.'
Limor Shifman, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, author of Memes in Digital Culture
[A]n especially virtuous endeavor given that so many of us are now continually engaged in our own fitful projects of online content creation.
The New Yorker
In the small but growing body of literature on the subject, this work stands out as a complete overview. Though academic in nature, the writing shapes an engaging topic into an approachable narrative for the general audience.
The history of comment as a genre has never been treated with such care and stewardship as it is by Reagle…
Reagle…offers a rollicking-yet-thoughtful tour through comment threads across the web—from book reviews to Facebook spats and from commercial contexts to intimate spaces of self-expression. Amply spiced with jokes and comics, and anchored with just enough theory to structure the discussion, Reagle's book should be read by anyone with an interest in 'the bottom half of the web.'
The Chronicle of Higher Education