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Six social media commenting principles, how they don’t work and an alternative broadcast system

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The development of comments on social media – by which I mean responding to any internet text, such as a tweet, Facebook post or blog – appears to have coalesced around six principles. The origin and intention of these principles is ambivalent, but they are easily abused by anyone acting in bad faith.

The six principles are:

  • Congregation. Comments should appear in the same space – post or wider platform – as the original text
  • Amplification. Comments should amplify the original text (through mechanisms such as retweets and algorithmic suggestions)
  • Frictionless posting. Comments should be easy to add
  • Democracy. Comments should be democratic. Anyone can comment on anyone else’s post.
  • Freedom of speech. Comments should be moderated defensively to encourage “free speech”. Some blogs allow text authors to moderate pre-publication; the big platforms don’t allow any author moderation at all, relying on users to make a complaint and the platform to take action.
  • Signification. Signals – such as likes, thumbs, favourites, stars – have value: they’re easy to add, indicate the use of a post, provide feedback for authors etc.

There’s a mix of influences in these principles: part 60s anarcho-libertarianism, part academic synthesis and a large dash of cold, hard profiteering – the more people engage with social media in any way at all, the more data you can harvest from them. Regardless of how they’ve evolved, the way social media does comments often results in harmful outcomes:

  • By allowing anybody to attach comments directly to a post, it’s easy to “pile in” on an author in a co-ordinated fashion.
  • By allowing amplification through mechanisms such as retweeting, a localised disagreement can escalate into a major, internet-wide war within hours.
  • Signal responses ensnare users through an ultra-efficient process of feedback and excitement.
  • Similarly, frictionless responding encourages engagement with the platform, while making it easy to post something the user may soon regret. Good luck deleting your ill-judged thought from the record.
  • A wilfully un-nuanced interpretation of free speech allows for the normalisation of far-right views.
  • A “light-touch”, post-publication moderation system makes it difficult to delete posts that, while being fascistic and/or downright harmful, generate engagement and therefore profits

Comments can be done differently, but it probably means foregoing some of these principles. I’ve had a not entirely serious Twitter alternative on my mind recently, which I’ll call Broadcast:

  • No congregation. Users can tweet in the normal way, but comments are not appended to texts. You can respond to a text, but your response will only appear in your own stream as a separate post, or elsewhere: on your own website, perhaps. The original author will remain blissfully unaware of the comment, unless they follow the commenter and notice it, or they discover it another way.
  • More commenting friction. While posting itself should remain easy, commenting involves writing your own post and linking to the source.
  • No amplification. Which means: no retweets and no platform attempts to surface “engaging“ content, or people you might like to follow. A strict chronological timeline too :-)
  • No signals. No likes, laughs, thumbs-up or anything. This extends to user bios: no follower lists or follower totals. You can refer to another users’ page with the @ syntax so your followers can find them, but the user isn’t notified about the reference.
  • No direct communication via the platform. There’s no way to DM or respond to authors. Users can provide a website address, or even an email, in their bio if they wish.

It’s odd thinking of posting into silence (welcome to blogging!) Centralised platforms offer advantages over a federated system – mainly because they make it easier to follow people – but their commenting protocols are too open to abuse. Perhaps a broadcast platform where users are isolated from each other would remain healthy, although it’s easy to conclude that any form of online comments will end in some of abuse.

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