Language Patterns in Bad Comments


The analysis of language patterns in communications is rich with cultural and behavioral insights. Online comment threads give us strong clues about the community that sets the tone.

Ars Technica has taken a look at the comments that get downvoted most listing some examples. I like to promote intelligent discussion of issues and hopefully my posts are used that way elsewhere — I've given up on figuring out why comment threads are uncommon at this blog (and no, I don't consider it a lack of engagement with the content).

I have however a published a short rule about comments on the sidebar:

This is my blog and not a public space. Critical discourse is welcomed. I
will, however, delete your comment if you descend into personal
attacks, inappropriate language, disrespectful behavior, or excessive
self-promotion and link-baiting.

It's more of the link-baiting, and sadly this content still gets scraped by unsavory and offensive (to me) sites in a desperate come-on to get traffic and then broadcast on Twitter by bots. You run no risk of having an intelligent discussion on those sites.

The community that sets the tone is a good line of inquiry also for understanding online maturity and advocacy levels. The system Ars Technica put in place is fairly sophisticated yet simple and it signals community involvement, which is a high goal to achieve.

That in itself is worth mentioning.

Observed trends

The other reason I like the download of downvoting is in the second half of the post: where they list emerging trends in language patterns. When I tell you what they are, you will probably recognize a few of them peppered around social networks, if you don't have a blog.

I've come across all of them in the six plus years I've been blogging (Ars points with some editing):

  • Son of the "I don't even own a TV" guy: This is the poster who thinks other people will find it interesting that he cares nothing about their discussion or their interests, and in fact judges himself as somehow morally superior as a result.
  • The "I only know how to speak in hyperbole" guy: This poster is not always trying to troll, it often looks like it. This individual cannot introduce nuance into their point of view, and must use superlatives and extreme language in an attempt to get attention.

I wrote this post after witnessing exactly one such display of super stardom by someone who should be more confident, given their positioning.

  • The "anybody who X is/does Y" guy: The one-dimensional, blanket approach.
  • The "Ars Technica is the worst site ever but I'll be back again tomorrow" guy: There's a handful of readers who simply dive into our comments to chastise us about how horrible we are, but of course they come back day after day.

Ditto for many other publications that I've seen.

  • The "unpopular but sincere opinion" guy: This is the guy we are trying to figure out how to protect. In the absence of trolling, we would prefer to see differences of opinion respected. 

In this instance, strong moderation from the site owner helps not make it a problem, if it is. It hasn't been an issue here. Differing points of view are welcome and in a format that allows for longer form commenting they are less likely to come across as attention pleas or trolling if poorly worded (which has been the case on Twitter).

Ars Technica is not just a site, it's first and foremost a community. Their behavior also sets the tone.

Conversation helps negotiate meaning. However, in a virtual setting, people don't converse, they comment, big difference.

I like to remember that, after all, we are what we say.


[hat tip Nat Torkington]


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