A status theory of blog commentary

Commentary on blogs usually comes in two forms: comments there and posts on other blogs. In my experience, comments tend to disagree and to be negative or insulting much more than links from other blogs are. In a rough count of comments and posts taking a definite position on this blog, 25 of 35 comments disagreed, while 1 of 12 posts did, even if you don’t count another 11 posts which link without comment, a seemingly approving act. Why is this?

Here’s a theory. Lets say you want status. You can get status by affiliating with the right others. You can also get status within an existing relationship by demonstrating yourself to be better than others in it. When you have a choice of who to affiliate with, you will do better not to affiliate at all with most of the people you could demonstrate your superiority to in a direct engagement, so you mostly try to affiliate with higher status people and ignore or mock from a distance those below you. However when it is already given that you affiliate with someone, you can gain status by seeming better than they.

These things are supported if there is more status conflict in less voluntary relationships than in voluntary ones, which seems correct. Compare less voluntary relationships in workplaces, schoolgrounds, families, and between people and employees of organizations they must deal with (such as welfare offices) with more voluntary relationships such as friendships, romantic relationships, voluntary trade, and acquaintanceships.

This theory would explain the pattern of blog commentary. Other bloggers are choosing whether to affiliate with your blog, visibly to outside readers. As in the rest of life, the blogger would prefer to be seen as up with good bloggers and winning stories than to be bickering with bad bloggers, who are easy to come by. So bloggers mostly link to good blogs or posts and don’t comment on bad ones.

Commenters are visible only to others in that particular comments section. Nobody else there will be impressed or interested to observe that you read this blogger or story, as they all are. So the choice of whether to affiliate doesn’t matter, and all the fun is in showing superiority within that realm. Pointing out that the blogger is wrong shows you are smarter than they, while agreeing says nothing. So commenters tend to criticize where they can and not bother commenting on posts they agree with.

Note that this wouldn’t mean opinions are shaped by status desire, but that there are selection effects so that bloggers don’t publicize their criticisms and commenters don’t publicize what they like.

12 responses to “A status theory of blog commentary

  1. I think there might be more mundane explanations of the same phenomena. For one thing, you’re more likely to have something substantial to add if you disagree, than if you agree. If you agree, the agreement is likely to take the form of something as simple and boring as the words, “I agree.” Why bother commenting at all? Whereas if you disagree, then pretty much automatically it is guaranteed that your reasons for disagreement will be something other than the blogger’s reasons for the opinion you disagree with, and therefore that you will have something to add to the discussion.

    But you were interested in the contrast between comments and links from other blogs. A blog, however, is a bit like a scrapbook or diary. You put things in there that you want to preserve. Why would you want to preserve error? Why link to a blog that you disagree with? Sure: you might link because you want to preserve your own correction to the error. But how often do we want to do that? How many college professors proudly display the red marks that they put on students’ work? I think that one’s correction of error tends typically to be much more throw-away than one’s original thoughts. If you want to correct an error, and if you do not think the correction particularly interesting, you might choose to do it in the comments of the blog that committed the error. That has the added bonus that the blogger is typically more likely to notice it. Similarly, when a professor corrects a student’s paper, he hands it back to the student. It is especially important that the person being corrected see the correction. In contrast, it is nice, but not essential, that a blogger one is linking to see the link.

    I’m not saying I’ve explained the phenomenon. If anything, my view is that the phenomenon can be explained many ways.

    • That seems a promising explanation too. Though it seems to need better reasons that writing substantive criticisms as posts is less common. The ‘corrections’ in comments are often alternative theories, not just picking uninteresting holes.

      • Maybe. It also occurred to me that some aspects of my explanation may have a “status” aspect (I mentioned the word “proudly”), so it may be less of an alternative than I thought. Another factor by the way is that many commenters don’t have blogs.

        I also thought of some exceptions. Some blogs have sycophant commenters. In fact I find that most political blogs have mostly commenters who at least agree with the blogger and join in bashing the opposition. Some blogs have sycophant commenters, though the examples I know often delete comments, which I think explains it.

      • >writing substantive criticisms as posts is less common

        I would guess that the more high status the blogger the more likely people will make posts that criticize the blogger. Because the more high status the blogger, the bigger the payoff for successfully criticizing. Making a whole post for a lower status blogger is not worth the effort.

  2. I believe you are missing one group in this ecosystem: aggregators and the comment threads they support. I often read Hacker News and the comment threads on Hacker News are often much larger than the actual comments on the blog post (and often have a different tone, or go off on a different tangent).

    Where, or how, do these fit in with your explanation?

  3. PS: I submitted this to HN: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1028947

    Perhaps this post can become a case study ;)

  4. This is one reason why the “like this” button in Facebook is a wonderful improvement and should be copied in other commenting systems. It allows people to show their approval without wasting either their own time or other readers’ time on “+1″ comments.

  5. I had a comment to make which set forth an entirely different but still interesting theory of this disparity, but unfortunately the box was too small to contain my proof.

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  7. There’s an analogy between this and publication bias. Positive results are treated as interesting and are published; negative results are treated as not interesting and are not published. The analogy is between positive results and positive comments, between negative results and negative comments, and between a blog entry and a novel hypothesis. Blog entries in blogs like Meteuphoric and OB are largely presentations of novel hypotheses, so the analogy is close to identity. If the blog entry/novel hypothesis is (found, or believed) false, this is not very interesting and so the finding is relegated to the obscurity of a comment or nonpublication. If the blog entry/novel hypothesis is (found, or believed) true, this is exciting and is trumpeted more visibly – published in a journal or in a blog as an entry.

    The analogy allows us to map the status analysis to publication bias. Journals, bloggers, and scientists are looking for an audience, and so publish positive results. Negative findings do not attract remotely the same audience and so are not placed in prominent locations. Since it does not attract an audience, the context in which a negative finding can enhance someone’s status is limited to an audience which is already paying attention to the study.

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  9. Stuff doesn’t matter. It’s all about the economy of attention.

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