30 December 2011

Twitter-think and comment-think: how we flock to common sentiments

When I first read about Jay Rosen's pressthink concept, it was one of those "ah ha" moments that Archimedes might have felt when he discovered water displacement. I felt like I had made Rosen's discovery along with him... and it made sense. Lots of it.

It was one of those words that when it finally came into existence, there was finally something to define what we have known all along — the mainstream media measures the newsworthiness of a story based on whether other media outlets are covering it.

Most stories get covered automatically, but for controversial topics that require moral judgement, stories can languish. Although these says, "languishing" often means that independent journalists and bloggers will pick up the slack, which ironically enough can also validate a story's newsworthiness (PDF).

Pressthink, like the psycho-social phenomenon of groupthink, really highlights human nature and how we tend to gravitate toward an opinion that resonates with us in a certain moment. We like to think we are rational creatures, but time and time again, we have proven that our emotions drive us to action. Even if we think we are being rational, we might not see or understand the emotional complexity of our state of mind in that moment and how it could affect our better judgement.

Without getting too academic, let's consider how Twitter and comment threads iterate this idea even further. Given that I'm a Twitter newbie, my experience is limited. However, I notice that many tweets are not re-tweeted, but rather, tweeted originally but to the same story or group of stories. It's as if a headline catches our attention and we think it's worthy of passing along, regardless of whether the story is good or not.

Do you read all the stories you recommend people to read through Twitter? I'm sure many people do, but I'm also sure many people don't. People want to be "in the conversation," so they tweet what seems popular, or hip in that moment. I'd love to hear alternative points of view on this, and I'm open to them.

Comment threads are similar. Rarely is a good story written in black and white. Good journalists provide all sides, not just both sides, but oftentimes a story can leave a reader without an obvious conclusion. A good story does not tell the reader what to think, but shows the reader how to think about a certain topic, and allows the reader to cast her or his own personal judgement.

But ambiguity often rests in the minds of people after they read a news article, especially one that covers an unusual or foreign topic.

That's when the comment section comes in. People with "knowledge" about the story chime in by the dozens, making their anonymous (or not) voices heard and never afraid to dole out the ALL CAPS or the creative punctuations. They have no shame in their vomitular grammar, and their emotions are often pure and blistering.

Occasionally the voice of reason makes an appearance, and the "conversation" takes a turn. Then another voice of reason appears, opposing the first rational voice. Then people begin to take sides. Then it makes sense to them. But oftentimes there is one overarching opinion that devours the commenting. People latch on to the common sentiment because it feels better to be in, than it does to stand out.

Why does this matter? As journalists moderate comment sections, it's important to take the popular sentiment with a grain of salt, and take the minority sentiment with a splash of sugar. As Mark Twain once said, once you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect.

I'd link to a comment section to illustrate this idea, but I think it's best if we start our own on this page. Let me know your thoughts below or shoot me an electronic mail.

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