Commentary by Heidi Biggs
In a recent comedy special titled Nightclub Comedian, Azis Ansari makes a joke about how our lives are in a constant state of attending to online content and fighting about it in the comments, stating, “that’s us man. We just live in the comments threads now.” Andy Madrick’s thesis is an attempt to reflect on ‘life in the comments’ as he designs to make online discourse more nuanced, productive, and generative through interface design. It is no new news that discourse and thinking have splintered and spiraled into factions, conspiracies, and parallel dimensions in recent years. It is a puzzle many are trying to solve: how to heal and regenerate some semblance of constructive discourse, which, many argue, has been torn apart by algorithmic recommendations and non-nuanced incentive structures like ‘liking’ something on social media. In a recent Atlantic article titled “Why the Last Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” Jonathan Haidt suggests that social media has weakened the three things that made societies cohere: “social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.”(1) Some suggest people on social media are trapped in ‘filter bubbles’ and echo chambers(2) due to algorithmic sorting of content. Recent years have seen the rise of purposeful misinformation online, as well as political polarization, which may be driven by the promotion of emotionally charged content via platform incentives and algorithmic surfacing. Efforts to moderate content are springing up, yet moderation brings to light other complexities as some have begun to fear that large tech corporations are the new arbiters of free speech.(3)
Andy’s design thesis intervenes in this difficult space of how algorithmically-driven, incentivized, content-focused platforms are shaping discourse. In his thesis, Andy conducted research on how to improve the discussion in the comment sections of platforms, asking how interaction design might intervene to make comment threads more productive and nuanced, playing with ideas like giving users options to respond to comments or posts beyond a ‘like’, or allowing people to respond to certain parts of a comment. He realized that people’s online behavior is shaped by the platforms themselves, as people post polarizing, emotional content in attempts to go viral, without being so incendiary that they are ‘canceled’ or ‘ratioed’ — which is where someone gets more comments than likes, usually signaling people really didn’t like their post. He also researched the current state of content moderation, finding there are two main ways that information is surfaced, algorithm-driven content moderation on platforms like Twitter or Instagram, or top-down moderation by a person, like on Reddit or Quora. Seeking a new path forward, Andy created a high-fidelity prototype, based on his empirical and theoretical research, that enables community-driven peer-to-peer moderation. He designed two key interventions, one which allows commenters to offer each other more nuanced feedback and another where, if a debate between two people gets long or destructive in a comment thread, other people in the thread can suggest they move to a private discussion. Is this the equivalent of ‘taking it outside?’ I wondered. I couldn’t help but reflect on the type of conversation people want to have in public vs. private — maybe there is something about the thrill of performance — that people simply wouldn’t bother with the theatrics in a private space. I look forward to future findings in the testing of this prototype . . . I think it will expose and explore many new areas for design to encourage civility online.
It is clear finding solutions to this challenge of productive discourse in our ‘life in the comments’ is urgent, as online discourse is a multiverse of conflicting informational worlds nowadays. Andy is seeking ways that interaction design can de-escalate discursive volatility and fragmentation, by asking how dialogue might be incentivized differently with hopes that peer-to-peer moderation will bring more nuance and cohesion to discussion online.
(1) Haidt, Jonathan. “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” The Atlantic, April 11, 2022. Online.
(2) Green, Holly and Kristi Hedges. “Breaking Out of Your Internet Filter Bubble.” Forbes, August 29, 2011. Online.
(3) Klonick, Kate. “The new governors: The people, rules, and processes governing online speech.” Harv. L. Rev. 131 (2017): 1598.