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Reading the comments : likers, haters, and manipulators at the bottom of the web
Reagle J., The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015. 240 pp. Type: Book (978-0-262028-93-6)
Date Reviewed: Sep 14 2015

In this small book, the author covers the topic of Internet comments with many anecdotes and examples. The book has its own vocabulary. Two important words from this vocabulary are “fakery” and “sock puppet” (an e-mail account created for the purpose of faking a comment about a person, product, place, or service).

The book has eight chapters that cover an introduction to Internet comments, product reviews (which pre-date the Internet), Internet cruelty, self-esteem and narcissism, excessive quantification, and concluding observations.

The product review chapters cover manipulation by the manufacturer of a specific product, criticism by the competitor of a product (through a sock puppet), and opinions by a consumer who purchased and used a product. These types of reviews are not new and pre-date the Internet by decades through magazines and newspapers. The Internet increases the speed of a product review and the scope (anybody can comment on anything at some place on the Internet). Some Internet retailers such as Amazon and Newegg have extensive reviews written by consumers who purchased and used a product.

Chapter 5, “Alienated,” deals with Internet cruelty. Reagle notes that such cruelty pre-dates the Internet with Usenet flame wars. He cites “Godwin’s Law, an observation … made in 1990”: “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1” (p. 92).

Reagle cites a number of instances where people were attacked online (or threatened with physical violence) due to statements that were made over the Internet. He describes the Kathy Sierra incident where a technical writer who wrote books about the Java programming language and had a blog on the Internet was attacked and threatened online by a group called the “mean kids.” The online attacks escalated to the point where Sierra was threatened with physical violence and she declined giving public talks for a period of time. Reagle mentions that Sierra believed the trigger for this behavior was “her support for bloggers who delete inappropriate comments from their own blogs” (p. 101).

The book concludes with an observation by the sociologist George Ritzer: “People who live in contemporary ‘rational’ societies are driven toward quantifiable measures, in part, because they rely on computers which also make it easy to make difficult decisions when assessing subjective and qualitative phenomena” (p. 182).

One area that was only lightly covered by the author dealt with newspaper articles and comments from readers. For example, some of the New York Times articles allow comments from readers, and these comments can add some further depth to an article. But curating the comments from a controversial article can be very time consuming (something that Reagle emphasizes throughout his book), which is why newspapers and many web sites have abandoned the practice of accepting comments.

Each of the chapters has extensive footnotes that support what the author is saying. The footnotes also refer back to some of the original Internet locations cited by the author. Spot checking the references, there were no dead links, which is unusual for a book that uses URLs as references. Reagle apparently expected his URL references to disappear, which is why some of the text describing a topic is so detailed.

Overall, this is a fascinating book. The topics covered are timely. For example, page 181 refers to the prosecutorial misconduct associated with the trial regarding the shootings at the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina (updates regarding this trial were announced while I was finishing Reagle’s book in late August 2015).

Reagle has done an outstanding job documenting the relationship between online comments and events that are occurring in contemporary society. This book covers the cultural changes created by the Internet and its effect upon society. It also would be of interest to people studying mass communications and popular culture.

More reviews about this item: Amazon, Goodreads

Reviewer:  W. E. Mihalo Review #: CR143767 (1512-1019)
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