Comment, Comment on the Wall, Are You Community or Not at All

One of the coolest things about posting at Freakonomics is the chance to be educated by your high-quality comments, which add to our posts and sometimes correct our mistakes.

But to be honest, every once in a while I have been depressed by the harsh general tone of criticism. (For example, the comments here got me down. To be specific, it’s not that commenters sometimes disagree with a post; it’s that they claim that the post is insufficiently related to Freakonomics-type thinking.)

Peter Ubel suggested that some of these comments may be the byproduct of Google Alerts and not come from regular readers of this blog. In an earlier post, I made a mistake in describing how often the open-source statistical software, R, is updated, and dozens of knowledgeable R users appropriately corrected me. I’m betting that most of these comments came from Google Alerts (plus indirect links on message boards). The Google Alerts comments are real comments, and as this example shows, they are often helpful comments.

For some reason, it eases my mind to think that some of my flaming may come from Google Alerts instead of from regular readers of this blog.

It might be interesting to have a public signal about whether the comment was based on an alert or not. An indirect signal would be for Google to create an “Alert Trends” feature. Alert Trends would allow you to find out how many people had signed up for Alerts on particular character combinations (just like the existing Trends feature lets you know how many people have searched for a particular character combination).

Using this feature, bloggers could figure out how many alerts a particular post generates. Knowing this might improve distort this marketplace of ideas as authors goose their language to increase their Google Alert readership.

Google Alerts is also a great substitute for email, at least for the thousands of academics, journalists, and webheads who have alerts on their own names. Quasi-famous people who might not have time to read your email might read a Google Alert post that includes their name. To wit:

Hi John Dickerson,

I really loved your Slate article on Obama‘s donor database. It would be incredibly non-burdensome for the Obama webheads to disclose the three million donors that gave less than $200.

It’s better than even money that, thanks to Google Alerts, John will read these words.

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  1. Chris says:

    I think Google Alerts can be both annoying and really helpful. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been in a situation of adding, deleting, adding and deleting the same Google Alert.

    On the comments, I think some people are probably looking for some sort of attention in clearly a very popular – like an ad trying to break through the wall of advertising monotony. Whether they’re Google Alerts people or not. So they make harsh comments.

    I’ve also come to learn that people develop a high sense of loyalty to the subject matter of specialist blogs. Similar to the way a reader becomes loyal to novel style as the plot and characters develop. Challenge that and they get upset. Maybe, your ability to think outside the box worried and offended their sensitive natures.

    That may be another reason. Of course, they may just be the type of people to find any reason to bring someone down.

    Who knows. Try not to let it get to you though – this is a great blog with many many fans the world over. Consider a compliment, instead, that they choose to challenge and interact with you.

    My blog comment count for today is … 0. :)

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  2. Howard Tayler says:

    I manage several communities and discussion areas for the comic strip I pay my bills with, and regardless of where the commenters come from, I get depressed by flame-wars in the group.

    This is a risk any online community runs regardless of the subject matter, and regardless of where the commenters are coming from. True, those who are blog regulars are more likely to be civil, but attracting regulars means opening comments to the population at large, and that means there will be trolls at the gate.

    I see the solution coming from the evolution of our socialization online. We will, over time, grow up.

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  3. PaulK says:

    One of the tricky issues with blogs is that if they are somewhat focused (around the aspects of economics from the Freakonomics book in this case), people expect them to stay within that. Readers often become the force that keeps a blog within its focus area by critique. I note that Nate Silver had that happen to him over at
    So, your wedding ring posting came across as purely political rather tying politics to economics. The funny thing about economics is that it connects to almost everything (including politics, social issues, etc). If your post had been on less people buying wedding rings because of lack of Gay marriages, no one could claim it was outside the bounds of the blog. Whether they agreed or disagreed would not matter.
    As to Google Alerts, I agree that it affects who reads a posting, although the cost of registering before you can comment normally prevents too many extra comments in general.
    As to the R language issue, I think a lot of R users would read the blog since R is used by economists, statistical psychologists, statisticians, and others.

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  4. Kristine says:

    well Ian, I think I was the first one to suggest I don’t understand how your pro-gay-marriage postings fit into the Freakonomics void. I guess almost all issues can fit into a cost/benefit analysis, but when your posts seem to be a broken record on the same topic I see it less as you creating discussion or analysis and more of a propaganda for your beliefs.

    And no, I don’t use Google Alerts.

    p.s. I went back and read all those posts – I think any kind of discussion on this matter should begin on “what are the foundation of beliefs for both sides” and based on that why do people support what they do? I have yet to find a gay marriage supporter who will acknowledge that my views are shaped by my foundation of beliefs – not bigotry – and I have as much right to hold my foundation of beliefs as you do to yours. And I will acknowledge that if I didn’t believe in a premortal life where we were created by God and where gender was an essential characteristic and part of an eternal plan for us to return to live with Him (as families) again — I would agree with you 100%, I really see where y’all are coming from, but I don’t agree with it.

    Any discussion that you begin without acknowledging those things is pointless at best.

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  5. Roy Huggins says:

    I recall that post and the nasty comments about “liberal guilt” that came with it. As a fellow married man who supports the cause of justice in America, I think your gesture — not wearing your wedding ring in support of same-sex couples that were legally prohibited from marrying — was both appropriate and useful.

    I appreciated it even though I didn’t post. Perhaps I should have? It seems that people in agreement are often silent when they need to be noisy.

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  6. jonathan says:

    There are several sources for flames and harsh comments, among them:

    1. Internet history. For those of us who were around before the web became populist, the standard tone of discussion was often harsh. That was part machismo, part because the knowledgeable reacted with fury toward the newbies and the crackpots (who used to post with great frequency in academic lists), and for many other reasons. That history lives.
    2. Harshness can have value. As opposed to flames, a poke that a post is “idiotic” is a reminder this is a different form of peer-review and that one should be both prodded from time to time and prepared to defend one’s ideas in a free-for-all. Academia was often like that in the past, and the House of Commons and other Parliaments still at times are.
    3. The “Doofus Quotient.” That’s my term for the people who write “first post” on slashdot like life is a video game and that helps then on a quest in virtual reality.
    4. “Drive-bys.” In one discussion group I’m involved with if something negative reaches the headlines then we get drive-by posters who want to chime in. The problem isn’t that they post but that they are usually nasty, even to the crackpot end of the scale.
    5. What old net users might call the “Sick World Syndrome.” It’s a sick world, full of hatred and misshapen minds. There’s a lot of anger and a ton of that is ignorant and prejudiced.

    My recommendation for improvement is the same as for improving financial performance, voting for the best movie Oscar, etc.: de-couple them in time.

    If we voted on Oscars for the best picture of 5 years ago, how often would that be the same as the winner for the current year? (I’m saying in that case, it would be great to have a new category, for the best films as seen as time passes, because I can’t imagine we’ll give up current voting.) Imagine how different the financial mess would look if bonuses were paid based on the performance of a deal over and after 5 years instead of at the artificial end of the current quarter or year? Same with posting. If you allow cookies, as you must, then you could prevent posting on the first visit to an article – first session, too, to prevent refreshes. A requirement to “come back again to post” would be a think about it opportunity. You could also, for certain material, track if the person clicked the provided link, though you wouldn’t know if they actually read the stuff.

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  7. PaulK says:

    Kristine @4, it is not about your beliefs. You are allowed to believe what you want. But, public policy is about something more. The 1st problem you have is that you think marriage is a religious thing; it is not. Marriage is a legal contract related to property and rights. The fact that religions are allowed to perform marriage ceremonies (as are clerks, sea captains, etc), does not make it yours in any way. Your religion perhaps also did not believe in marriage between two races 40 years ago, did that make it right? In other countries, your religion has tried to stop others practicing different religions, does that make it right?
    Ian’s point was never about your beliefs, but about what is legal and about equal protection under the law. We have a separation between Church and State in the US for this very reason.

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  8. dd says:

    I have no comments on Google Alerts, but since you bring up the gay marriage question:

    I think the dialogue has missed the real issue. The question is why the government has a role in certifying marriage. Then, once we understand the public policy purpose of marriage, then we can discuss how it may or may not apply to nonstandard couples.

    For example, marriage may simply be a mechanism that allows people to contract a value increasing division of labor. If so, then it should have nothing to do with love or sex – simply two (or more?) people who enter into a long term agreement that is costly to break up.

    If that’s the case, we can title it something else “registered domestic partnership” and leave marriage for religious or social but not legal use.

    Alternatively, marriage may have something to do with social policy. In other words, my marriage has externalities that affects my neighbors well being. Then one could argue that the makeup of a couple does matter.

    I’m not saying which is right or wrong. I’m simply saying that the question should not be “should we allow gay marriage?” Instead it should be “why do we as a society care about marriage at all?”

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