The Social Nature of Blog Comments

As I mentioned in my last post on commenting, Seth Godin was seen as arrogant when he disabled comments on his blog. Some asserted that blogging was about the conversation. Although I earlier said that it wasn't about the conversation, in a way, it is. More precisely, it's about the social relations between people that conversation enables. In looking at how Seth's post triggered a blogospheric uproar, we might consider how his post violated people's perceptions of the social relationships "required" in blogging from the perspective of social relational models, a theoretical model for social interaction posited by Alan Fiske, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Fiske proposes that four relational models in various combinations govern all social interactions. These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Although I've posted before on these social relations (see "The Internet and Ownership" and "Academic Blogging"), it's been a while. So, I'll review those models and then look at how they can explain people's reactions to disabling comments.

Communal Sharing is a relationship among a bounded group of people in which members are considered equivalent and have equal access to the group's resources, such as in the case of family members having equal access to the refrigerator regardless of who purchased the food or students having equal access to library resources regardless of whether they are on full scholarship, paying in-state tuition, or out-of state tuition. In communal sharing, people identify with their group and conform to its characteristics and behavior.

Authority Ranking is a linear, hierarchical relationship in which one person is above or below another person instead of being equivalent. The higher person has more privileges, status, and control, while the lower person is entitled to protection and care. It is not a matter of power, which is an asocial relationship, but of a social model that supports legitimate authority. Those in subordinate positions grant their leaders authority. That authority may be allowed in one situation but not in another. For example, students generally follow a teacher’s rules and directions. However, it is not uncommon for students to disagree with their teacher when they hold expertise in a particular area. In ESL (English as a second language) writing courses, for instance, graduate students accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but may reject content corrections in discipline-related papers because they consider themselves to have more authority with respect to their discipline. And Authority Ranking can co-exist with Communal Sharing as in the case of parents in a family.

Equality Matching is a relationship in which there is a one-to-one correspondence in the transfer of resources, often with a delay in response, such as when a someone extends a favor, which is expected eventually to be returned in kind. Unlike in Communal Sharing relationships in which accounts are not kept, they are in Equality Matching. Consequently, if too many favors are owed, an Equality Matching relationship can turn into an Authority Ranking relationship.

In contrast, Market Pricing is an exchange of resources based on proportionality, that is, a ratio or rate, such as exchanging goods or services in return for money. People want to get the best deal for themselves, or at least a fair deal.

In any particular action, more than one of these are usually operating, although it is normal for more than one to be more prominent than the others.

In addition to the social relational models, there are also asocial models in which people either ignore others or use others as a means to some end. Having evolved and emerged from psychological mechanisms, Fiske’s social relational models are the building blocks of cultures. Just as the four building blocks of DNA account for the diversity of species, so, too, do the four social relational models account for the diversity of cultures.

When we look at the many comments about Seth Godin, one word that comes up is "arrogant." Why? The tone does seem flippant. By itself, however, such a tone from most bloggers wouldn't have triggered such a response. More likely, the response resulted from his violating the Communal Sharing model. Although the blogging community does not have a uniform opinion on commenting, the overwhelming majority believe that to be a blog, it should have comments. Previously, bloggers had access to posting their opinions at Seth's site, and now they don't. Previously, they were part of Seth's "bounded group," wide-open as it may have been. Now they aren't. By unilaterally disabling comments, Seth was also violating the Authority Ranking model. That is, he was perceived to be acting from a position of authority that they did not grant (when not granted, it is considered an abuse of power). The combination of breaking off from the community and asserting authority, both actions violating social relational models, led to the blogging community's strong reaction.

Seth, on the other hand,might have been treating it as a Market Pricing relationship: He figured that the uproar would increase his traffic and was worth the backlash, thus an attempt to make the best deal for himself. Or, perhaps as he wrote:

I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them.

Just looking at his previous post on "On how to get traffic for your blog", you can see 113 comments and 76 trackbacks. Plus, Seth often writes 4 or more posts in a day. Commenters expect some interaction, as EFL Geek wrote:

If an author choose to disable comments I think that is fine, I don’t really support it, but that’s a fair choice. What bothers me is that authors who have comments enabled but never respond to any comments by their readership.

It doesn't seem likely that anyone would expect that Seth would respond to all commenters. Still, it's rather easy to imagine that he may have thought that he wasn't getting a good enough deal out of the comments to make it worth his while to keep them and respond to them. It's also possible that an Equality Matching model played some part. That is, when someone comments on your blog, you feel the obligation, as Seth said, to respond in kind. Obviously, he couldn't do so, and rather than feel uncomfortable about not fulfilling the social obligation of matching the comment, he simply withdrew from the conversation that maintained the relationship.

When people use different social relational models to their interactions with one another, conflict is likely to ensue. However, although the people involved may attribute their reactions to a variety of causes, they are governed unconsciously just as much, if not more, by underlying psychological mechanisms that guide social relations.

Obviously, these mechanisms can affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Just consider the aversion of many students to peer reviewing essays and the social relational models that are likely underlying that aversion. However, that's a topic for a later post.