What happens when you cross the streams?

May 25 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

What happens when you cross the
Or, norms in online communities, how journal commenting is different,
and waving the flag on potential issues when aggregating web comments
with journal articles.

There have been a couple of interesting discussions on friendfeed
recently about commenting on journal sites vs. commenting elsewhere and
about commenting anonymously, with an established online persona, or
with the name on your drivers license.
(I'm intentionally not linking to them, because the threads ended up in
some less than entirely pleasant squabbling over a misunderstanding).
I'd like to look at this for a minute.

As groups use communication technologies over time, they develop group
norms.  These norms might include when and what to link to,
how rowdy or polite to be, and what topics are appropriate.
 Some discussion forums are supportive and helpful and warm,
comfortable places to be whereas others are full of insults and ribbing
and out and out flame wars - that's the norm, though, so people go
there for that.  Newbies generally lurk (hang out without
posting) for some period of time before commenting on posts, and then
initiating threads. Lave and Wenger call this legitimate peripheral
participation.  People get drawn into wikis this way (first
reading, then correcting errors, then starting pages or adding new
information) and blogs.  So usually, except for the first few
people who have to sort of blaze a trail, people learn how to interact
in a new communication forum by watching and then dipping their toes
into the water.  And the first few people may be using the
tool in a completely unexpected way (or at least many people aren't
reporting what they're doing right now on twitter). 

You might say, that the thing with blogs, though, is that it's sort of
your own little
home. You can do what you want there, rearrange the furniture, and
moderate the comments. You set the tone with what you post, how you say
it, and what you link to.  But still, you probably act like
others whose blog you read act, and you link to them and they link to
you, so there is a little community and there are norms.

People also develop online personas that may or may not be anything
are like in meat space.  They might play devil's advocate or
be a
curmudgeon. They give this persona a name and that's how the person is

Ok, so fine.  But what about friendfeed?  That
crosses the streams from bookmarking sites (delicious to connotea to
citeulike), blogs, flickr, twitter... all places that have their own
norms.  Or even, if you can't say the whole of one of these
things has a norm, at least there are identifiable communities within
these things that have norms (knitting bloggers, librarian bloggers,
mommy bloggers, whatever).  So then, in a re-design of the
site, friendfeed got rid of the logos for each of the streams (which
many of us have re-added using GreaseMonkey) - even further mashing up
these streams.  It turns out that instead of this causing a
whole lot of confusion, hurt feelings, and people acting
inappropriately (for the most part), it's caused the formation of new
norms and ways of doing things - because we're all pretty adaptable,
and it's basically the same people, with the same user ids, and because
we know that people label delicious things differently for themselves
than to share, for example.

So if it's ok for friendfeed to aggregate all of these things, then it
should be just fine for journals to aggregate comments on their papers
from all public sources, and provide them to article readers as
commentary and context, right?  Here are some good possible

  • this could provide a filtering function - these people
    thought the article was good, so it's worth reading
  • could make science go faster - spark new ideas, new
  • correct errors faster
  • provide context for the paper

However, the norms when people comment directly on the journal site are
quite different. People think through their comments more. People are
sometimes forced to use their real names (the names on their drivers
licenses). There is probably more civility because these people might
be the reviewers of your next paper! (see Nascent

So what happens if you cross the streams?  You cross the
off-the-cuff, "oh, dude posted his 15th paper from his dissertation,
d'ya think he'll ever do new work?" and "is this for real?" with the "I
think the caption for figure 3 should state..." and "in your analysis,
did you consider error stemming from ... " Ew. And some of these
comments might be coming from the same people (oops!). If someone does
a thoughtful review of an article on their blog they probably would
want that connected to the article, but how about these other things?
 It's public, therefore it's ok to use?  How do you
tell which is which?

Dealing with journal articles, and commenting on them in a scholarly
form has existing norms of behavior, from the offline world.
 Between journal club members, you might get pretty rowdy, but
you would never think of sharing that stuff with the author of the
paper.  Questioning is good, but there are some comments that
stay between friends.  

I'm not saying that this shouldn't be done, but it would be better if
people could opt in.  Use a tag to have a comment aggregated
or something. Then, when the comments are posted, mark them
appropriately.  You'll still have people who aren't really
involved in our online world who are completely confused by the
comments, but it's sort of difficult to bring them from 0-60 with a
page layout.

This is my story and I'm sticking to it, at least until someone on
friendfeed tells me I'm all wrong πŸ™‚

3 responses so far

  • Neil says:

    Nice summary. It's unfortunate about the direction those threads took; I have not really seen that at FriendFeed before. Guess it comes to all communities eventually!
    I might argue that by posting in public, you have "opted in" whether you intended to or not. As I said in one thread (unintentionally causing offence in the process), don't share if you don't want to be reshared. Then again it's a complex, fine-grained issue. There's a difference between someone cherry-picking your post and reposting (perhaps out of context, perhaps for nefarious ends) and someone linking back to a complete thread of which you are part, in my opinion.

  • Oh, you're right. But sometimes it's not about being right πŸ™‚ That is, the information was clearly linked on the blog so most people would assume that it's ok to use - or even desirable to use. The person overreacted, but at that point, it's probably best to just diffuse the situation while they cool off instead of trying to make sure they know how wrong they are.

  • Great topic! It would be great if each one of us had greater control over the information we publish and how people/sites/services might subscribe to it (the pub/sub model). Jon Udell has been teasing out some of these issues recently on his blog and is worth checking out: http://blog.jonudell.net/2009/03/06/hosted-lifebits-meets-infobus/