A number of weeks back, my older sister forwarded me this article, describing a recent study examining the impact of a forum of reader comments on how other readers perceive, interpret, and ultimately assess digital media articles on science and technology; essentially, the group seeks to further understanding of how new media tools in journalism, knowledge exchange, and dialogue impact scientific literacy. Using an objectively written article describing and outlining general uses for nanotechnology as the fundamental piece, the investigators added a string of realistic, but fabricated reader comments; one group of tested readers saw what was described as "civil comments and the second "uncivil" comments. Curiously, it is unclear, at least from this overview, how cogent the experimental comments were, how comparable with regard to diction and syntax, and so forth, details that interest me greatly. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the research indicated that the tone of the comments sculpted and influenced reader perception of the information, regardless of prerequisite "knowledge of science"; again, for a more critical assessment, I am curious as to how this was measured and to what level of rigor and accuracy.
Though the details provided in the overview are scant, the broad findings reported quite general, and the numbers within the study itself surely small, the implications therein for the evolution of journalism, reporting, and the digital community are vast. In this ever-shifting semiotic milieu, an already textured and complicated concept, that of context, both real and constructed, has new dimensions. The paradigm of triangular-interface, author-text-reader, becomes author-text-reader-reader dialogue, which can be further skewed or distorted, in the very literal senses of those words, through the lens of a community manager. So, not only is the reader ingesting and processing and reassembling pieces of information from an author, who may or may not be reporting accurately about a specific subject, scientific or otherwise, the reader also sifts through a deluge of possibly provocative or compelling or wrong or insightful comments, potentially drawing from only the primary article to which they are appended, but likely pulling in pieces from the mind and experience of their authors. This exchange is then, at least on a predominance of popular and reputed media outlets, facilitated, shepherded, and refereed by a community manager, whose own perceptions and experiences will ultimately and invariably impact how the discussion is mediated.
Theoretically, the democratization of knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, and of discourse concerning that knowledge is fascinating and welcome; realistically, and as a staunch proponent of freedom of speech, of discourse, of exchange it is painful to admit, it can be a frightening prospect. In a landscape where certain basic principles of science are still continually questioned, after decades of evidence collected and verified with controlled process, or, worse, denied and refuted with wanton rhetoric or with obstinacy, where education values are often institutionalized and mass-manufactured in a single-size approach, where a genuine inquisitive nature in the natural and scientific world can be unfairly squashed or suffocated, further leverage for uninformed, or misunderstood, or misinterpreted, voices can be significant.
This research is soon to be published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and, obviously, for a more comprehensive and authentic response to some of these thoughts, I need to start there. In the interim, I briefly broach some related points that may be discussed in this particular paper, or perhaps should, and warrant some type of independent literature research on my end: whether the mediation of a computer or other technological device was significant, other than as a tool whereby these conversations are already playing out; in other words, does this study perhaps say more about powers of independent thinking, syntheses, analyses, and reasoning of those who participated? And to what extent are those participants representative of this particular society, or other separate societies experiencing parallel quandaries in scientific literacy, communication, and new media? In light of this type of research, then, what are the viable solutions that neither quell freedom of speech but can potentially effectively moderate exchange in particular forums? Are such solutions necessary, or is this a challenge each man and woman should acknowledge, and embark upon, for themselves?
(image taken from This Is The House That Lars Built)