Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web

By Kritikos, Katie Chamberlain | Journal of Information Ethics, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web


Kritikos, Katie Chamberlain, Journal of Information Ethics


Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 20i5. 228 pp. $27.95. ISBN: 978-0262-02893-6.

Comment and the New Normal

"I only got five 'likes' in the last ten minutes. Do you think I should take it down? Let me take another selfie."-Chainsmokers, "#SELFIE"

As Generation Y offspring, I have used computers since the early i990s, since I was about seven years old. Each advance in technology slipped seamlessly into the stream of normal, everyday life: first, Internet browsers; next, email and chat rooms; finally, Web 2.0, when oversharing the quotidian became acceptable and expected.

With this new normal, we can not only post our own user-generated content on the web, we can comment on others' content as well, whether by clicking "like" on Facebook, retweeting on Twitter, providing author feedback on Goodreads, and so on. Such ability to constantly comment affects how we think, feel, and interact in everyday life, behavior that scholars and professionals need to examine more carefully to better understand its social and ethical implications.

Enter Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, the right book at the right time. While slim in stature, its seemingly endless breadth of topics examines the light and dark corners of comment, what the author refers to as "likers, haters, and manipulators" at the bottom of the web. Author Joseph M. Reagle, Jr., tackles all manner of comment, from paid Amazon reviews to cyberbullying on sites like Mean Kids.

What Is Comment?

A lighthearted and accessible book, Reading the Comments strives to answer these ultimate questions: what is comment, what is its impact, and who cares? According to the author in Chapter One, "comment" is a new genre of communication that is distinctly reactive, short, and asynchronous. First, comment is reactive because it follows or responds to some other user-generated content on the Internet, like a blog post, Amazon review, or YouTube video. Second, it is short, ranging from several characters (perhaps with a limit of i40) to a handful of paragraphs. Finally, it is asynchronous because it can occur anytime, not just within seconds or minutes of its stimulus, but also after hours or days.

Because of its overwhelming and occasionally rambling coverage, Reagle thankfully organizes Reading the Comments by sub-genres and discusses comment's multiple personalities in psychological, sociological, and anthropological terms. While he deftly navigates the self-indulgent world of reviews of products and services (Chapter 2) or feedback and critiques (Chapter 4), the most salient chapters discuss the dark side of comment, notably the ethical conundrums presented by manipulators (Chapter 3) and haters (Chapter 5).

Manipulators: Makers, Fakers, and Takers

"That girl is such a fake model. I bet she bought all her Instagram followers."-Chainsmokers, "#SELFIE"

Chapter Three discusses comment that includes user remarks, ratings, and reviews, the economic value of which, Reagle argues, lies in their ability to affect a vendor's bottom line (pp. 44-45.) Here, Reagle presents current research on fake reviews and highlights some notable examples of "online fakery." Today's research indicates that of all reviews, between i0 to 30 percent are fake (p. 50). Why so many? In addition to their economic value to vendors, fake reviews also allow the creators to manipulate others and to control their own identities (p. 5i). These "manipulators" include fakers, makers, and takers.

Makers write (supposedly) genuine reviews for a fee for sites like Amazon Vine, while fakers tend to "praise their own work and pillory others'"; finally, takers are the poor schmucks who read and rely on such reviews (p. 50). Reagle caterwauls about an overwhelming host of examples of online fakery with such fervency that it makes me never want to rely on an Amazon review again. …

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