Blog comments

You won’t get comments on your website if you are seen as an expert, providing what people want and not causing any trouble. That’s because of a psychological issue that is known as “the bystander effect”. You can see this happen when an accident has occurred. People stand back, unwilling to help unless someone appears to be making a hash of it when other people will decide to step in. If someone is helping the accident victim and seems to know what they are doing, then people remain as bystanders. It seems that we are only willing to jump in and help if the situation is likely to get worse.

The same is true on blogs. People tend not to comment – unless there are already some negative comments. Then, other individuals dive in to try and correct the negativity to restore the balance. Occasionally, of course, there will be a positive blog comment, but the bystander effect takes place in that situation. People perceive the commenter as an expert and therefore do not “dive in”.

What this all suggests is there is some doubt as to the real value of comments.

Now, there is new research which looks at online discussions which further emphasises the bystander effect in online discussions.

You would think that the rule of reciprocity would take place when it comes to receiving useful information online. When someone offers you something useful, you find it hard to accept unless you can reciprocate. Socially, we tend to want to repay people for doing something helpful for us.

So, when someone provided you with an excellent blog post, the reciprocity impact would suggest that you want to repay them with some kind of positive comment, or a “thumbs up” or something that enables you to feel you have repaid the debt. However, this latest research confirms studies from several years ago showing that online the bystander effect trumps reciprocity.

What happens is this. You read something you enjoy, that you like and that you gain a benefit from, but you don’t want to comment because what you are witnessing is expertise and so the bystander effect means you do not intervene. If, though, you are also an expert on the topic, you may add a comment, but then no-one else will comment because they are “leaving it to the experts”, which is classic bystander mode.

This latest research looked at discussions on the forum Stack Overflow, which is an online community of technology developers. The study found that when someone made a positive contribution to knowledge, this decreased the input from other users. However, as more knowledge was introduced, more people sought help but did not contribute.

In other words, most people are bystanders, soaking up the expert information and not actually taking part. The term used by many forum operators for that kind of behaviour is “lurking”.

It would seem that comments and discussions online rarely happen when the quality of information is high and apparently from an expert. However, blogs and forum posts can attract lots of comments when some of the earlier comments are negative – people weigh in to redress the balance.

If your blog doesn’t get many comments two things are happening. Firstly, most of your readers are bystanders. Secondly, most of your readers are positive, not adding any negativity, which would encourage a larger number of comments.

Comments, of course, will occur. Some people will want to show off their similar expertise. If you are controversial, people will want to disagree with you.

Ultimately, though, lack of comments may actually be a positive indicator of the value of your blog or website. It shows that people are happy to stand back and gain the benefits from your expertise.

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