What is the relationship between a video posted to YouTube, and the comments that the video receives? This is the question that Edgerly et al. pose in a recent article. This is an interesting question. On the one hand, there seem to be some attractively trivial answers – well, comments reflect on the topic, tone, persons, or some other feature of the video (or of the previous comments) – but on the other hand, it’s worth looking into this supposedly trivial relationship, in order to find out the ways in which videos are able to frame the ensuing discussion.
According to the authors, who are lead by somewhat undefined normative considerations (it would be great to have high-quality discussions about important matters), there does seem to be a clear correlation between the topics and tone of videos, and the topics and tone of commentary – and since we can establish the temporal order of events (first came the video, and then the comments arrived), it’s perhaps warranted to suggest a causal relationship.
We find that videos have the ability to direct commentary in specific ways. For each of the topics […] the considerations brought up in the video were more likely to be mentioned in the subsequent commentary. […] We also found that the tone of videos can also affect the tone of comments.
According to the authors, this is good news, because this means that there is likely to be some kind of common ground between commenters, given the topical (and tonal) focus of videos. At the same time, the authors also note that YouTube itself is very much an open platform that can host deliberative discussions just as well as “idle chatter and incivility.”
One interesting point about this article is its treatment of incivility, associated with yelling and swearing in videos, and “profanity and pejorative language” in comments. I’m not sure this is a fruitful way of operationalization. The article itself cites Papacharissi’s famous article from 2004; but then it seems to ignore her important distinction between being impolite and being uncivil. A similar point is made in a recent article by Goode et al.:
[…] the serious and the frivolous, the rational and the emotive, the civic and the carnivalesque, are not so easily prised apart. YouTube is as much village tavern as town hall and the crowd is not so easily dispersed. […] YouTube remains a noisy, messy place that brings people into strange new forms of contact with other people.
So, there is worth in all that noise and mess – labeling it all uncivil risks weakening the power of analysis.
Edgerly, Stephanie, Emily K. Vraga, Kajsa E. Dalrymple, Timothy Macafee & Timothy K. F. Fung (2013): “Directing the Dialogue: The Relationship Between YouTube Videos and the Comments They Spur,” in Journal of Information Technology & Politics, DOI: 10.1080/19331681.2013.794120