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The role of comments on perception

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That comments and reviews have a strong impact upon how we perceive things online is pretty well established.  I wrote last year how the first few comments on a blog for instance have a substantial impact upon how that blog is subsequently perceived by the reader.

A new study published by the University of Pennsylvania has explored the consequences of having no comments whatsoever.  They investigated a number of videos showing anti-smoking public service announcements on YouTube to see whether allowing comments or not impacted upon the persuasiveness of the videos.

The researchers got a group of around 600 regular adult smokers to complete an online survey.  They were told that they’d be testing out a new website where people can share health related video clips, such as the anti-smoking announcements.  Each of these clips had a careful mix of comments that were either:

  • Positive and civil
  • Positive and uncivil
  • Negative and civil
  • Negative and uncivil
  • Mixed positive and negative comments
  • No comments, just video

The results should make all content producers sit up and take notice.  They found that the most persuasive videos of all were those that allowed no comments to be posted.  This included those comments that were universally positive and civil.

“The most surprising finding from the study is that positive comments failed to improve PSA evaluation over the no-comment exposure to ads,” the team writes.

The researchers believe that the existence of any form of comment at all reduce the impact of the video itself because the presence of any comments distracted the viewer from the message portrayed in the video.  This was reinforced after viewers were better able to recall the content on videos where there were no comments.

“The detrimental effect of comments […] seems to suggest anti-smoking PSAs would be better off without comments, especially if the PSAs are strong or if the target audience is somewhat ready to quit smoking,” they write.

The power of audience participation via social media is clearly a double-edged sword. They note that a concerted effort to understand the influence of online commentary and social media is necessary to understand the way emerging media affect the public for good and for ill.

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