Blogs and the “phone-in show” effect

During a semi-desperate search for something — anything — not April Fool’s Day related, I came across an interesting post by Sarah Perez at Read/Write Web about the psychology of blogs and “bitchmemes” (as MG Siegler calls them) and comments, and I thought she really hit on something. Her jumping off point was a recent post by Paul Graham called “How To Disagree.” As befits a post written by a thoughtful geek, it describes a kind of taxonomy of disagreement, and I’m sure every blogger who reads the list has either engaged in or been the target of one or more of those options.

As Paul and Sarah both note, disagreement seems to be far more prevalent in the blogosphere than agreement. Why? They have their theories — as Paul describes it, agreement “tends to motivate people less than disagreeing,” in part because disagreeing takes you into new territory (sometimes). And as Sarah says in her post, this phenomenon makes its way into blog comments as well, with the number of positive comments generally outweighed by the number of negative ones. As she says:

“It could be that 90% of the readers think the author is correct in their opinion, but only the 10% who feel differently have made their voices heard.”

This is something that we’ve seen at the Globe and Mail as well (and I’m sure other newspapers that allow readers to comment on news stories have seen it too). I call it the “radio phone-in show” phenomenon. Whenever you listen to call-in shows — at least the really popular ones — there tends to be an overwhelming number of callers who disagree, either with each other or the topic. And even if they agree, they are often incensed about whatever the subject is, whether it’s government waste or some stupid move by whoever the call-in show happens to be talking about.

Why is this? A couple of reasons, I think. One is that agreeing with someone is a sort of ambivalent feeling at best. Violent agreement is an unusual thing to see, in most cases. But disagreement is almost always emotional — even if it’s couched in logic. And it’s a strong emotion. People who disagree with something are motivated to pick up the phone and call into a show, or click the mouse and comment. People who agree are much more likely to just nod their head in agreement and get on with their day.

This phenomenon extends to those reading and/or listening as well, and is related to the “car accident” effect. People enjoy watching or reading about disagreement and in some cases actual violence, or the threat of violence. They may say that they don’t — but all the evidence suggests that they do. Perhaps because it’s a strong emotion, perhaps because they want to feel superior to someone, or maybe just because it’s fun to watch. Why else would DVDs of hockey fights and car crashes sell so well? It’s human nature. And the blogosphere is a Petri dish for human nature.

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