The Dark, Decaying Underbelly Of Online Commenting

In our dreams, it’s a world of joyful sharing. In reality, Internet commenters often offer little more than cheap shots and manipulation. Researcher Joseph Reagle explores the history and degeneration of online invective.

A reflection of ourselves.
A reflection of ourselves.
Nic Ulmi

GENEVA â€" Am I ugly? Hot or not? Let's not forget that sharing platforms and social networks were built on the shallowest instincts like these, and the very culture of Internet commenting that affects our everyday digital lives took shape from just such questions.

Northeastern University's Joseph Reagle explores this rumbling topic in his recent book Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web (MIT Press).

Let's go back a bit. In October 2000, two Silicon Valley engineers, James Hong and Jim Young, launched a website called "Hot or Not." The idea was to get Internet users to post pictures of themselves so other users could judge their attractiveness on a scale from 1 to 10. The pair didn't really invent anything. The websites RateMyFace and AmIHot had both launched shortly before, with the very same idea. But Hong and Young hit the jackpot on the click market: A week after their website launched, it was getting two million visits per day.

The idea was replicated in 2003 by Mark Zuckerberg to create his website FaceMash, the predecessor to Facebook, which followed in 2004. A year later, a new version of the idea was developed. "YouTube was partly conceived as a video version of Hot or Not," says Reagle. The major participatory web platforms often included teenagers and young adults filming themselves and asking the world, "Am I ugly?"

Aladin and the cheaters

But the commenting culture has been facing a fundamental crisis for the last few years. In 2012, New York software developer Dave Winer, often cited as the first to have made comments possible on a blog, deactivated the function on his own website, though has recently looked for a new way to bring them back.

Mum's the word. Photo: Bine Bardi

In 2009, legal expert and digital activist Lawrence Lessig had already deactivated his blog comments after noticing that "a third of the 30,000 commentators were in all likelihood scams or spam."

This problem now seems to have entered a critical phase. Last Oct. 16, Amazon filed 1,100 complaints against non-identified people (who go by pseudonyms such as "bondo_man," "kingswiss" or "sohel_mama"), who are accused of writing comments for payment in praise of certain products on the e-commerce website. The recruitment and payment of these commenters were believed to have been made on the platform Fiverr, an online job market connecting digital employers and occasional workers hired for small jobs. Let's also note that, since 2007, Amazon has been officially organizing the exchange of free products for comments via its Vine program.

Two days after Amazon filed the complaints, Belgian daily L’Avenir published an article about Internet users accusing the cinema information platform Allocine of publishing fake comments. Considered at the time the predominant online reference for French cinema, the website was suspected of having published phony laudatory comments from supposed audience members to boost the success of the French movie Les Nouvelles Aventures d'Aladin (The new adventures of Aladdin).

Reagle is amused because he says the fraud of publishing self-congratulations under a pseudonym is a timeworn trick. It was used by naturalist Carl von Linné in the 18th century, by writer Walter Scott in the 19th century and by Anthony Burgess in the 20th century.

The sandwich technique

The relationship between the culture of commenting and freedom of expression has a long history, going back, for instance, to the edict through which England's King Charles II attempted in 1675 to ban "coffee houses," places where people talked freely about current events. But on the Internet, communities where the culture of commenting is the most widely used aren't those where expression is freewheeling, but instead is regulated by internal norms of conduct. It's the case in the world of fan fiction, stories written by fans appropriating themselves the heroes of popular sagas (Star Trek, Twilight, Harry Potter) to give them parallel lives, full of romantic-sexual plot twists.

In offering recommendations about the proper way to comment on someone else's fan fiction, a website dedicated to Star Trek mentions the "sandwich technique": compliment, criticize and compliment again.

The commenting culture has now reached a state of simultaneous triumph and retrenchment. A growing number of news websites have eliminated the comment feature, given both their tendency to trigger outbursts of hatred and their weak added value in terms of content. As for websites that use comments as a central element, such as Facebook, they have an effect that is both compulsive and repulsive. If everyone could simultaneously stop using that network, without fear of being disadvantaged compared to others, a very large majority of users would probably pull the plug without any regret.

So many malicious human behaviors have contributed to the crisis: anonymity, for one, and also the physical distance that prevents commentors from seeing the emotional distress inflicted on the recipient. From the isolated, troublemaking troll of the 1990s and early 2000s, Reagle says we've unfortunately graduated to the "trollplex" trend in which "attacks are launched by people with various backgrounds and displaying various behaviors, but sharing one target, one culture and online meeting place."

So what do we do? Cultivate your online space like a garden, Reagle suggests, pulling the weeds so flowers can grow. Or, like the great science fiction author Isaac Asimov recommended, stop reading a comment at the first appearance of a negative adjective.

*Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly reported that Joseph Reagle teaches at Northwestern University. He teaches at Northeastern University. Sorry!

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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