I Liked Your Story — I Didn’t Read It

Users rate articles even if they haven’t read them, new research shows

See if this sounds familiar: You sit down at your computer ready to read a few stories on your favorite social media site. You start scrolling through your feed and come across an article with a catchy title on a subject that interests you. You read the first couple of paragraphs and think, “this writer must be a genius, because I agree with everything they’re saying!” You up-vote the article without reading the rest of it and move on to the next one.

I admit to being guilty of this and worse: I up-vote articles before I read them. I figure if the title intrigues me enough to click on the link, it deserves a high-five. I never thought providing such basic feedback on a story would change how I read it. I was wrong.

New research from The Ohio State University examines how voting (e.g. clapping or liking) online affects the reader’s engagement when it comes to controversial topics. The researchers found that voting reinforced the reader’s opinion even though they then spent less time reading the article or didn’t finish it at all. It turns out our opinions may get in the way of our ability to digest new information, and up-votes may be a poor indication of reader engagement.

The echo chamber of social media and the confirmation bias that goes along with it is well-documented. What’s different about this study is its focus on an “echo chamber of one.” Not only are we biased toward content we agree with, but the act of agreeing with that content (in the form of an up-vote) makes us even more biased.

Preference vs. bias

It’s important to note the difference between a preference and a bias. Selective exposure is a broad term that describes a person’s preferences. Confirmation bias is a narrow subset of selective exposure that describes a preference for things that agree with one’s worldview. For example, selective exposure might be a preference for documentary movies over other genres, whereas confirmation bias might be a preference for only those documentaries which reaffirm preexisting political views. This research focused primarily on confirmation bias on controversial topics like gun rights, welfare, abortion rights, and race relations. The authors suggest the same is true even for less polarizing topics, like health advice or marketing materials. If you are writing to persuade, this likely applies to you.

Voting as a form of self-expression

Daniel Sude, the lead researcher on the study, noted that by responding to a story, “users can derive a sense of clarity and personal commitment without actually learning anything new.” The effect is more pronounced when we agree with the opinion expressed in the article. The up-vote therefore severs the relationship between reader and writer. Whether readers agree or disagree with the author, the ability to provide feedback make the author’s opinion less persuasive.

The more polarized the reader is on the topic of the article before reading it, the more likely they are to up-vote or down-vote based on that opinion. In other words, your article isn’t changing anybody’s mind. If the readers agree with you, they probably did so beforehand. Your article may have the effect of solidifying those views even further, but not because the reader finished reading it; they probably didn’t. This type of self-expression allows users to “cocoon themselves, in themselves.” The authors conclude, “The simple act of self-expression, even via a mere click, may foster closed mindedness and resistance to new views.”

What happens if there’s no option to provide feedback?

If there’s no option to provide feedback, users fulfill the need to reinforce their opinions by actually reading more, but only if they agree with what’s being said. Even thoughtful readers will spend more time on articles they agree with than with those they don’t.

What if the feedback only goes in one direction?

Medium is different from other social media sites in that users are allowed to clap for content they like, but there is no equivalent to a down-vote. I asked Sude how this might affect users’ behavior in light of his research, and he turned the question around on its head.

“Let’s imagine an alternative version of Medium where people can only down-vote,” he said. “First, the presence of this feature could initiate a suite of changes to user behaviors and thought processes. Some users may be attracted to the function, seeking out articles on this version of Medium so that they can vent their spleen. At the same time, even users who read the articles because they find them interesting may be (more subtly) monitoring for things to criticize.”

At least for this audience of one, he was right. I realized my experience on social media would be very different if I could only down-vote content. As a reader, I would be more critical, and as a writer, I think I would be a lot more cautious even when writing about relatively benign subjects. It’s easy for me to believe, then, that the option to up-vote stories is also influencing me in ways I hadn’t been aware of.

Honesty and transparency about how much work we put into forming our impressions is the minimum that we can expect of each other.

Improving engagement

Sude suggests that to counteract the reinforcement bias of a simple voting system, users could be offered a survey to provide more nuanced feedback. Written responses and comments are another way of giving meaningful feedback.

When asked how conducting this research influenced his own online behavior, Sude said, “I’ve been taking notes on what I’m reading and then reviewing the notes before I decide to share, react, or comment. If I run out of time, which is often, and I still think I should share…I’ll be honest with my audience about how much work I put into forming my impression. Honesty and transparency about how much work we put into forming our impressions is the minimum that we can expect of each other.”

The richness of the experience lies in the interaction between reader and writer. As a reader, you will do yourself and the author a favor by writing a thoughtful response. No one is asking you to pander to the author’s feelings. If you disagree, say so. Writers can encourage deeper engagement by responding to readers’ comments (both positive and negative). By reading any article to the end and offering a written response, rather than just a vote, you’ll get the satisfaction of engaging with the online community, and you may just change someone’s opinion — yours.

Geoscientist, runner, and writer. I will never stop being curious about the world.

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