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Ever heard of "The Nasty Effect"?

A study published online last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication looks at just that: how the tone — not the content — of an online comment, can distort what other readers think was reported.

The study contends that although the Internet has the potential to foster discussion and deliberation through comments, the discussions are not always rational. They can turn uncivil with offensive comments or replies, which then impede the goal of healthy, heated discussion.

Uncivil comments polarized readers, and even changed a person's interpretation of the news story itself.

"While the Internet opens new doors for public deliberation of emerging technologies, it also gives new voice to nonexpert, and sometimes rude, individuals," the study found.

New York Times took a look at the study and the social-norms that have evolved to allow meanspirited attacks from people hiding behind pseudonyms.

The Advocate changed its online commenting system several months back, going from those fake-named posters to verified Facebook accounts. There's been quite a bit of discussion in journalism circles during recent years about the purpose of commenting and whether allowing anonymous or nicknamed commenters to post reaches the goal of providing a forum for discussion, or whether it increases personal attacks and uncivil arguing.

Some publications closely monitor comments, or establish rules and guidelines which commenters must follow. Others moderate "the nasty effect," by completely shutting down online reader comments altogether, and that has happened on the Advocate's website as well.

I agree with the Times article: Reader interaction is part of what makes the Internet the Internet, and is vital for the Advocate to continue being a community newspaper.

As the Times' writer optimistically suggests in closing, maybe online social norms will continue evolving, maybe users will shun attacks and cultivate civil debate instead.

"Until then, beware of the nasty effect."