Author: Alyssa Mueller

Tone of online comments influences readers

A couple of years ago, I wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper. While looking at the online version of my article, I noticed a notoriously combative commenter was the first to respond. This commenter resorted to making remarks that personally attacked me instead of offering thoughtful criticism. Additionally, the commenter shut down any further conversation that could have happened by labeling my article as “another typical knee-jerk reaction” to the issue.

That comment was the very first reader comment I had ever received in my life, and it made me feel terrible. In fact, a quick read-through of the online comments responding to any news article is a very reliable method of making you lose faith in humanity. But how much do these negative comments matter?

Quite a bit, it seems. According to a recent study discussed in a March 2 New York Times article titled “This Story Stinks,” the tone of reader comments can distort and influence how other readers understand the content of the article. Especially when the comments are uncivil and rude, even the most objective readers were swayed to very polar opinions about the content.

One way to tackle this effect is to shut down reader comments altogether, as some sites have done. While I do value the option for reader input and enjoy a good debate, my frustration with the lack of critical thinking in comment-making tempts me to agree with this outlandish solution.

For one, I have noticed that the commentary is often very unconstructive. Unlike most conversations that happen face-to-face, reader comments almost always turn hostile and rude for no real reason and leave no room for conversation. If pseudonyms are used, we seem to think that we can say anything we want because there are basically no consequences.

One of my least favorite characteristics in human beings is the inability to listen or pay attention to others in a discussion, and this shows up a lot in online comments. There is a convenient option to post what we have to say and never look at a response. The offline equivalent of this is insulting someone’s viewpoint and then plugging your ears and walking away when someone tries to respond or defend themselves.

The recent study also confirms a fear of mine about the influence of these aggressive commenters: They have persuasive power. It turns out that uncivil comments can actually change a reader’s interpretation of the story. It is unnerving to realize that the comments that attract our attention are the overly-dramatic and hateful ones and not the thoughtful ones. This also means that it seemingly doesn’t matter how well-written the original article is; people are forming their opinions based on what the commenters are saying.

This leads to another concern of mine: The rude, attention-grabbing comments may also be grossly misinformed about the issue. Since tone influences us more than the content of a comment, this could lead to misinformation and misunderstanding, especially in the realm of science articles. Interestingly, the topic chosen for the article that participants read in the study was emerging technology. This topic does not trigger immediate reactions driven by our values, unlike controversial hot topics like gay rights or abortion. It seems that when complex issues are presented that go beyond our gut reactions, we are eager to look to commenters with the “loudest” voice to make sense of the issue. However, this voice might not always be the best informed.

I think what this reader comment problem really boils down to is that everyone is waiting for their chance to spew forth the gospel of “Me, Myself and I,” and we forget that we can also listen and learn from other people. I think reader comments will continue to be dominated by a slur of impolite and thoughtless chatter until our online culture can learn to value constructive conversations that involve paying attention to what others have to say. In the meantime, maybe we all should take a break from the comments section for a while.

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Student journalism is a very important platform for opinions

Job and Internship Fair helps students connect

On Wednesday, Feb. 20, St. Olaf sophomores, juniors and seniors traveled to the Minneapolis Convention Center for the Minnesota Private Colleges Job and Internship Fair. According to the fair’s website, approximately 1,800 students attended from the 17 Minnesota private colleges that co-host the event each year.

The event has proved to be increasingly popular with a growth in both the number of students and employers participating, according to Branden Grimmett, director of the Piper Center for Vocation and Career.

Janine Knutson, associate director for career education and coaching at the Piper Center, noted that 198 employers were registered with the number continually rising each day.

These employers were not all for-profit and business-based; according to Knutson, about 20 percent of the industries were non-profit and government-related. With such a variety of employers, the fair allowed students to target multiple organizations and businesses of interest in one go.

Dana Dass ’13, a biology major, made connections with the four science-based staffing agencies she visited, but said, “I wished there were more science companies represented.”

Due to the large scale of the fair and the varying popularity of employers, some students spent a lot of time standing and waiting in line for their turn to talk to company representatives. Knutson estimated that the range of representatives students conversed with varied from 4 to 20. While it depended on the organization, most representatives had limited time to speak with students.

This variability showed through Oles’ experiences at the fair. Katie Caffrey ’13 visited 14 employer booths and said, “We were told that there would be long lines and that we may only get to around eight booths; however, most people had made it to every booth they were interested in by noon.”

Other students found the crunch for time to be a source of pressure.

“It was difficult to make connections because you only had, at most, five minutes to talk to the employers. You just have to hope you made a good impression in the first 30 seconds,” Hawera Butta ’15 said.

Before the fair, the Piper Center offered a number of both mandatory and optional preparatory sessions for students to attend. Knutson highlighted an alumni panel that took place the Monday prior to the fair in which students were able to get advice on how to stand out to recruiters.

Some students received individual counsel to help them best impress representatives from interest-specific companies.

Matt Alveshere ’13 had three on-site interviews and concluded that the fair was successful largely due to the efforts made by Piper Center staff.

“It would not have been successful if we had not been so well-prepared,” he said. “I had a chance to meet up with many high school friends who go to our peer institutions, and none of them had nearly as firm of a grasp on how to navigate through the fair as we did.”

Eden Ehm ’13, who also snagged a few interviews, started her preparation at the end of the fall semester when the fair was announced.

“I researched positions that interested me at each company and made a note of which things on my resume to highlight when speaking with each individual company,” she said.

Caffrey felt that Oles were very well-prepared for the fair, but said she was frustrated by the repeated request by employers to apply online before she would be seriously considered.

“I think the Piper Center needs to put more emphasis on the importance of applying online before coming to the fair,” she said.

Butta said he went to the fair mainly to gain exposure to job fairs, but did not prepare beforehand.

“I wished I had prepared because employers expected you to know about them and ask questions,” he said. “You can’t just go to them and ask what they are about.”

Knutson said that the immediate goal of the fair was not that students walk away with a job offer. Instead, the fair was the first step for employers and students alike to learn about and connect with each other.

“The fair is a great day, but not the only day to interact with organizations,” Knutson said.

Students plan to continue fostering the professional connections made beyond the fair.

“Regardless of how the job fair conversations went, what is important is following up, reiterating interest and formally applying,” Ehm said.

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Student journalism is a very important platform for opinions