Does Audience Applause Harm Discussion?

For the benefit of ‘non-redditors’: A reddit comment’s score is the net result of users ‘upvoting’ and ‘downvoting’ it with two arrows on the left.

A 5 month old comment with 145 points (source).

On April 29, 2013, the reddit admins announced that subreddit moderators would be given the ability to hide comment scores for a maximum of 24 hours. In the announcement post, they stated:

“The goal of this feature is to try to reduce the initial bandwagon/snowball voting, where if a comment gets a few initial downvotes it often continues going negative, or vice versa. By hiding the score for a while after posting, the bias of seeing how other people voted on the comment should be greatly reduced.”

The /r/changemyview subreddit was only three months old at the time of this announcement, and according to, had 14,777 subscribers. Despite our short-lived history and relatively small user-base, we were already noticing the problem described above – perhaps even more than most subreddits, given the purpose of CMV. We therefore decided to take full advantage of this new ability, meaning any comment under 24 hours old shows ‘[score hidden]’.

Example of a hidden comment score (source).

I’m not sure if it’s possible to analyse a before-and-after comparison in the subreddit – since a true comparison would require identical comments in the same place at the same time – but it is my impression and belief that hiding scores has worked very well.

I see two benefits.

First, since it lowers the chance of a ‘downvote pile-on’ occurring, CMV is more likely to achieve its purpose. As we say in the subreddit – downvotes don’t change views. Instead, they can create a form of ‘backfire effect’, where a user becomes more defensive.

Unfortunately, the admins decided to undo part of this change so that a user can always see their own comment score. This means that a defensive reaction is still possible, since downvoting still occurs. However, if you accept that a user is less likely to downvote by seeing ‘[score hidden]’, then the situation is improved.

The second benefit is through displaying a conversation to our many silent readers without showing them the popularity of each comment. This encourages people to make their own judgement and focus on the merit of an argument instead of its score.

I often watch BBC Question Time (a current affairs show in the UK), and it occurred to me recently that the audience displays similar characteristics to the formation of a comment score, with ‘upvoting’ in the form of clapping and ‘downvoting’ with booing.

You would have to say something very unpopular to get a boo on Question Time (a disapproving rumble is more likely), but you can be sure that a well-liked rebuttal will receive applause – and this happens a lot.

I realise that Question Time isn’t set up to be a conversation as such, meaning I can’t directly compare it to what we’re trying to achieve at CMV. After all, it has a panel of influential people facing an audience on tiered seating, making it somewhat theatrical by design.

However, the frequency of applause often derails whatever semblance of a conversation is taking place – flustering those who aren’t on the receiving end, and sometimes even the speaker who is. You can see it in their face. I’m sure they appreciate the moment, but it’s often premature, creating an unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise well-formed statement. And regardless of whether I agree with the speaker or not, I feel a mild frustration at the very sound of clapping in this situation. My brain acknowledges that I am listening to the popular opinion and leans towards that acceptance, which may be harmless or even obvious, but is a clouding of judgement nonetheless.

I can understand where all of this comes from. The Question Time audience is full of people who feel unheard in their day-to-day lives when it comes to national issues – some of which deeply affect them – and they are facing at least two or three politicians. Clapping is the easiest way to demonstrate agreement or passion for what’s being said.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if the at-home audience of a show like Question Time would benefit from hearing less applause – a real life equivalent to hidden comment scores.

BBC article explains that clapping is banned from the House of Commons, with a 1998 report defending this convention by raising a concern similar to my thoughts on both comment scores and Question Time:

“[…] there is a danger that such a practice might be open to abuse and could lead in certain circumstances to orchestration of what would amount to standing ovations with the success or failure of a speech being judged not by its content but by the relative length of the ovation at the end.”

This is apparently the more controversial situation in which clapping is banned, with it being questioned by new Members of Parliament. The most obvious and accepted reason for a ban is to prevent interruptions, as stated in the parliamentary guidance book ‘Erskine May’:

“Members must not disturb a Member who is speaking by hissing, chanting, clapping, booing, exclamations or other interruption.

[…] When not uttered till the end of a sentence, the cry of ‘hear, hear,’ offers no interruption of the speech.”

This all sounds reasonable, but as anyone who has ever watched Prime Minister’s Questions can attest, the resulting environment appears no better off. Sure – MPs don’t clap – but the alternative noise seems equally counterproductive, if not more so.

It appears to me that the intent behind clapping and verbal affirmation is the same (a real-life ‘upvote’), and produces the same outcome (disruption of members and influence of bystanders), so Erskine May’s distinction fails to achieve much. But according to the report mentioned above, this behaviour is improper:

“[…] we condemn the growing misuse of the traditional cry of “hear, hear” and in particular the recent practice of unnecessary noise of this kind from both sides […] Such noise serves no useful purpose and is grossly unfair to the Member who is currently trying to ask a question and to the Minister who is replying.”

20 years later, this is still a problem. I’m not sure whether MPs misunderstand the intention of Erskine May, or deliberately take advantage of what they believe to be a loophole, but something must change.

The above shows how hard it can be to make beneficial etiquette a requirement. Even if you could enforce it, I’m not sure that’s the right approach – I would be wary of how it’s handled and what it means for wider self-expression. After all, I don’t wish for a sanitised society, but a respectful and open-minded one.

Instead, there needs to be a movement that highlights the advantages of allowing a discussion to unfold without disruption, and the benefits of encouraging individual judgement.

I do wonder how easy this will be with our current politicians setting such a bad example.

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