Despite writing Techdirt for over a decade at this point, I still can't predict very well which stories will actually get a lot of comments and which won't (also, by the way, more comments often does not correlate to more page views, though I haven't quite figured out why). However, certain stories have a cascade effect, where they suddenly start getting a ton of comments, and the conversation goes on for quite a while. Take this story
from last week, which racked up over 200 comments. There's an interesting column by Lee Gomes in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that blog comments on thought-provoking posts are sort of like a laser pointer to a cat
. That may sound marginally insulting, but the idea is that for many types of people, our brains are simply hard wired to not be able to turn away from conversations like those held in the comments sometimes. I'm not sure that the cat:laser pointer analogy fully holds, but it does seem like some people just can't turn away from a comment debate (and, yes, I'm guilty of this). Personally, while sometimes those debates get frustrating (and repetitive) they also help keep me sharp -- rethinking, reformulating and revising my arguments to make sure they really make sense.
However, it is rather interesting to think about this from an evolutionary standpoint. As Gomes notes, "new" pieces of information that get you to think about things differently didn't always come along very often. So people's minds became somewhat hardwired to pay attention and think through the ideas more thoroughly. However, now, with information "abundant" it's much more difficult for people to actually turn away. While I tend to think that the term "addiction" shouldn't apply
to things like the internet, this actually gives a reasonable explanation for why some people may feel compelled to keep digging for information beyond the point where it's no longer healthy. As Gomes suggests in the end, in many ways (beyond being similar to the cat and the laser pointer), it's similar to the obesity epidemic, where our bodies are trained to eat as much as possible now on the assumption that there may not be food later. But in an age where there's abundant food, that causes problems -- and combining that with abundant information that causes people to sit immobile in front of their computer screens for hours on end probably isn't helping. So, for any contribution we've made to information obesity, I apologize. But I'm not putting away the laser pointer any time soon...