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Angry Is the Young Man From the Local University

A comment came into my blog recently first quoting an excerpt from my book Trend Commandments:

“Global Macro or Systematic Global Macro: Global macro is another term used to describe trend following traders, but indirectly. They do not say managed futures, and they do not say hedge fund, so it is global macro. It might make wealthy investors in Liechtenstein and Saudi Arabia feel more secure. The strategy is still trend following”

That was my writing. The commenter after sourcing that offered this with a return email of ass@hole.com:

This is absolutely misleading. Global macro is NOT trend following. I am sure you would be thrilled to put trend following traders in the same league as Tudor, Brevan Howard, Moore and Soros, but you’re making a fool of yourself in the eyes of those who know their stuff. I shall refrain from arguing any further, but I would invite your readers to conduct a quick google search to identify the distinction since it should be obvious.

I saw “The Net Effect of Mischief Makers” in The Straits Times recently:

In the beginning, the technology gods created the Internet and saw that it was good. Here, at last, was a public sphere with unlimited potential for reasoned debate and the thoughtful exchange of ideas, an enlightening conversational bridge across the many geographic, social, cultural, ideological and economic boundaries that ordinarily separate us in life, a way to pay bills without a stamp.

Then someone invented “reader comments” and paradise was lost.

The Web, it should be said, is still a marvellous place for public debate. But when it comes to reading and understanding news stories online – like this one, for example – the medium can have a surprisingly potent effect on the message. Comments from some readers, our research shows, can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place.

But here, it’s not the content of the comments that matters. It’s the tone.

In a study published online in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication last month, we and three colleagues report on an experiment designed to measure what one might call “the nasty effect”.

We asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post on a fictitious blog, explaining the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver. These infinitesimal silver particles, tinier than 100-billionths of a metre in any dimension, have several potential benefits (like antibacterial properties) and risks (like water contamination), the online article reported.

Then we had participants read comments on the post, supposedly from other readers, and respond to questions regarding the article’s content.

Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones – though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”

The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarised readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology – whom we identified with preliminary survey questions – continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarised understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

While it’s hard to quantify the distortional effects of such online nastiness, it’s bound to be quite substantial, particularly – and perhaps ironically – in the area of science news.

About 60 per cent of the Americans seeking information about specific scientific matters say the Internet is their primary source of information – ranking it higher than any other news source.

Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges – and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know.

One possible approach to moderate the nasty effect, of course, is to shut down online reader comments altogether, as some media organisations and bloggers have done. Mr. Paul Krugman’s blog post on this newspaper’s website on the 10th anniversary of Sept 11, for instance, simply ended with “I’m not going to allow comments on this post, for obvious reasons.”

Other media outlets have devised rules to promote civility or have actively moderated reader comments.

But, as they say, the genie is out of the bottle. Reader interaction is part of what makes the Web the Web – and, for that matter, Facebook, Twitter and every other social media platform what they are. This phenomenon will only gain momentum as we move deeper into a world of smart TVs and mobile devices where any type of content is immediately embedded in a constant stream of social context and commentary.

It’s possible that the social norms in this brave new domain will change once more – with users shunning mean-spirited attacks from posters hiding behind pseudonyms and cultivating civil debate instead.

Until then, beware the nasty effect.

Yes, the world has become nasty. Trolls abound.

However, to the writer’s point? Interestingly I sat down with a former employee of one of the very firms he mentioned. This meeting in Singapore had that former employee joking to me that all they did was trend following. To paraphrase Ed Seykota: everyone gets what they want in the markets and life. If people want to be angry and ignorant of reality–they can easily achieve their objective.

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3 comments on “Angry Is the Young Man From the Local University
  1. ThomasS says:

    A couple of points: being nasty is often a sign of intensity of feeling. It is a mistake to think that it is just an epiphenomenon of commination distinct from the content itself. It is a often a qualitative aspect of either the message itself or the context of the message. Depth of feeling matters greatly and needs to be compared with other like expressions of depth of feeling rather than simply neutral civil discourse. It’s ironic that the article uses Paul Krugman as an example for he is one of the most abusive, personal and wrong-headed columnist practicing today. I say that because I have read him often, studied his recommendations and see the damage he does via policies enacted that he both recommends and supports. Is this now nasty and extraneous or passionate and informative? I have a feeling this study would call it trolling. :)

  2. DGDye says:

    Holy crap!! Someone wrote “epiphenomenon of commination” in a Trend Following blog.

    Since he’s been to Asia, Michael’s gone high-brow and is cavorting with the glitterati!! His next book will be reviewed in the Literary Times. :)

  3. Trader Jim says:

    I agree with ThomasS. The same person can visit different places online and experience different levels of intensity of feeling. A conservative who reads an article with a liberal slant (and the “civil” comments that agree with this slant), is much more likely to react in a “negative” fashion if he chooses to comment on the article himself. However that negativity is usually only perceived by those who wrote the “civil” comments; you would get quite a different reaction if the comment was shown to someone who shared a conservative philosophy.

    The point here is that Mr. ass@hole.com obviously believes he knows more about both Trend Following and Global Macro trading than Michael Covel, but is unwilling to explain to us how; we are just supposed to accept this as a fact. On the other hand, I know Michael’s background thoroughly (including his access to the vital information needed to draw a reasonable conclusion) and share his philosophy, therefore I am apt to side with him and dismiss Mr. ass@hole.com as an internet troll looking to stir up trouble. Not that I couldn’t have assumed that just reading his email address :-)

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