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The Why Behind The How: The Quality Of Comments On Seeking Alpha Articles

Seeking Alpha reached an incredible milestone the other day. As company CEO David Jackson explained, SA now has over one million registered users. One of the things David thinks "you need to know" in relation to this development resonates with me:

Seeking Alpha has become the leading platform for intelligent discussion of stocks and the markets. We publish about 80,000 comments per month, after moderation. Unlike "Web 1.0" message boards, the intellectual framework and tone for comments are set by articles, and article authors actively participate. This results in comment discussions that are higher quality and more valuable to investors.
I could not agree more. And, based on the comments David received to his article, a considerable portion of the SA readership agrees. Consider the following selections from the reaction:

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Seeking Alpha makes it clear to every author. We must focus on writing articles that help make people better investors. Broadly speaking, we must deliver value. That comes in various forms and means different things to different people. Personally, I attempt to write creatively and articulate unique and hopefully somewhat novel perspectives. From there, I aim to provide actionable investment ideas on the backs of strategies I feel comfortable using in my own personal portfolio.

In the process, I like to think that I disseminate useful information not only on stocks and the stock market, but on topics, such as options, that often trip up even experienced investors. What keeps me - and the readers, I think I can safely assume - coming back has quite a bit
to do with the conversation that follows a Seeking Alpha article. I would say that 80-90% of the articles I read on this site provide an education not only in the body of the article, but in the comments that follow.

I spent my time writing this somewhat unconventional article because I think point number four that David Jackson brought up is critically important to this site, all of financial media and "Web 2.0" in general. In fact, I would go so far as to say that what happens in comments' sections and message boards impresses and influences investors as much as, if not more than, what an author puts forth in an article.

More often than not things go remarkably well in the comments' section of an SA piece. Instances do occur, however, when things do not work out. Without a doubt, authors, including yours truly, deserve some of the blame when a comments' section degenerates and the lowest common denominator takes center stage. We all deserve some share of the responsibility when things go awry in this new era of "social" communication. I argue that when personal attacks and content void of any value whatsoever dominate comments' sections and message boards on a Website, we collectively create and perpetuate a modern social ill.

One of the most talented and wonderful people I have ever known, Dallas, Texas media personality Gordon Keith, summarized part of the why behind the how when online discourse turns sour in a blog post that's nearly three years old now, but still awfully relevant:

Maybe my opinion is jaundiced by the fact that I have a public job and am exposed to an unhealthy level of vitriol, but is the world really a better place now that every ego has a storefront, and every negative part of you can have a screen name ? Weren't we more civil when our critiques of each other involved eye contact? ...

Speaking of comments sections.. So far D magazine has not reestablished theirs. I know the editors miss feeling the stage under their feet, but I think they made the right call for now. Look at the DMN (Dallas Morning News) comments. Still amazes me what snarling dogs we are under our thin veneers. Sure, you can simply tune them out. But snark (and meanness) is mental porn. It's fun to make it, and damn hard to look away once you glance at it ...

Just like you must dehumanize the "enemy" in a war to bring yourself to be able to blow his head off, you need to forget that the direct recipient (or recipients) of your online comment has a face that looks just like mine in order to get all snarky, mean or worse. It's a sick process. And, the more I think about it, it comes as no shock that comments' sections and message boards tend to devolve more often than not. On the bright side, it's even more shocking how high-level the discourse typically ends up being on Seeking Alpha.

I'm the type of person who has a difficult time settling simply for how things are. I want to know why. Gordon's blog post as well as other writing he has done helps us understand why things go horribly wrong online. An email I received earlier today speaks to the why behind the how of when things go right online.

When I was a budding academic, I got myself on a mailing list out of Stanford called "Tomorrow's Professor." I still receive it daily and find the topics it covers useful. You can subscribe to the newsletter and view its archives here. The following is a reprint of Monday's email:

Intellectual Habits of Critical Thinkers

Fair-mindedness entails a consciousness of the need to treat all viewpoints alike, without reference to one's own feelings or selfish interests. It is based on an awareness of the fact that we, by nature, tend to prejudge the views of others, placing them into "favorable" (agrees with us) and "unfavorable" (disagrees with us) categories. We tend to give less weight to contrary views than to our own. Fair-mindedness requires us to develop:

1. Intellectual Humility

Awareness of one's biases, one's prejudices, the limitations of one's viewpoint, and the extent of one's ignorance. (e.g., Many U.S. and other Western students consider their ways of life-competition, individualism, materialism, democratic forms of government, nuclear family arrangements, work ethic-superior to non-Western values and living arrangements. Their biases have a profound impact on their understanding of important concepts in the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities.)

2. Intellectual Courage

Consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints toward which one has strong negative emotions and to which one has not given a serious hearing; the recognition that ideas that society considers dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified - in whole or in part, (e.g., Any culture has its set of taboos that also affect scientific discourse. Recent examples include stem cell research, gay marriage, Muslim radicalism or any other radicalism for that matter, global warming, atheism, affirmative action, assisted suicide, and pornography. It takes courage to openly investigate any potentiality rational roots for any of these controversial behaviors and beliefs.)

3. Intellectual Empathy

Awareness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others so as to genuinely understand them. (Old paradigms in the social sciences often treated their research "subjects" as variables that were to be looked at with no emotional involvement in order to guarantee "objectivity." Nowadays, many social scientists are taking a different approach to understanding social environments. To thoroughly understand others' behaviors and intentions, young scholars need to acquire the ability to take their research subjects' perspective, requiring a degree of personal identification previously denounced as a contamination of the research process. Similar abilities have always been considered a precondition for producing and appreciating good literature and other types of art.)

4. Intellectual Integrity

Recognition of the need to be true to one's own thinking and to hold oneself to the same standards one expects others to meet. It also means to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one's own thought and action. (e.g., Cutting corners, plagiarizing and cheating have become pervasive not only in college, but also in graduate school and beyond. Society's expectations for accelerated output in every realm of life, including academia, can put tremendous pressure on students to impress with productivity at the expense of academic rigor and relevance. Admitting shortcomings in one's thinking requires just as much courage as fairly addressing viewpoints with which one vehemently disagrees; see point 2.)

5. Intellectual Perseverance

The disposition to work one's way through intellectual complexities despite the frustration inherent in the task. (Many students in our current school system learn to avoid those things that seem too difficult: "Engineering is too tedious," "Math is too hard and "A PhD in Accounting doesn't pay off." Delaying gratification for the fruit of one's labor is as hard for a student as it is for a child to wait for dessert. This applies also to the daily struggle with intellectual tasks. Many students ask for simple answers and are suspicious when their discipline has not yet produced answers to difficult issues, or when those answers remain ambiguous.)

6. Confidence in Reason

The belief that one's own higher interests and those of humankind at large will be best served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions by developing their own rational faculties; faith that, with proper encouragement and cultivation, people can learn to think for themselves. (Confidence in reason is also confidence in others. It is a pedagogical principle that good teachers live by. Students should not be persuaded to adopt their teachers' viewpoints or drilled to approach tasks in one particular way only. Complex understanding needs to be nurtured, not forced. Experiencing the freedom and encouragement to solve problems in one's own way helps create intellectual maturity. This includes the freedom to make one's own mistakes and learn from them.)

7. Intellectual Autonomy

An internal motivation based on the ideal of thinking for oneself; having rational self-authorship of one's beliefs, values, and way of thinking; not being dependent on others for the direction and control of one's thinking. (The traditional teaching paradigm of telling students what to learn through lecture and textbooks turned students into passive recipients of knowledge. Teachers were the experts whom students trusted to always have the right answers. No thinking for oneself was required. The new learning paradigm puts students in control and makes them accountable for their own learning. Learning theory has discovered diverse learning styles, and motivation theory shows that deep understanding is linked with learner autonomy. The more confident students become in finding their own direction, the more likely they are to develop an integrated understanding of the subjects of their study.)


Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2001). Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

As is often the case, you're better off looking within, as opposed to blaming everybody and everything else, when something goes wrong. If we all take the time, as individuals, to think critically and be intellectually honest with ourselves, more of the interactions we have online as well as off will look like the discourse that has helped take Seeking Alpha to one million users and growing strong and steady.