Online, being polite is appreciated

People want you to be civil when answering their questions online, but third-party observers aren’t so fussed.

That’s the take-home message from a study by business researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, in the US.

Andrew Whinston and colleagues observed what he calls a “politeness bias” when individuals who ask questions get to choose what they consider the best answer. And that could affect people’s decision-making processes, they write in a paper published in the journal MIS Quarterly.

The team looked at how 770,414 answers to 422,980 questions were rated on Stack Exchange, a popular network of more than 170 Q&A sites covering a range of topics.

They discovered that the people who posed the questions preferred responses written in respectful forms, even when the content wasn’t objectively the most useful. However, other readers based their votes for best answer on more objective terms. Questioners, it seems, take things more personally. 

 There was one exception to the rule. Question-askers were willing to excuse an impolite answer when the responder had high ratings on Stack Exchange, based on the number of votes that person’s previous answers had received.

The researchers defined impolite responses by noting the presence of certain terms, such as sentences beginning with second-person pronouns including “you” and “your”, sentences beginning with a question, and informal references to the questioner such as “dude” and “bud”.

The best response to all this, the researchers suggest, is not simply for people to be either more civil or less precious, depending on your views. Question-answering platforms should take politeness bias into account to benefit themselves and their users.

Whinston and colleagues recommend that Q&A platforms more prominently display the number of votes compared with the asker’s “best answer”, and ideally change “best answer” to a neutral term such as “asker-accepted answer” to reduce the bias of labelling it the “best”.

“Overall, the easier it is for users to locate high-quality content, the more valuable the (website) would be to users,” they write.

Further, “it is imperative that (these websites) understand the politeness bias and its consequence to ensure effective knowledge exchange and successful commercialisation. A careful design of quality assessment methods can be highly beneficial to the growth of these platforms.”

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