How does controversy affect conversation? We use both lab and field data to address this question. Contrary to popular belief, controversial things are not necessarily more likely to be discussed. Data from an online news forum show that controversy increases likelihood of discussion at low levels, but beyond a moderate level of controversy, additional controversy actually decreases likelihood of discussion. Experiments show that the controversy-conversation relationship is driven by two countervailing processes. More controversial things are more interesting to talk about and thus more likely to be discussed. At the same time, more controversial things are less likely to be discussed because they are uncomfortable to talk about. Consequently, contextual factors such as identity disclosure and whether people are talking to friends or strangers moderate the controversy-conversation relationship by impacting these underlying processes. Our framework sheds light on how, when, and why controversy affects whether or not things are discussed.
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