One More About Discussions
A bit more about the mechanics of the comments section.
Not to keep up too much navel-gazing/meta-blogging, but after a week during which I paid more attention to the comments section than I have for some time, let me note a few additional thoughts and I want to actually address a couple of specific examples, because they represent types of behavior that I would like to spotlight in the hopes of educating or, at least, explaining.
I suppose it is the professor in me. I am prone to want to give chances for learning and I want expectations to be understood. It is why I can often be patient with commenters who do a poor job of communicating for a while and even try, knowingly in vain in many cases, to point out why the style deployed in problematic.
In a bit of self-reflection in the moment, it occurs to me that I tend to deal with problematic commenters the way I deal with problematic students. First, patient attempt to explain why they are problematic in the hope of getting them on track. Second, a move into sarcasm or humor to highlight the problem. From there making increasingly critical observations and then to a resignation that the student is going to fail no matter what guidance I provide (which means in this context either ceasing to engage the person at all or, in certain cases, deletions or banning).
I used to teach a heavily-discussed based course (25% of the grade was class discussion) and part of my job was to get the shy students to learn to speak up. I used to warn students that if ever stopped trying to get them to speak, they were probably in trouble because they had exhausted my attempts to help them to success.
It is also true that I can tolerate a certain amount of nonsense, or even minor policy violations, from folks who otherwise do what they are supposed to. Good will is an important currency in life that a lot of people fail to invest in.
And look, some folks will find all of that condescending, after all, this is not a classroom. But, of course, I am making an analogy and trying to explain my own thought processes and behaviors. I am being transparent, and I suppose that can be treated as one likes. And look, it is hardly surprising that a professor takes a professorial approach to life, especially in a setting such as this.
To restate to a degree the things that I noted in my post from last weekend: this is a private space with an open door. All are invited to come in, but not all are welcome to stay. The line of delineation is behavior.
Yes, we have a commenting policy. And yes, we are not wholly consistent in applying it (e.g., people often use language that violate the policy or engage in personal attacks). The reality is, this is not a zero tolerance, rules based policy wherein the deployment of an R-rated word leads to deletion. Nor is it is really possible to parse out which comments really constitute “personal attacks” at least not in the sense of taking consistent time to dole out internet justice. I would refer back to the statement above about good will as it pertains to why a commenter who 95% of the time does not engage any questionable activity versus ones who engage almost exclusively in vitriol and/or nonsense.
Beyond, who has time to act as moderator? James is a professor and department head. I am dean of a college. Neither of us has time to police all the comments and make measured judgments about the merits of each.
At any rate, since last weekend I have read almost every comments posted. I do not usually read the open fora (save on occasion). Further, the topic of the quality and nature of conversation here have been a major topic. I have also deleted a number of comments this week. This has, lead to more thoughts on the subject.
I will reiterate what a lot of people have stated: the general quality of the discussions here are quite good. By the standards of the internet, they are amazing. My main regret is that we do lack strong commenters who are from the more rightward ranges of US political space, and I will leave aside why that might be the case here. I would note,too, that despite the claims of some visitors, this is hardly a hive of radical leftism. Quite frankly, the main writers for the site, and almost all of the commenters, are fairly centrist (but, again, that is another discussion).
Let me get down to why I deleted some comments and what really gets one banned. I am going to be more specific than I might otherwise be about commenters in a main post, but I think it is useful.
BTW: I know some folks will want to say that I am giving trolls what they want, i.e., attention. Perhaps so. But, I always have a glimmer of optimism that people can learn. Moreover, this post is a marker that spells out expectations that I can refer back to as needed.
First: Guarneri. Guarneri, who have been posting here for a while, is an example of a particularly unimaginative and tiresome kind of trolling. He has degenerated into hit-and-run insults that detail comment threads and and been more and more nonsensical as time goes by. He is close to being banned. The main problem with this type of commenter is that they contribute nothing to a given comment thread and usually are just deploying some worn out talking point from right wing media.
Second, Paul L. Same deal overall: right wing talking points that he thinks are clever. They aren’t. Paul L. at least sticks around in a given thread, unlike Guarneri, but he doesn’t actually engage in argument. He is the kind of person who thinks that talk radio quips and burns again the libs are effective, but doesn’t understand that they only work when preaching to the choir. He, too, is close to being banned because he just derails discussions.
The main sin in comment derailment. Insults are derailing. Shouting talking points and running way is derailing. Arguing in bad faith consistently is derailing.
I would note, too, that a major reason for having the open forum posts is so that anyone can talk about whatever they like. You can’t derail the topic when there isn’t one, so if folks really want to talk about X, they have that chance. The fact that they choose to derail conversation Y with X is evidence of trolling, not good faith–especially when they have the chance to talk about X on the open forum. (Although insults and the like are still not welcome on those threads).
Disagreement is not the issue. Bring on the disagreement, but have the integrity to back up your position.
Indeed, I would note that the issue that really leads to banning overall is the derailment issue. That is what got Pearce banned. It is what got another commenter who was probably one of the more left-wing types (I forget his moniker). He would drop into a thread and rather insultingly derail the conversation. And he got more beligerent over time. Several others who have been banned fall into the same category (another one, again whose name escapes me, would almost always personally attack the author of the post).
A third example that I wanted to note was barbintheboonies. She showed back up with a persecution complex. She claimed to have been censored. She talked about being attacked. Nonetheless, several commenters went out their way to either offer assistance, or to try and engage her in reasonable conversation. Someone like that is not going to get banned, but she might find herself ignored because of a combination of wild claims, lack of evidence in argumentation, and often general belligerence.
I would ask everyone to try and be polite and kind. I know that it is often tempting to respond with an FU. This isn’t constructive.
To those who wish to engage in argumentation, I ask two things: 1) recognize when talking points are just that (and realize how unpersuasive they are), and 2) evidence is awesome (if we ever start selling OTB t-shirts, that would make a good one). If you really want to change minds, that is a good place to start.
In the detritus that floats around in my head, let me paraphrase a Bible verse (of all things): “Commenters, vex not the site’s authors lest ye be deleted or banned.”
Or, if you prefer a more secular statement: don’t be a jerk. Try to be kind. Build some good will.