Did you hear about the scio10 civility meltdown? More about that in a minute. As you may have heard, it got a bit. . . uncivil. I wasn’t there, so you, like me, will have to get your impression from this highly realistic renactment, created by an attendee who witnessed the confrontation between Nature’s Henry Gee and our very own Zuska:
Whoa. Do I detect some tension? I’m reminded of the classic post 7 reasons the 21st century is making you miserable, according to David Wong:
Some of us remember having only three channels on TV. That’s right. Three. We’re talking about the ’80s here. So there was something unifying in the way we all sat down to watch the same news, all of it coming from the same point of view. Even if the point of view was retarded and wrong, even if some stories went criminally unreported, we at least all shared it.
That’s over. There effectively is no “mass media” any more so, where before we disagreed because we saw the same news and interpreted it differently, now we disagree because we’re seeing completely different freaking news. When we can’t even agree on the basic facts, the differences become irreconcilable. That constant feeling of being at bitter odds with the rest of the world brings with it a tension that just builds and builds.
This is not an uplifting article, I warn you, but I think much of it is even truer today than it was in 2007, when the post is written. Particularly what Wong says about (un)civility:
In my time online I’ve been called “fag” approximately 104,165 times. I keep an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve also been called “asshole” and “cockweasel” and “fuckcamel” and “cuntwaffle” and “shitglutton” and “porksword” and “wangbasket” and “shitwhistle” and “thundercunt” and “fartminge” and “shitflannel” and “knobgoblin” and “boring.”
And none of it mattered, because none of those people knew me well enough to really hit the target. I’ve been insulted lots, but I’ve been criticized very little. And don’t ever confuse the two. An insult is just someone who hates you making a noise to indicate their hatred. A barking dog. Criticism is someone trying to help you, by telling you something about yourself that you were a little too comfortable not knowing. (source)
All of which brings me to the scio10 session on civility. Here’s Henry Gee’s brief mention of it, including where the whole “piss on the carpet” thing came from (John Wilkins’ comment policy):
This is my living room, so don’t piss on the floor. I reserve the right to block users and delete any comments that are uncivil, spam or offensive to all. I have a broad tolerance, but don’t test it, please. Try to remain coherent, polite and put forward positive arguments if engaged in debate. There are plenty of places you can accuse people of being pedophilic communist sexist pigs; don’t do it here.
This whole scio10 situation sounds unpleasant to say the least. As I discussed earlier, I didn’t even ask about moderation in my comments survey, because it is a highly personal choice whether/how to moderate blog comments. Gee and Wilkins subscribe to the “don’t piss on my carpet” mentality, but is that too restrictive? Based on the responses to my comment poll, many of you might say so. But Gee obviously feels very strongly about keeping his blog civil, while Z, who gets a ton of uncivil comments at her blog, is arguing for less restraint on comments. Insert irony meter here.
But before our opinions are colored by our relationships and experience with other science blogs, let’s step out of the science blogs community entirely, and take a field trip to the fashion blogosphere to see things in a new context. Recently, a fashion blogger (also named Jess) asked her readers to restrain their comments to constructive criticism, not insults:
1. Keep comments positive! If you wouldn’t have worn it the way I did, that’s fine! But I’m not looking for pointers! Everyone has a unique sense of style and I like mine just the way it is!
2. No back and forth. Short hair! long hair! Sexier! Sweeter! Bolder! Badder! Uht uhh. Drop it.
3. Weight is not up for debate. Mine, yours or that girl over there.
4. If you have personal issues, please e-mail me instead of airing your complaints to the world.
And here’s one of the (milder) comments she got in response:
I think the commenter who suggested you step back and reassess your blog is right on the money. If this is a medium for you to share photos of yourself with your friends and family, then I agree critiques of your outfits are unnecessary and frankly unkind. However, if this blog is your business—meaning you have advertisers, derive income from it, and hope to use this as a potential springboard for your other fashion career aspirations—you are going to have to develop a thicker skin or at least learn to tune out commenters who question the appeal of your shoes or hair length. We all receive both positive and negative feedback at our jobs, and, well, if you want to make this your job you have to accept it the same way we all do: with a smile.
Really? Jess basically requested that comments on her blog be civil. Ask yourself: would you violate any of her rules in speaking to a coworker? To your friend’s girlfriend? To a stranger in a bar? Probably not, right? You may sometimes break these rules when speaking to a friend (“Honestly, those pants are a size too small for you right now – let’s hit the gym, sweetie.”) But you’d realize it was an unusual and potentially hurtful thing to say. Unless you really enjoy conflict, you don’t go around saying that kind of thing to perfect strangers. So why is it okay to say such things routinely, on a blog?
I’d politely dispute Jess’ commenter, who says “We all receive both positive and negative feedback at our jobs, and, well, if you want to make this your job you have to accept it the same way we all do: with a smile.” The type of criticism appropriate in most workplaces would be constructive criticism, which Jess says is just fine with her. What she’s objecting to is personal criticism. But the fact that her blog is a fashion blog, based on her personal taste, and perhaps using photos of herself, makes that a really tough distinction to make. Many of the comments about this revolve around disagreement over how broad Jess meant the comment rules to be – what exactly she considers “constructive criticism.” But is that question really so hard? Don’t you have a pretty good idea what your IRL coworkers would consider “constructive criticism?” I actually just engaged in an evaluative exercise yesterday in which four teammates and I gave each other one-on-one constructive criticism. If you’ve ever done that activity, you know it’s uber-awkward – lots of looking down, mumbling, softening the cruel truth, etc. It’s so awkward to say negative things to people in person, but so easy on a blog or in email.
Here’s what some other fashion bloggers had to say about civility – their opinions vary, as do their assessments of what Jess meant to ban/not ban. The response Jess got from her own commenters, which I shared above, represents a pretty pervasive attitude, one that equates blogging with a deliberate choice to enter the public eye: “What? You don’t like my comment? Well suck it up and deal – if you blog, you’re asking to get criticized. Grow a thicker skin.” The rationale – “if this blog is your business” – says that if you’re getting paid, you lose your right to be treated like a real person. Somehow, the “public” you write in as a blogger is a world away from the “public” your IRL self lives in. Hmmmm. Maybe that’s fair for reality TV wannabes and television personalities, who really do make a living from being in the spotlight. But most bloggers, unlike Jess the fashion blogger, can’t make a living from blogging. Most of us do it during our free time (I do) for little or no pay (this month’s BioE proceeds are going to Haiti, btw!). And somehow that rarely makes a difference in commenters’ attitudes. So the whole “this blog is your business” angle seems to be a convenient but often inaccurate cover for what I think is the real message: “I can say whatever I damn well want to you because this is the internet, not real life.”
Why that distinction exists – why civility is different online than it is in person – has some pretty simple intuitive answers (“you can’t see your victim reacting”). But I think it’s actually much more complex. It may come back to the first post I quoted – that our interactions online, for better and worse, are not equivalent to interactions in real life. When profane, vehement, spittle-filled exchanges happen in real life – as at scio10 – people gasp. When they happen online, people yawn. Interesting, isn’t it?