I have nothing to do with the recent kerfuffle about civility and comment policies that has been meandering through science blogs, but a large quantity of posts on the subject on a largeish number of blogs has, I admit, gotten me thinking about my own comment policies. Since I often get queries, often in personal email, about my comment policies, particularly why I let X or Y person say what they do, I thought it might be useful to make my comment policy more explicit.
My basic philosophy towards commenters is that I don’t censor and I don’t ban except under extreme provocation. In over 5 years of blogging, with several 100,000s of comments, I’ve banned 1 person, threatened to ban 3, and have deleted 5 comments without warning, and maybe one or two after warnings. I am actually fairly proud of this record, since I really dislike censorship. I’m even more proud of the fact that I tend to think my blog and its comments have a high signal-to-noise ratio even without a lot of censoring of comments. Or maybe proud is the wrong word, since that implies I’m responsible for it – in fact, I think my readership is pretty awesome.
A lot of this comes down to my view about what my blog is – for some people, it is a private space on some level, like their living room, and their readers are guests. I don’t view it that way – I see my blog as primarily a public space, which is what the internet is. Communication in public or semi-public places, within the limits of safety, should be as uncensored as possible, I believe.
I get a lot of requests to ban people as trolls. Generally, without extreme provocation, that won’t happen. While I know that trolls actually do exist, I tend to err strongly on the side of the idea that people who criticize my ideas are taking me seriously, and deserve a response. In fact, I find the tendency to jump immediately to the conclusion that someone with strong contrary opinions who wants to argue extensively is a troll to be worrisome, actually. I worry sometimes that the categorization of people as “trolls” works to suppress dissent and make for an echo chamber effect. While I can’t say I actually enjoy being criticized or attacked (I’m human), I think a certain amount of criticism – even repetetive and hostile criticism, is desirable, and it is a sign you don’t live in an echo chamber, which is destructive to good thought. And I do like a good argument – it is in the throes of having to defend my thoughts that they often become most clear.
Moreover, I have a long history of developing friendships that began with (often heated) intellectual arguments. I take a certain pleasure in the fact that some people who came to my blogs as fierce critics stayed and ended up, perhaps not sharing my views in many, but as thoughtful readers, commenters and sometimes, good friends. I tend to assume that most of the people who are characterized as trolls are actually potentially useful allies, potential friends or useful critics who help me clarify the weaknesses in my thinking. There are some exceptions, but I find that when I respond to someone as though they are a potential troll, dismissing them as merely attempting to cause trouble, I may miss something.
I get a lot of my best ideas in arguments – and I work them out best when I’m in a passion. People who seem to be trolls may not be pissing me off for my own good, but it often works out that way – I end up turning my arguments into something worth reading. At the very least, I’ve learned that the criticisms (as opposed to mere insults) that annoy me the most are almost always the ones where I need a better answer than I have – that that feeling of being ticked is a reliable indicator that I’ve missed something, and the time I spend stewing over it later may get me a better answer – or force me to admit I was wrong, which is also useful and good.
Of course, real trolls do exist, and I have had them from time to time. What happens, generally speaking, is that they go away on their own. A few have been annoying, a few have been persistent, but generally speaking, they do go away. I’ve had a couple I know to be trolls (ie, they followed me home from other sites where they were persistent disrupters) but I’ve found that generally speaking, for whatever reason, this blog doesn’t seem to be very pleasant for them. Not sure why – maybe because I try and treat them respectfully. I tend to think I get better results this way.
This was driven home to me recently, when in a discussion of climate change, one of my regular commenters (someone I often disagree with strongly, but whose comments I enjoy) sent me an email about a person who I had dismissed as simply reciting the old Anti-AGW arguments to make trouble. The regular commenter noted that he felt that the person in question had seemed so upset and troubled by the issue that he felt he had to disagree with me in comments and add his opinion, even though he knew I did not share it. I was struck by this – I had not thought to read my “troll” in that light at all – my reaction was that my time was being wasted. His reaction was that someone was struggling to comprehend, and asking for help. Re-reading the comments, I could see both of those possible interpretations. I don’t know if it was true – but I certainly think that my regular commenter’s response was kinder than mine was.
Am I obligated to be kind all the time? No, I’m not – and I’m not always. I don’t feel obligated to answer every question or explain things that are easily answered elsewhere. Some people really do piss me off, and I don’t feel bad about showing it always. But I do find that the pissy answers aren’t as useful as the real ones – again, they tend to shut down discourse, and close off the possibility of better discussion. Now i’m human and I screw up – but I like myself better, and I like reading the comments better when I constrain my impulse to try and shut things down, rather than open them up.
The downside of my policy is that I probably do devote more time and allow more energy to people who are just trying to work things up than is fair. It also may be that people who want comments to be a more protected and supportive space don’t always get that – I get emails from people who say they don’t comment because they are afraid of being jumped on. I apologize if that’s true for you – I don’t plan to change my policy, but I’m sorry. It is one of those “can’t have it all” things.
As a matter of practicality, I often stop following comments on posts after a bit, so if you ask me a question about a post done a while back, I won’t see it – I just run out of time. So emailing me is probably a better strategy if you have a question about a post more than week or two old. I also usually stop debating on posts after a certain point, just because I have limited time. I’m also lazy, and often rely on my commenters to answer questions, only coming back and answering them myself if no one has offered a response. I feel really lucky that I can do that – that so many people have such great experience to offer and offer it so freely here. Whenever I teach my own material, I tell people to go and read the comments whenever possible, since they so often add more than I could.
My comment policy goes like this – I expect everyone to be grownups, as much as possible. Grownups occasionally lapse into less than perfectly adult behavior, however, including me, and much leeway will be granted. I will always err on the side of less censorship – that means that I will sometimes let really offensive ideas stand and sometimes get into unproductive debates. I can live with that, for the most part, even though it comes with costs. For me personally, since this is my space, my concern is that a stricter commenting policy will lead to my unintentionally shutting down disssent, which troubles me more than the idea that people might be offensive.
If you want me to moderate someone, the answer will usually be no. You are free to make your case. If I feel the culture of the blog has actually shifted, or something has been disruptive enough to do so, I will moderate after two warnings – but I really don’t like doing it, and I feel like I’m engaged in an extended experiment in how hands-off you can be and still have interesting conversations and a lot of great content.
Of the comments I’ve moderated or threatened to moderate over the last years, the majority have fallen in one of three categories 1. Explicitly racist/antisemitic/anti-queer…etc… The stuff that is obvious and beyond the pale gets instantly deleted. The grey areas get a warning. This does not, however, extend to unpopular or offensive-to-me ideas – that is, call someone a faggot and you are off the blog. Tell me you think that homosexuality causes AIDS all you want. I tend to assume that my commenters and I can deal with that stuff ;-), and will give it all the credit it deserves.
2. Threats to my children – I make it a point of pride that I do not moderate personal attacks on myself – to some degree, I’m making a public spectacle of myself, and thus, I feel that I can suck it up. I’ve been called every name imaginable on my blogs, and they all stand there for your reading pleasure ;-). But while I put out a limited view of my family, people who make comments like “you should have your kids taken away” or “I hope they die of X” lose their comments. I have no idea if this is fair or not, and do not give a damn, either. The one person I have banned falls in that category, after doing so repeatedly and with warnings.
3. Mean-spirited attacks on other commenters – this doesn’t happen often, thankfully, but because I rely so much on my readership – because they do so much of the hard work of creating a great community here, I don’t put up with this shit. It is one thing for things to get intense in the midst of an argument, and I have some posters who I probably wouldn’t intervene for, because I know they can handle it themselves. But I’ve once or twice had someone jump down the throat of someone honestly trying to be helpful, and that I don’t want to see her. Threats of moderation, though, have usually been sufficient for that last one.
That’s it folks – that’s the policy. Feel free to discuss!