Adventures in Ethics and Science

Back in January, at ScienceOnline2010, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Dr. Isis, and I led a session called “Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents”. Shortly after the session, I posted my first thoughts on how it went and on the lessons I was trying to take away from it.

Almost two months later, I’m ready to say some more about the session and the issues I think it raised.

My space, your space, our space.

To my mind, civil engagement is only an issue if you are engaging with other people. If you are conducting a soliloquy, rather than a colloquy, it’s hard to imagine where you’d run into charges of being uncivil (to yourself).

Of course, if you’re conducting a soliloquy, it’s a fair question as to why you would do it where others can hear or read it. Why post your conversation with yourself online, viewable by anyone with an internet? Isn’t that kind of inviting others to engage with you?

The blogosphere, however, is a realm in which bloggers generally have the freedom to set the terms of that engagement — to decide whether to enable commenting, what kinds of comments to allow or moderate into oblivion, how much to interact with and respond to people who might post comments. A blog can be the blogger’s salon, with “house rules” that suit the blogger’s tastes and foster the kind of participation — perhaps even the kind of community — the blogger is looking to build.

It’s not obvious that every blogger starts out with a clear view of who exactly he or she is trying to engage, or of what terms of engagement he or she is willing to pursue — or, for that matter, that those of us who started blogs with such a clear view stick to that clear view. For example, since I started this blog in conjunction with a course I teach, my original intended audience was the students in that course. Those students are still a significant part of my intended audience, but that audience has since grown to include working scientists and scientific trainees, philosophy students and academic philosophers at other institutions, other folks interested in science or ethics or the ways science and ethics are intertwined, people interested in science education (formal and informal) and education more generally, and some assorted other folks, too.

Part of how my idea of who I was engaging with grew in this way is that these people turned up at the blog and started engaging with me. They followed me home, as it were, and got me thinking in interesting ways that I might not have otherwise. Because I wanted them to stay and keep engaging with me, I had to think about how to create conditions where they’d want to do that.

In other words, I decided it was worth running my blog in a way that made these folks feel welcome.

And this can lead to an interesting kind of tension.

On the one hand, a blog is the blogger’s little fiefdom where he or she gets to make the rules. On the other hand, if that blog is going to be the site of regular engagement with people outside the blogger’s head, those other people generally need to feel like they have a stake of some sort in the blog. Maybe they don’t have a say in the rules, but they find the rules reasonable and agreeable. They aren’t the boss of the blogger, but the blogger takes them, and what they have to say, seriously. Sometimes, when the ecosystem of a blog is working well, you get the distinct impression that neither blogger nor commenters are invested in keeping control so much as the two are working to share control.

Other times, a blog’s ecosystem doesn’t work so well, maybe because no one is interested in engaging with the blogger on the terms the blogger lays out, or maybe because people thought they were being invited to engage in one way only to discover that the blogger is uninterested in that kind of engagement.

For example, if you’ve written a book, and you post about the book on your blog, folks reading your blog might feel like it’s fair game to ask you questions about that book, or to offer specific critiques of arguments you’ve presented in that book (or of the empirical data on which your arguments are based). Unless it’s clear up front that you are not interested in questions or critiques, the readers posting those questions and critiques may find it uncivil for you to ignore them, or dismiss them out of hand, or declare them off topic. Unilaterally changing the rules of engagement on your readers may be your right as a blogger, but the readers may decide they don’t feel especially welcome as a result — at least, not welcome to participate in the discussion they were interested in having. Some may take it in stride that you are not interested in having that discussion, and they may drift off to have that discussion somewhere else. Others may be peeved enough that you seemed up for a discussion until the moment it got critical, and in their pique they may deliver a parting shot. Or several dozen.

None of this is to put all the blame at the feet of bloggers. When we assume a shared purpose which it turns out isn’t really there, readers can be an important part of this miscommunication. The blogosphere is vast, but particular nodes with in it are no more than half-vast. We all have different interests, different agendas, different things that comfort us, challenge us, or push our buttons and make us fight or take flight. Projecting what we want or need onto any particular blogger or any particular set of readers is a risky proposition. Still, really engaging can be rewarding enough that it’s worth the risks.

Indeed, really engaging with others can be so rewarding that it is worth it not to disengage after a disagreement surfaces, but rather to renegotiate the common ground and figure out ways to keep on engaging, even if each side ends up having to adjust its expectations in order to move forward. This is part of what I was trying to get at when I wrote:

[M]y main point was that I think a civility worth having is all about establishing respect for the people we’re engaging — finding enough common ground and common purpose to function like a community. This does not guarantee pleasant behavior at all times. Communities often have to struggle with deep disagreements. However, glossing over the conflicts can kill a community from the inside.

And this leaves us with the challenge: how to interact with each other in ways that are welcoming enough that people don’t give up before they start, yet honest enough that people can share their thoughts and experiences, where we can all work hard to get smarter together without puking from the adrenaline overdose we’d get from being at constant war with each other.

I don’t think there’s a master equation that captures the optimal balance of forces here. It’s radically context dependent, and we’re all pretty much winging it.

I’m going to return to this (within a day or two, not a month or two), at which point I will give you my own thoughts on The Fight that happened in the session, and on carpets that do or do not get metaphorically pissed on in blogospheric salons, and on attempts to be explicit about what kind of engagement is or is not welcome in those blogospheric salons.

Stay tuned.

Comments

  1. #1 bioephemera
    March 11, 2010

    Great post!

    I agree that many bloggers and blog commenters have very different conceptions of who should/does control or set the rules for the blog community. Often those assumptions remain unstated and unexamined, and only arise in the context of other disputes. But if one brings these differences forward to try to talk about them transparently, it creates tension. We need to figure out ways to work through that tension, without poisoning the community.

  2. #2 David Wescott
    March 12, 2010

    I didn’t make this session, sadly. Curious – have you thought much about civility when members of different online communities try to build bridges? I’ve been trying to find ways to link different online communities and I’ve run into a lot of roadblocks.