I was recently engaged in a blog battle with Anthony Watts over his insufficiently skeptical (in my opinion) treatment of a discredited report of a meteorite of Martian origin bearing the remains of microscopic organisms. As this argument progressed, some dude on Twitter noted that the credibility of a blog post was determined by the comments on that post. I challenged that suggestion, and the Twitterista modified his position, suggesting that the credibility of a blog post was determined by the nature of other blog posts responding to it. What this would mean is the following: Joan Smith writes a blog post saying “1 + 1 = 2”; Joan Smith’s enemies of which she has many because she is a blogger write in comment threads and blog posts across the internet that she is being “idiotic” when she makes this claim. In the end, we are forced to question the credibility of a blog post that states “1 + 1 = 2”
Clearly, someone is wrong on the Internet. But I’m pretty sure it is not the person reciting basic arithmetic.
Bora Zivkovic, the Blog Editor at Scientific American, has written a post about commenting on blogs and news sites. I suppose some will assess the credibility of Bora’s post on the basis of comments and blog posts engendered by it. And, pursuant to that, here are my comments on that post.
Bora provides an excellent framework for the discussion of commenting, including a nomenclature of comments and reasons for allowing, disallowing, or altering them, and Bora’s post is full of links to key discussions and sources of information, so go read and absorb Commenting threads: good, bad, or not at all, and bookmark it.
Bora talks about the phenomenon of there being an overall reduction of comments on blogs in recent times. I had noticed that but I thought it was just me. I don’t spend a lot of time on other blogs, and I especially don’t count other people’s comments, but I did notice that about the same time that National Geographic branded Scienceblogs.com, comment frequency reduced, but readership did not (in fact, readership went up a bit). Bora notes that this reduction is blogosphere wide and has to do with a shift of the conversation from the blog proper to social media. Now that I am aware of that idea, it makes sense. In fact, many of the comments on my own blog posts end up on my facebook page, even though I don’t have any explicit linking technology between those two venues.
In addition to that, and apropos Bora’s topic, is this: I have systematically removed a couple of entire categories of comments (as well as a small number of actual commenters) from my site. I’ve always been somewhat strict about having science denialism run rampant in my blog posts’ comments, but I’ve tightened up even more. Plus, there was a handful of individuals (each with multiple sock puppets) who made such outrageously “idiotic” comments mainly about evolution that I left many of them up as a demonstration of what extreme views looked like, but I no longer do that for the most part (but see below).
For the record, here is my comment moderation system: Commenters are allowed to comment freely and without moderation if they have left a comment or two that demonstrates that they are real people (pseudonymous or otherwise) and also not shills for some science denialist industry. However, all comments go through a moderation filter like that discussed by Bora. So, if someone happens to use the word “warmist” or “alarmist” (broken, too-loud dog whistles of the climate science denial industry) those comments will be snagged in moderation. Also, there is a handful of very tricky denialist commenters who change around their handles and use careful wording but still have some cues that I had to put in the moderation list, words which I will not tell you because they are my little secret, but that accidentally trap a number of otherwise perfectly good comments. I free those comments as soon as I can, but just so you know: This is trolls interfering with your life and mine!
Meanwhile, I do occasionally allow a series of comments that would otherwise be disallowed, again, as a form of demonstration. For the first day or two of the Watts kerfuffle, I did this, as you can see here. After that, though, strict moderation.
I find it interesting that Bora used the phrase “My blog is my living room in my home.” I agree with that (though one might adjust the metaphor in a number of ways). Here, I just want to note that when my friend and colleague Henry Gee used a similar metaphor a couple of years ago, a lot of people got mad at him. It might be interesting to analyze reactions to Bora’s comment vs. Henry’s comment at some time in the future, to see if the two virtually identical comments are ultimately treated in the same way by the same people. I predict not. One of the problems we have with comments (and discussions in general) on the internet is that many interlocutors are more interested in making arguments than they are in finding agreement. The truth is that a single well presented argument, on a blog, can be loved or hated, supported or ripped apart, independently of the intentions or true meanings by those who simply want to make the argument. This often means that the intensity (not strength!) of arguments against a given missive are more often the product of social relations and clubbism than they are about the topic at hand or the actual arguments made.
As you know I prefer fruit salad.
The Mooney-Laden Problem
I’ll give you an example of emergence of attitude and opinion in the commentosphere related to Chris Mooney and me. Some of you will remember that a few years ago, PZ Myers and I got into an internet fight with Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet over the issue of framing. This led eventually to a live on-stage debate, organized by Seed Media Group, with the four of us, held at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis. The on-line fight was a bit intense, but when it came to the live debate, the four of us acted professionally, presented our respective sides, and in fact, clearly recognized value in the other side’s argument. After the “Steel Cage Death Match Smackdown at the Bell” (which is how the thing was advertised, tongue firmly planted in cheek) a number of people on the PZ/Greg side of the debate got mad at us. We did not actually smack anyone down. There were no flame throwers. There was not even any yelling and screaming.
This disagreement framed (ahem) the relationship among the debaters then, and continues to do so today, in the minds of many. I recently retweeted something tweeted by Chris, and received a few snarky comments by fans (of mine) indicating that there was confusion: why would I retweet something by Chris Mooney? Did I forget that he was on the other side, one of “them” and not part of the club?
The truth is that Chris and I are good colleagues. We are very similar in our politics, and very similar in our motivations for doing what we do with respect to science, science denialism, science education, and science policy. I’ve promoted his books and events. Chris and I are actually in regular contact about these things and we work together. Yes, I probably disagree with the particular way Mooney and Kirshenbaum (who is also a friend and colleague, with whom I’m in regular touch) handled PZ Myers’ Pharyngula blogging in their book, but PZ is a big boy (as in “10,000 pound gorilla on the Internet” big) and can handle a non-complimentary book chapter!
The reason I mention this is to underscore one of the key points Bora is addressing, as well as my first point above: The commantariate (and related bogospheric manifestations) is an entity with its own raison d’être, its own characteristics, its own life, and is not necessarily a valid form of crowd-sourcing credibility.
My About Page
As a partial response to trolling, I wrote a funny (well, I think it is funny) About page for my blog. Go read it now because I’m thinking of totally replacing it soon. The first trope is about how I went to Harvard and you did not. This is a tongue in cheek response to hassling I received for having gone to Harvard by a couple of well-known bloggers who didn’t. I also talk about “Your Stupid State.” This is where I deride you for being from Texas or Louisiana or any of the US states famous for almost constantly being in the news for considering anti-science (or other “idiotic”) legislation. In that section I note that Minnesota is not pure (at the time I first wrote that we had an awful governor and a pretty bad legislature) and invited people to harass me for the same reason. I also talk about comment policy and make pretty much the same points Bora makes in his post.
Here’s what is interesting about my About page: When the aforementioned tiff between Watts and me happened, I got a certain number of page views form his followers (see below) and a good third of them were on my About page, as opposed to a regular blog post. Commenters took bits and pieces of my tongue-in-cheek About page and used them to (attempt to) insult me. It is unfortunate that most of those comments never made it on the blog (they were moderated away). The comments indicated that people were taking my satire seriously. I’m sure the people making those comments were not, however, under the false impression that I was being serious. That is impossible. They were, however, taking phrases from that page and holding them up as “bad things” and using that to (attempt to) bludgeon me verbally.
This is one of the things comment trolls do. They lie. They take things out of context, cherry pick, and even make stuff up, in order to put a person, a blog post, a blog page, or an argument in a bad light. The result is not a crucible of credibility. It isn’t even good entertainment!
Anton Zuiker’s Classroom
Bora extended his comment about a blog being a living room by referencing a comment made by Anton Zuiker, that a blog might be a classroom in which the blogger is a teacher. That is why I started blogging. I wanted that. But I did get side tracked and the bulk of my blogging has not been done with that in mind. My blog is more like the conversation you have with those particular students with whom you connect, in the Anarchist Coffee Shop down the street from the classroom. Except there is a table of Trolls just a little way across the room and they throw snark in your direction every few minutes, which is sometimes entertaining and sometimes distracting. More and more, I want my blog to be what Anton talks about. If you are a regular reader you’ll notice that this has been the case over the last few weeks. You’ll see more of that in the future.
The problem, then, is that commenting has to be different than a free for all. When I’m standing in front of a classroom, I always want more from the students, more commentary, more questions, more suggestions, but there are all sorts of reasons that this comes as a trickle and not a torrent. The same is true on blogs, except that the trickle of thoughtful engagement is easily swamped out by the torrent of drek. There are a number of readers of my blog who make the occasional comment that I really love, and of which I want more, but who also indicate (privately) that they are not comfortable primarily because of the openness of the venue, and secondarily because of the trolls. (Trolls note: You are secondary, not primary.)
Controversy and Page Views
It has been said, again and again, that we bloggers engender controversy in order to get more page views. It might be true that this happens to some extent, but in my experience, generating controversy does not generate a lot of page views. I’ll give you an example insofar as I can without revealing proprietary details.
When the kerfuffle with Watts emerged several days ago, I was once again accused of “attacking” Anthony Watts for the purpose of generating page views. I didn’t, and had this been my motivation it would have been a failure. Let us be clear: This accusation is a trollish method to distract from the debate at hand and to diminish the credibility of the blogger or a particular blog post by assigning a nefarious motivation. But it just isn’t true because it can’t be true. It doesn’t work.
Normally, my blog’s page view count is pretty steady, and fluctuates about 10% up and down with peaks covering a few days and valleys covering a few days. The days during with the Laden-Watts kerfuffle was happening were indeed a “peak” but only an average one, it looks just like a normal fluctuation. But was that uptick in page views related to Watts’ readers or others coming to my blog because he sent them there? No.
About 70% of the uptick was a combination of page views of the Watts related pages and other pages totally unrelated to Watts, and most of these came from having been picked up by Stumble Upon. That is just the Internet being the Internet, not the result of any kerfuffling. Of the remaining uptick, about half were a combination of Google hits from the larger Internet and referrals from Anthony’s blog to the relevant posts or to my About page. The other half were from twitter, and I think that was mainly from my colleagues in the climate science world retweeting references to the post. So, the influx of viewers from the world of Watts accounted for about a percent or two of that week’s upward swing, and that upward swing was modest, a bit below average.
This is typical; my experience has not been to have any significant uptick in page views owing to controversy. This could be just the way it works on my blog; other bloggers may have different experiences. Overall, I think I have a regular and steady readership that accounts for most of my day to day traffic. When I do have a large uptick, it is almost always for some utterly dumb reason having nothing to do with content or debate.
Scientific American, Bora, and Me
Bora talks a bit about Scientific American as a journal as well as an on-line venue and blog network, and I just wanted to make a personal comments on that, which are mainly off topic but this is a good place to put them.
Scientific American has been a part of my life since my earliest memories. Among the first scientific things I ever spent any time with, before I could read, were my older brother’s copies of Scientific American from the 1950s and early 1960s. I still have them. This and a couple of old textbooks were the impetus for me eventually pursing science as a career. The other option on my mind when I was very young was to become a priest. But the reading associated with that profession was much less interesting. For years I subscribed to the magazine, and as I learned more about my own fields of study, I found the articles about other fields to be especially important to me because they allowed me to keep informed at a basic level about those other pursuits. I haven’t subscribed regularly in a few years partly because I find more than I need on the Internet, but every now and then I give myself a one year subscription and that becomes my bedtime reading for a while.
It is fitting that Bora is the blog editor for that esteemed publication’s Internet Presence because of his virtually iconic role in the science-related blogosphere, in large part because of his contributions to the philosophical evolution of science blogging, represented as his occasional manifesto. For a long time, there was a pattern in Human Evolution studies where about every ten years a big name in the field would review the hominids in Scientific American. Washburn, Pilbeam, Leakey, Isaac all did that (I’m sure you remember each and every one of those issues). Well, Bora seems to have a similar role with respect to Blogospheric Thinking (vis-a-vis, mainly, science) but naturally at a faster pace, every ten months or so rather than every ten years. Just sayin’
Are they trolls or are they bullies?
Someday I’ll write my own manifesto on bullies. Bullies make their own rules and force them on others. Bullies are like OOP entities that come with their own methods and properties that are imposed on those with whom they engage. Go back and review Bora’s post, which I’m sure you’ve read by now, and note the specific details he asserts about how to deal with comments. Every single one of the things Bora suggests as a possible method of dealing with trolls is a thing that trolls have identified as something that is against the rules. Their rules. Their rules that they attempt to impose on others. That is what may make them bullies, and that is why I am starting to think that we should drop the term “troll” and change it to “bully.” Just a thought.