Civility, shmivility: results of the comment survey

Thanks to everyone who participated in the unscientific survey on commenting. The results are back, and I'd like to share them with you.

As many of you have noticed, we've been talking about comments a lot here lately, both at BioE and on Sb in general. There's also a big session on online civility coming up at SciOnline '10. So the main purpose behind the survey was to get you involved in that discussion.

I've brought the issues of uncivil and uninformed comments up in several posts, sometimes rather provocatively, but we already know that the majority of blog readers don't comment often, and a significant percentage don't comment at all. I wanted to know how those non-commenters feel about comments, too, and I hoped a simple, anonymous survey would be a low-threshold way to find out.

Fortunately, based on your self-reported comment history, the survey was indeed successful at getting input from non-commenters. Over 80% of survey respondents said they commented "never" or "rarely." (Interestingly, not a single person self-reported as commenting "often" or "always.")

i-8092f5a29973bee2fb1d3115ec0a8c96-comment1.png

While most of you read comments "sometimes," the balance was shifted toward not reading comments: more people reported reading "never" or "rarely" than reading "often" or "always." So it seems that most of you are not strongly engaged with the comments. This is about what I expected, based on the huge disparity between the traffic on the blog and the number of comments I get.

i-598eed294b4d622e17547eb6b376169f-comment2.png

Even though there was general disengagement on leaving comments, and only moderate engagement with reading comments, there was substantial support for keeping commenting capacity - almost 67% of respondents slightly preferred having comments, as opposed to one person who slightly preferred no comments. Many of the "other" answers were basically "I strongly prefer comments, but wouldn't stop reading the blog if it didn't have them" (only 4 respondents claimed they would). About a quarter of you don't care - I imagine the "real" number is probably slightly higher, since people who do care are more likely to take the time to respond to a comment survey! But only three respondents either strongly or slightly preferred no comments. There's a clear consensus (dare I say it?) in favor of comments.

I wasn't really surprised by this, because comments are perceived as a fundamental characteristic of blogs. Those of you who said "without comments, it's not a blog" weren't telling me anything I haven't heard (or said) before; at my last job, I was involved in setting up a blog, and the debate over whether to allow comments went on for months. In the end, comments were allowed, mainly because of the perception that "without comments, it's not a blog."

On the other hand, it's worth noting that some high-profile blogs (like Andrew Sullivan's) do not allow comments. Instead, readers provide feedback by email; some of their submissions are shared in new posts, and if he agrees or disagrees with them, he responds. Andrew Sullivan's blog thus works more like a traditional newspaper editorial page: there is engagement, but it is mainly between the blogger and his audience - not back-and-forth within the audience. Purists among you may not consider Sullivan's blog a true blog, but realistically, if he did allow comments, how many of them would be worth reading? His most incendiary topics (politics, gay rights, marijuana legalization) would certainly generate strings of angry, obscenity-filled rants. So I don't miss them.

Other sites allow comments, but exercise great discretion over them. Wonkette, for example, makes you create a user ID, and then warns you "Please keep your comments relevant to the post and try not to be terribly offensive. You may be banned at any time, for any offense -- but if you're smart and funny, you'll be fine." BoingBoing - which for years did not allow comments - now allows moderated comments, but warns,

Anonymous comments are not automatically published. Please don't make racist, sexist or homophobic remarks or use associated offensive terms. Please don't talk politics in unrelated threads. Please don't cuss at or harass other commenters. Please don't post signatures, spam, astroturf or copypasta. Link to your website only on your profile page. Wheedling accomplishes nothing. Stay on topic.

The no-nos bloggers have chosen to specify in their comment policies provide an indicator of what they consider their biggest comment problems - usually hate speech, obscenities, and irrelevant rants. I'm a commenter/reader of many blogs, and many of you are bloggers as well as readers. So, many of us have been on both sides of the blogger/commenter dialogue. And hate speech, obscenities, and irrelevant rants are the things that anger me, both as a blogger and a reader.

Nevertheless, what this survey tells me is that although many of you do not use comment functionality, you still want access to it - either as a matter of principle ("without comments it's not a blog"), or for rare occasions when you find it useful. Most of you do not consider the presence of offensive, hateful, or uncivil comments a big enough downside to outweigh that:

i-7b54e1df032b11d565762956e2f6ea85-Picture 3.png

What about the optional responses to open-ended question #6? Perhaps predictably, the "comments" in my survey were much like "real" blog comments: emotional. Several attacked me for various agendas that were read into the survey, or called me "whiny" for my perceived hostility to your opinions. (I leave it to better minds than mine to resolve why, if I am so hostile to your opinions, I made a survey asking you what you think about comments, and put an optional open-ended comment field inside that survey.)

A few people, perhaps reading this as a referendum on future BioE policy, felt it was time to make a principled stand against comment moderation. So I'd like to clarify why comment moderation wasn't a variable in the survey. One reason was space - I wanted to make this survey as simple, quick and painless as possible, and I knew the open comment field would give those who felt strongly about moderation an opportunity to express themselves. But the main reason I left it out is that there is no universal form of comment moderation. Asking for general attitudes about moderation would be useless, since the rules, method and stringency of moderation vary from blog to blog, even here at Sb.

But do I wish I'd asked about your perceptions of moderation here on BioE, because it's clear to me from both this survey and comments that many people have a totally inaccurate idea of what moderation process takes place here. In a nutshell, I've approved about 3400 comments here at Sb/BioE, not counting my own replies. Off the top of my head, I can think of less than a dozen comments I've deleted during moderation for reasons other than spam or duplication. (I've deleted a handful more where the commenter has invited me to do so because they changed their mind.) In some cases, I emailed the commenter to tell them they had to edit their comment, or posted something to the effect in the thread, and they were able to submit an acceptable version. While I realize that comments occasionally disappear into the ether of Sb, I have no control over that - I check the spam filter regularly and rescue the mistakenly labeled comments, but I've had comments from very good friends disappear, just the same as comments from strangers. I have no idea how to prevent it.

I don't edit comments during moderation. (The only exception is when people post comments with broken links and I fix them.) If you say something that upsets me, it has to be bad enough that I delete the whole thing. What upsets me that much? Generally, scary, stomach-turning stuff. Comments that not only attack me or other people verbally, but threaten or suggest actual bodily harm. Comments that give out personal information about third parties (for what reasons I won't venture a guess). Comments saying that women deserve to be raped. That kind of thing. That's why I have a good sense of how many comments I've deleted in moderation - they stick with me. I can hit delete, but I can't forget the sinking feeling of reading them, and thinking "who is this person, and why are they so full of hate? How many people out there are like this?"

Unfortunately, those rare comments got bad enough that I felt obligated to turn on comment moderation last year. It's a pain for all of us. I don't want to moderate comments. I don't have time for it, and I don't like the delay. But neither do I want all of you to have that sinking, sick feeling I get when I read comments like that. I created the blog, I try to provide a certain kind of environment for my readers, and I don't want hateful speech to be part of it. So I sympathize with high-profile Twitterati, British comedian, anti-Grammar Nazi, and amateur ecological adventurer Stephen ("You're being shagged by a rare parrot") Fry, who said last fall,

"I don't know about you but whenever I read a blog I do not let my eye drop below half the screen in case I accidentally hit the bit where the comments reside. Of all the stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird, entomological creatures that inhabit the floor of the internet those comments on blogs are the most unbearable, almost beyond imagining," he added, getting into his stride and echoing comments made by fellow comedian David Mitchell earlier this year about the standard of online commentary.

"Their resentment, their desire to be heard at the most vituperative level, at the most unpleasant and malevolent, genuinely ill-willed malevolent, level is terrifying and I am very often simply not able to cope with that," Fry said. "Twitter is usually not like that... [but] I found that the @ mentions were just getting... I could see these comments that would just make me upset." (source)

To those of you who asked me, no, no one made a particularly dreadful comment on this blog recently. They've come in dribs and drabs over the years; most likely the people who made them are no longer reading (if they ever were regular readers). But I've been thinking about the tone of online discussion for several years, both at work and on my own blogging time. This fall, I took a seminar in anonymity, hate speech and Internet law with some former online journalists and techies, to get some perspective on what other people think about this. And of course I've written several posts recently inviting your feedback. The approach of SciOnline '10 was a good reason to get these questions out there, and get at least a subjective impression of how you all feel about comments.

My own subjective feeling is that the tone of online discussion is getting increasingly intolerant, hateful, and trollish. The blogosphere is bad enough; don't even get me started on the comments that appear at news outlets. Here's a gem I ran across just today, while looking for a link to charities working in Haiti. It was on a Newsweek.com article observing sadly that just prior to this week's tragic earthquake, which probably killed tens of thousands of people, Haiti had been making significant progress against poverty and crippling debt.

Life is not as sacred as you may think Blumj. And all cultures are not equal. Stop acting like a liberally college educated robot. I have a liberal ed too and I know that all cultures are not created equal. If, and I do mean "If" the Haitians as a whole value selfishness and ignorance then they get what they deserve. Remember Sodom (biblical), or Myans, or Huns. They were corrupt cultures and they were destroyed. Just because someone is worried about corruption spreading through immigration doesn't mean they don't have compassion. It means that they don't have compassion for corrupt cultures. Do you feel bad for the Myans (human sacrifice), Sodom (rape, sexual immorality), or Huns (rape, pillage, destroy)?

Afterward, the comment thread degenerates predictably (if it can really be said to "degenerate" after such a statement).

This kind of vitriol may reflect partisanship in society, media fragmentation, of economic tensions, of changing internet user demographics; I don't pretend to know. I also don't pretend to know if it's really getting more prevalent, or if it's just become more visible. But as someone with a keen interest in education and public policy, it troubles me, because the ability to have calm, reasoned, objective discourse with people who disagree with you is important. And it troubles me further because the whole point of blogging, to me, is to make interdisciplinary, bipartisan connections - which means I want people from very different disciplines to feel comfortable here. I want people to feel their perspective is valid, regardless of whether someone is a technocrat or a Luddite, an atheist or a person with a deep spiritual connection to nature. I don't think that an echo chamber where everyone agrees with one another is useful - it may feel awfully cozy, but it's intellectually stagnant.

And yes: this kind of hostility also bothers me on a personal level. I write a blog and read blogs because I want to share cool things, not because I enjoy being insulted or feeling disgusted with humanity. But one thing that's clear from the survey is that almost all of you have stronger stomachs, and higher tolerance for hateful comments, than I do. That's good to know, since part of my role at BioE is as a digital chaperone, trying to protect you from going "ooh! pretty sciart!" and stumbling willy-nilly into a hateful comment thread. Maybe you don't need or want such protection, and I'm worrying about something that isn't a problem for you in the first place.

In the end, my concern isn't about BioE specifically. I think we have a great community and I've met some wonderful, generous, inspiring people through blogging here. To the person who observed in the survey, "Most of the comments I read on BioE are thoughtful and can add to the discussion, unlike those I've seen on other blogs. Is this because the comments are screened before they are posted or because the commenters are more thoughtful?" the answer, as you know by now, is simple: your fellow commenters are (unusually?) thoughtful. I let virtually everything through, so I can't take any credit.

My biggest concern is about the blogosphere in general - where it's going, and how that impacts public discourse and education. It'll be interesting to see what happens in another three years. And it'll be interesting to see what happens this weekend at the SciOnline discussion.

Thanks for participating in the survey, and as always. . . feel free to comment.

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I have to say that I rarely if ever read the comments on articles in newspaper sites or mass media sites. *Those* comment threads do tend to be as you describe, just plain ew-icky. On the other hand, blogs like ScienceBlogs tend to have a more self-selected audience, and the commentary threads tend to be more interesting and (in general) civil or at least *interestingly* insulting. Less misspelled, ungrammatical vituperation than elsewhere.

If more people realised that the truth value of a statement doesnt change with the tone it is presented in, we wouldn't have this discussion so often.
I agree though, SB does get more of a self-selected audience, and even at busy places like pharyngula there is mostly civil and educated discourse.

By Rorschach (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'd be interested to see some actual numbers, i.e. regarding traffic on your site and how many responses you got...

I collected 100 responses (one full SurveyMonkey round) in about 36 hours, which seemed sufficient. Since this survey does not pretend to be scientific, it doesn't really matter what the exact numbers are.

I don't think it's polite to boast about one's blog traffic.

For the most part, people are still sorting out how they wish to present themselves and what they want out of the experience. To me, there seems a slow, but detectable trend towards more reasoned discussion and effective peer techniques that discourage bellicosity. I'm sure there are numerous theses being written about this still embyonic and evolving sociolical event (i.e. blogging in general).

Skim the comments. pick out the well informed opinions that add another dimension in a way that is unique to this media. Ignore the infantile. the comment section, is still coalescing into itself. I sense we are still learning how we will use and abuse these Commons.

Of course we need to set limits, But let us tolerate as much of the extreme as we can muster. Perhaps, like porn for the perverted, these threads provide a relief valve for the seemingly multitudinous borderline violent person. Perhaps it serves to educate (mitigate?) in ways that we don't fully understand at this juncture.

Okay, fair enough, but I guess I WAS hoping for some traffic stats; is there some way for a reader/commenter to get this info about a blog they are commenting on? Maybe not.

At any rate; it would be interesting to know, in that 36 hour period;

How many visitors

vs

How many responders to the survey

vs

How many commenters (and/or how may commenters during a typical, non-survey dominant 36-hr period).

Thanks!

:)

Oh and sorry if my use of profanity ever (on other blogs, at other times) upset you. It always surprises me to hear this, and I'm not sure where I stand on the issue - I tend to think curbing language, especially regarding its more colorful expressions, is generally wrong.

One last question - did anyone explain WHY they never comment?

"At any rate; it would be interesting to know, in that 36 hour period; How many visitors vs How many responders to the survey vs How many commenters (and/or how may commenters during a typical, non-survey dominant 36-hr period)."

I don't have that information for you, Isabel, because I don't track my stats at a granular level (insert boring details about how the SEED setup makes it a pain).

I didn't observe any bump or decline in overall traffic during the survey period, which was from late Tuesday night until this morning. Of the survey respondents, over 60% said they had been BioE readers for over a year, with only about four or five respondents saying they were not regular BioE readers. So if you trust self-reporting, the survey respondents were regular readers.

When it comes to profanity, I use it more than I should myself in real life. It doesn't bother me. In comments, though, I think it's hazardous simply because it's context-free and you can come off sounding much differently than you intend.

Personally, I'd much rather see a comment using "f**k" than one using derogatory terms like "retard" or "ho." It always shocks me that people have no compunction about calling others names online - you have to wonder if they'd be so quick to do it in a club, where they might be punched in the face, or at work, where they might be fired. My guess is no.

No one gave a reason not to comment at all; several people said they rarely feel they have anything to say. But in general people didn't talk about why they didn't comment.

PS. I think it's odd to call the period the survey was up "survey-dominant." There were several other posts up at the same time, specifically to make the period as typical as possible, but even so, I don't post to the blog every day, so the notion of a "typical period" is somewhat fictitious anyway.

Thanks. Yes i guess that was odd. For some reason I was thinking it might effect the number of comments if it was a peak time for a post that included a poll.

I wasn't looking for stats for any specific period. I really have no idea what the numbers are so I was curious. And also about the ratio of visitors to commenters. For that matter, I have no idea how many people read Science Blogs in general.

I'm surprised you didn't ask about using killfile.* Don't you use it? Does asking mark me as an antediluvian newsgroup reader? The old killfiles,** in threaded newsreaders, of which 'nn' is my favorite, worked exceptionally well as dreck filters in newsgroup reading. The weblog equivalent, though mediocre, is far better than nothing.

Killfile completely changes the feel of reading comments, enabling you to decide who's not worth reading. If we reinvented threads and thread-blocking, we'd be back to the level of the best late-1980s technology for reading comments.

There's nothing more helpful to civility than not seeing the unspeakable.

"Ignore them, dear, they have no power over you if you don't acknowledge their existence."
------------
* http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/4107
** http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/Administrivia/killfiles.html

I was quite relieved to read this post as I did get a bit worried that the comments were about to be pulled. To be honest you soon start to get a feel for which areas of the internet will have 'nice' comments and which will have the ones you just don't want to read. I would never read the comments on a news-artical unless I was looking to get mad at the world, but I do read a few of the scienceblogs ones if the topic interest me.

I'm sorry I missed the survey. I haven't read your blog since sometime before Christmas. I rarely comment and sometimes I sort of feel bad about that because I rarely get comments on my blog and often wish for more discussion. Although, considering the downside, maybe I'm lucky. I read the comments on some blogs, usually only on those blogs that have a regular group of friendly commenters and typically get fewer than 25 comments per post.

I think the incivility online is due mainly to the fact that you can get away with it. If you're rude to someone face to face you then have to deal with their reaction and the reputation you get from behaving that way but online you can be anonymous and there are no consequences. Reading comments could make one feel really depressed about the human race but we must remember that only a small percentage of blog readers ever comment. Trolls are unhappy, frustrated people and they let it all out when they get on the Internet, because they can.

Another thing is that a lot of people are just not good at expressing themselves and may come across as trollish when they really don't mean to be. Someone who is acting cocky might just intend to be humorous and doesn't understand why other people don't think he's funny. Or, someone might be trying to make a serious and thoughtful observation about some issue and come across as hateful to those who would rather ignore the points he is, perhaps ineptly, trying to make.

Reasons I have for not commenting:

If I don't feel like I have anything of value to say, I will usually refrain from a "good post" comment and just say nothing.

On some blogs (not this one :p) I'd rather light fire crackers and stick them in my eye sockets than deal with the commentariat. Most blogs like that I also just give up on reading.

On blogs with excessive moderation (again not this one) I also will just not bother. An example of this is huffington post, where I used to participate frequently until their exceedingly random comment moderation made me give up.

Thanks for raising the issue of the value and importance of engagement via comments, as well as the problem of uncivil and uninformed comments left on posts. I'm looking forward to reading more about the "Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents" session at ScienceOnline2010 this Saturday.

The tone and level of discourse varies greatly from site to site. The most ignorant and hateful comments I have seen tend to be on newspapers, especially local newspapers that don't moderate at all (even after comments are posted). Large political blogs can also be pretty bad, depending on the tone set by the bloggers and regular commenters. I have generally found comments on ScienceBlogs to be civil and thoughtful, except on a handful of sites that try make people angry (and get responses in kind).

Comments are a useful but not necessary part of the blogosphere. As you mention, a lot of older blogs don't have them. I don't choose to read a blog based on whether it has comments; instead I read blogs based on whether I find the posts interesting.

What a refreshing and interesting post!

I am an avid reader of the Dish, and I think the lack of commentary is one of the reasons why. It's offers a kind of quiet solace from the rest of the internet craziness. Although, in fairness, his staff tend to be very smart, and are very thoughtful about the incorporation of reader feedback into their content.

But all the other blogs I read have comments - and I frequently enjoy penning my own little masterpieces. I say that w/tongue in cheek, however I must say that developing a particular comment has become my new favorite germination for content on my own blog.

I tend to find comments fascinatingly integral to my own digestion of a piece. They frequently raise issues I hadn't thought of - or if I did, the process of forming a response helps me sort out what I might think.

What I can't stand, however, is impolite tone. No matter how deserved, I see no reason whatsoever aside from pure narcissism for the way in which many commenters feel entitled to speak. There is no practical purpose, as the discussion is, without fail, immediately halted while emotions flare.

Now, Science Blogs happens to be one of my favorite places to visit. But, as is their reputation I'm sure, a small cadre of preachy athiests has developed quite the cancerous mass. As a sort of support group for the angry and "oppressed", it may serve some small benefit in so far as it provides an outlet. But more often than not, it seems nothing more than a breeding ground for hostility, self-superiority, and groupthink.

As an athiest who considers religious politics interesting, I feel no need to hypocritically hold my own sense of superiority over others who I imagine as doing the same to me. And pragmatically speaking, by definition a conversation must require parties to converse. If one cannot make one's point with compassion and patience, then one should spend more time in thought. Recrimination never fails to ruin what could have otherwise been fruitful discussion.