Don't piss on my carpet: the neverending civility debate

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.

See also Isis' description (she was a speaker and had to intervene in the conflict), and Pascale's response as a nonattendee looking at the larger context of this debate.

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?

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For what it is worth, I think the blogger sets the tone of the blog in the way s/he writes (in English it is called prosody, I believe). If the blogger comes across as flippant and casual in their blog, they will attract the same in return. If they allow gutter mouth language and swearing in their comments not only does it turn people away from that blog, it sets the tone of the whole commenting process.

I notice it with all the blogs at SB, some bloggers are very good at setting the right tone for discussion while others don't. Perhaps it is a skill some are clever at, or gain with maturity in their writing.

By your rationale, Yolande, commenters are absolved of any responsibility for what they say. I think that's unreasonable.

You say "if [the bloggers] allow gutter mouth language and swearing in their comments" it turns people away - yet the bloggers are also blamed if they heavily censor their comments to eliminate that kind of thing. And according to you, a blogger will only get obscene comments if they "ask for it" by having a tone you judge as inviting that sort of thing. A blogger in your world can't win.

I think commenters have responsibility for not only which blogs they choose to frequent, but what they say there - no matter what the tone of the blog is. That's what being an adult is.

some bloggers are very good at setting the right tone for discussion while others don't.

and the "right" tone is...what? that which generates a lot of discussion is one way to parse your comment. somehow I think you were suggesting that your personal preference is the "right tone" however...

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

Sorry, Jessica - you are so wrong you're obviously not only in league with Satan, but you clearly don't even know how to eat with a dessert spoon.

As bloggers we set the tone for our commenters - perhaps a lot of us don't realize what we're doing, but (for example) John Wilkin's commenters are almost always intelligent and thoughtful (myself excepted). That's because he writes in a way that encourages us to think. In contrast, PZed tends to go for easy targets, and his commenters are also more aggressive. Now that's fine - it's a choice they've both made, consciously or unconsciously.

It's become evident to me that you can't win - if you're polite, you're perpetuating the ruling classes' dictatorship, if you're not polite you're a potty mouth who's incapable of being civil. If the blogger is at all capable of introspection, then they have some responsibility in the community they create.


Your comment in reply to mine illustrates my point precisely regarding tone. The tone of your comment to me (and not your blog, btw) is non-conciliatory, defensive, aggressive, patronising and in my view (non US) stymies effective written dialogue and communication.

Part of the problem is that there are no real consequences. In person, there is the reaction of the other person. A blog just has words, and no one really knows who is commenting unless you know them personally. Sure, you can track down some people, but there is no social accountability. The best you can come up with is to ban the person, or put them in a dungeon. But they are not really ostracized by anyone since the online community is open to everyone. New people come on to a blog all the time, and the actions of one individual may not be known to them, and they interact as if nothing happened. In the "real" world, the physical one, people don't live in such an open society, so what they do and say has consequences for them in the memory of it's members.

I do agree that there is a difference between constructive criticism and pure insults. Civility does not have to mean the arrival of the "tone troll" either.

Thanks for the new words, though - I had not known of some of those.

I was there. It seemed like the idea that blog commenters should be civil was confounded with the notion of a blogger's own freedom of speech.

I'm sorry you feel that way, Yolande. I disagreed with your position, but was in no way uncivil or insulting. I'm at a bit of a loss how I'm supposed to express disagreement with you at all, if you think that reply was "non-conciliatory, defensive, aggressive, patronising."

Would you have preferred me to insult your intelligence, like Bob D'Oh did in his response to me? I think not. Yet as a blogger I put up with that all the time. . . and then simply disagreeing with you gets me accused of a hostile agenda. Hmmmm. Whatever.

Jason R, I'd be interested to hear more of your perspective on the free speech argument, since you were present for the festivities.

I'm puzzling over Bob's last paragraph; is it bloggers or commenters who "can't win?" Either his point (or my brain) is murky.

It's at least as much the blogger's interaction (or lack thereof) with the commenters that sets the tone for comments as the blog itself. There are some blogs I read because of the author's interactions with commenters, some (like PZ) in spite of them. Some bloggers have comments but never interact. And still others (like yours) I'd read whether there were commenters or not because the posts interest me as much as the conversation (though I find comments a boon nonetheless). And yet I think it's silly to think the blogger has complete control over the commenters, much less responsibility for the comments.

The Internet, as they say, is different. It's not like any social gathering we've experienced before. A commenter with a bad experience can silently leave, while another commenter who sets out to create a bad experience can foul the air as much as they want and then never come back. Just before they leave they might say something like "It's the Internet -- grow a thicker skin!" (though it seems that, as a commenter who can leave at any time, they have no need for a skin at all). We're still on the frontier here, socially. Freewheeling conversation can't happen without the occasional loud bang, meaning that unguarded talk as with friends is probably not possible. (That makes me sad but, as the boorish commenter so inelegantly points out, that's the Internet we know.)

Certain bloggers here have set up a special blog titled "Get Your Own M-F'ing Blog" that they toss off a link to when a commenter attempts to become boss. The tone is terrible but I have to agree with the sentiment -- there may be ten million blogs but in a way it's still early days. Each blog is a bit of an experiment, with the blogger as the experimenter. Perhaps some folks who want their carpet un-peed-on will install a bathroom. Some will post a "no peeing" sign on the door. Others will spread sawdust on the floor and sweep up the occasional mess. Still others will simply bar the door, or hire a bouncer to throw potential pee-ers out. But I think one thing is clear -- in most cases neither strict order nor total chaos will rule, and neither the blogger nor the commenter will be completely in charge so long as comments exist.

You're one of my favorite bloggers, though I don't comment here as much as I do elsewhere. I'd like to hope your numbers indicate that I'm far from alone in (semi-) lurking here. Comments are a bonus, not the reason I come here. Rather, it's the culture (bacterial, artistic, and otherwise).

Would you have preferred me to insult your intelligence, like Bob D'Oh did in his response to me?

Eh? My first paragraph was meant to be funny - I certainly wasn't trying to insult your (or anyone else's) intelligence.

Sorry, Bob O'H. Your comment was funny precisely because it sounds exactly like the sorts of *real* comments people make. "You're in league with Satan," "You're stupid," etc. So I thought it was a good example to cite. Besides, the main reason I didn't take it personally is that I know who you are! :)

Oh noes! My secret identity has been discovered!

I'm puzzling over Bob's last paragraph; is it bloggers or commenters who "can't win?" Either his point (or my brain) is murky.

I guess both really. I'm part of the science blogging community, both as a blogger and commenter. I'd like to be a member of the community in good standing, but I'm going to annoy someone whatever I do. I guess I could retreat to the safety of the small number of blogs where people are only ever civil, but that would mean missing out on some good blogging.

Some of us remember having only three channels on TV.

Hey, I remember there only being one channel, in black and white. I also remember my parents' first colour television. It was passed on to me, I was using it until about a year ago. For that matter, until relatively recently, NZ only had three channels.

I'm been tempted to write about on this on my own blog, as I followed (but did not attend) the meeting, but more because a recent post of mine got targeted by a local anti-global-warming follower. (A former journalist, which made it harder as he was better than most at winding his readers up before then sending them my way.)

I did write in a recent post, "a rule of thumb I have is not to write something that you wouldnât want to your family, close friends, workmates, employers, etc., to read. The people that matter to you, basically." I think that this applies to those that comment on others' blogs. Many seem to assume that anonymity lets them say things that they wouldn't to someone's face or in the company of people they wouldn't like hearing them speak that way.

Like Jess, I don't mind constructive criticism. I also prefer comments to be on the issue, rather than about "me". I particularly dislike those who misrepresent others (as the former journalist did to encourage people to hit out at me).

I think a practical reality is that people want to create a "culture" for their space that suits them. (So, for example, DrugMonkey's quest for a one "right" tone is unlikely to help, as each person will have a culture that they want to nurture and it'll differ to that of others. It happens in the real world too. Think of any small social group and their accepted norms.)

It isn't just the blogger who sets the tone for good/bad discussion. Ed Yong consistently writes interesting, well written and non-inflammatory posts, yet a recent post on a study looking at how much woman would talk depending on whether they thought a man was looking at them or not got completely trashed by a group of guys being stupid about it. Ed is the last person in the world to write a post that deserves that kind of feedback, sometimes you just pick up a bad commentator, no matter how good the post was.

I am of the opinion that blogging, art, politeness, and aesthetics are intertwined and co-mingled to the point where a standard cannot be made; one man's meat is another man's poison sort of thing. (And there's no satisfying some people too.)
Don't like it - don't visit it. The frau has for years, attempted to get me to appreciate the caterwauling that is opera. Just as soon as she recognizes the genius that is Parliament Funkadelic, I head down to the Met; but until then... Flash light!

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

Grant I think you seriously mistook my point as I made it. Fortunately you arrived there all by your own self anyway. It *is* an obvious one, isn't it?

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink