Trolling Along: Civility, Cultcha and Comments

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!


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I don't say anything to someone on a website that I would not say to that person face to face, and I think most trolls (or let's say, purveyors of "repetitive and hostile criticism") would not have the guts to do the same. If Scienceblogs is any different than the rest of the internet, it's because the juvenile sneering and snarling will be coming from people who pretend or imagine that they are smarter than you are, whereas on most sites the hateful types are openly proud to be ignoramuses. In most "discussions," no participant is willing to consider changing his own opinions, so nobody is really listening to dissenting opinions, and you essentially do have an echo chamber no matter how many different viewpoints are being shrieked past each other. Yes, I do comment on blogs sometimes but I suspect it is so pointless I would use the time better playing Minesweeper.

OK, instead of your living room you've set up a table under a tree on your front lawn. If people want to contribute some water and nitrogen to the tree, you're OK with that -- and others are free to comment on their manners.

It's a busy street and there's little "peace" to be "disturbed" but assault is something else.

Works for me -- I always liked "set a spell" front porches.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 09 Feb 2010 #permalink

Your comment policy is right on the a new blogger I will use it as a guidline...You were the first blog I ever read and you are still the best...Marcy

I struggled for years with a draft horse related forum. What I settled on was a "talk about the horse, not the owner" policy. For the most part, that worked. That and posting the IP address and date-time stamp for every post. 1999, what can I say? Trolls were concerned that now *anyone* could track them down at any time.

Just like with a business - bitter words can cost a *lot* of guests.

I really like your policy. I would give you 9 out of 10 for openness. With the additional caveat that a rating of 10 has too many disadvantages, viz Kunstler's blog where the trolls and ad hominem purveyors tend to ruin it for everyone else. Too much noise, too much of a melee to be useful.

You are just so durn sensible, Sharon. Ran Prieur recently claimed that you are secretly seven people. I think he's right! :D

Your blogs have always been unusually well mannered, so something you do works. :-)

I'm worried about automatic reactions about "censorship", though. Complete lack of moderation usually winds up with blogs infested with trolls and idiots- why would anyone want to have their writing put to that use? ew. A waste, all around.

You rarely comment over on TAE, so I'm not sure how much you keep up- but in the past year they were attacked, I'm quite convinced, by increasingly sophisticated payed professional disruptors. Many conversations were totally hijacked, much effort completely wasted - trying to "help someone understand". It was all fake- they weren't trying to understand. It's an area I'm a little familiar with, and I'm proud to say I was instrumental in unmasking several of them.

Eventually Stoneleigh and Ilargi had to go to regular moderation; or lose the community. Much anguish.

But- the result is- intelligent conversation on a plane rarely experienced elsewhere. It's wonderful.

I don't think you're under attack, but your new venue has made a flock of what I call sophomores show up. I'll not insult you by explaining the meaning of the word. :-)

This is really a separate problem, and more thorny. What do you do, when a very bright, moderately educated 14 year old insists absolutely on being included as an equal in a discussion among very bright, very educated 40-60 year olds? The kid is well intentioned; highly interested- but does NOT understand how callow they are, how tediously common are their startling insights, nor, really, what their elders are talking about.

What to do? Do you just abandon the adult conversation?

My own preference is not to do so. I've refused to post several comments on my blogs that were simply far below the general education level, or maturity level, of the site. It's kinda tough on the kids- but you know- that's how they learn. Sorry, your comment was not good enough.

And- civil, bright, educated, adult conversation- is priceless.

To me, this is NOT "censorship". Censorship is when you only allow one point of view- and I can hardly imagine anything more boring or useless. But demanding civility and competence- does not amount to the same thing.

In fact, I do blame a great deal of the loud and growing incivility in our world on the knee-jerk demand for "free speech" - with no real understanding of what that means.

George Washington was known for soul-shriveling glares he would give to anyone guilty of rudeness in his presence. And those guys disagreed constantly. It's said no one ever risked a second glare.

I'm with George!

Greenpa, I may be being naive, but I actually think that some of the problems at TAE had to do with civility in the general culture. Ilargi is my friend, but I don't think we have the same view of civility ;-). That is, I think to some degree, he has helped generate a kind of culture at TAE that sometimes have led to degeneration. That doesn't mean that there weren't paid shills - I don't disagree with you, and I do hold open the option of greater degrees of moderation.

But I also think of TAE as an example of a case where I've seen legitimate dissent shut down as well. I rarely post there, but I regularly read comments. I also note the difference between the way even the difficult folk respond to Stoneleigh vs. Ilargi - I think sometimes you get back worse than you deserve, of course, but sometimes you get what you put in.

I do think that shutting down conversation in the absence of a really compelling reason is censorship, simply because I regard this as a public space.



I don't mind idiots as long as they are not openly malevolent - unfortunately, many are. I refuse to comment on a particular peak-oil board because of a couple of doomers who appear to be actively itching for civilization to collapse so they'll have an excuse to shoot the "starving hordes" of educated urban folks (i.e., me). I'd be tougher prey than they imagine - but why should I waste my time trying to explain that or anything else to someone who has made his contempt, if not hatred, for me and mine abundantly clear?

I've half considered starting a blog, but part of why I haven't has to do with how to approach comments. (The other part has to do with whether I have anything useful and/or interesting enough to say to use up the bandwidth - but for now I'm only considering commenting.) I've only had a computer with a modern enough browser to read blogs for about a year, and I only read a handful of blogs, and this was the first time I've seen anything on approaches to commenting. I appreciate your writing about this.

Sharon, I think you're operating with a broader definition of "troll" than I was led to believe it means. So maybe there's more than one definition of "troll" floating around the cyber-world.

From what I've learned during my years on the 'net, a troll is someone who posts merely to be disruptive. Trolls normally don't aren't interested in back and forth dialogue (i.e., they usually don't respond to someone's replies to them, and if they do, they very quickly descend into ad hominem nastiness mode). The postings you are talking about, on the other hand, seem to be coming from people who may strongly disagree but who also seem interested in discussing and learning. I'm not sure that I would call such people trolls. At the same time, It's probably not always easy to tell the difference between someone who's asking questions through their objections and disagreements and someone who's merely being disruptive.

There's moderation and there's censorship.

One approach is to have the Thanksgiving rule: the adult table is for those who can carry on a pleasant conversation, and there's a kids' table for everyone else.

In blogging terms, you can have a comment area which is moderated. Blocked comments aren't censored, because they still get published -- just over in the "unfiltered" side. Flame all you want over there (or at least as much as you want without the previously mentioned threats etc.) vs., basically.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 09 Feb 2010 #permalink

Sharon- yes, I agree about Ilargi's temperament; and he does sometimes rudely shut down people who are sincere, if not in his league. To a large extent he's just young, and sick of having to "suffer fools". If you read his stuff, he frequently says "I just absolutely totally do not understand how people can be this stupid..." and then gives a fine example of people being stupid; and he really doesn't understand them.

I've been there- quite honestly, I DIDN'T understand why people didn't understand; according to my upbringing I was not allowed to think that I might be smarter than others. It took me decades to learn otherwise, and still causes me trouble.

Stoneleigh, very like yourself, is an outstanding communicator, and an outrageously even keeled person. I met her for dinner recently- and I look forward to eventually hearing how the two of you get along, when you meet some day. She isn't without a temper, at all- she's chewed Ilargi out royally a couple times (you have to read between the lines); she may be the only one he takes it from. Fun to watch; they're an amazing team.

I think part of my attitude is pure age- at 61, I am indeed impatient with people who eat up my time with nursery school questions. Lots and lots of others get that way as they get older. No, I'm not intending to die for a good long time, but I really don't have time to waste educating some ninny who should have looked the information up before talking with me.

You said a while back you were looking forward to becoming a curmudgeon, did you not? Pretty sure it was you. Well- why not enjoy the benefits of curmudgeonhood now?


Sounds like a sensible policy. We put ourselves into the public domain a bit, so with that comes some discomfort. My own policy, which has occasioned the "pissing on the rug" (I said "floor") metaphor, has led me to block exactly one commenter in five years and he is I think medically unbalanced. But if anyone went for my kids I'd cut them off at the knees, and then block their ability to comment, as well.

It's your blog; you do what you like.

Great policy. One thing that sometimes upsets me is Proustian commenters. I mean, when someone's comments reach 10x the word count of the original post, maybe it's time for that person to get their own blog. Heh!

I really think the reason you get relatively few trolls is for the simple reason that it is obvious that you care about humanity in general, you have given a lot of thought to your posts, and, for better or worse, you are sincere in your beliefs. It's hard to 'trollize' (whatever you want to call it) someone who is doing their level best to be honestly helpful.

Someday I hope to approach your level of posting ability.

Gene, if someone can write comments ten times longer than my already lengthy posts, I'm impressed!