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The blog commenting universe

BoraZ has done another of his magisterial overviews of the blogosphere, this time focusing on the state of blog commenting. It’s an interesting picture that I mostly agree with, but some of it not — partly because he’s making a general survey, and Pharyngula is a weird beast. This bit I’d like to tattoo on a few people’s foreheads (backwards, so they could read it every time they looked in a mirror.)

Free Speech is a very American concept. Most of the other 200 nations on the planet do not provide constitutional protection of free speech. And Internet is global.

And even within the USA, the concept of free speech does not mean everyone has the right to say everything everywhere. It does not mean you have the right to say your stuff on my blog. It means you have the right to start your own blog. Just because I have commenting functionality on my site, does not mean you have the right to post whatever you want on it. Every host of every site has the right to delete, edit, or modify any comment in any way, to ban users, and to implement whatever moderation norms and techniques one wants.

Commenting is a privilege, not a right. You have to earn it.

That should be easy to understand, right? Yet there are so many people who wax indignant at the thought that I might actually tell them to go away.

But there are other things that I found odd. He claims blog commenting is down overall; I haven’t seen that at all. Commenting keeps sliding upwards here.

There’s also this, again a generality that may not apply everywhere.

While early bloggers were generous, giving their rare online spaces up to public discussion, there is no need to feel so generous any more. Starting one’s own blog is easy these days, and ranting on social media is even easier. There is plenty of space for people to discuss stuff, and that does not have to happen on your site – the era of such generosity is mostly over, and most veteran bloggers have severely tightened their commenting rules over the years.

I’m a veteran blogger, I think, and my rules haven’t changed substantially over time. I’m not banning more people or editing more comments; if anything, as a proportion of comments made, I’m doing less of that.

I also don’t think that tightening up commenting rules is detrimental to the quantity of comments. One thing I’ve done that complicates his analysis is that Pharyngula has evolved to have one social thread that is more heavily moderated (and just the existence of dedicated social threads may confound some of his interpretations), and another that isn’t moderated at all, that I actually encourage annoying pests to infest. I think those contribute to overall activity that spills over into other threads, and vice versa.

A relevant datum here, though, is that the moderated thread is much, much more active than the openly unmoderated thread, usually. Sometimes the jerks are just wearing, and having a thread where they’re excluded can be enabling to more discussion.

Also, one obvious point: science posts get fewer comments than other kinds of articles. I think that’s because they require more specialized knowledge to assess; maybe Bora is seeing a decline in the science blogs he reads because the ecosystem is shaking out, and people are specializing more — many blogs are less widely discursive now, and that’s another area where Pharyngula is weird. I’m just as scattershot and flibbertigibberty as ever.

The threads that go on the longest are the ones where some obtuse nitwit comes in and stubbornly sticks to some stupid point, and everyone has to show up and take a whack. I’m often told that controversy draws in more traffic; I disagree there, I think good writing and provocative thinking contribute far more, but I know that controversy definitely stirs up more community engagement, which can lead to the formation of a solid base of readers. And yes, that’s another place where Pharyngula is deviant relative to other science blogs out there. Kids nowadays just seem reluctant to pick a fight.

Comments

  1. says

    And yes, that’s another place where Pharyngula is deviant relative to other science blogs out there. Kids nowadays just seem reluctant to pick a fight.

    Perhaps. I don’t think it’s quite that easy. A lot is dependent on personality and what a person is passionate about. If someone is happy tossing off one liners on FB or Twitter and not much else, they aren’t likely to be the type who gets into sustained arguments, which is habitual ’round here.

  2. carlie says

    One thing I’d say, though:

    very host of every site has the right to delete, edit, or modify any comment in any way,

    I agree that they have the right to do it, but if they edit or modify a comment, I think they are acting unethically if they do not clearly mark it as having been edited or modified. Unless the blog is the kind where it’s taken for granted that every comment will be somehow amusedly changed by the owner (and therefore anyone commenting is entering knowingly into that contract), there isn’t any integrity to the conversation if there is no way to know what people actually said or didn’t. In the case of unmarked editing, it can quickly become a bunch of sockpuppets of the blog owner except with actual other people’s nyms attached to comments they didn’t make, and that’s not right.

  3. says

    Well, legally they can do that, but I agree that ethically they shouldn’t.

    Disemvoweling or replacing the whole comment with a bunny video is fine, but editing the text to put words in people’s mouths…don’t do that.

  4. Beatrice says

    Yeah, seconding carlie about editing and modifying.
    Adding something at the bottom of the comment, appropriately signed by the blog owner is fine, but not actually modifying parts of the original comment.

  5. Beatrice says

    Oh, yeah obvious things like disemvoweling are fine by me too. Not to mention bunnies. Bunnies are great. :)

    Just as long as it’s obvious that this wasn’t the original comment.

  6. bovarchist says

    It’s hard to believe a man who is reasonably accomplished in an intellectual field is unable to understand the distinction between “You don’t have the right to block me from your blog” and “You are a coward and a hypocrite if you block me from your blog.”

    In fact, I don’t believe it, which just leaves disingenuousness.

  7. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    One thing I’ve done that complicates his analysis is that Pharyngula has evolved to have one social thread that is more heavily moderated (and just the existence of dedicated social threads may confound some of his interpretations), and another that isn’t moderated at all, that I actually encourage annoying pests to infest. I think those contribute to overall activity that spills over into other threads, and vice versa.

    I certainly think that innovation has worked well, although I don’t spend a great deal of time on either Lounge or Thunderdome – but they’re both good to drop into when I’m in the right mood.

  8. says

    bovarchist:

    It’s hard to believe a man who is reasonably accomplished in an intellectual field is unable to understand the distinction between “You don’t have the right to block me from your blog” and “You are a coward and a hypocrite if you block me from your blog.”

    I wish it was hard to believe that you and so many others are so willfully fuckwitted, but you are. It’s neither cowardly nor hypocritical to ban or block someone who is all no noise and no signal.

  9. says

    Free Speech is a very American concept.

    I wonder why it was important to point this out in the midst of a post noting that even in America, free speech doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want on other people’s blogs.

    I don’t think free speech is a “very American” concept, but if it is…more’s the pity.

  10. eric says

    I think your solution (having two threads, one moderated, one not) is an excellent solution, and it would be interesting if other sites followed it. Seems to give the best of both worlds: a safe place for people to talk about blogger’s topics when they don’t want to deal with offensive commenting, AND a free-flowing discussion for when they do.

  11. says

    Gretchen:

    I wonder why it was important to point this out in the midst of a post noting that even in America, free speech doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want on other people’s blogs.

    Because it’s Americans who scream and whinge about their right to freeze peach, no matter what.

    You seemed to have completely missed this:

    Most of the other 200 nations on the planet do not provide constitutional protection of free speech.

    That makes the notion that free speech is a right very American.

  12. says

    There isn’t much reason for clever, snarky or even obtuse comments on the science pieces, or on the Monday Metazoan. They are more purely informational. That said, this scientist still tends to set the science pieces aside for a better time, and never get to them. (And I want captions and scale bars for images.) The pieces on fundagelical and teabagger crimes and stupidity are easier to read and comment on.

  13. Stacy says

    It’s hard to believe a man who is reasonably accomplished in an intellectual field is unable to understand the distinction between “You don’t have the right to block me from your blog” and “You are a coward and a hypocrite if you block me from your blog.

    I’ve followed the freeze peach arguments since they began, and I recall them being framed as the former, not the latter. If the usual suspects have finally stumbled over a more sophisticated tack, good for them, but they still have to make their case.

    “You are a coward and a hypocrite if you block me from your blog.”

    Why, exactly?

    Why is anybody/everybody entitled to a hearing on PZ’s or any one else’s blog?

  14. Beatrice says

    It’s a pet peeve. No one cares, I know. Sorry.
    But it bugs me. Sort of like people capitalizing Love or Freedom.

  15. Sastra says

    Kids nowadays just seem reluctant to pick a fight.

    OH YEAH??? SEZ YOU!!11!1!!

    I think you’ll agree, though, that kids nowadays don’t seem reluctant to pick a nit. And that nitpicking will often result in a long comment thread, if not an actual fight. So we could beef up the nitpicking, if you’d like.

  16. Rip Steakface says

    It’s a pet peeve. No one cares, I know. Sorry.
    But it bugs me. Sort of like people capitalizing Love or Freedom.

    Just tangentially related, but what is it about crackpots that lead them to unnecessarily capitalizing words left and right, seemingly as a way of indicating their importance? Our own crackpot, comeradebob, was doing exactly that thing, though not as severely as many other crackpots I’ve seen.

    OH YEAH??? SEZ YOU!!11!1!!

    Nah, it’s a good observation. No one I know my age likes to discuss hot-button topics in any place, online or otherwise. There’s an unhealthy respect for personal opinions – “that’s your opinion, I have mine, let’s go get pizza.” There’s never people who want to work through problems.

  17. Alverant says

    What happens if someone is actively lying on their blog and spreading misinformation? Wouldn’t there be some kind of moral obligation to counter it?

  18. UnknownEric says

    What happens if someone is actively lying on their blog and spreading misinformation? Wouldn’t there be some kind of moral obligation to counter it?

    Sure, but you can always make your own blog called “Everything (Insert Name Here) Says Is Total Bullshit.”

  19. calliopejane says

    I have VERY little time for “pleasure reading” like Pharyngula, just the occasional lunchtime (such as now) when I can drop in and read a few posts of interest. Through such posts and comments, I hope to learn of some new facts or events, or grow a bit in my understanding of how people very unlike me experience the world, or be spurred to re-examine my existing ideas & beliefs in a whole new way. Trolls often incite everyone to go back to trying to explain “atheism 101″ (or feminism/basic human decency/whatever 101), reiterating concepts that I grasped decades ago. And that turns the thread into an utter waster of this oh-so-precious speck time I have to actually *learn* something, to gain *anything* for myself.

    Thus, the troll is an intellectual thief, who deserves no more accommodation for stealing the intelligence and usefulness out of a discussion than does a shoplifter for stealing merchandise out of a store.

  20. Sastra says

    Rip Steakface #22 wrote:

    There’s an unhealthy respect for personal opinions – “that’s your opinion, I have mine, let’s go get pizza.”

    OH YEAH??? Oh, wait …. yeah.

    The infamous “let’s all just agree to disagree and change the subject” is often accompanied by the infantile “all opinions are equal because we can’t ever be sure of anything so it comes down to taste and feelings.” It’s particularly common when we’re talking about religion, which is supposed to stand as some sort of evidence-and-reason-free ‘gool’ which gives you immunity once you touch it. Ironically, this popular “niceness” approach (or lack of approach) to serious discussions seems to be balanced out by the folks who avoid dealing with content by going in the opposite direction and do nothing but scream insults at enemies. Fortunately, I — like PZ — fall somewhere in the Golden Middle between extremes and so we are right.

    calliopejane #25 wrote:

    Trolls often incite everyone to go back to trying to explain “atheism 101″ (or feminism/basic human decency/whatever 101), reiterating concepts that I grasped decades ago. And that turns the thread into an utter waster of this oh-so-precious speck time I have to actually *learn* something, to gain *anything* for myself.

    Oh, I think explaining basics — especially to someone who is coming at an issue either misinformed or from the wrong direction — can be one of the trickiest, hardest, most challenging skills to master. It requires patience, imagination, communication, listening, and a very, very good grasp not just of the issue but of a lot of other issues, not all of which are predictable in advance. It also demands strategy and advance planning, as well as an ability to take advantage of the unexpected. The whole process may not be something you’re interested in and that’s fine — but don’t underestimate it. “Troll” discussions can be very useful. You can learn a lot from them.

    Of course, this is assuming the troll is, on the whole, sincere (which may be a contradiction in terms.)

    Also, not everyone who reads Pharyngula is at the same place you are. Atheism 101 (or whatever) may be the fresh new understanding they came in for.

  21. consciousness razor says

    It’s hard to believe a man who is reasonably accomplished in an intellectual field is unable to understand the distinction between “You don’t have the right to block me from your blog” and “You are a coward and a hypocrite if you block me from your blog.”

    In fact, I don’t believe it, which just leaves disingenuousness.

    So when people whine about “free speech,” what they’re actually doing is calling someone a coward and a hypocrite. Also, making the point that this* has nothing to do with free speech is disingenuous? It’s not the other person who’s being disingenuous?

    *Although it’s absurd to think writing a blog has anything to do with valor, and I have no idea what’s supposed to be hypocritical about simply blocking a commenter.

  22. says

    Beatrice
    Ah, but Free Speech! is an American concept. Everyone else just has free speech, which they get much less whiny and worked up about. I think that was rather the original author’s point with the capitalization.

  23. bradleybetts says

    Free Speech is a very American concept.

    I wouldn’t say it was a uniquely American concept, but you guys certainly take it more seriously than any other country I know of. I think it’s admirable, and wish the rest of the world would follow suit.

  24. says

    Yep. Speaking as an unAmerican, your First Amendment and the way your courts have interpreted it has worked out as one of the best ideas in history.

  25. ragarth says

    @PZ Myers

    Your science posts may get fewer comments, but that doesn’t mean they’re not equally appreciated. I value those posts greatly and thank you for sharing the data with us.