The Robbers Cave

Reposting a comment I just made (slightly altered to be more general) so that more people will see it. I wrote it in response to a comment based on the idea that there are insiders and outsiders among commenters. That’s an understandable idea – there are people who know the background of a lot of issues discussed here because they’ve been following them for awhile, and there are people who don’t. Sometimes the people who don’t make comments that miss the mark because of the lack of background. That can be frustrating, especially when the comments consist of angry scolding based on reading a post by, say, Thunderf00t and thus lacking all context. But dividing people into insiders and outsiders is a bad idea; hence the comment.


I really don’t want to divide people into insiders and outsiders here. That’s junior high school stuff, you can’t sit at our lunch table stuff. I want new people – aka “outsiders” – to read and enjoy and join the discussion.

Now…some of that insider v outsider happens anyway, or as it were “naturally” – i.e. without anyone spelling out that that’s what we’re doing. But if that is what we’re doing…well we shouldn’t be.

On the other hand – there is a certain ethic that builds up over time. There are understood conventions, and so on. Casual jokey sexism isn’t popular here, for instance – and since it’s not a particularly benign thing in itself, I think it’s ok to object to it somewhat sharply. But I don’t want us pouncing on anyone who’s new here as if this were a club with a secret code. I really don’t. That’s just a barrier to new people. Plus…well, it ain’t nice.

That’s part of what critics dislike about blog culture, you know. It’s part of what the goons who rant about the mythic beast “FTB” have in mind. It’s that insider thing, that gangs up on outsiders. It’s groupthink; group dynamics; the Robbers Cave experiment; all that. We don’t want to do that. The goons aren’t wrong to frown on that.

On the other hand the goons themselves help to elicit it, by being so goonish, by trolling, by being so selective in whom they scold – so that’s part of why we get so defensive.

But let’s not.

Let’s try to assume people have good intentions unless they make it obvious that they don’t.


  1. karmakin says

    Also the goons generally speaking do it themselves, so complaining about it is a bit hypocritical, at least that’s my experience.

    That said, I try to be helpful to people who seem to be making an honest attempt at understanding a situation, but to be honest, I find that generally speaking for people who are going to bother making a comment that’s pretty rare, as truly neutral people will often just lurk.

  2. says

    Well that’s true, I suppose.

    One of the behaviors I’ve been finding so wildly obnoxious during these Deep Rifts parties is turning up out of nowhere and delivering a lengthy and self-righteous jeremiad. By “turning up out of nowhere” I of course mean commenting for the first time (or the first time since some other brief comment four months ago, or the like); this can include people who have been reading for who knows how long.

    It’s a very bizarre thing to do, I always think. I don’t do that. I don’t just bounce into someone else’s blog and start shouting. Why do some people do that? I have no idea.

    So yes, I suppose you’re right; most well-meaning people read for awhile first, and comment in a restrained manner at first. It’s just like real life – you go step by step, you don’t treat strangers as if you’d known them for years.

    It’s that kind of thing that makes the insider/outsider distinction natural. But still I don’t think we should put it that way, because it does sound hostile and cliquey and we really don’t want that. There I am doing it now – assuming I know what “we” want and that I get to declare it. But then it’s my blog. :- )

  3. says

    Well… obviously the first and foremost thing is “your blog, your rules” as you seemed to remember there at the end. 🙂

    My next thought is how the good people always instinctively hamstring themselves by wanting to play fair and give people the benefit of the doubt. Since I’m not myself a good person, I wind up screaming “No! Screw you, buddeh! I know your game now go away before I thrash you about the head and shoulders with a shit-dipped sea bass!” first, and asking questions later.

    The thing is, the current crop of troll is more clever than to just announce their intentions up front. They are playing a new game, where they hover along the edge of your benefit of the doubt, and seem to have the goal of seeing how long they can derail a topic without quite tipping their hand.

    And when a new person shows up and isn’t an idiot, they don’t get shunned or ignored. It isn’t in-group/out-group towards new people if they are by their own words putting themselves in the out-group of nasty asshats.

  4. Andy Groves says

    OK – I’ll comment for the first time!

    I first knew PZ in the pre-blog Talk.Origins days, and have been following him ever since. I started reading other FTB blogs in the last year, but I only comment very rarely. When Pharyngula was more of an evolution-creationism blog than it is now, PZ had an informal “three chances to be a clueless newbie and then the horde gets unleashed” rule for regular commenters. It seemed to work, although I would agree with Improbable Joe that it was much easier back then to spot trolls and idiots.

    I think that maybe one litmus test for someone’s intentions is how they respond when they are criticized for the first time. Some people do need a little space to fine-tune their argument and to make their positions clear in the absence of familiarity with the group and the non-written cues that most of us pick up on instinctively in face-to-face communication. And I think that reasonable people are willing to do that. But if a new commenter starts to get defensive and make the discussion about their hurt fee-fees, I think that’s a good indication that they are not commenting in good faith.

    Back to lurking……

  5. felixBC says

    What if you’ve seen a commenter openly declare his or her intent to trip you up and prove you wrong on another website? Still good faith?

  6. karmakin says

    @Ophelia: To be fair, I’ve been “that guy” myself, although it’s not generally on important issues (I.E. gaming), and I try to be as nice as I can about it. (Truth be told, it’s usually to correct Internet history more often than not…there’s a lot of misconceptions out there…an example is the concept that I’ve heard that liberals/progressives were looking for Bush’s head the day after 9/11…which is so far from the truth it’s insane.)

    It’s less about people not knowing the social norms…which I think can take quite a long time and may not be realistic..and more about people who care enough to post probably have an opinion already on the subject, and more than likely a strong opinion.

    But, as others have said, when I write blogs/comments/whatever, I write for the person on the fence, the 3rd party reading, not the person I’m addressing. That’s the person who can be convinced/persuaded, so my writing is focused on that person.

  7. says

    … plus, I’ve vehemently disagreed with people without being treated like a troll. Treated like I was an asshat, but not like I was a troll… and there’s a difference. People are actually pretty good in telling the difference between someone who is holding a position strongly and really feels passionately about it, and someone who is really just trying to provoke strong reactions for their own unrelated purposes.

  8. says

    As one of those post-and-runners, I can clear up some of the confusion. I don’t spend all that much time reading and rereading comments threads, or treating them like a hang-out. I usually post a comment on topic of the OP, rather than reply to a reply. I don’t read the whole thread as if it were part of the OP, and I don’t judge the OP on it’s pit, either.

    In a nutshell, I’m not really commenting to join in a discussion with anyone — especially not a crowd of trolls with nothing better to do than spend all their time in the pits.

    I’m just replying to the blog author’s original post 90% of the time. Don’t know if other post-and-runners have this motivation, but there it is.

    Gotta run!

  9. says

    Running Atheist – which means you’re most unlikely to do any “please change your entire way of doing things this instant because I am better than you” comments. Bye, thanks for the quick visit! 😀

  10. 'Tis Himself says

    The problem I see happening most often is someone makes a comment about an ongoing topic and gets stomped on because they’re unfamiliar with the previous discussions. “I just heard you guys were mean to Thunderfoot and I think his anti-creationist videos show how great a guy he is” will be shouted down very quickly.

  11. reneerp says

    There are a couple of responsibilities first time commenters (like me right now) should have. First, it’s generally a good idea to familiarize yourself with the issue, history, and culture of a place before jumping in to give your .02. Also, if you’ve not been reading for a while and land on a site as the result of a ping back or link, then you might not assume that your launchpad article, blog, or whatever was telling the whole story or was necessarily in the right on it.

    I guess that’s a subset of the first, but I think that a lot of the vehemence stems from getting worked up somewhere else on the internet, grabbing a torch and pitchfork, and stomping over to make things right.

  12. jenniferphillips says

    (Moving the discussion from the ‘in your face’ thread because it’s bloated beyond all reason)

    Quine, champion of Lady Corylus, suggests that Ophelia review past comments on other blogs from Corylus before rushing to judgement. Um…what? Corylus was banned here because of self-important, relentless scolding. If she has past successes in interpersonal blog relations, bully for her–she’s free to go on having those laudable interactions everywhere else, yes? Here, she was pompous to a ridiculous degree and more than a bit rude to the blog host right out of the gate.

    There have been some particularly nasty ‘pit commenters whose internet reputation now precedes them in most of the FTB-friendly fora, and thus they tend to meet the banhammer earlier than n00b trolls. But, what about the converse? Who really believes that commenting habits on other sites, on other topics, should merit MORE leniency when one is being an asshole in the here and now?

  13. says

    Well, I don’t! Maybe Corylus is a genius of diplomacy and interestingness everywhere else she comments, but she wasn’t here, and she used a very large number of words in the process. I’m really not motivated to read anything else she says now.

  14. davidmc says

    I find the comments generally friendly, informative and entertaining, and if i ever got stomped for something, i would probably deserve it, runaway to lick my wounds and reflect on why. reneerp’s post @12 seems a very good rule of thumb, and not just for 1st time commenters.

  15. carlie says

    Banned Atheist – so, why do you comment? Honest question, not snarky. The odds of your comment being read by the OP author are low on many sites. People will most likely engage with your comment, but you aren’t sticking around to see what others think of it. So what is your motivation for commenting at all?

  16. Wowbagger, Deputy Vice-President (Silencing) says

    On the plus side, at least whiny pissants like Philip are starting to realise that they have not, in fact, been ‘silenced’, and that the best way for them to explain their position on things is to do it somewhere else – that way they don’t have all us awful, awful people telling them in no uncertain terms why they’re wrong.

    Hilariously, that he still doesn’t understand what ‘male-normal’ referred to shows he wasn’t prepared to listen.
    I just laughed when I read his little screed after seeing linked by Stangroom.

    Everything that’s happened from Elevatorgate on has revealed a petulant sense of entitlement amongst a segment of the atheist community – because they’re demanding that people like you and PZ and Rebecca Watson stop writing about things they don’t want to hear about.

    They just want to hear stories about how religion is bad and stupid and that they, because they don’t subscribe to it, are therefore good and smart – while anything that means them having to admit there’s something they might need to change about themselves or their ‘movement’ (like the fact there’s still an undercurrent of misogyny) is unthinkable.

  17. says

    Stangroom linked to Philip’s rant? Oh honestly – he gets more spiteful every day. Funny, because like Corylus he fancies himself to be a moral exemplar.

  18. smhll says

    I think I agree that the distinction between someone who is posting in disagreement and someone who is posting to be obnoxious is an important distinction to make.

    But, on the other hand, I’ve seen some anti-feminists use “common sense” as a relentless weapon in their arguments, in unquestioning and unskeptical ways. This causes me to realize that the playing field is not level on social equality issues. (It’s a big, uphill battle to disprove every bit of “common sense” that people have accumulated about gender.)

    I sometimes see trolls behaving like bored kids in the backseats of cars, tormenting their nearest siblings, but staying on the “right side of the law” by not actually touching them. It is possible to be very offensive and distainful without hollering or utilizing words from the forbidden word list. (Should there be such a thing.)

    For example – I believe it is more harmful to say that you think another person should not have the right to get married, adopt children, or visit a very ill partner in the hospital, than it is to say “fuck off”, but some people who crusade for politeness, notice the language more than the ill wish. (And an ill wish backed up by votes can actually harm someone.)

    While I’m semi-straddling the fence here, I’ll say that I don’t expect people, especially younger people to get the roots of the word “hysterical” and know how it was applied in the past. But on the other hand, when I see the words “hysterical” and “shrill” in a post about a woman speaking up, then I tend to think that the poster thinks in cliches about women, and fairly negative cliches at that. It tends to correlate, in my experience, with having not considered and debated gender issues in our culture for very long. I don’t actually sit there and think “well, this is going to be shallow”, um, but I come close to that.

  19. says

    Yes – like this post –

    After that, the debate moved onto the question of “are there any subjects which just cannot be discussed in skepticism?”. My answer was a strong and unequivocal “no”. Skepticism by it’s very nature is based on questioning. If someone puts up a barrier saying “you cannot question this” I find that to be an affront to skepticism. Also, I find that some people confuse the idea of questioning something with a desire to challenge and reject it. For example, if you asked the question “does 1 + 1 REALLY equal 2?”, that doesn’t immediately make you a maths denialist. So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are women REALLY equal to men?” that does not mean you are automatically a misogynist. I think we need to bear this in mind when asking tough questions, and skeptics should not feel like there are any questions that cannot be asked.

    Of course, the writer is a man. He didn’t suggest asking “are men REALLY equal to women?” It’s so easy to declare “it must not be off the table to ask if thosepeopleoverthere are REALLY equal to people like me.”

  20. Michael says

    I haven’t posted here much — most of my time is spent on RDnet. There is a continual dilemma over there with people popping up as first time posters with a bit of preaching about Jesus or a Revelation about evolution. It’s tempting to bash them hard and some people do but on the whole I think a better strategy is a welcome and a polite point to the terms and conditions or a brief summary of the general desire around RDnet for evidence etc. Mostly this is aimed not at them but at the lurkers who are hesitating to dip their feet in the pool because of all the splashing. I guess what I am saying is pretty much summed up by:

    Let’s try to assume people have good intentions unless they make it obvious that they don’t.

    Do you have something like “Terms and Conditions” somewhere ? It’s kind of handy to have something you can point people out instead of having to say it all for the five millionth time.


  21. 'Tis Himself says

    Michael #21

    There isn’t a “terms and conditions” for FtB and for a very simple reason. This isn’t one blog but a collection of 36 blogs. Language which would get a warning from Greta Christina would be acceptable at Pharyngula. Sometimes I have to check which blog I’m at before I write something because what one blogmeister will pass another won’t.

  22. jenniferphillips says

    I notice that Ophelia usually steps in and tells people if they’ve crossed a line, and gives them a little time to right themselves before showing them the door. She also regularly posts comments to say no line has been crossed and the regulars should lighten the fuck up or something. So, no Terms & Conditions required, in most cases.

    Even though I don’t comment much I feel sort of insider-ish because this is definitely the place I comment most, and where I read comments regularly even if I don’t/can’t participate. Do B&W denizens have a catchy handle yet? Are we Freewheelers?

  23. Godless Heathen says

    Also, what does he mean by are women REALLY equal to men? How does he define equal? In does 1+1 equal 2, it’s obvious what it means. But in terms of comparing genders, it can mean so many, many things and apply to so many different traits and behaviors that it’s basically meaningless.

    Unless, of course, he means equal in the broad social and legal equality way, in which case, he’s an asshole for asking the question. It’s not being skeptical, it’s implying that one group of people may not deserve equal social and legal rights while assuming that the other one automatically does.

  24. Ruth says

    re 20 – I posted this comment on the skepticcanary

    I’m afraid you’ve hit on my pet peeve here. People who don’t seem to understand the difference between objective facts, and subjective value judgements. Whether or not 1 + 1 = 2 is an objective fact. Whether people are ‘equal’ is a value judgement. If someone holds the subjective value judgement that women/blacks/jews are ‘inferior’ to men/whites/gentiles, I can’t argue with them on the facts, because there aren’t any. However, I reserve the right to think less of such a person for their misogynist/racist/anti-semitic values. I also reserve the right to choose not to associate with such people, i.e. to avoid groups who seem to accept such vile opinions as valid topics for discussion.

  25. Jonathan says


    Of course, the writer is a man.

    From reading the article, I can see the point that the writer was trying to make, but he doesn’t seem to have thought it through properly. This has been pointed out in the comments and it will be interesting to see how he responds to the points that have been raised.

    However: is saying something like “of course, the writer is a man” really the kind of thing you want to say?

    If someone wrote about something you had written, or commented on here and used the phrase “of course, the writer is a woman” within an objection to something that had been said, then that person would be criticised, and rightly so.

    If it is unacceptable to say “Of course, the writer is a woman. It’s very easy for HER to comment that way”, then shouldn’t it be similarly unacceptable for someone to say the same about men? Surely it should work both ways.

  26. says

    Jonathan – try varying the question another way – like this perhaps –

    So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are Britons REALLY equal to Americans?”

    If someone commented on here and used the phrase “of course, the writer is an American” within an objection to that question – that someone would be entirely right to point it out.

    Do you see what I’m getting at? Do you see how self-serving it is to ask “Are [those other people] REALLY equal to people like me?”

    My point wasn’t “he’s a man, and of course men get things wrong.” My point was “he asked a question of the form ‘are Bs REALLY equal to As?’ when he himself is an A.”

    You could substitute blacks/whites, Jews/Gentiles, foreigners/natives. Or you could just re-write it as “Aren’t men REALLY better than women?”

  27. says

    I’ve been reading B&W for a few years, and Pharyngula, Dispatches etc for as long. I don’t often have much to say in the comments, mostly because of the time zone I’m in which means someone else has made my point first a lot of the time, but I think it’s important to take part in discussions where appropriate. I’m very active in a couple of other places on the internet, because those are places that discussions have flowed in a way that suited my participation. I’ve met people IRL from some blogs and chat lists, and made friends that I’ve known for many years now.

    Not got a great deal to contribute here, other than like Andy above I saw this as an opportunity to delurk. So hello everyone, and I hope I’ll have something meaningful to contribute in the future.

  28. says

    Heh. I forgot I was logged into Facebook – I’ve previously commented under my usual handle “Trikeabout”. I’d make a rubbish sockpuppet!

  29. Phil Rimmer says


    “Do you see how self-serving it is to ask “Are [those other people] REALLY equal to people like me?””

    It is not self serving if it has no power to influence those questioned. It is merely (possibly) revealing of the mindset of the questioner.

    In the particular instance-

    “So, if you asked a very controversial question like “are women REALLY equal to men?””

    …the requirement was to form a really controversial question not mitigate its controversial nature in some superficial way. The mind revealing aspect of its formulation may not in this instance actually be there.

    “Mind intuiting” is a skill we possess and use prodigiously, but we’d do a lot better to keep our insights to ourselves. In my experience the error rate is very high. Getting to the nitty gritty of a piece is far more reliably revealing of who you are dealing with.

  30. Michael says

    #22 ‘Tis Himself.

    I was thinking really of a T&C for Butterflies and Wheels not an overarching one for the whole of FtB. I realise it doesn’t really fit into the structure of the blog and maybe that is too rigid to allow each blog to have its own T&C. But the original post read to me like the beginning of a T&C.

  31. Parse says

    #19 smhll,
    The “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” schtick is why most sites (not just blogs) I’ve seen leave room for interpretation in their moderation policy. It’s also why I’m glad that PZ Myers generally says why he’s banning somebody when he announces a ban – it shows that the seemingly harmless statement that got somebody plonked is part of a history of trolling, and that PZ isn’t being arbitrarily ban-happy.

  32. says

    Hi Phil,

    When people are making these comparisons, do you think they are weighing how people are or just how they behave? So often, I get the impression that the comparison is between stereotypes.

  33. dzd says

    “Let’s try to assume people have good intentions unless they make it obvious that they don’t.”

    This is something that really needs to be said more often. Assuming good intentions is an important factor in preventing bullying and insularity, and I know from bitter personal experience that when a community loses sight of that principle, things can turn very ugly very quickly.

    Concern trolls exist, but the default assumption can’t be that everyone is a concern troll. You wind up in a siege mentality and people who might have been your allies just end up as so much collateral damage.

  34. Phil Rimmer says

    Hi, Q.

    “So often, I get the impression that the comparison is between stereotypes.”

    We all more or less fall into that trap, not least because that is how brains cope with their prodigious task of memorizing so much and how they make memories work for us. We would learn nothing, access nothing from our memories if they hadn’t performed some version of this stereotyping task.It is akin to indexing and the root of being able to form explanatory narratives.Brains after all are wired automatically by Hebbs, so mere coincidence of appearance or speech will form associated groups of experience. And we do it (stereotype) on wisps of information and entirely unconsciously.The psychology experiments of people failing to notice the changeover of a desk clerk are hilarious. We see “spotty teenager” or whatever and any such will do after that.

    I’m old and talk like it often. I need to guard against modes of speech that are not PC (the older the worser). Recently I used the term half-caste. Ack!I do not want to be judged on my thoughtless or plain ignorant, automatic self. I am better than I appear at first glance. I want people to give me time to lay out my stall and get a few more data points on my character before judging my motives.

  35. says


    However: is saying something like “of course, the writer is a man” really the kind of thing you want to say?

    Yes. He doesn’t have the lived experience of a woman who’s had her personhood challenged by that kind of JAQing off before, and he lacks sufficient empathy to compensate.

    You seem to be under the impression that the playing field is level. “Of course, the writer is a woman” isn’t comparable. Women are an oppressed class. Men are not.


    It is not self serving if it has no power to influence those questioned.

    Those sorts of remarks do, in fact, influence those questioned by reinforcing existing cultural misogyny.

    I need to guard against modes of speech that are not PC (the older the worser).

    You might want to start by not using a term like “PC,” which almost always means “I’m brave for reinforcing the status quo, and anybody who criticizes me is trying to suppress me politically.”

  36. kaldron says

    Disagreement is not tolerated here very well.

    When Ophelia said that DJ Grothe “praised” Benjamin Radford’s blog post, I commented that all Grothe did was to click on the “share” link. Calling that “praise” is spin. He added no commentary. The Twitter post consisted of just the title and the link.

    My comment was deleted. The name I used was blocked. That is not an honest way to run a blog.

  37. says

    Trolling is not an honest way to comment on blogs. When there is heavy (relentless non-stop organized) trolling, sometimes non-trolls get lumped in with trolls. That’s especially true with a first comment, as yours must have been (because this one is). That’s also especially true when the comment is just a random “name” so that there is no context or history to check. Commenting that way isn’t 100% honest either. So taking it all together – a random name commenting for the first time in the midst of a blizzard of trolling – I don’t think it was very dishonest of me to have extra filters in place.

  38. Phil Rimmer says

    Ms Daisy Cutter-

    “Those sorts of remarks do, in fact, influence those questioned by reinforcing existing cultural misogyny.”

    But that is not self-serving unless you know for a fact the man is malicious and intended such reinforcement. Or for that matter that there are known vulnerable readers here who do not know there own minds with regard to cultural misogyny. It is more likely merely an unfortunate side effect as it appears I am rather prone to…

    ““PC,” which almost always means “I’m brave for reinforcing the status quo, and anybody who criticizes me is trying to suppress me politically.””

  39. Phil Rimmer says


    Re: Ts&Cs

    One of the things I notice in quasi social groups of people that gather around an intellectual idea rather than a socialising intention, especially if they are bright, is the remarkable prevalence of mental quirks- aspie, anxious, bipolar, depressive, OCD, schizotypal, tourettes, and everything in between. I feel I fit right in to these kinds of groups having a few issues of my own.

    So my question is this- Can one conceive of a set of Ts&Cs that are welcoming to people who might have some clunky social mannerisms? Can such a group develop an ethos that is to some extent people-fault tolerant?

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