Survivor Pharyngula: The Anti-Climax

I’ve hated those Survivor TV shows for as long as they’ve been on — I’ve never been able to sit through a single episode. Staging a phony zero-sum game and encouraging backstabbing betrayal and vicious psychopathic behavior is not my idea of fun.

I have this fantasy version of the game in which there are months of lead time, lots of promos highlighting the most odious aspects of each contestant’s personality, with elaborate web sites (all in flash, of course) pushing the competitive edge, all working to build audience anticipation to a fever pitch. Then the day of the premiere comes, and everyone tunes in and is sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for the blood to flow. It begins with a tracking shot from a helicopter of all the contestants lined up on the beach: there’s the smarmy announcer, the yuppie, the stoner, the bitch, the liar, the OCD freak, the bumbler, the pretty one, the fanatic, the lazy one, the self-righteous preacher, the clueless one, etc., all looking smug and ready to cut each other’s throats. The copter pulls away to a long shot of them artfully posed on a glittering tropical beach, when suddenly…a bright flash! The camera and chopper tumble about erratically! As the pilot and cameraman get everything back under control, the view swivels to a fiery red and black mushroom cloud rising from the sea, where the island has ceased to exist. And then, finally, the opening title appears in some melodramatic apocalyptic font: SURVIVOR: GAME OVER, MAN. Fade to black. Cut to one hour of solid commercials for Viagra, tranquilizers, and adult diapers.

That’s a little violent, I know. Alternative ending: the helicopter just flies away, carrying the entire camera crew with it, leaving the whole crop of contestants, staff, and producers abandoned on the island. No camera time for any of them; their only prize is to survive and find a way home again, without the artificial structure of bizarre games and cash prizes. The final title is SURVIVOR: WHO CARES?.

This episode of Survivor Pharyngula concludes with the second ending. I was a little worried when I got up on Sunday morning and discovered that the entire site was down and you couldn’t get to anything on Scienceblogs at all — had somebody read my mind and pushed the self-destruct button? Uh-oh. But no, that was a completely independent event, entirely accidental. The planned outcome is as follows: nothing happens at all. I fly away from the game, waving bye-bye, and telling you all that you’ll get no help from me, and you need to work it all out for yourselves.

Why, yes, I am a deceptive rat-bastard. Haven’t you figured that out yet?

I was hoping that this would be a little exercise in self-awareness: I thought the message was a little obvious, especially given that the results included a lot of popular commenters and the process involved throwing p*o*o. You were supposed to recognize that the line between a troll and a regular and valued commenter was sometimes very thin indeed.

I need you all to take a moment and see things from my perspective. I don’t read the comments in detail; I can’t. I skim through them. I get them all forwarded to my email account, where I can easily sort through them and get a feel for the big picture. I’m still in the helicopter, flying over the city, looking down on the traffic, and all I care about is that it is moving smoothly; it’s fine with me if you’re all honking your horns and waving angry fists out the windows, as long as everyone is moving along. I sometimes see major blockages developing as someone tries to disrupt the flow, and I’ll remove the troublemaker, especially if they have a habit of screwing up conversations; sometimes I’ll set up alternate routes, new threads with the idea of diverting some of the noise; and sometimes I’ll spot obvious maniacs who come barreling in screeching and howling, and I’ll use my disintegrator beam to take them out before they cause a pile-up. But I’m usually a bit aloof from the comment threads. I have to be, and I often feel like it’s a mistake for me to dive in, fun as it would be, because having an invulnerable helicopter cruising along in the traffic lanes is a recipe for disaster.

So here’s the outcome: no one is getting banned, yet. One gomer, yanshen71786, is showing real potential for it — responding to a request to demonstrate that he demonstrate that he can be an interesting commenter with yet another long series of self-righteous, plodding recitations of his dogmas ain’t encouraging — but I do have some rather bendy and subjective principles at work here, and I’m not going to undercut them in this instance. This is mostly a free-speech zone, and if you want to come in and preach racism and homophobia and misogyny and creationism and libertarian politics, all things I hate, you can…and we have a body of opinionated smart commenters here who will cheerfully carve your ass up, season it well, roast it, and serve it back to you with a garnish of bacon, and that’s the way I like it. You can cuss. You can argue vehemently. You can fight angrily. None of these are bannable offenses, and if they were, most of the valued OM winners would be banned right now.

Get it? Because you disagree with someone isn’t cause to ban them.

I’m sorry to disappoint. I do agree, though, that the comment threads are getting a little rough and dog-eat-dog, but it’s not entirely the fault of the recent influx of brain-dead trolls. It’s also because the culture here has gotten a little trigger-happy, so I’m making a call to everyone to think for just a moment before blasting away…for only a moment, though, so that you can aim a little better, and without any condemnation of the blasting away part, which is always fun.

Here are a few rules to follow. Well, actually, they’re more like guidelines — we’re a rather lawless bunch, and in particular, I’m a kind of Chaotic Neutral overlord, perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to sporadic infractions, or even to charge in and break my own rules if I want. I generally don’t for the entirely pragmatic reason that some degree of predictability helps fuel the fires.

  1. The “post no bills” rule. I detest spammers, and they come through routinely and I simply eliminate them without comment. But there are occasional commenters who come through and do the equivalent—they’ve got their boring hobby-horses and they repeat the same tired claims over and over again. If you can’t be creative in your arguments and respond intelligently to your critics, you’re just another spammer. I will delete you. Pharyngula is not your billboard.

  2. The “stupid is as stupid does” rule. You can be a dick here, you just can’t be a stupid dick. Barreling in with idiotic claims that have been dealt with a thousand times before, as if you’ve got something novel to say, is a behavior guaranteed to stop a thread cold as everyone turns their cyberpistols on you. It’s boring. I’ll whisk you away for your own good and tell you to go play in the kiddie sandbox somewhere else.

  3. The “three strikes” rule. This one has been informally in operation for years, and it’s a simple idea: if you see a comment from someone you’ve never heard of before, a newbie, don’t open fire right away. Politely ask for clarification, begin a conversation, and if they demonstrate inanity after they’ve made three comments, then you can open up with the flamethrower. Give new people a chance!

  4. The “no prayers” rule. This is something that’s beginning to annoy me: the frequent calls for banning of individuals from other commenters. I am not your personal deity who will throw thunderbolts at objects of your wrath, and you don’t get to invoke a deus ex machina to give you a shortcut in an argument. Don’t tell me to ban someone. Don’t threaten anyone with banning. I’m watching, and if someone is genuinely disruptive and sending threads into a death spiral of acrimony, I’ll notice and take care of it. But if someone is disagreeing with you or is just being stupid or hateful, it’s your job to deal with it, not mine. Relish the challenge, savor the gristly bloody chore of taking them in your teeth and chewing them up.

  5. The “make ’em laugh” rule. Are you really, really angry with someone? Do you just want to make them explode and disappear and never comment here again? You could always use the Firefox killfile script, but you could also follow the formula many of the more popular commenters here do: ridicule, sarcasm, and comedy. It works! Calling someone an asshole is cathartic, but if you really want to make it sting, mockery is much more potent. It also keeps the conversation going entertainingly, rather than in boring back-and-forth wrangling. I’m much more inclined to let a non-productive argument continue if it is amusingly expressed.

We now commence our regular schedule of ads for Zoloft and Depends.

You may be missing the spectacle of pitting idiots against one another, but have no fear, some of them are still on track for expulsion if they can’t lighten up and be more participatory than preacherly. And that’s addressed to more than just the known trollish objects of our contempt.