I’ve been considering all the suggestions in the commenting changes thread. One thing that is obvious: We have a problem, Houston.
But it is also true that I feel a hesitation to post because I will be considered an outsider and not worthy of acknowledgement or response.
Hi – another extremely-long-time lurker, very infrequent commenter here. I don’t have any solutions, but reading this comment thread made one problem very obvious: when people ask for more charity, less hostility and knee-jerk dismissiveness, several regular commenters respond as if they’d been told to stop saying fuck.
I’m another very, very longtime lurker who has commented only a few times. I almost always agree with PZ and the majority of usual commenters, but I’m still really afraid to comment here and be ripped to shreds by the very people I admire so much. I commented the other day one minor criticism of something PZ said, and suddenly I’m “ranting” and “slamming” and being condescended to about whether I read the OP. I’m afraid to go back and see what other responses I got. I love reading this blog, but it’s true that it’s not welcoming to people who aren’t regular commenters.
I hear it in email and on Twitter, too — lots of people who are reluctant to join the conversation because they’re afraid of the highly-charged, buzzing atmosphere, and don’t want to risk the very common lightning strikes. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting that there is a problem. I also see it in the thread itself, where there were a few instances of people turning to snap and bite at each other.
There is a problem. Now we have to define it so we can fix it. A lot of the conversation focused on “the regulars”.
Possibly it’s just me, but the Lounge reminds me of the high school cafeteria tables where the in-crowd sat. Woe betide the nerd who even looked too long at the kids sitting there. I understand that the Lounge regulars are comfortable with each other there and you are not a high school clique but rather a group of intelligent, mature adults.
The defensiveness coming from some regulars in this discussion is aggravating, I agree, PatrickG. Others have been open or are opening up to criticism and suggestion, which is nice. I don’t know if its enough to turn the blog’s comment section around.
People who don’t belong to the elite group of posters on this blog often are treated very badly. It’s a fucking shame.
I think people are accidentally unwelcoming by relying too much on the opaque insider language that Al Dente mentions. So one thing that might help is if we all tried to write comments, even Lounge comments, with newbies and irregulars in mind. In other words, we should inject completeness into responses rather than relying the readers’ knowledge of Pharyngula regulars, memes, and history to fill in the gaps—knowledge which non-regulars necessarily lack and can’t easily gain without displaying their ignorance and marking themselves as “outsiders.”
Try to see it from my perspective. I’ve been at this for over a decade. Who are these “regulars”? This is a different crowd from the people who were here ten years ago or five years ago. Many of you will move on. I’m accustomed to impermanence and change, and I really don’t see anyone here with a privileged position, and that newbie commenter today might be writing furiously here a year from now. Or not.
So I’m kind of insensitive to the idea of some kind of imaginary hierarchy, because there isn’t one. There’s me, and there’s the rest of you.
That said, there are some of you who’ve settled in, are familiar and comfortable with the mores around here, and some of you who are unsure about what the heck is going on. One question is whether making the place more open to new commenters (I want to!) would make it less comfortable to old hands (it will!) and whether that would lead to more people leaving than joining. It doesn’t have to lead to an exodus, but change is necessary.
Remember that the status quo selects for people who are okay with persistent hostility. Maintaining that status quo reflects a choice to exclude those who are not okay with persistent hostility.
Yep. We have to break things to make them better. Everyone who is comfortable right now? Resign yourself to some discomfort. That includes me. So here’s one good suggestion.
may I suggest the following guideline?
Respond to another comment with the initial assumption that it was made by someone who is your equal.
Assume they are your equal, but also don’t assume that they have all the background. Explain with the idea that they can catch on just as well as you can.
Now treating new commenters as equals does not imply that we need to knock off these mysterious “regulars”. I also got some clear signals of resentment towards those people who are currently familiar with the Pharyngula tropes. I sympathize with where this next comment is coming from, but no, this is not going to happen.
To open up the base of discussion the change is to limit the number of comments. New commenters and the oldest commenters are limited to 5 comments per day. This keeps comments focused and on topic. New commenters feel more comfortable wading in and the positions of old commenters will no longer overwhelm the topic. To bring in new commenters, it is as simple as banning old commenters. This can be done merely by eliminating 2 old commenters. It’s also effective to change moderators.
More empathy for new people is a good thing, but it works both ways: the “old” people are also valuable contributors. I might consider a voluntary request for people to limit their loquaciousness (talk about it in the comments!), but let’s be clear: the rules are not about punishing people for enjoying the atmosphere and who comment a lot.
Something else that might help new folks come forward is if some of us who have been commenting for a few years were to become lurkers or at least lurk a little more. Maybe that would make room for other people to feel comfortable and less like there is a cool kids table they can’t sit at.
Jackie the social justice WIZZARD!
Rather than asking the noisy ones to lurk more, I’d rather see the lurkers speak up more. Rather than suppressing some, I’d rather change the environment to encourage more.
Another big issue: civility.
I have found over the years those who are most against incivility want to be able to discuss controversial topics in a Vulcan like manner, and dismiss the emotional responses. Which makes them incivil….
Nerd of Redhead
See Chris Clarke’s comment about the status quo above.
The point of that piece was that a fetish for civility can obscure legitimate discourse. It was never intended to mean that routine incivility in the face of disagreement is superior to making a habit of attempting to be kind.
Fetishizing civility is bad. Fetishizing incivility is worse.
That’s important: disrupting conventions is a good thing, but there are lines that have to be drawn, where smashing things for the sake of smashing things becomes unproductive. That’s what we’re arguing about: where should the lines be drawn?
I’m a long-time lurker and infrequent poster, but I feel that if any rules are implemented to require greater civility in the discussions there must also be clear-cut rules spelling out that bigotry will not be tolerated, and extra moderation will be required to keep those types out. A ‘civility’ policy can often have the unintended side effect of giving tone trolls official weight, and bigots can be extremely skilled at using these policies to shut down those with legitimate anger and turn comment sections into platforms for their own disguised hate.
I got a hint of some serious concerns that civility would be used to encourage tolerance of MRAs or slymers or stalkers or harassers. Nope. I’m always going to be intolerant of those types! Relax, you’re going to be allowed to smack them down with extreme incivility!
Could there perhaps be some sort of standardized responses from the suggested mods to comments blaming minorities for being oppressed, rape apology, questioning people’s gender and calls for people to be unemotional about things like forced birth and sexual harassment? Because those sorts of aggressions are far more abusive and triggering than the often rightly enraged responses they receive.
I question the use of the word “abusive” to describe telling a bigot (even one with the best intentions) to fuck off.
Jackie the social justice WIZZARD!
Yes, please do continue to bash at those people. Really, did you think I was going to urge everyone to be nice to creationists?
The problem isn’t how we deal with people way outside our norms, it’s how we deal with the ones on the edge. Or even the ones who share our goals fully, but maybe say something on the edge.
Can you find a way to incorporate a Pharyngula-appropriate definition of rudeness into the rules? Something along the lines of – refusing to read a link is rude if you’ve asked the question it answers, as are patronising and demeaning language, an apparent refusal to answer commenters who might be women, the assumption of total ignorance in others and rambling on about something but refusing to address questions/read the counter argument about that very idea. Also endless repetition of the point you made which is being challenged.
Those are bad things. Some of you accepted, desirable, valuable commenters do them, too: stop repeating yourself, please. Good commenters say something new and informative; boring commenters are predictable.
I think civility is both too loaded and too loosely defined by most people to be a useful frame for this discussion. A much better one is ethically. The commentariat needs to treat new/unfamiliar people, even those who are disagreeing, in an ethical manner. That also means not using safe space as a brute cudgel to smack down new/unfamiliar people, disagreeing or not.
Yeah! I’m the one with the brute cudgel!
There were concerns about monitors. I think they were seen as privileging yet another subgroup above everyone else, yet that wasn’t it at all: it was more another set of eyes who’d let me know when something was going on, because with the volume of posting here, I’d often lose sight of things.
Given the fast pace and long term acquaintanceship among people here, charity first is a tall order. PZ implemented the monitor system to help deal with that, but the monitors don’t want to monitor, and many long-term regulars whined about it so much, they (the monitors) just faded into the background. I think the monitor system could work, and work well, if there was a consistent presence by monitors in threads, guiding the discussion when needed, and reminding everyone of the commenting rules now and then. People would get used to monitor presence eventually, and it would go a long way in helping new people to feel a bit safer about diving into the legendary shark tank.
This is more of an actively interventionist program than I’d initially imagined — instead of just “Spill on aisle 3!” notifications to me, the monitors would have to be a little more involved in warning people to quit spilling stuff in aisle 3. What do you all think?
Would it help if people who were monitors and moderators had separate accounts for that purpose? So that if they commented with a note or warning in a thread, it would be via an account that just says Moderator or Monitor or whatever. That way if someone like Crip Dyke and Caine, who might want to participate in the thread as a regular commenter, but also want to issue a Monitor Note as a reminder of a rules violation, can do so without giving their comments extra authority, and without also drawing ire or disrespect of the authority of the Monitor Note, on the basis that is just one person who was commenting in the thread and then suddenly makes a command.
Related:I could just set up an anonymous monitor account, give the monitors the password, so they could post notices when a discussion goes off track. That account would have no special privileges. This would be easy to implement, not sure if it’s desirable.
A good general rule for monitors:
Mods should NEVER be used to decide who is right and who is wrong. Good mods are there to remind people of the values that we are striving to put into practice. If something written goes diverges from those values sufficiently to cross a hard boundary a mod would alert PZ or, in the high-power-mod version, redact the smallest possible amount of a comment necessary to pull the comment back over the boundary.
Here are some general suggestions. How you should start an argument:
We need to be careful not to get on a high horse and gallop into a dudgeon. Righteous wrath is righteous, but let’s check to be sure that we are right.
How you should respond in an argument:
As a general idea: Perhaps we should think of things in terms of proportionality and escalation. Respond with a tone and attitude proportionate to that of the comment you respond to. Do not escalate unless that person, through time, erodes whatever charity you would give to them, either through an obvious and undeniable lack of honesty in how they debate and/or through fairly clear bigotry.
Someone who is rude can be met with rudeness. Someone who is polite but is simply mistaken about a matter of fact should be met with politeness. Someone is polite and is a bigot is rude, and can be met with rudeness.
And how you shouldn’t end an argument.
At the same time, however, there are generally one or two people who seem intent on trying to make that person grovel. They’re not attempting to educate the person who is open to changing their mind. They just keep plugging away at telling that person they’re awful. At that point, it’s not just counterproductive. It’s also a failure to update assessments of the situation coupled with punishing someone based on the outdated premises.
Here are a few specific rules.
1. Do not take disagreements off thread unless the interlocutors both agree to do so, or are booted. It is really bad form to argue with someone, and then shit-talk them in the TDome or elsewhere.
2. Assume good intentions, at least of people you have seen here before. We all like to say “intent doesn’t matter” but of course it does. (I would really like people to stop using the ‘intent isn’t magic’ phrase to justifying assuming bad intentions–that was never the purpose of the phrase. It’s purpose was to explain how intentions aren’t an excuse to justify harm.) Sometimes people don’t say things in quite the right way. Sometimes they say something you misunderstand. Instead of jumping on them immediately, ask them a question. Assume they aren’t a terrible person making a horrible argument.
3. Stop objectifying people. Stop treating people like they are whetstones for your rhetorical barbs. Stop haggling, stop nitpicking, stop intentionally misunderstanding them and forcing them to explain over and over what seems perfectly clear. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for clarification. But there’s a difference between asking “Hey, I didn’t really understand what you mean by that. Can you please explain?” and telling them what they must have meant (usually the most outrageous form of their statement), forcing them to be on the defensive. One is talking TO a person; the other is talking AT an object.
4. Allow learning to happen. No, this doesn’t mean that you are obligated to educate, but it does mean that you don’t denigrate a person for not knowing what you know, or having learned what you have. So often in SJ circles we attack first, before considering the ramifications on a person who is otherwise a friend. The principle of charity is too often lost. This is why I don’t often participate in this space anymore. I am tired of communicating in this way. I want us to be able to learn and grow in public. We absolutely have to have a space to be wrong, and to be open about being wrong and to ask for help. I would much rather contribute to your learning than go through a frustrating, multi-hour conversation of rhetorical point-scoring.
Those are useful suggestions, and I think the charitable assumption is a good one…except, unfortunately, it’s too often false — we have a lot of trolls. But it might be a good idea to move towards demanding strong evidence of trolling before hulking out on them.
I’m not so much a fan of these rules, but I see where they’re coming from.
PZ’s desire appears to be a shift towards learning, so here are some suggestions:
1 – ban “evidence or gtfo” statements. They mindlessly privilege the consensus and shutdown discussion. Why not say “I disagree. Here is evidence against your claim … … Do you have any evidence to support your claim?”. At worst this can be used to build up a SJ FAQ that you could point people to in future to save time.
2 – Anonymize posting. The fear would be rampant trolling, but it sounds like lots of the anger here is personal and ego-driven, this would stop that nicely.
3 – Limit the rate at which an account can post (e.g. 1 every 2 hours). This would help diffuse tension as people can’t engage in rapid back-and-forths and would dissuade trolls. It would also disincentivize pile-ons as joining a pile on would prevent you posting anything else for 2 hours.
I’m definitely not going to anonymize posting. I want to know who I’m talking to. The other two I’m not going to demand an enforcable option, but it might be nice if people didn’t just demand evidence, but also explained what they were looking for and why one kind of ‘evidence’ is poor. I’m also not going to throttle comments. I will say that one of the primary signs that alerts me that a conversation has gone off the rails is when half the comments are from one person.
I’m also not keen on 10 comments, each one containing a one-liner. Think before hitting the comment button.
One more thing:
PZ, if you have rules in this place you need to be a bit more rigorous about enforcing them. Not enforcing the rules is nearly the same as not having the rules in the first place. And if you’re too busy to do that then the place won’t change much.
Ack! WORK???!? You are cruel and demanding commentariat.
Anyway, that’s a lot of stuff. I’m looking for more input — some of those ideas are difficult or unworkable. I also don’t want a great big long list of Rules to Obey, but more some simple general guidelines that don’t require referencing Law 73, subsection IV, paragraph 2. I am not going to invite rules lawyers to camp here.
Here’s one I was thinking of.
Before you post a comment, think to yourself: Is what I said educational, entertaining, or congenial? It has to be at least one of the three, or you shouldn’t waste the readers’ time saying it.
There was also some talk about how if I’m going to have to WORK at this more, I’m going to have some other enforcement options than just banning someone outright. Temporary suspensions are doable. I could disemvowel comments that break the spirit of the rules. I could just leave a little red note on the comment, rebuking the person. I’ll have to think of entertaining ways to chastise from on high to make it more fun.
I’m not done. I’m still thinking. Fire away some more.