Not everyone writes to provoke, but provocative writing is common in the blogosphere, including the segment of blogging for traditional news and opinion outlets. Editors’ goals for bloggers resemble their aims for columnists. Generally they want to hire someone whose edginess is both deniable and claimable—not one of our reporters, but one of our loosely affiliated thinkers.
That dynamic tension is mirrored in commenting policy. Most provocative bloggers push buttons and boundaries in order to provoke reader reaction, yet moderate the responses they provoked. From the perspective of the provoked, that can feel arbitrary: You casually mishandled or demeaned my beliefs, but I can’t call you or the persons who agreed with you an ugly name? That’s not fair!
On the other hand, bloggers who moderate their comments typically do so because they value the quality of the conversation that they’ve provoked. Typically they have a standard of civility they feel that it’s okay to poke at, but not puncture. Some are better than others at describing that standard of civility, and some are better than others at adhering to the standards they’ve set. Those of us who write provocative pieces occasionally write things we wish we’d phrased differently.
The commenters on group blogs, especially those featuring broadly divergent political and cultural opinion, obviously represent a special challenge. One person’s affirmation of political faith (“obviously Marxism is a failed ideology”) is an intellectual mugging to others. That represents special challenges to working out civility for columnists and commenters alike.
“We value our community and will work to protect that community.”
--Feministe commenting policy
The most successful commenting policies frame a space that invites, values and rewards the most thoughtful commenters. Commenters aren’t just metrics (“the post got three hundred comments!”) As “the former audience,” commenters are often full, strenuous participants. They are citizens and collaborators.
From a narrow mainstream economic point of view: Bloggers create value for The Chronicle far more cheaply than paid columnists; commenters create value at even lower cost. That lower cost, however, is not zero. One of the unavoidable costs of harvesting commenter value is managing the space in which they work. The best commenters, like the best bloggers, like to work in a space in which provocation can survive without triggering personal assault, and where controversy can unfold without fear of abuse.
At non-corporate group blogs the labor of managing comment space is performed by the bloggers themselves, sometimes with responsibility only for their individual contributions, but generally with elements of collaborative decision-making about when to ban a commenter, setting overall policy, etc. In the most successful, the work contributed by the bloggers toward developing comments policy and practices represents a sense of responsibility to the community of commenters; an active valuing, nurturing, and enabling of others; a labor of care.
At The Chronicle, both the labor of managing comment space and the decision-making about comments ultimately has rested with the editors and owners of the paper. The Chronicle has tried to moderate with its vision of a light touch. They delete comments involving self-promotion, language that some readers find offensive, and at least some that indicate a failing grasp of reality.
But they have permitted insults and ad hominem abuse of bloggers and—what’s more damaging to the discursive space—other commenters. At Feministe, by contrast, F-bombs are permitted unless they’re part of an insult, which is always forbidden. At Crooked Timber, the original posters may moderate to keep a conversation on track, deleting comments that they find “stupid or irrelevant,” insubstantial, or simply lowering the conversation below “a reasonable level” of informed discourse.
Over the years here at Brainstorm some bloggers have asked for more moderation and others have left in part because they disagreed with this policy.
More important than the loss of a blogger or two is the fact that many of the most thoughtful commenters have voted with their feet as well. Losing a smart commenter has a clear meaning. They would rather donate their labor to the conversation elsewhere, either in a better-written or more thoughtfully-moderated space. One of the core differences between managing a columnist and a blogger is that being “better written” means sustaining excellent comments. The field of good writing doesn’t end with the initial column.
Back in the early days of the blog, I frequently spoke to people who complained about the tone of the comments and who either stopped commenting or declined to join in a conversation that they found distasteful, abusive, hasty, thoughtless, “not smart,” hostile to faculty and intellectuals, etc. In successful blogs, one of the inducements for thoughtful commenters is the possibility of direct response from the blogger, and the possibility of ongoing dialogue. That possibility depends a great deal on the blogger and commenter feeling safe in the space.
Don’t get me wrong. There are justifications for allowing a great deal of latitude in reply to provocative writing. When you prod the vanity of leadership, or the corruption and carelessness of your colleagues, you should expect to be prodded in return. Furthermore, I personally run to the libertarian in speech matters. I’d rather endure a few insults than have my speech curbed. Most speech codes end by constraining progressive speech, speech critical of authority, churches, employers, etc. The majority of faculty don’t realize how constrained their speech is by dangerous law, the weakness of the profession and cowardice of their peers, etc. The growing constraints on faculty speech are not dangerous only to faculty and the fading, mutating institution of tenure; they’re dangerous to students, the nontenurable faculty, and other administrators.
On balance, however, I have long argued internally within Brainstorm that it is important to engage in some greater moderation of the comments. In general, I think rules of civility should be enforced, flexibly and with judgement: If I describe some practices of campus leadership “thuggery and bullying,” I should expect some tart responses—but perhaps within limits. Commenters, especially, deserve protection from other commenters.
Specifically, I think The Chronicle should consider some version of Crooked Timber’s policy, which reads, in part:
If your comments are blatantly racist, sexist or homophobic we will delete them and ban you from the site. The same goes for comments which are personally defamatory or insulting or which seek to derail a thread through provocation of one kind or another. If your comments strike us as stupid or irrelevant we may also delete them in the interests of keeping the conversation at a reasonable level. Commenters who routinely seek to make marginally relevant debating points may be barred to make room for those with a substantive contribution to the discussion. It is up to us. Individual members of CT may ban particular readers from commenting on their posts, based on their own criteria for constructive discussion, or we may reach a group decision on a ban from the site as a whole.
Some readers will find this strong medicine. For Brainstorm it would be a big change, especially the part about the agency of individual bloggers (“It is up to us.”) On the other hand, it might sustain more dialogue between bloggers and contributors, moving conversations forward and keeping them substantial.
I think this sort of policy would safeguard civility and raise the overall intellectual tone. It would create a series of places where more contributors would feel safe and motivated to contribute, rather than an echo chamber for a small pack of roving bullies. I believe it would encourage and motivate real name participation, which has a much higher value in the reputational ecology of social media.
It works at CT; it might work here. The relationship could be one of greater collaboration between editors, bloggers and the most thoughtful commenters.
Decentralized moderation needn’t be arduous; the details of a similar policy at Feministe involve approval of a commenter’s first comment, who remains approved until a comment is moderated at either the level of an individual blogger’s space or the whole site.
At Feministe, there isn’t necessarily a moderator always on duty: “Sometimes the blog is unsupervised. It is a blog, not a small child, and can go some time alone without setting the house on fire.”
Possibly we’ll get better results from Brainstorm if we let it grow up a bit.
In my next post, I’ll have a few things to say about Naomi Schaefer Riley. I already had my say about her work roughly a year ago (Giggling At Stereotypes). In general, I think most reasonable observers will eventually agree that the issue with her work isn’t one flawed post, but a history of offenses against academic norms.