Comments On…

There’s been rather a lot of meta-blogging recently, for a variety of reasons. So if you’ve had enough of that, here’s a blog you might like to read instead. The rest of you should be ready to be interactive, as this is about blog comments.

A couple of weeks ago Dan Pollock (boss of made this comment, about the policy policy of having to have an NN account before commenting on blogs:

I think we all know that there are pros and cons between quantity and quality. Our thinking is that we really want to maintain the quality of the discussion, and avoid (as much as we can) some of the aggression that can plague open fora in science and elsewhere.

I understand his concerns, but I don’t think the solution Nature Network is presently using (i.e. insisting on registration) is the best. And I think the larger issue of how one encourages good comment threads is interesting, so it’s worth spending a bit of time looking at.
First, I don’t want to spend a great deal of space over what is a good comment thread: different peole want different things. I assume Nature Network wants intelligent discussion, as well as photos like this:
RIMG0006.JPGSomeone say something?
What they (we) don’t want is the blogospheric equivalent to shouting matches to disturb our polite munching of watercress sandwiches. We also don’t want silence – that suggests we’re being ignored. Other bloggers prefer different tyles of commenting, which is fine: the blogosphere is big enough for everyone. But unless otherwise noted, assumebelow that “good quality comments” means “intelligent, thoughtful and polite comments”.
My central thesis is that we don’t need to erect barriers to make commenting more difficult if we are to encourage the sorts of comments we want, there are better ways of doing it. But first let’s look at a couple of ways not to encourage high quality discussions.

How not to run comments

The first comes from the world of Intelligent Design. One of the premiere ID blogs is Uncommon Descent. They have a policy of tight moderation, which in practice is stricter towards opponents of ID. This means that anyone opposing ID has to be very careful: the slightest hint of incivility (e.g. explaining why a post writer is wrong) will result in moderation, or straight banning (often quietly, without letting anyone know). This has got to the point where, not only is there a bulletin board thread mocking Uncommon Descent, there is even a thread to record when people are banned. All a bit childish, really.
The effect of this distinctly one-sided policy is to stifle the discussion. Anyone arguing against ID has to be very careful what they write. , Many good people, with expertise in mathematics and biology (the areas of science UD writes about) find themselves banned, so they can no longer take part in the discussions and educate other readers. The resulting comment threads can be a bit of a train-wreck: although the pro-ID commenters are generally ignorant of biology and science, they will still pontificating at great length without listening to the few anti-ID people currently not banned.I assume the moderators at UD like this the way it is, which is fair enough if that’s what they want, but it doesn’t encourage an even exchange of views and knowledge. Given the fractious relationship between the pro- and anti- ID crowds, I understand why they would want to moderate the discussion, but the one-sided nature makes it very difficult to get a substantive discussion.
At the opposite extreme is PZed Myers’ Pharyngula. His policy on comments is pretty much anything goes: threats are bad, and being consistently obnoxious isn’t good either, but after that he’s happy for people to say what they want. The principle is one of free speech, but in practice things are a bit different. The commenters at Pharyngula – the pharynguloids – have a well deserved reputation for being aggressive towards anyone who doesn’t share their stance on hot button topics. Dare to suggest that one might want to take a moderate stance towards Christians and you’ll be shouted down or accused of concern trolling. The reaction of a lot of people towards this is that it’s not worth the hassle of commenting there. Thus, whatever the intention, the effect is to silence a significant group of people, people with a different viewpoint, and who aren’t aggressive enough to want to continue defending themselves from all comers. Just as at Uncommon Descent, the comment threads at Pharyngula feel too much like echo chambers. There are disagreements, but only within a small group. Again, if PZed likes it this way, fair enough. But it’s clearly not a model Nature Network wants to follow.

How (hopefully) to have good comment threads

So moderating can make comment threads worse, but a lack of moderation is bad too. What’s a blogger to do? Well, part of the problem with both UD and Pharyngula is that the bloggers themselves encourage a certain type of commenter. Uncommon Descent blogs about ID, and mainly attracts creationists. Their audience is mainly poorly educated in science (to be fair, about as poorly as I am in theology), and their primary interest is advancing a religious agenda. It perhaps makes sense that they don’t want too many scientists there, as the blog becomes a battleground between evolution and ID, rather than a place where pro-ID people can discuss their interests. Similarly, PZed’s audience is (now) mainly radical atheists, and both his posts and comment threads encourage that audience.
But can we engineer comment threads that encourage thoughful debate, without raising high barriers? I think we can, and there are many blogs where this is done. To pick one example, Thorny C. write a blog about teh history of science called The Renaissance Mathematicus. He mainly posts historical snapshots, concentrating on the lesser known Renaissance scientists. The subject is rather obscure, and the posts generally more intellectual than many blogs. He has has a group of readers, but the discussions that ensue are generally polite and well-informed. Just the sort of comments I assume Nature Network wants to encourage. All this without a need to register.
So how does Thorny C. do it? I think his strategy is to be himself, and to write posts that are engaging to a certain audience, without inflaming others. Both his subject and his writing style make this possible. I doubt he needs to moderate many comments (other than spam), because he creates an environment where the people who want to comment will be the sort of people he wants to comment – people who will discuss or joke, rather than throw brickbats at each other.
I think Nature Network will be able to do the same thing (modulo the occasional outburst). They key is to have bloggers who encourage their readers to think about what has been written (but preferably writing shorter posts than this one), and perhaps who will steer away from more controversial topics, like ID.
Someone in the last couple of days (and – my apologies – I forget who) observed that blogging networks are able to be selective about who they recruit, so that they can create the sort of group they want. I think this is how Nature Network can encourage high quality discussions without erecting barriers to commenting – by picking up bloggers that write thoughtfully about scientific topics (in a broad sense) without being inflammatory. The long-time bloggers here do that, and that there are many other science bloggers who could also. This doesn’t mean the network would be a small group based around British attitudes, it would be enough that bloggers respect other bloggers, and indeed their commenters. This still leaves a wide range of blogging styles and views available, so adiversity of opinion and voice can still be encouraged.
Worth a try, eh?

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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23 Responses to Comments On…

  1. Lou Woodley says:

    Thanks Bob for a constructive and useful post. The discussions around our commenting/registration policy are still open here so this is a useful analysis to add to them. I’ll make sure it’s included.

  2. Eva Amsen says:

    I had a chat with Dan about commenting, and he asked whether bloggers would be willing to moderate their own comments. I surely would (I do so anyway) but it may be useful to poll bloggers about this. I’m used to comment moderating by now, but wouldn’t know if a new blogger knows to check all incoming comments for spam (and the spam filter for things that accidentally get stuck there, like lengthy linky comments from Cath…)

  3. Bob O'Hara says:

    Thanks, Lou. I hope you can lure Dan over here to comment too. I’m sure there’s more to be said, and it would be good to hear his current thinking.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Wise words Bob. I really don’t think that high barriers such as registration are necessary to foster an environment where interesting conversations can be held. You can never legislate for the nutters (nor should you) and I agree whole-heartedly with you that it is down to the authors to set the tone, as many round here have already demonstrated.
    Even if NN is primarily aiming to be a forum for scientists (though I would like to see that ambition widened), discussions here are losing the input of many from the scientific community because of the registration barrier.
    I do think it’s time to take the stabilisers off.
    As a blogger here myself I am more than happy to moderate comments (and indeed already have that capability through MT4). I was a bit surprised by Dan’s question.

  5. Bob O'Hara says:

    Moderating comments is something every blogger should expect to do, I think. I don’t know what the situation is over legal liabilities for NN, possibly that’s a worry.

  6. Mike Fowler says:

    It’s lunchtime, so I’ll post this quickly before I eat my mouse (or even bother finish reading the whole post):

    Their audience is mainly poorly educated in science (to be fair, about as poorly as I am in theology)

    Is it possible to get a good education in theology?

  7. Frank Norman says:

    I do think it’s time to take the stabilisers off.
    I like the metaphor! And agree with the sentiment.
    @Bob – you seem to be suggesting that the best route forward is to recruit bloggers who will write laid-back posts on uncontroversial topics? I sense a slight danger of dozing off if this is taken to extremes.

  8. Bob O'Hara says:

    Good point, Frank. But I think bloggers like Thorny C. and the regulars here (including yourself) show that NN can avoid that fate.

  9. Benoit Bruneau says:

    (holding martini with pinky in the air, munching quietly watercress sandwich)
    Jolly good then old chap.

  10. Mike Fowler says:

    Having finished my lunch, and then reading the full post above, I agree with some of your points, Bob, but not others.
    I’m definitely happy to see NN opened up to wider audience. Individual bloggers should be encouraged to state and develop their own moderation styles. To respond to a recent comment on another NN blog, “Blogs as such are so last decade” if you don’t allow them to evolve.
    But, I like a bit of controversy when I’m reading a blog. That’s part of the fun. And it’s as likely (if not more) to get my mental gears cranking up as an interesting historical amble through the philosophy of science. Because, I suppose, I feel I can engage with a controversial topic by asking simple and/or challenging questions. So I like controversy, but it definitely doesn’t have to be associated with rudeness.
    And I think you’re being a little unfair in describing ID as “controversial”. It’s just wrong and plain stupid.

  11. Cath Ennis says:

    Hey! It was only ONE lengthy linky comment! (Well, the same one twice).
    Very much agree that the blogger sets the tone for the comments, and that everyone should expect to have to moderate their comments to some extent.

  12. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. So I like controversy, but it definitely doesn’t have to be associated with rudeness.
    Fair point. I was thinking about tone rather than content per se and I guess that could be more important.

  13. Richard Carter, FCD says:

    Now that I have managed to dig out my NN id from my email archive and login, I shall post a comment:
    I am not an NN blogger. I only read a couple of NN blogs (including, for some inexplicable reason, this one). I would almost certainly read more, were it not for NN’s frankly ridiculous requirement for me to login to their network to make comments. I think it’s an excellent idea to insist that commenters identify themselves when making comments, but requiring them to set up a NN id to do so is completely over the top.
    Most blogs which require some sort of comment authentication do so by allowing people to use an OpenID, Google, Facebook or Twitter id. I find this approach entirely acceptable, as it means I only have to remember one form of identification.
    In terms of comment moderation, on my own blog, a person’s first comment is sent to the moderation queue. Once their first comment has been approved, any subsequent comments by them are automatically approved (although I can turn this facility off for individual commenters, if they abuse the privilege of being able to make unmoderated comments). This arrangement works just fine, and makes comment moderation pretty painless – not that I receive very many comments.
    Come on NN, stop trying to be control freaks. Who do you think you are? Apple?

  14. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Great post, Bob. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the need to moderate a single comment on my blog (aside from spam), but it’s good to know I can.
    p.s. For all you Americans out there, “stabilizers” is British for “training wheels”.

  15. Benoit Bruneau says:

    I’m not that horrified by the current NN policy, but it certainly could be more simple.
    OK, are you all done with blogging about blogging? This blogaroon has taken away from stuff we want to discuss (science stuff), and no, that does not include blogging. The medium is really not the message as much as one would like to think.

  16. Grant Jacobs says:

    I generally agree Bob, I came to the conclusion a while ago that it’s the topic and style of the blogger that (for the most part) sets the tone, and like Jennifer I don’t have to moderate other than for spam.
    (I have had to caution some people coming in on threads with advocacy stances, but part of the issue there was others elsewhere framing my articles incorrectly then directing their readers my way.)

  17. GrrlScientist says:

    i wrote a comment that made nearly the same observations behind the scenes a few weeks ago (except in that comment, i mentioned that my scienceblogs site rarely had aggressive, spiteful commenters, even when i am poking at religion and ID) and i hypothesized that it was my writing style that kept most commenters from being overtly nasty or threatening.
    so i agree that topic choice plays a role in the resulting commenting style, but even more than that, the blog author’s writing style plays a powerful role in setting the tone that commenters adopt.

  18. Thony Christie says:

    Is it possible to blush on line? If so them I’m doing it now ;)

  19. John A. Davison says:

    I have found that my interpretation of the great mystery of phylogenesis evokes great resistance in most internet blogs, usually resulting in my speedy banishment. I feel that when so little is known about the “causes” of organic evolution that a more tolerant atmosphere should prevail. You see it is only the “cause” that remains in question so that is what I am most interested in. For those who may not be familiar with my science and that of my distinguished predecessors, we have decided that 1. Chance has never played a major role in evolution. 2. Evolution was (past tense) a goal oriented phenomenon with man the ultimate product. 3. Evolution is no longer in progress except for the production of subspecies and varieties none of which are incipient species in any event.
    What I am wondering is this. Is it possible to have a rational discussion here on this nature network blog concerning our position, a discussion free of rancor and hostile reaction?
    After all, the primary unknown factor concerning phylogenesis is the “mechanism” by which it (past tense) proceeded. In short, it is my position that -
    “A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable.”
    I regard the “mechanism” for phylogenesis as the central problem in evolutionary science and I am anxious to see it resolved as soon as possible.

  20. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. What I am wondering is this. Is it possible to have a rational discussion here on this nature network blog concerning our position, a discussion free of rancor and hostile reaction?
    It is possible, but I won’t have time for a few weeks to look at this (I’m travelling).

  21. John A. Davison says:

    Bob OHara
    I am disappointed in your response. Traveling no longer inhibits communication and hasn’t for decades. If you don’t choose to engage me or others on the question of the mechanism of organic evolution, just say so.
    Perhaps the following might serve to change your mind. Leo Berg, one of my most valued sources, had this to say about the twin mysteries of ontogeny and phylogeny -
    “Neither in the one nor in the other is there room for chance.”
    Nomogenesis, page 134
    I agree with Berg as I agree with Pierre Grasse, Robert Broom, Richard B. Goldschmidt, Otto Schindewolf and William Bateson, among many others, that the Darwinian model is inadequate as an explanatory thesis and that it should be abandoned as having nothing to do with evolution beyond the elaboration of subspecies and varieties, none of which are incipient species.
    If you choose not to respond here, you are welcome to respond at my weblog where you can be certain you will be heard and treated with respect.

  22. Bob O'Hara says:

    I’m sorry you’re disappointed. But whilst travelling I intend to concentrate on the real world – it’s partly a holiday and partly conferences. So I’ll be busy, I’m afraid.

  23. John A. Davison says:

    Let me know if you are ever propared to defend the godless, aimless, purposeless fantasy that neoDarwinism has proven itself to be. I am prepared at the drop of a hat to demonstrate in a neutral public forum that it’s the most absurd notion ever to escape the human imagination and find the printed page. Enjoy your conference.