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 nature.com) 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:
Someone 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?