Tag Archives: Blogging

S&R makes major change to commenting policy

CATEGORY: ScholarsAndRoguesOnce upon a time I could be counted on to say something like “the comment thread is often the most important part of a blog post.” When you have an intelligent community of good-faith readers and commenters, the initial post need not be fully baked and comprehensive – it can instead be treated as a conversation-starter, a jumping-off point for something larger and organic. I have learned a great deal in comment threads, and I imagine many of our readers have, as well.

I not only participate in comment threads here at S&R, I have been aggressive in counseling my former employers and business clients with blogs to keep the comment section as open and free as possible because such a policy promotes clear, productive communications between the company and its customers. (It also serves an important canary-in-the-coalmine function – if you let your customers say what they want, a lot of times you’ll glean useful information and you’ll frequently get a clue of impending problems before you would through conventional channels.) In sum, comments good.

Lately my belief in the value of the comments sections has waned, and I’m not alone. Nearly everyone on the S&R staff feels some level of frustration at how unproductive our comment threads have been lately, and many other online publishers are encountering the same issues. How to respond? Some sites, including Xark, Dan Conover and Zen Habits, have gone so far as to completely shut comments off. (Some big names, including Seth Godin, The Dish, John Hawks and Talking Points Memo, never enabled comments in the first place.)

Fueling our individual and anecdotal suspicions that the train has jumped the tracks is a new study suggesting that the modern-day comment thread can actually damage the perceived credibility of the original post.

In an experiment mentioned in the Science paper and soon to be published elsewhere in greater detail, about 2,000 people were asked to read a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments. All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.

“Disturbingly, readers’ interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story,” wrote authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele.

“In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself.”

Researchers found that even knowledge of science did not seem to mediate the effects of the comments.

These findings are specifically concerned with scientific conversations, but I suspect a similar dynamic plays out around nearly any kind of expertise-oriented post. I know what I see in comment threads these days often follows the path suggested by the study, regardless of the topic.

Why Have Comment Threads Deteriorated?

So, once upon a time comment threads were great and now they’ve gone to hell. What has happened? I described what I called “Thinkworld vs. Shoutworld” for an op-ed in Editor & Publisher back in 2004, and I suspect what Brossard and Scheufele are finding is eight years of further deterioration around a couple of predictable variables.

First, the rise of social media is siphoning off discussions. There have been a number of times where an S&R post has spurred lengthy and lively comment threads…somewhere else. Like at Reddit or Current or, of course, Facebook. Perhaps the reason here is simple: blogs and online publications like Scholars & Rogues are perceived as “public” space. Anyone can wander in and say whatever.

Your social networks are controlled by you, however. If you want to discuss something we have written, you can port it over to FB and do so with your own circle of trusted friends. You have constructed those networks in a way that suits you – if you don’t like flaming and shouting, you have unfriended the people who are prone to that kind of behavior. Beyond that, these people are “friends,” not strangers. While you may not know them very well all the time, there exists a social contract between you.

Second, what’s left once the nice people are gone? We have known since the ’90s that online conversations can quickly get nasty. Online forums are impersonal and seem to foster appalling behavior of the sort we’d never exhibit in person. There have been any number of times when participants in online groups have hidden behind anonymity and said things to me that they wouldn’t say to my face, and if you have spent more than ten minutes online you have seen this happen. It has probably happened to you. Perhaps you have been the one exhibiting the anti-social behavior yourself, and if so, you may well have felt embarrassed later as you reflected on your actions and words.

The Internet also tends to be a very “male” environment – that is, it favors those who speak loudly and aggressively. Women have never participated as much as we’d like because many of them, if I might generalize a tad, don’t like being bullied by testosterone-soaked jerks. Further, loud debates are frequently not thoughtful ones, which has the effect of driving off a lot of smart folks, most of whom have better things to do than trade insults with people who are more reliant on attitude than intellect.

In other words, over time online environments self-select for the worst elements: the loud, the belligerent, the less informed, those with agendas and firmly closed minds. In other words, says Bora Zivkovic at Scientific American…

But there is another problem here – most of the good, nice, constructive commenters may have gone silent and taken their discussions of your blog elsewhere, but the remaining few commenters are essentially trolls.

This isn’t always the case, of course. We’ve been fortunate here at S&R to host some fantastic comment threads. Lisa Barnard’s recent online dating post, for instance, spurred a genuinely friendly response, and we heard from dozens of people who shared their own experiences in ways that reminded us all of what a comment section ought to be like.

What Can Be Done?

The staff has kicked the comments question around a good bit. We’ve discussed the good and the bad, we’ve offered up a variety of proposals (ranging from “leave it alone” to “kill them entirely”). In the end, we decided that as badly as we want to rid ourselves of the ignoramuses, the jackasses and the trolls, we don’t want to sacrifice those moments where our readers can be genuinely enlightened by smart input from other readers (nor do we want to deprive our thoughtful followers of the chance to engage in public discussions that interest them).

After some discussion, we think we’ve hit on a better model given the current environment: the old newspaper “letters to the editor” section. Our new policy, which is effective immediately, will operate like a cross between that and what we have now.

The New S&R Comment Policy

The comment section will remain at the bottom of each post, and we will encourage readers to craft thoughtful responses to what they’re seeing. Unlike a regular comment thread, which posts the comment unless it’s objectionable, our new approach will reverse the presumption: we will not post a comment unless we feel it legitimately furthers the conversation. This doesn’t mean we’ll require a fully sourced and cited thesis, but it does mean that we need to see evidence of thought and/or insight.

It also means that we won’t be green-lighting any of the “me, too” comments you find on most blogs. If your response is essentially “hey, I like this,” then please hit the “Like” button at the top of the page (and even better, click the links at the bottom of the post, which make it easy for you to share the article with your social networks).

We don’t want our new policy to come off as too intimidating. We do want to set the bar higher, though. If you read the site regularly, it’s obvious how much effort our writers put into S&R, and we can no longer abide those cases where our hard work is undermined by commenters who aren’t advancing the conversation or who are deliberately sabotaging it for their own narrow, cynical ends.

It goes without saying that hateful, ad hominem, substance-free submissions will be deleted and repeat offenders will be banned.

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New recommendation for your reading list: Guerillassance

My friend Evans Mehew (the man who, several years ago, introduced me to this brand newfangled thing called “blogging”) has launched a site called Guerillassance (as in guerilla + renaissance). Evans is a very smart guy and lately he’s been thinking a lot about our addiction to things, to stuff, and more generally, what the hell has happened to the American Dream?

Have a look at his latest, “Retail Therapy (Or, The Most Effective Trap Is the One We Volunteer to Walk Into).” Thoughtful and immediate – I’m guessing most of us are going to see our own reflections in the mirror he’s holding up to the world.

Post #1,000: four years along one writer’s bumpy road

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits what we might call the 10,000-Hour Theory – that is, to become exceptional at something, you have to dedicate 10,000 hours to it. Whether you’re an aspiring concert violinist, a hockey player, a business analyst, whatever, it takes the equivalent of three hours a day, every day, for more than nine years to separate yourself from the pack.

10,000 hours is a lot of hours, especially if your area of specialty, your passion, the hateful beast that you can’t live without no matter how hard you try, is mine: writing.

A small team of us (myself, Mike Sheehan, Brian Angliss, Jim Booth, Denny Wilkins, and Gavin Chait, plus Edmundo Rocha, Rori Black, Robert Silvey and the late Martin Bosworth) launched Scholars & Rogues in April of 2007, and this marks my 1,000th post to the site (932 under my own name and 68 writing as my alter-ego, Dr. Sidicious Bonesparkle). Continue reading Post #1,000: four years along one writer’s bumpy road

Arianna Antoinette: “Let the motherfuckers eat cake”

A few weeks ago I asked a question: is the Huffington Post a force for good or a liberal sweatshop? In the wake of HuffPo‘s megamillion-dollar sale to AOL, it struck me as appropriate to question the ethics behind an allegedly progressive business operating in a fashion that was indistinguishable from the greedmongering corporate entities it professed to oppose. I know a number of people who have written there (uncompensated, by and large) who feel that they benefited significantly from the arrangement, and I respect their perspectives.

Not everybody sees it that way, though. Continue reading Arianna Antoinette: “Let the motherfuckers eat cake”

An important fund drive at Smirking Chimp

We all have our favorite stops around the ‘sphere. One of the oldest and best progressive voices out there is Jeff Tiedrich’s Smirking Chimp, and while we don’t normally do this sort of thing, I’m asking everybody to pop over there today and, if you can, contribute to their fund drive. They’re talking a heavy beating financially, as are a lot of worthy online publishers these days, and if a lack of cash causes them to under we’ll all be the worse for it.

We live in a world where pillagers like the Kochs and Rupert Murdoch make sure that their twisted story gets told. Unfortunately there is a lot less big-time money available for those of us working to counter the noise machine. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, George Soros isn’t making us all rich. Continue reading An important fund drive at Smirking Chimp

Dirty Hippies: a new blog of potential interest to S&R readers

Some time back I mentioned that a group of us dirty hippie libruls have started a sports talk blog (because we love sports as much as we hate your freedom). Now, the same cast of ne’er-do-wells has launched an actual political site called, simply enough, Dirty Hippies (democracy, unwashed). Several of us here at S&R are members, and the site will feature a variety of fare from some of the finest thinkers, writers, agitators and wiseasses in all of Blogistan.

Give it a look if you get a chance.

WordsDay Special: A Poem for Tuesday poet for Friday

On several occasions we have pointed you toward the Poem for Tuesday feature at The Agonist. That weekly must-read is presented by Bruce Jacobs, who’s a fantastic poet in his own right. He’s our Poet of the Day at the Samuel Smith Poetry community on Facebook, and I thought I’d take a moment to point S&R lit lovers to his work while I’m at it.

So give “Jeep Cherokee,” his much-lauded rant at the master-of-the-universe affluenza infecting our society, a read. I don’t have a Jeep, but my truck is probably as much an affront to good sense as the Cherokee is, and great art makes us take a hard, uncomfortable look in the mirror sometimes, doesn’t it?

A snip:

This is a car for
a uniformed strongman, Continue reading WordsDay Special: A Poem for Tuesday poet for Friday

Top 1K: It’s a big day at S&R

There are several ways of evaluating a blog’s place in the food chain. The one we’ve always paid the most attention to is Technorati, a search and ranking site that indexes well over 850,000 blogs. If you’re interested in learning more about how Technorati operates, you can review this overview at DollarShower.com.

Anyway, as of this morning, Scholars & Rogues has, for the first time in our history, crashed into the Top 1,000. We’ve been flirting with the 1K mark for a couple of weeks now, and at the moment we’re ranked #969. Needless to say, we’re pretty darned proud of ourselves. Continue reading Top 1K: It’s a big day at S&R

RIP Martin Bosworth, original Scrogue

One of our original scrogue colleagues has passed away. Martin Bosworth, who helped us found Scholars & Rogues in April of 2007, was a central member of our community for our first year. He wrote frequently and energetically about progressive political issues of all sorts, and had a particular expertise in Internet policy issues. His death is a significant loss for progressive causes across the country.

I believe we’ll all remember Martin as committed and passionate, and his many followers and friends have set up a Facebook page where everyone can pay their respects. Continue reading RIP Martin Bosworth, original Scrogue

Business and social media: American companies growing up, sort of

Ever since the Internet began gaining popular awareness in the mid-1990s, the topic of how businesses can productively use various new media technologies has been a subject of ongoing interest. Along the way we’ve had a series of innovations to consider: first it was the Net, and the current tool of the moment is Twitter. In between we had, in no particular order, Facebook (not that Facebook has gone away, of course), CRM, mobile (SMS, smart phones, apps), blogging, RSS and aggregation, Digg (and Reddit and StumbleUpon and Current and Yahoo! Buzz and Technorati and Del.icio.us and seemingly thousands more), targeted e-mail, YouTube, SEO, SEM, online PR and, well, you get the idea.

We certainly hear examples of businesses getting it right with new media, but in truth these cases represent a painfully small minority. Continue reading Business and social media: American companies growing up, sort of