Marginalia

by Henry on September 15, 2005

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has some interesting things to say about his experiment in allowing comments on his blog.

1. Visitor stats rise considerably. But this happens so quickly, I believe it is people hitting “reload” to read additional comments, rather than more readers.

2. The more that comments are regularly available, the more rapidly the quality of comments falls. The quality of comments stays high when it is periodic, not automatic, and when we request comments specifically.

3. The quality of comments is highest when the matter under consideration involves particular facts and decentralized knowledge. Posts which mention evolution, free will, or Paul Krugman do not generate the highest quality of comments.

So my current sense (Alex chooses his own course, though I believe he agrees) is to ask for comments periodically rather than always having comments open. The goal is to maximize the real value of comments, rather than the number of comments (or measured visits) per se.

Which of these specific claims can be universalized? Speaking, like Tyler, from personal experience, it seems to me that his observations on visitor stats are probably generally true. The relationship between the general availability of comments, and the quality of the comments falling in particular varies considerably from blog to blog. Making Light has been extraordinarily successful in building up a community of commenters with interesting things to say (it has a homier feel than most comment sections; everyone mostly knows each other). The argument that more commenters=less interesting discussions has a lot of truth to it – there is very clearly a Gresham’s law effect, where bad commenters drive out good ones. Which suggests (and again Making Light illustrates this well) that a vigorous moderation policy can help counteract the negative effects of growth. Finally, Tyler may be on to something when he talks about specific facts and decentralized knowledge – but there’s another factor there which I think is even more important. That’s the extent to which there is minimal agreement on a shared set of facts in the first place. Where there isn’t – and where there’s strongly opposed viewpoints – blog comments sections tend to break down rapidly. For Tyler, it’s Paul Krugman; for us, it’s the Israel-Palestine question (where I don’t allow comments any more on the rare occasions that I post ). But even here, Jonathan Edelstein’s Head Heeb seems to succeed in hosting generally civil discussions – I suspect that this is another example of the community effect – the commenters are a group of people who seem to have come to know each other over time, and have a good sense of the ground rules of debate. But enough rabbitting on; over to you.

{ 56 comments }

1

roger 09.15.05 at 11:36 am

From the commenters point of view, one thing is missing here — comments that allow you to go to other sites lead to discoveries of other sites. I think that there is a certain zigzag between site and site that makes blogging “intertextual” — to use Kristeva’s much overused term — and that intertextuality makes commenting so much different (and more interesting) than, say, letters to the editor.

2

reuben 09.15.05 at 11:45 am

A year ago, when I was earning my Advanced Anorak badge by rabbiting on to my friends about how much they could learn from blogs such as this one, Kevin Drum’s, et al, I frequently said, “The best things are the comments. People often cite research you wouldn’t otherwise know of, or bring up points of view you wouldn’t have considered. There’s lots of disagreement, but it’s generally civil and often downright enlightening.”

Now, I say, “Check out the blogs, but whatever you do, do not read the comments.”

That’s less true here than at Drum’s or, in particular, Harry’s Place, but the commentosphere has definitely grown much nastier in the last six or so months. And that’s most definitely not just the fault of those on the right: there was a particularly nasty shouting down of someone on John and Belle’s blog not too long ago, tainting an otherwise excellent post and discussion.

3

reuben 09.15.05 at 11:48 am

Not to flag up J&B’s as a “bad blog” for comments – in fact, besides that one example, it’s always seemed to be a nice place to be and to learn a bit more about something. As opposed to the Harry’s Place comments, which is a really vicious war zone most of the time. And that’s too bad, because there actually is a lot to learn and discuss over there.

4

Jake 09.15.05 at 11:54 am

Reuben–
I disagree, although I don’t have any proof nor any intention to try to go gathering it. My own impression is that some blogs grow more or less nasty over time depending on which commenters are frequenting them, but the overall tone is no nastier now than it was, say, a year ago, or even two years ago.

5

abb1 09.15.05 at 12:34 pm

The secret to having a good comments section is to induce a fair number of eggheaded nerds to participate. They repel most of ’em nasty trolls faster than crucifix works on vampires.

Still, some manage to survive…

6

Urbina 09.15.05 at 12:44 pm

Jake,

the overall tone is no nastier now than it was, say, a year ago, or even two years ago.

Yes… my experience as well. The après-guerre period in 2003 and the runup to the U.S. elections were especially nasty.

Reuben,

As opposed to the Harry’s Place comments, which is a really vicious war zone most of the time. And that’s too bad, because there actually is a lot to learn and discuss over there.

Agree with the very last part of your opinion: no one dissects the varieties of Islamism as well as David T (or his colleagues), or more effectively demolishes its apologists. The comments in HP are a bit rough and tumble when SWP types come by to visit (especially since 7/7) but where else will you get the Gallowayite POV outside of the hardcore Stopper haunts?

7

John Emerson 09.15.05 at 1:04 pm

IMHO, CT has been uniquely unlucky in the quality of its commenters. It seems to attract marginally-competent rightwing ideologues, who often take over entirely.

I have long been an advocate of aggressive moderation, even when it means that my own comments might be deleted.

8

Wesley Phoa 09.15.05 at 1:42 pm

Why not use a system like Slashdot’s, with moderation, meta-moderation and optional filtering? For me it seems to work reasonably well (given the signal:noise ratio there, which in my view is even worse than on the political blogs) and it does gives readers a choice.

9

Jonathan Edelstein 09.15.05 at 2:02 pm

But even here, Jonathan Edelstein’s Head Heeb seems to succeed in hosting generally civil discussions

I’m afraid my score has fallen a bit over the past few days; the Almog case seems to have unleashed strong emotions, and I’ve had a first-time visitor who doesn’t want to play by the rules. Hopefully the tone of discussion will get back to normal soon.

10

roger 09.15.05 at 2:37 pm

There are some sites that you go partly to to read the Trolls — Atrios and Washingtonmonthly spring to mind. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with that. And there is a lot about blogging — the thirst to be outraged that is a part of blogging culture — that actually calls for trolls, who reliably supply the outrage.

Myself, I think comments sections are great examples of self organization. There are times that a certain comments section on a certain subject will be skewed by a commenter in ways I don’t like, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. And then there are different sites taking different tones. I am surely not the only person who goes to Kevin Drum’s site hoping he will have written something to stir up the die hard Bush fans, who will then fire back. That is part of the attraction of the site — a sort of spectator sport crossing politics and wrestling.

While this site sometimes attracts violent opposition in the comments, the trolling — if that is what that is — is of a higher quality. And that’s something to advertise– CT, where even the trolls have class.

11

Carlos 09.15.05 at 3:18 pm

Ah, Reuben, you mean that freak Doc Slack? I think you missed the subtext — the loser was basically trying to browbeat Belle (and everyone else) into agreement through exhaustion. Old Usenet ‘tactic’.

It’s probably not a coincidence that he chose a time when John was away, too. Some trolls really enjoy ranting at women when the perceived (male) authority figure leaves. Given the sexual content of the (increasingly one-sided, and probably one-handed) conversation, and we got a shoo-in for troll central.

Carlos — Cronan Thompson chair of Wingnut Studies at the Poor Man Institute.

12

pdf23ds 09.15.05 at 3:24 pm

I think the blogging format is generally weak in the way it attracts and rewards the most interesting and quality commenters, in that even the best comments are rarely elevated to topics on the main page, at most being mentioned in passing by the site moderators. These inherently limits their exposure to be very much smaller than the main posts. (Anyone have any stats on how many blog readers regularly read comment threads?) I think that without a strong ability to allow the site bloggers to raise up interesting topics so that they’re more visible, the best commenters will generally bore of commenting and go and start their own blogs. (And people with blogs rarely comment more than a little on other blogs. I’m not sure what the causality is here, but I’m not sure it’s completely relevant either.)

So there’s sort of an upper limit of commenter quality. And it has something to do with expectations about what a blog is too–how the main posts are composed and edited over time, which participants have what responsibilities. I think bloggers could learn from Wiki. Things should be organized topically, not chronologically. Commenters, as much as possible, should be given equal status and voice in the debate. An idea of mine, which I may soon try to implement, is to combine a wiki with a blog, in this way: a single owner or number of owners (as in a group blog) mantain sections of the wiki, which are not open for public editing. Each page does have public comment sections, though. However, the comments aren’t retained as comments, but either deleted or integrated into the main body of the page (and then deleted), or spawning a new page, by the owner of the particular page the comment was on.

I think this sort of experiment has the potential to generate a vastly higher quality of participation. The main problem becomes deciding who to admit as new owners (probably particularly involved and skilled commenters) and how to organize and index all of the pages. The latter becomes particularly problematic if one takes the policy of having extremely small, foucesed, and atomic wiki pages, which I think are a good idea for reasons I won’t get into, but challenging to implement in a user-friendly way.

A weakness of this is that it requires readers to be more proactive to find content to comment on, and this is a barrier. But the wiki doesn’t have to be the primary portal to its own content: the owner(s) could keep a sister blog in which they voice their thoughts about wiki pages, call attention to particular pages of interest, or give summaries of whole sections of pages (if the atomic approach is taken), all strongly hyperlinked into the wiki pages, so that readers have an RSS fead that draws them regularly into different sections of the main wiki.

Thoughts?

13

trotsky 09.15.05 at 3:27 pm

Funny, this post also got me thinking about Washington Monthly. Drum’s blog is probably tops on my list, but only occasionally do I bother to even glance at the comments anymore, and when I do I recoil within 30 seconds.

14

Teresa Nielsen Hayden 09.15.05 at 3:36 pm

As one might expect, I find much to quibble with in Tyler Cowen’s piece.

If by “people hitting ‘reload’ to read additional comments” he means people coming back to see what others have said in response to their comments, he’s right. And once they get to know some of their fellow readers, they’ll come back to see what the other guys are saying whether or not they themselves have recently commented. What you, the ostensible blogger, must do is write posts that are interesting enough to get linked-to by other sites. This causes new readers to wander in to see what’s going on, at which point the inherent stickiness of a talkative community may well keep them coming back. In the long run, this state of affairs is indistinguishable from an increase in traffic.

“The more that comments are regularly available, the more rapidly the quality of comments falls. The quality of comments stays high when it is periodic, not automatic, and when we request comments specifically.”

I don’t get that happening at Making Light. Rather, I find that good comments evoke more good comments. If the quality of the comments you get falls as a function of their quantity, the obvious diagnosis is that your commenters aren’t engaging with one another. You want them to engage.

This behavior is cued in newbies coming into your weblog if they see other readers there having fully engaged conversations. If that isn’t happening yet, it’s probably because you haven’t been replying to your own comments. Do so. Engage with people who say interesting things. Reward those who engage well with others.

I find it’s a far more reliable strategy to let your readers tell you what’s worthy of comment, as opposed to telling them what they should comment on, and expecting them to fall into line

Further considerations: If you only allow comments when you think they’re appropriate, you’re unlikely to develop a self-aware local discourse. You’ll make the problem worse if the only cues telling readers whether a post is open to comment come at the end of the piece, rather than the beginning. If they’ve been thinking about a response, they’ll be frustrated when they realize it’s a no-comment post. If they’re assuming it’s not open for comments, they may not have been thinking about their response while they’re reading it.

“The quality of comments is highest when the matter under consideration involves particular facts and decentralized knowledge.”

He’s got that right. Do you know the folktale called “Stone Soup”? In a good conversation, everyone brings bits of meat and vegetable to contribute, and get a bowl of soup in return.

“Posts which mention evolution, free will, or Paul Krugman do not generate the highest quality of comments.”

That depends on your readers. A robust local discourse will develop its own immune system. It’ll still need help from you, but it can do a lot on its own to repel fuggheads.

“So my current sense (Alex chooses his own course, though I believe he agrees) is to ask for comments periodically rather than always having comments open. The goal is to maximize the real value of comments, rather than the number of comments (or measured visits) per se.”

I profoundly disagree. A good site, like a good periodical, is more than the sum of the texts it reproduces. It’s a context, a virtual microclimate. And: a good context encourages good texts.

I’ll give you an example. Making Light’s readership is prone to periodic outbursts of formal poetry and literary pastiche. Some of the individual pieces readers post to these comment threads are written at a very high level. They’re valuable texts in their own right. But I firmly believe we wouldn’t see nearly as many of these if there weren’t a convivial and appreciative audience hanging out there to say “Ooooh!” when a particularly good one goes up, as though they were watching fireworks.

End of responses to Tyler Cowen; beginning of responses to Henry Farrell.

“Making Light has been extraordinarily successful in building up a community of commenters with interesting things to say (it has a homier feel than most comment sections; everyone mostly knows each other).”

I try to make it a place where everyone feels comfortable talking, but no one feels safe about saying things that are stupid, rude, or drearily inconsequential. Some of the people you’ll see in the comment threads came in knowing some of the others, but others were complete strangers when they showed up.

“The argument that more commenters=less interesting discussions has a lot of truth to it – there is very clearly a Gresham’s law effect, where bad commenters drive out good ones. Which suggests (and again Making Light illustrates this well) that a vigorous moderation policy can help counteract the negative effects of growth.”

Again, there’s a difference between a string of unrelated comments and a real conversation. The latter can sustain far more growth, even thrive on it.

I certainly agree that bad commenters drive out good ones. And I know a further, subtler rule: Say you have a lively and well-established local discourse in your weblog. If you let the louts and bullies run loose in it, and you leave gratuitously unpleasant posts lying around where your readers can’t help seeing them, you won’t necessarily see an immediate falling-off in the total wordcount of your comments. What you will do is lose the high end of the curve. The people you most want to have stay are exactly the ones who’ll lose heart and stop participating if they have to wade through wet garbage every time they do it.

This morning I heard from Jim Macdonald that he’s locked someone out of our comment threads who recently came into Making Light for the first time, posting as four different people. It was a good call. No one shows up pretending to be four different people if they’re there for the conversation.

Periodically I get someone I’ve disemvowelled complaining about how I’m suppressing his speech. Darned right I am. What the trolls and jerks never acknowledge is the extent to which their own rude behavior suppresses other people’s speech. I’d rather hear the other people.

“Finally, Tyler may be on to something when he talks about specific facts and decentralized knowledge – but there’s another factor there which I think is even more important. That’s the extent to which there is minimal agreement on a shared set of facts in the first place. Where there isn’t – and where there’s strongly opposed viewpoints – blog comments sections tend to break down rapidly.”

True. A very insightful point. And if you want proof of the existence of a local discourse at different blogs, you could point to the fact that they fracture over different subjects.

“For Tyler, it’s Paul Krugman; for us, it’s the Israel-Palestine question (where I don’t allow comments any more on the rare occasions that I post ). But even here, Jonathan Edelstein’s Head Heeb seems to succeed in hosting generally civil discussions – I suspect that this is another example of the community effect – the commenters are a group of people who seem to have come to know each other over time, and have a good sense of the ground rules of debate.”

I think Making Light has fractured most often along the fault line between mainstream and genre literary theory; but I could be misremembering.

Obviously, I agree that a group of people who’ve worked out some ground rules will get along better. It’s like the difference between the state of the Solar System now, and its hypothesized early days when it was still (relatively) full of gravel, rubble, planetesimals, and extremely small moons. Stuff gets swept up and sorted out over time.

15

Uncle Kvetch 09.15.05 at 3:38 pm

Some trolls really enjoy ranting at women when the perceived (male) authority figure leaves.

Something very similar happened when Amanda Marcotte replaced Ezra Klein as one-half of the Pandagon team. Some of it was funny in its sheer wingnuttiness; most of it was just ugly. Fortunately, things have calmed down quite a bit over there.

16

Henry 09.15.05 at 3:51 pm

Hi Teresa

Just to clarify (I wrote the post in a hurry before running out to catch a plane), when I said that most people know each other in Making Light, what I was trying to say is what you were saying as I understand you – that is, that they know each other from participating in a longrunning online conversation together. Not that they had necessarily met in the flesh. That said, now that I think about it, I wonder whether the fact that some of the participants do know each other in the traditional sense of the word, and that many of them feel that they’re members of the same broad community of fandom, might help provide some of the social cement that makes Making Light what it is. There’s a feeling of intimacy on Making Light that’s quite unique in my online experience. But obviously, I’ll defer to your wisdom on this …

17

panJack 09.15.05 at 4:08 pm

So a neoclassical economist thinks about institution construction. Rather than looking to, say, maximize utility of all (including commenters) he seeks to maximize “quality” subjectively defined. Funny how often NC economists forget their own theory.

18

Justin Slotman 09.15.05 at 4:36 pm

See, one of the things I’ve never liked about Marginal Revolution is that they throw debatable (in an interesting way) propositions out there on a regular basis. Yet the only way to see if anyone’s talking about something is to read the trackbacks, and not everybody leaves one. In their particular case, I’d love a regular comments section.

19

Stephen Kriz 09.15.05 at 5:14 pm

If there is one thing that pisses me off, it’s the free will of Paul Krugman asserting that evolution is the real deal! The #^*!#)_#er!!!

20

Matt 09.15.05 at 6:43 pm

I generally like the comments here. Often they are useful. But, even here they are often not. One some sights they are awful. What often makes them awful is a large number of people talking out of their asses. I will almost never look at a comment thread that has more than 30 comments when I first see it since it’s bound to be mostly full of people who have no idea what they are talking about. The comments on Volokh’s page, for example, are full of people saying things like, “I’m not a lawyer, but… ” after which they offer some bit of complete nonsense about a topic which they obviously know nothing about. Even here there are a fair number of regulars who seem to see their spot in life as mostly offering what I suppose they see to be contrarian opinions while in fact never offering any value to the conversation.

21

Barry 09.15.05 at 7:11 pm

There are a few interesting features whose absence in blog software interests me. The first would be to put the ‘name’ at the top of the post, rather than at the bottom. This allows people to skip over the posts signed with a known ‘bad’ name.

Second, having a ‘next post’ button, to speed the skipping.

Third, for blogs with accounts and sign-ins, an option for skipping posts by certain users, to aid in troll-avoidance.

All of which, IIRC, were available on Salon’s TableTalk, a few years ago.

It’s interesting that they aren’t in common use today.

22

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 09.15.05 at 8:34 pm

What “absence in blog software”? I totally agree that the commenter’s name should come before their post, and it took five minutes of reading documentation and thirty seconds of template-editing to accomplish it. This was using that very obscure, hardly-known weblog CMS called Movable Type.

23

Marc 09.15.05 at 9:39 pm

Barry: what you’re talking about goes back to the Usenet days, where you could have a “killfile” of messages that you didn’t even see displayed. The problem is that determined trolls get around it by posting under a variety of names.

The most useful things I learn from comments come from people with actual knowledge of the subject at hand. Moderation is essential to remove provacateurs; if this is not done a single determined poster can dominate the entire discussion, which is the issue at Drum’s site. The most extreme post gets the most reaction as well. And some folks are *really* determined – look at his threads. Frequently one of the GOP loyalists will toss off a response within minutes of the post appearing. Community policing (a la DailyKos) tends to result in other distortions, namely groupthink; there will always be folks who will downgrade opinions that differ from theirs, not just obnoxious posts.

Of course, moderation is a lot of work, so it may not be practical for high-volume blogs. That’s what ultimately sunk usenet.

24

Teresa Nielsen Hayden 09.15.05 at 10:26 pm

No thread is any good that has more than thirty comments in it? Try this one. Or this.

25

Tom Hilde 09.15.05 at 10:30 pm

“Universalized”?

Two things — one of the problems with blogging is the constant quest for more links. Unless you’re after money from ads, there’s not much further point to more links. I run a blog with about 100-200 visitors per day. A site like Daou Report, Village Voice, or Pharyngula will occasionally link to it and then I’ll go up to 1000 or more. But what’s the point? I’ve got 100-200 regular, loyal, smart readers who don’t flame in the comments, send me informative emails, some of which I post, and pretty much always leave only comments that are helpful, take ideas in a new and interesting direction, correct a factual error I’ve made, or give us all a chuckle. I respond when I can. Sometimes a real conversation develops further from there. What else is there?

The original point of comments, I suppose, is based on the idea of broader dialogue. But most comments on larger sites run to the opposite end, often vulgarly. Then others spend time battling back. Why care about that?

The two are correlated: the desire to have a wide readership and crappy comments. If you want a bigger readership, lousy comments likely come with the territory. Who wants to read through Eschaton comments?

I spent some time on an Yglesias fanblog the other day (by surfing chance) and got called douchebag, asshole, vacuous scum, disturbed schizophrenic, tool, troll, dogshit, etc. I apparently made the mistake of being critical of Yglesias through a discussion of the relation between spelling and reading and used the word “idiot,” although it wasn’t directed at him. The fanclub called him “brilliant,” someone who corrects others’ misperceptions,” blah, blah. I disagree, but not getting anything interesting from a writer is not the same as that writer being dogshit. I asked for the brilliance and got the dogshit.

I respect this site, but tell me the point of comments if that Yglesias club kind of experience is what they’re about?

My suggestion — just stay small and take it easy.

26

MQ 09.15.05 at 10:45 pm

Comment #12 above about how the blog structure does not reward good commenters is very interesting. There is a LOT of room for improving the community aspect of blogs, blog software is constructed in a very hierarchical way that positively discourages community formation. It’s a tribute to something or other — the social impulse, bile, procrastination, the impulse to lecture — that blog comments sections have even as much vitality, intelligence, and give and take as they do.

I don’t know what the ‘Wiki’ is that the poster refers to. But actually the structure of on-line forums offers a lot of good lessons for blogs. Some combination between the structure of forums (topically organized, replies to a post are added on an equal “plane” with the original post, very involved and active moderation on good forums), and the structure of blogs (lead page highlights essays and comments by main proprieters of the site) would I think be helpful. Some magazines are experimenting with a good combination there.

I realize that on-line forum sites are not known as one of the better “neighborhoods” of the net — without moderation they quickly become disasters — but the format allows some very good community to develop if you attract the right people.

27

Matt 09.15.05 at 10:52 pm

Of course I don’t want to say that any thread that has more than 30 comments can be good. (I don’t think I actually said that, either.) But, if I come to a post that has more than 30 (or so- it’s not a strict rule) comments when I get there I rarely read the comments now since, in my experience, chances are that most will be a waste of time. Others may have had differnt experiences, of course. Lucky for them, I guess. That’s just the experience I’ve had, and I see little reason to think it will change. Sometimes the comments add quite a lot, but most of the time that’s not so, it seems to me, and when the threads get long there is lots of repitition and people talking about stuff they know nothing about. (I appreciate that I’m contributing to this problem in this thread as well!)

28

Matt 09.15.05 at 10:56 pm

(That saint post almost confirms things for me, now that I look at it- it’s pretty funny, but after just a few comments, most of which are not as funny, the whole thing starts to lose interest for me.)

29

pdf23ds 09.15.05 at 11:52 pm

re: 26

I wasn’t referring to a specific wiki, but instead the general concept of Wiki. (Also, there’s this, though the idea doesn’t appear to have been thoroughly put into practice anywhere.)

30

pdf23ds 09.16.05 at 2:07 am

Re: 25

Overly contentious participants in comments threads can indeed ruin the experience. Expanding on my earlier suggestion, I think a solution, for those who really care, is to translate the main point of contention in the discussion into its own post/page, and then provide separate pages for other aspects of the issue that are appropriately hyperlinked, in effect, breaking up the discussion into its most elementary parts. This is where things start to look more wiki-ish than blogish.

This sort of thing takes a lot more effort, especially on the part of the moderator, but I think it produces much more lasting value than a plain-old chronological blog, bound as it is to minimal post editing, no “refactoring” or major editing of discussions, and other limiting traditions. Things go back and forth, back and forth, each comment piling on more words, where we should be taking advantage of the nature of the internet and allow things to evolve, allow participants to help in *editing* a discussion instead of lengthening it. We should stop treating words as being so immutable. This way, the more people that contribute, the *more* easily others can benefit: instead of having to wade through 200+ comments, you see the discussion as it stood at the last iteration.

I think it’d be really great to see more experimentation among high-profile weblogs with radical ways of doing things. There are so many possibilities, and so little being done to explore them.

31

bob mcmanus 09.16.05 at 2:46 am

Re:25

I blame Emerson for not keeping those animals under control. I just lurk and had no influence.
It’s an academic blog. Say no more.

I heart MY forever and want to have his baby.

32

reuben 09.16.05 at 2:55 am

Carlos

Yes, it’s definitely possible I missed something. I didn’t read the whole thread – just dipped into the comments, saw hellfire and smelled brimstone, and thought, “What, here too?”

33

Backword Dave 09.16.05 at 4:32 am

It’s worth mentioning Obsidian Wings as an example of a group blog which attracts long comment threads with a pretty high sense:troll ratio. I think that’s because of the political diversity of the OW crew. I get the impression that trolls view themselves as staging daring raids on an enemy’s camp. (CT is liberal and so attacked by the right.) OW, by having both sides in the tent (so to speak), is home territory for all commenters, and they behave better as a result.

34

Aidan Kehoe 09.16.05 at 6:36 am

Why not use a system like Slashdot’s, with moderation, meta-moderation and optional filtering? For me it seems to work reasonably well (given the signal:noise ratio there, which in my view is even worse than on the political blogs) and it does gives readers a choice.

Eh, my problem with Slashdot’s moderation is that the net effect is that it’s done by the average Slashdot reader. And I disagree with the average Slashdot reader on lots and lots of things–what’s side-splittingly ironic, what’s boring-because-it’s-US-specific, the quality of the flavour of Koolaid RMS is selling this week–so I miss many things that would I find interesting when browsing without ratings, and see lots of po-faced party line that I would prefer not to. Now, the average Crooked Timber will of course have different biases than the average Slashdot reader, but I find it difficult to believe that Mrs. Tilton’s allusions or gentle ribbing would be given the endorsement deserved, or that allusive follow-ups to Kieran’s titles wouldn’t fall below the threshold when no-one got them.

35

John Emerson 09.16.05 at 6:41 am

Mr. Hilde: There were those of us at Unfogged who were willing to admit that Yglesias is a punk, but who thought that you failed to give an adequate description of Matt’s punkishness. Yglesias’ bad spelling means nothing, and in general bad spelling means nothing; there’s a whole profession (“editor”) of people who spell better than they write, who make their livings correcting people who write better than they spell (or, in some cases, think better than they write.)

Furthermore, the imposition of “correct” spelling standards is, like genocide and clitorectomy, a brutal and oppressive patriarchal imposition.

Unfogged’s commentors are a tight group which is hard to break into. After months of diligent effort, I’m still not sure whether I’m a troll there or not. (Or here, either).

So anyway, the adequate trashing of Yglesias is still in the future.

36

Jeremy Osner 09.16.05 at 7:13 am

I find it interesting to keep track of which comments that I leave get referrals to my blog — for some reason I have gotten an inordinate (for me) number of referrals from the Examined Life flame-war thread mentioned above, to which I contributed only a weak jokey post in the middle of a long long thread — I try to figure out what leads someone to follow that link.

37

John Emerson 09.16.05 at 7:20 am

Or, in still other cases, who can neither write nor think, but are celebrities of some kind, or spokesmen for a point of view.

38

Matt McIrvin 09.16.05 at 7:25 am

Three or four years ago, people were crowing about how much more civil blog comment boards were than Usenet, and trying to figure out why. I think it was mostly just a younger medium. Clay Shirky’s observations on the pathologies of all discussion groups (and possible ways to attack them) still apply: the same things come up over and over.

There is one thing that I think helps blogs in relation to Usenet, and that is the sharp distinction between original posts and comments. Only the blog owners can post original posts, and the comment threads age with the posts so that they scroll off the front page before long; that tends to automatically squelch flamewars that would otherwise rage on for weeks, brought to continued attention by further comment activity.

This is one of the reasons why blog comment boards get worse if the ratio of new posts to comments gets too low (spam is another reason, of course). It’s also why blogs that have a “recent comments” sidebar, which has the effect of prolonging the life of comment threads, also need comment threads to cut off automatically after N days.

39

reuben 09.16.05 at 8:43 am

there’s a whole profession (“editor”) of people who spell better than they write, who make their livings correcting people who write better than they spell

Not that this is germane to the discussion at hand, but you’re actually talking about copy editors and sub-editors here, I’d say. In journalism, editors tend to be successful (or lucky, or whatever) writers or reporters who have moved up the food chain, becoming responsible for big picture issues but not actually having to deal with the minutiae of making sure that i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. In fact, one of the great reliefs to me, now that I’m an editor myself (through luck rather than skill, I’d like to point out), is that I can leave the details of punctuation and grammar to the subs, and focus my energies on improving my writers’ thinking and/or prose.

I would also note that the higher I’ve moved up the food chain (I started as a sub), the worse my spelling has grown.

And I don’t care, because I no longer have to.

40

John Emerson 09.16.05 at 8:48 am

To non-editors, copy editors are a subspecies of editor. I suppose that to editors they’re two entirely different species, like the Great Blue Heron and the Little Blue Heron.

41

eudoxis 09.16.05 at 9:05 am

…another factor there which I think is even more important. That’s the extent to which there is minimal agreement on a shared set of facts in the first place. Where there isn’t – and where there’s strongly opposed viewpoints – blog comments sections tend to break down rapidly.I agree. In general, though some agreement is necessary for debate to take place, it isn’t sufficient for a good debate. I’ll add a few more observations.

1)The tone of the post often sets the tone for the comments.

2)In an environment of increasing political polarization, there is a great tendency to view a legitimate critique of a particular in a post as an attack on a general political viewpoint.

3) As mentioned above, the attempt to increase the scope and readership of CT, will bring in a wider range of comment quality. A small club of commenters with an eye to fine debate is a high expectation even for a more localized, matched peer group.

4) The elimination of social boundaries and exaggeration of emotional responses is par for the course.

The remedies for the above are to set the tone of the post, discourage mob mentality or elitism, don’t be loathe to remove offensive commenters (oops), and, be willing to slog through some of the throughs because the comments do occasionally rise to delightful levels.

42

cconway 09.16.05 at 10:03 am

I’m not sure how much control you have over your comment software, but Joel Spolsky has an interesting essay on how to tailor discussion board software towards high quality conversation. (Come to think of it, I think this site already follows most of his guidelines… Well, good luck!)

43

Matt Weiner 09.16.05 at 11:03 am

Emerson–I, for one, don’t think you’re a troll at Unfogged.

44

ogged 09.16.05 at 11:06 am

Tom Hilde! We miss you!

I invite anyone who might be interested (I promise only amusement, not edification), to read the comment for which Mr. Hilde was abused. You might also want to read the original post, which, oddly enough, was making fun of Matt Yglesias.

45

Tom Hilde 09.16.05 at 6:22 pm

re #44: see what I mean (from #25)?

I have absolutely nothing against Yglesias. I don’t know him, have only come across his essays a few times, and they never did much for me. I asked some of the unfogged people to send me a link to some of the posts they were calling “brilliant” (their terms. I didn’ receive any. So I wrote something on my own blog on one recent post I found by Yglesias. I found that the Yglesias piece didn’t have anything to say to me. It’s not just MY. Thomas Friedman bugs the hell out of me. I love Krugman at time and at others think he wrote his editorial before waqking up in the morning. But not liking a post, and thinking there is a correllation between reading well and spelling — thnough not an absolute one — doesn’t mean I am dogshit (Ogged preferred to call me “asshole”). For those which it does, there’s a whole lot of history or stories there that I don’t know about in the first place, and really don’t care to follow out.

So, whatever, on that one. Ogged in #44 also could have linked to my other comments in that Unfogged comment string, such as one one where I said I was too cavalier with the “sometimes an idiot” comment (which, if you read it again, is not directed at Yglesias anyway) but didn’t. He could have also linked to his own. Ogged accused me of equating some other poster’s father’s spelling with both dyslexia and being an unerudite auto mechanic. The only thing I had said about dyslexia was that I have a mild case of it, which was also twisted into me being a “tool”, “asshole”, etc. by Ogged.

But, good on you, if you’re still all chatting at Unfogged about how Tom Hilde is a tool or whatever.

So, again, another lesson in the randomness of comment strings. I made the mistake in the one I recounted of entering in the middle of a string, then being called a troll. Ogged, here is trying to get the thing going again.

That’s where it becomes pointless to me. Thus, possibly, making my case in #25. Possibly not. But now that we’re at this point, I’m not sticking around here anymore. Because that’s precisely what’s pointless about comments.

And #30, right on. Thanks for the useful remarks.

And,John Emerson, thanks for being more reasonable. I don’t mean that patronizingly. I don’t care for Yglesias’ stuff. But I also don’t like the cartoon Family Circus, and I’ve got serious issues with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. None of that means calling the stuff I don’t like idiotic.

I’m really not even sure what being called a troll means anymore. Didn’t it used to mean someone from a different political persuasion trying to get a rise out of others just for kicks? Or calling them “tools” or whatever? Now it seems “troll” means anyone who doesn’t agree with you, however slight the disagreement. That’s a bad sign for blog commentary being a dialogue.

46

bob mcmanus 09.16.05 at 7:30 pm

“But, good on you, if you’re still all chatting at Unfogged about how Tom Hilde is a tool or whatever.”

It is a good idea to read a few posts, follow some comment threads before you enter the conversation at a blog. Sometimes extensively, if you think it worth the time. You can get a sense of the community, it’s standards, tone, & purpose.
You no more jump in blindly than you crash a party.

A cursory reading of that particular thread should have made it obvious that your tone would be unwelcome. You were a troll.

I am very cautious in commenting at Unfogged, preparing my vulgar intellectual contextual snark…Rabelais?…far in advance so as not to inject soap or seriousness into their recreational mudpuddle.

Mostly, as I do at 90% of blogs, I lurk.

47

Tom Hilde 09.16.05 at 8:27 pm

Bob, #46: I did read the previous comments. The comment string was all about calling Yglesias a “punk,” despite his Harvard education (as one poster put it), for poor spelling before I ever jumped in. I didn’t start that at all. But I’d never heard of the blog and wasn’t aware of the protocolof newcomers not being able to say similar things (though, again, my comment wasn’t directed precisely at Yglesias — it was general, rather than particular, though taken as general). And my jumping in was not to join the Yglesias-bashing (though they tell me later they’re all buddies, so their MY-bashing was okay). It was to try make a correlation between spelling and reading. Maybe a mistaken one — I’m open to real criticism about that correlation, and any expert commentary on that would be welcome. Not one person had anything to say about that about cite anecdotal evidence. I’m a pretty smart guy, PhD and all, and even won 6th-grade spelling bees, but I’m also slightly dyslexic — how is that explained? I really don’t know. And I don’t know the academic literature on this. But the comment line was more like — “only we have the right to say Yglesias being a bad speller means he’s a punk.”

That’s history. I don’t give a damn if Unfogged thinks Hilde is a tool.

The point is not in following a comment string (though it’s clear that can get you into trouble), but whether or not blogs are open to non- club members. I discovered I wasn’t part of that particular club. Fine. But then it’s also difficult to see commentary as dialogue that builds on an idea or set of comments or even run with a joke. I’m sure this doesn’t apply to all blogs. But I can also see that it applies to a lot of blogs, especially ones with wide readership. So… maybe there’s a theory to be had there — a “universalization,” as it was originally put. But I don’t know what that would be.

There’s a clubiness about comment strings. Some say that’s one of the best things about blogs. But there’s a quality issue there too. That’s the originalquestion of the particular line and it’s a difficult one. My answer was to stay small. But many blogs have larger ambitions. So theory-wise, who knows? It’s a bit like industrial farming versus small, family-owned farms. Flame me on that with for a good reason and I might change my mind on the analogy….

Bob, lurking is probably a good idea. And if one wants to say “asshole” — as someone just did in comments at T-Bogg regarding a link to my site (on an absurdist post between me and T-Bogg) — why don’t we just stick to Bush, Cheney, and Rove, who are the Platonic forms of asshole?

One last thing — to John Emerson #35… I think good spelling is something we ought to keep trying to do in general. Disagree with that if you like, but I can’t see a good reason for doing so. But the comparison to forced cliterectomy and genocide is a really really bad one you that ought to reconsider, perhaps especially if you think it has humor value.

48

John Emerson 09.16.05 at 9:30 pm

Actually I was the only serious Yglesias-basher there, and I’m not completely serious.

I spell well and find it mildly annoying when others don’t, but Hilde seems to have raised to to the level of a cause, which I think is ridiculous. There are lots of very sharp people who spell badly — I’m not even talking about The Underclass or The Wotking Class, but a lot of engineers and the like.

49

Michael 09.16.05 at 10:15 pm

Tom, did something happen since you earned your PhD that made you this pathetic?

I don’t give a damn if Unfogged thinks Hilde is a tool.

The more you write that, the more you convince everyone.

50

Tom Hilde 09.16.05 at 10:45 pm

A last try…. No, I don’t run a Church of Fine Orthography for Jesus. We all make typos, grammatical errors, and spelling mistakes, errors of judgement, faulty arguments, invalid inferences, and perceptual errors pretty much on a daily basis, and let’s hope we don’t go to hell for that since it’s a daily part of human communication. Fortunately,most of us have creative enough minds to overlook the erros to get to the intention.

Blogs and commentaries are quickie things, often written after a few beers, so they’re particularly susceptible to writing errors.

But, if you want to be considered sane or even simply healthy, you don’t go running head first into brick walls.

If you want to be a good musician, you don’t play a G-chord on the wrong frets, as George W did in that famous photo of him with a guitar while Katrina was drowning New Orleans.

If you want to be considered a good modern scientist, you don’t go around repeating a medieval argument for a “watchmaker” or intelligent designer, an argument easily debunked in the 17th and 18th centuries as creating an infinite regress in which God ends up an un-Godlike arbitrary stopping point to the regress.

If you wanted to be considered an expert or even just good elementary school student in the basics of arithmetic, you don’t write 2+2=3, then say, close enough.

If you’re a logician seeking a valid argument, you don’t insist on the validity of arguments where all the premises are true but the conclusion false.

If you want to be considered a good ethical deliberator, you don’t make comparisons between bad spelling and genocide.

If you want to be considered a respectable writer, you try to spell words correctly and use proper grammar unless the substantive goal is to challenge the conventions of spelling and grammar or perhaps to portray phonetically a particular dialectic, as in Faulkner and many others. These are just basic tools of writing, like the rules of arithmetic, logic, and good sense. They cna be cretaively broken, but it’s the rare thinker who’s capable of that in a way that challenges our sense of propriety. Most of us just break them because we’re lazy or don’t them.

In the Yglesias case or whoever (MY is a placemarker here, a variable), he’s writing for ostensively respectable sites, which are not trying to challenge paradigms of grammar and spelling and not trying to do paradigm-challenging poetry. But if you can’t do that, you get a good editor who can.

That’s all that’s about. It’s not a “cause.” You can spell poorly all you want. If you do it in the present context of a string of comments, it’s easy to overlook. If you do it consistently ina broader public forum, you’re not doing your job very well or you have really poor editors. But you still ought to be able to do the job well in the first place.

And like Yglesias himself said, poor spelling doesn’t make one a bad person.

51

bad Jim 09.17.05 at 3:58 am

Three comments about comments:

1. I have mixed feeling about disemvowellment. The residue is so entertaining that I’m compelled to attempt to reconstruct comments which I already know are useless and offensive, which probably wastes more time than reading the uncompressed crap.

One such I encountered in the Nielsen-Hayden domain was so monosyllabic and childish that I could make no sense of it, which might have been a blessing had not the next twenty commenters quoted most of it.

2. Never delete a comment without notice. Remove or replace the text but leave at least the name, so subsequent replies make sense. Please. I’ve wasted too much time searching in vain for missing antecedent comments. It’s your place, do as you will, but please maintain the thread.

3. Your comment preview feature is one of the coolest things I’ve encountered in the blogosphere. Why doesn’t everyone do this?

52

John Emerson 09.17.05 at 5:46 am

Hilde, at some point you claimed that people who don’t spell well or who make grammatical mistakes also don’t think well, and that’s false. The undue importance you attached to proper spelling was a big part of the reason for the derision you received.

You repeat your error here. Spelling correctly is not an error of the kind or of the importance of saying that 2 + 2 = 5. It’s more like using the salad fork for the main course. (Or, to put it differently, no matter what the pomos say, spelling is conventional, and arithmetic is not conventional).

Yglesias apparently doesn’t have an editor, and his self-editing is a little erratic. Who cares? Ogged was joking when he made his original post.

53

John Emerson 09.17.05 at 8:18 am

“Spelling incorrectly”.

54

Matt 09.17.05 at 10:14 am

Look, Hilde- if you start trying to diss the _Critique of Pure Reason_ I’ll really think you’re an asshole… You better watch it, punk! ;)

55

serial catowner 09.17.05 at 10:16 am

Too funny- a thread on ‘comments’ almost gets hijacked by a discussion of Yglesias! Teetering on the edge….

I normally don’t read many blogs that don’t enable comments. I used to get a magazine in the mail almost every day- now I get none. Times change.

If everyone had a blog, the net would be miles wide and fractions of an inch deep. A blog with comments is a visible island. Of course we come back to read more comments- that’s how conversation is supposed to work.

Considering that this is all an evolution, most of it less than five years old, it seems not unreasonable to anticipate further changes….

56

The Lonewacko Blog 09.18.05 at 1:21 pm

As I type this, there are dozens of people in India cranking out text to be placed on commercial websites selling various pills and potions.

Why would someone do that?

Because search engines love text. What the comments above have done is create a lot of text that the SEs can index, perhaps leading to more people coming to this page.

OTOH, this site, like many others, uses the nofollow tag, meaning that SEs are oblivious to all those links left above.

So, if this were a commercial website, what’s happened is you’ve had a bunch of people create valuable content and, unless a human clicks their link, they’ve gotten absolutely nothing out of it.

(I welcome comments, but I’ve disabled the nofollow “feature” on all my sites for reasons including those above.)

Comments on this entry are closed.