Sunday, October 28, 2007

Code of conduct again

The other day, Ian responded to something here and referred to another project being done by Ashok among others, aimed at promoting "a less hierarchical model of online discussion than that offered by the blogpost plus comments model that dominates in blogging" (using standard discussion board technology in this case).

A while ago, I was a lot more forgiving than most of calls for a 'bloggers code of conduct' partly because I shared these concerns about the usefulness of weblogs as a discursive model.

But a well-managed blog could, I believe, be a very powerful tool for promoting deliberation - better, I would argue, than a discussion forum or any custom built tool. There are reasons why most aren't, and I'd like to outline why that is here - and how those reasons can be counteracted. What Ashok, Gracchi and Sharon appear to be worried about is the linear nature of comment threads. And I'd largely agree that this is a problem.

Linear discussions have their uses, of course. I know that fisking is good fun sometimes - and when you're dealing with someone that you profoundly disagree with - someone that you believe is piling error upon misapprehension upon deliberate attempts to mislead, and getting away with it because they have found a platform that indulges such behaviour (Robert Fisk, The Independent, etc) then fisking is a very useful tool for exposing them.

But for a conversation among people who don't believe that each other are beyond reason, linear conversations are oppressive and - potentially - over-adversarial.

Oppressive in a number of ways. Most bloggers and commenters are doing so on a voluntary basis. If I make a point (say a 200 word post - a bit knockabout, designed to provoke a bit, draw out a useful argument) and someone replies with a strongly contradictory 500-word comment, I feel obliged to provide the courtesy of a response. I dash off a 200-word reply and get 1,000 back.

At some point, I either agree with them (yay!) or I'm left in a position that looks like capitulation. The discussion becomes an test of endurance and not a debate. It is also an asymmetrical discussion as my interlocutor can steer the argument around what they know to be my wider positions. I start to feel like a hostile witness being cross-examined by a slippery barrister.

In my case, this blog has been going for a while. After a short read you can find out where I'm coming from on lots of issues. A hostile commenter can use this information to cross examine me. As they have no easy-to-find body of work, I can't do the same with them.

Such a commenter is benefiting from the unearned rewards of negativism. I would add that I've had a number of commenters like this. In almost every case, they've argued with me in good faith, given reasonable arguments, have clearly been fair-minded and open to persuasion. They have not - as far as I know - intended to oppress with their arguments or give themselves an un-earned advantage. But the net result of their responses has rarely generated as much light as heat and often, such exchanges have discouraged me from posting further.

What I'd really like, most of the time, is a more conversational exchange. On that has the civility and detachment of a conversation in a pub, but benefits from the more analytical and asynchronous nature of online discussion. So, ideally, I write a post, a few other bloggers see it, link to it with a post of their own that is more tangential.

A post on another blog that does the same thing as the demon commenter (a point-by-point 500 word rebuttal) is no better than a long reply in the comments, of course. But a tangential post will get some comments of its own. And most of the time, when other bloggers pick up something I've written, that's what I get. Trackbacks are getting better among various weblogs, so this is more practical now than it ever was. Mine tends to always pick up referrals from other Google / Blogger sites, though this is not the case with Wordpress or other platforms.

So, I would suggest that a deliberative blogger could discourage (without going as far as actually banning) most commenters. I would suggest these as useful guidelines:
  • If you have a regular commenter on your non-serious postings, or one that pops up regularly with conversational comments, that's fine.
  • If you have someone who is writing long critiques of every serious post you do in your comments box, you may have a budding oppressor on your hands. In this case, I'd suggest emailing the commenter, thanking them for their responses and suggesting that they set up a blog of their own. If they do, a few long responses to short posts that they have written will help them understand why they weren't as welcome at your site as they thought they were.
  • If they don't respond to your suggestion and continue to post long replies, start to delete them (after fair warning, of course)
  • Tell visitors that you want them to 'play the ball and not the man'. Delete comments that just make personal remarks about you or other commenters. Delete comments where the commenter hasn't read other comments or take much trouble to understand your arguments
  • Delete comments from commenters who offer a commentary on how well they are doing in the argument (and how badly they are doing - this is almost always the opposite of the truth)
For a good example of this last phenomenon, see this thread that I was daft enough to get involved in. Particularly the fuckwit who calls himself Madasafish.


Lady Strange (aka Sharon) said...

I only speak for myself at moment, so I do not know how Ashok and Sir Gracchii think about this.

We are trying to encourage dialogue about things. Usually, a blog is like a handwritten letter where one can indulge in the narcissistic pleasure of talking about ourselves. But in the forums, dialogue is much easier. Anyone can feel free to interrupt and ask questions and so on.

I believe our basic premise is:
the more we talk, we more things we come across, the more things we come across, the more we question, the more we question, the clearer the concepts will become.

Sometimes on blogs, when we ramble, we may intimidate others with our opinions and views. Both Ashok and I do occasionally get called 'overly high brow'. We hope that on a forum, readers would be less intimidated by the things we say. We are trying to be accessible and open even if we do ramble on about things.

Sometimes readers are embarrassed to ask us even the simplest questions. With a forum, it is hoped that the embarrassment would disappear and the readers get to see us as we are - eccentric and fun-loving.

Of course, I know there are flamers out there who would not hesitate to call us names and throw rotten vegetables at us. But the gamble is part of conversation as well.

Just my tuppence's worth.

Ashok said...

I think the forum is a lot less demanding on people who want to say things but aren't quite sure how to comment.

I'm gonna get a PhD and I don't even know how to comment intelligently on half the stuff I read. But I wanna say something about that stuff besides "nice job" - maybe ask questions, maybe recommend the stuff to others to see what they say, etc.

The forum's just easier. It's been a joy trying to get starter posts up because I don't have to sit and write 1500 words at once. I can just ask a question with a preface and people can feel free to say what they like. And they don't have to post much in order to feel like they're participating.

Are the entry costs for writing forum posts lower than writing intelligent comments? My gamble is "yes." - I wonder if the need for a code of conduct is a proof of that. -

Ian Appleby said...

Ashok makes a valid counter-argument here, in that if someone is lacking in confidence to leave a comment, how much less likely are they to compose a full-blown post? I grant that this confidence issue is largely related to the adversarial quality of blogging/commenting that you describe, and would hopefully wither away if we could establish the model you describe, but I can't help feeling that it may prove too counter-intuitive for many.

Oh, and here's a manual trackback.

Alasdair said...

I agree with the points made about forums being a better system for online communication than blogs. A blog is a great way to record one person's thoughts, but if you want to host a discussion among many people, a forum is easily the best way to do it.

The linear nature of blogs means there can only really be one 'conversation' at a time, and it usually gets dominated by a few people; whereas a forum allows for multiple conversations on different topics, and generally seems a more democratic approach.

Given all this, I don't understand the trend in the past few years towards blogs and away from forums. Is it just because the owners of these sites want to make sure they control the discussion?

Paulie said...


I think you (perhaps understandably) have missed the point about 'the linear nature of blogs'. The point is that - with effective trackbacks, that needn't be the case. Of course, you could reply that we don't - currently - have an effective standard technology to manage trackbacks yet. But that's a point that Ian Appleby has covered in his post here:

Discussion forum have a major problem that neither of us have addressed yet. They aren't very sticky or usable. They don't market very well and they suffer from a lack of ownership. Blogs are almost 'personal property' and we cultivate them.

Blogs create a momentum of their own. The are designed to drive trafic to each other, and the mathematics of this is quite compelling. Blog, and you get visitors. Discussion forums routinely lie neglected. If Ashok and Sharon can make theirs succeed, I'll be very pleased for them (and I hope this doesn't sound smug - it's not intended to) but I really don't think they will get anywhere with it.

The other problem with blogs is that postings that are not very recent essentially disappear from most reader's view. That compelling mathematics ceases to work for older postings.

That's the personal project that I'm hoping to unveil shortly: How to ensure that good blogposts about public policy issues remain current for longer.