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)