Timothy Burke discusses the challenges of real conversation in the blogosphere:
I’m going through one of my periodic bouts of disaffection with reading aggressively political or partisan blogging, but I don’t feel any comfort or shelter in studied moderation, either. I’m having a hard time putting my finger on it, but it just doesn’t seem worth the time or the bother because there isn’t anything I recognize as a conversation going on a lot of the time in many political blogs, nor does there seem anything like a remotely adult sense of weary awareness about the messiness of the world as it is lived and experienced by most people...
Most of the time, it seems to me that trying to write anything more reflective, more ambiguous, more exploratory in a blog is either going to bore an audience that’s come seeking their Two-Minute Hate or it’s just going to be willfully misconstrued by someone else who needs fresh meat for their own hounds to feed upon. Read the comments section at Inside Higher Education, for one example. There’s no point to trying to talk about nuance or complexity or what makes for a good research design or anything else in that kind of back-and-forth.
In most online conversations I’ve been involved with, you eventually come to a point where the people interested in an evolving, exploratory dialogue, in learning something new about themselves and others, in thinking aloud, in working through things, find themselves worn out by a kind of rhetorical infection inflicted by bad faith participants who are just there to affirm what they already know and attack everything that doesn’t conform to that knowledge. (Or by the classic “energy creatures” whose only objective is to satisfy their narcissism.) I used to think that was a function of the size of the room, that in a bigger discursive space, richer possibilities would present themselves. Now I don’t know. Maybe it’s a product of the form itself, maybe it’s a sign of our times, and maybe it’s my own unfair expectations or my own character that’s the problem.
I've seen all too many blogs that are a disaster when it comes to comments and conversation. And I've seen blogs that do have intelligent and illuminating discussions in the commentary (heck, it looks like Burke's blog is one of them). Perhaps most frustratingly are those blogs that have both, as is true with The Volokh Conspiracy and many economic or political blogs. In those cases it's like some form of car wreck...I can't help but read the comments for the times when someone posts a compelling confirmation or rebuttal of the main post that gives me something new to think about, but there's a greater than 50% chance that most of the discussion will be food fights between people much too old for that sort of thing.
There is a great danger in moderating comments to solve the problem. But I can't see a way around this. When you have a potential audience the size of the world, then you are going to get the people who are incapable of maturity, or who get off on simply screwing around with anything potentially serious in some kind of misplaced effort to be Heath Ledger's Joker, or who are drunk or insane or whatever. A high percentage of trolls I've observed get off on being recognized in any form, and the only effective way I've found to counter them is to:
- Not acknowledge their effort or existence in any way.
- Remove all traces of their presence.
If a troll can't get any traction whatsoever, they move on. Being invisible is not any kind of fun.
Tougher are those people are simply passionate and rigid about their beliefs. They aren't going to grow their understanding or help anyone else grow, and they aren't really trolls, but the inevitable outcome of their rigidity is a constant back-biting with whatever passionate and rigid person on the other side of the spectrum assigns themselves as the nemesis. Deleting comments from a troll is easy; deleting perfectly valid comments by a passionate commenter because they just had to go and call the opposition Nazis in the process is much harder.
But, in my estimation, vigilant moderating is necessary if your goal is a civil discussion where there is some chance of those involved increasing their understanding of the universe.
HT to Megan McArdle...