I deleted a comment last night that had never made it past the moderation queue. It was unremarkable aside from its lameness, a predictable hateful response often generated when anyone has the effrontery to suggest Muslims might not be uniformly and inherently evil. Unremarkable, that is, except inasmuch as it helped crystallize a few thoughts I’ve been having about comment moderation on blogs in general, and for that matter about blogs in general.
It started with a blogging friend, or friend-of-friend, anyway, unlinked here so as to minimize the obnoxiousness of using a person’s pain to make a rhetorical point. She is suffering a personal tragedy, loved ones dying in a fashion that made the news. Where I might have suffered a pang of empathy at reading the news story absent the context of this friend-of-friendship, having gotten to know the bereaved a little through the medium of the net, the news stories are far more affecting.
I imagine many of you have similar experiences. I mean, some of you mourned my dog, and only a few of you ever met him. I have loved, and I have mourned, confidants whose voices I would not have recognized had I heard them, which I never did.
I woke up again this week to the clock radio, the local NPR affiliate in morning news rotation, and once again heard a story of loss and suffering, a day cut short unexpectedly, a life truncated, and all of it reported in terms of the potential inconvenience the tragedy might pose to the listener. Someone will grow up without her mother now, a group of people will carry the searing, stomach-twisting memory of this loss for the rest of their lives, a torrid love affair ended savagely and a life’s work forever undone, and so you would do well to seek alternate routes as you commute to avoid the ten-minute delay this shattering of hearts might cause you.
I am the furthest thing from an Internet triumphalist. When I head for the hills, this Internet is one of the things I run from. And yet I cannot help but think how different that traffic report might be if its structure allowed immediate response from listeners, some radio equivalent to blog comments or trackbacks. If the friends and relations and lovers could append, to the suggestion to take Interstate 680 until the wreckage was cleared from the road, reminders that some kinds of wreckage are harder to remove, how would that change the way we feel about the prospect of arriving five minutes late to work?
Perhaps not at all. I am a relative newcomer to the Internet. I have been using it for just 15 years. It is only beginning to dawn on me that people seem to be using the Internet to replicate some of the social structures I like least in the offline world. The Burning Man metaphor would seem to fit here: people see what they take for an empty space, rush in to fill it with the same stuff they have everywhere else, and call it a New Age of Humanity. Those who were shunned in high school go online and build cliques of their own. There is social climbing, there is sniping at one’s perceived inferiors, there is the building of gated communities with unwritten restrictive covenants.
My hands are not clean in this regard, as many CRN readers will know well.
But I keep coming back to my grieving friend-of-a-friend nine hundred miles away, and to my empathy with her, impossible without this tool the Internet. The Internet does not inevitably intertwine the hearts of those who use it, by any means. But it has the capacity to do so.
For that capacity to be expressed most fully a necessary condition, I believe, is a context of community. And as is true in the off-line world, the healthiest communities are those in which members of that community act in good faith.
There is an odd conceit in the blogging world that deletion of bad-faith comments is a violation of the rights of the hater. Even when the point of the comment is expressly to disrupt, to inflame and derail, the canonical response is not to simply delete the comment, but rather to warn commenters against “feeding the troll.” Thus the blogger’s responsibility for maintaining the community of the site, his or her responsibility to refrain from publishing hate speech and slander (which is in fact what allowing such comments to remain live on one’s blog amounts to) is externalized. As with so many other externalized evils in this world, the people most likely to be harmed by an act of bad faith are the ones saddled with the task of minimizing the effects of that bad faith act. Who is most likely to be harmed by a comment such as the one I deleted from the spam queue last night? Well, Muslims, for starters, and people whose loves include Muslims, and people longing for justice and a cessation of racism. And there are those who find unpleasant the pissing matches that usually arise from such posts. And those who prefer not to comment when the response might be a nasty slam made in bad faith. And those of us who may not mind the provocateurs, but who would benefit from hearing the points of view of those remaining silent.
The usual reply — one usually made by the people being banned for making bad-faith comments — is that such “censorship” results in a blog becoming little more than an echo chamber. But go stand at your local Echo Point and determine which mode of talk raises more echoes: conversation, or shouting? The best, most thorough discussions and airing of differences take place in venues where comment vandals are absent. When trolls and thugs are allowed free rein, that is when the echoes ring out, when peoples’ skin gets so thin that a mere untutored question or a legitimate piece of dissent or criticism is taken for just another sample of the background noise of trolling.
Despite the protests, it is not that hard to separate the sheep from the goats. Thoughtful disagreement, even when frustrated or angry, is wholly different from bad-faith argument. A community in which members have made a baseline commitment to respecting the humanity and intelligence of others is a different animal than an echo chamber.
Maybe it’s my background in print, where one must make an affirmative decision to print a vindictive or slanderous letter to the editor. I recognize that not everyone online feels those same rules apply. I recognize in fact that many bloggers would fight like hell to keep from being considered ultimately responsible for the comments left on their sites, and further that there are some extremely good reasons for feeling that way. Enshrine this sort of thing in the law, and what was responsibility for allowing hate speech becomes liability for infringement when a commenter posts song lyrics or an AP photo. I’m not advocating setting legal precedent here.
But there is no such thing as not making a decision. To hold to a policy that all comments remain (or that only the worst repeat offenders are banned after abundant complaint, or if a pre-defined set of magic hate words is used) is to decide against participation by those who are intimidated or annoyed into silence. It is to decide that the comment vandals are of higher value to you than are the thoughtful and hesitant, or that — at the very least — your desire to think yourself a defender of comment freedom is more important than the freedom to comment of those who prefer not to be set upon by trolls.
And you know what? For those that like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like. I’d be lying if I said I never appreciated a good bar brawl of a comment thread. And some blogs make the free-for-alls work: Pharyngula comes to mind as an example of a wonderful, worthwhile blog with a laissez-faire comment policy. But few blogs have that winning Pharyngular combination of high traffic, sharp focus, distinct blogger personality, and devoted constructive regulars. The chance of a typical low-to-mid-traffic blog ripening into another Pharyngula is, as the blog world matures, decreasing.
The CRN community has been truly sustaining for me, despite my deeply antisocial nature. This year in particular that sustenance has been of the lifesaving sort. We’ve never been too badly plagued with trolls here, and I say this fully aware that we’re approaching the anniversary of my briefly closing down the blog over a threat against Zeke. Here is an argument from incredulity: I cannot imagine that the affirmative community here is unconnected to that lack of trolls.
Deleting comment vandalism with prejudice on the first offense has long been the de facto policy here at CRN. I have to think that that is part of why the people here can hold difficult, honest, and constructive discussions like this one.
So consider this a formal announcement of that policy, after much consideration. I would rather talk to you than to the trolls. And for those reading who aren’t sure to which of those categories they might belong, I would point out that for most of us the decision is entirely voluntary. We all of us feel, and we all of us take out frustrations on non-human entities at times, and this is just a reminder that your fellow readers are not non-human entities, a reminder that has of late become especially urgent. Though not here, for which fact I can only offer the deepest gratitude.