Category Archives: Blogging

Back online

Hi, all. The Coyot.es Network was offline for a few days as a result of a database crash. But I’ve carefully handcrafted an artisanal replacement database, full of locally sourced bits. It should hold together for a while.

My apologies to readers for the interruption in vital blogular services, and to my fellow bloggers here for the annoying outage.

Antisocial media

why_facebook_sucks

I don’t write at Huffington Post, Medium, Daily Kos, or other websites that generate income based almost entirely on the assumption that writers will work for free.

So why, I started wondering this week, do I write for free on Facebook?

I don’t have a good answer. Facebook has been a depressing timesuck, its engineers keep deciding that they know best what writing of mine people actually want to read, and they’re building an entirely privatized Internet — enclosing the commons, as 16th Century English anarchists might put it — and it’s all based on the assumption that the people of the world will labor for several hours a day with no recompense to maintain the company’s multi-frillion dollar valuation.

And like every other writer in the world, I’m shackled to Facebook whether I want to be or not. Facebook may not pay me for my work to erect its stone pyramids, but a significant amount of my annual income relies on Facebook, directly or otherwise, as it’s mainly where readers are on the internet anymore.

So I’ll post links to my work, and to work I’m responsible for promoting, on Facebook. But I’m not going to engage for the sake of engaging anymore. I’m not going to volunteer anymore. If I have something random or wry to say, I’ll be saying it here from now on, on my sadly neglected blog. If no one reads it, oh well.

And since one of the things I will miss about Facebook is communicating with friends, I’ve turned comments back on here. I turned them off last year because of a glut of bad-faith commenters, but maybe they’ll have lost interest by now.

Comments off

My apologies for this, but commenting is no longer enabled on new posts on Coyote Crossing. Over the past month or so I’ve had to clear out more than 500 off-topic, occasionally personally abusive comments weighing in on a controversy having to do with a blog network I was once part of. Dealing with those comments was starting to become a serious intrusion on my time, and getting in the way of the actual work I’m doing in the real world.

So I’ve turned comments off on new posts, and will be turning them off on older ones as time permits.

This is not a move I make without regret: due to my increasingly stringent moderation here and the overall cleverness and joy among the commenters I allowed to stay, we had some good conversations at this joint over the last 12 years.

But the vandals and the people trying to drag fights here just make it no longer worth seem my time and energy. File under “why we can’t have nice things,” I guess.

Voice recognition

I just got my first new phone in five years. It’s the bottom of the line for iPhones; it only has barely enough storage to be a phone as opposed to a fancy microcomputer.

Despite that bargain-basement status, despite the fact that I’ve had to delete apps like my bird field guide and the one that alerted me when scientists discovered a new planet outside the solar system, this new phone does have some features that my old phone lacked.

Chief among those features is voice recognition. I’ve written thousands of blog posts in my life, but I’ve never dictated one.

Until now. This may prove to be very helpful in managing my carpal tunnel syndrome, which has been flaring up lately.

At any rate I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank Jim Stanger whose name this phone’s voice recognition software spelled correctly without intervention. Without Jim’s gracious gift of a used iPhone 4 a couple years ago, I would have spent those intervening years unable to iPhone anyone. Thanks Jim. Do you need the iPhone 4 back?

Social media isn’t

Image by mkhmarketing

Image by mkhmarketing

Somewhere between the time I hit publish on the first post on this blog and today, my writing changed. Back then in 2003 I mainly wrote for the benefit of a couple dozen readers, some of them friends I had known for some time. Those readers I hadn’t met in “real life” were few, and thoughtful, and generally writing on their own lightly trafficked blogs, and some of us became friends as well.

This blog, called Creek Running North back in those days for the watercourse nearest the house I lived in then, was started as a refuge. I was editing environmental magazines for a living back then, feeling myself oppressed by the litany of bad news I had to process every day, and I wanted to be able to keep a diary of sorts. That first post involved a garter snake that had darted between my feet a week before as I ran along a levee on the south shore of San Pablo Bay. I remember that encounter much more clearly than I remember what bad news was happening for me to edit that week.

The inevitable ironic thing happened: the blog soon got more readership than the serious environmental magazine from which it was supposed to be a respite. I made a mistake: I didn’t change what and how I wrote as a result. I kept it personal. I kept it confessional. Over those first few years as my dog Zeke aged and died, and then as my marriage to Becky ground to an end, I used this blog’s audience as therapy and confessional and ego support. And I did so without asking how any of the other people whose stories I was sharing how they felt about my doing so.

That might have been okay. There is room in the world for writing like that, and despite that older version of the blog having become largely centered on the lives of Chris and Becky and Zeke for a while, neither Becky nor Zeke ever complained about it. At least not to me. The Zeke book came out of it, for one thing. There’s a remove to paper and ink that I think takes away some of the false intimacy found online. While people can and do write comments on passages in a book, few expect the author to reply.

Things changed as I moved to the desert. The blog’s focus changed somewhat, languishing at times, becoming monomaniacal on a particular topic at times. My work here got me the gig at KCET. My readership grew, as did my writing’s reach and influence. That is a wholly good thing: I am incredibly lucky.

Another thing happened as I moved to the desert: the way people interacted with blogs changed radically in the space of a couple of years. Facebook opened itself to the public in 2006. Behind the curve as usual, I joined in September 2007. Twitter came around in 2006 as well, and I joined that in the last hours of 2007, with my auspicious first tweet embedded here:

Smarter people than I have expounded on the effects of Facebook and Twitter on the world of blogs, on the tenor of social discourse, and on the human cardiovascular system. Each platform offers the writer a mix of good and not so good. Readers can now hold conversations about a piece of writing that the author of that piece may never see. It’s much easier for writing to go viral now than it was in 2005. There’s no longer any need for a person to have a shred of technological expertise before holding forth publicly before large audiences. You may have noticed that I am assiduously refraining from assigning any of those phenomena to the “good” or “not so good” categories. I’m not so sure myself.

Twitter is its own animal and I am not there so much any more. Its use is straightforward: read or don’t, engage or don’t. But I am realizing, these last months, that I have been using Facebook wrong from the beginning. I thought I was hanging out with friends. Instead, I’ve been broadcasting.

In my defense, I couldn’t really have known.

Here’s the elevator version: I devoutly wish Facebook had used a concept for its basic unit of connection other than “friend.”

At this writing, I have 1,277 Facebook friends, a number that exceeds the number of people I can actually bring myself to think of as friends, using a broad and shallow definition of the term, by a factor of about four.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that: it’s merely the usual American English deflation of intensity of meaning of a formerly meaningful word. The way “love” has come to mean a mild preference for one commercial product over a near-identical product, “awesome” to mean “acceptable,”  or “freedom” to mean easy access to a freeway lane with no traffic, “friendship” now means that you’ve clicked a link.

But it fooled me for a long time.

I’m pretty sure there’s a reason none of us had 1,277 actual friends before the word got devalued. Behavior in friends that can seem quirky, endearing, or even just mostly tolerable if a few of your couple dozen friends display it can become overwhelming when you scale that group of “friends” up to four figures. For example: if you have 20 friends and ten percent of them are in the habit of giving you unsolicited and not really helpful advice, that’s something with which a mostly emotionally healthy human being can generally contend. At 1,200+ “friends,” that ten percent becomes exhausting and demoralizing. (Keep that in mind when commenting on this piece, thanks.)

Or let’s say one of your 20 friends is given to argument for its own sake after drinking a couple beers. You can tolerate it, or you can go into the kitchen when he’s holding forth in the living room, or if things get bad you can take him aside and ask him to knock it off. If the equivalent five percent of your 1,200 “friends” do the same thing, the emotional impact is much, much larger.

Hell, even the wonderful and uplifting things friends do get overwhelming at 1,277 friends. I have more than a dozen unanswered messages from Facebook friends who plan to be in town in the next few weeks and would love to see me.  Every single one of those invitations is appealing. All of them en masse? That’s different.

That roster of 1,277 friends I have at this writing would be a lot larger if I hadn’t  spent a fair amount of time over the last few years removing people from the list, sometimes because they posted something egregiously offensive, but sometimes over behavior I might well easily tolerate in a real-world friend. And sometimes it’s been over behavior that I couldn’t fit cleanly into either bin, like the person who was the first to click “like” on every single link, photo, idle observation or cat picture I posted for a month and a half.

Facebook’s choice of terminology confuses us all, I think. Tell us often enough that someone is our friend and we start to feel an intimacy that may not actually exist. That one burned me last year pretty hard, as for example when Facebook “friends” messaged my then-partner to inquire as to the state of my mental health when I was going through a rough patch.

It’s come to this: the more Facebook friends I have, the lonelier and more isolated I feel.

And that sucks, because at the core of my actual relationship with most of those 1,277 people is that they read my writing and get some value from it, and are kind enough to act on that appreciation. Sometimes that kindness comes in the form of tossing money my way, without which I’d currently be in a lot worse shape financially. Without the support of those 1,277 readers (and others), I might well have ended up homeless a couple years ago.

That appreciation is almost wholly a good thing, though I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the persona I seem to have developed, in part due to my own increasingly careful curation of what I share online. I’ve made some sharp departures from past practice in what I choose to share. I’ve learned the downside of oversharing the personal stuff, the effects on both myself and those I love. There are glorious aspects to my personal life right now that will remain offline. I have scaled back my shared life to include mainly my writing, sporadic political rants, pretty photos of the desert and an occasional dog face.

And that curation has had an odd effect: since I’m less eager to share my frustrations and nagging doubts and insecurities online, the version of myself that appears online has fewer of those things. People fill in those blanks and apprehend me as some sort of desert-saving hero, or at least anti-hero. Need I point out that that is manifestly a false assessment? I sit on my ass all day, to the detriment of my spine, and try to write clearly enough to be understood, and try not to lose my temper on a handful of occasions per month when I feel like a few people choose to misunderstand me anyway. There are heroes in this world, the clinic escorts and public school teachers, the people who advocate for the indigent and rehab injured wildlife and keep transmission lines out of National Monuments. I write about those people. That’s different. It’s a great gig, but I notice a marked absence of capes in my closet.

Anyway. Much of my relationship with those 1,277 “friends” is gratifying and touching. And yet I found myself thinking, the other day, how much I wish I could use Facebook the way almost everyone I know uses Facebook: to keep in touch with loved ones and an assortment of fond acquaintances. I have a professional page to feature my work life; how nice would it be for my personal page to be, well, personal?

And yet because I failed to anticipate the combined effect of my inappropriately personal writing style and the spurious stranger-intimacy Facebook engenders, there’s only one way for me to get even partway there. I’d lay ten-to-one odds that at least a couple of the 300-400 strangers I plan to drop from my Facebook friends list will have their feelings hurt.

And I never wanted that.

Clarke’s Laws of Internet Commenting

  1. No matter how broad or blatant a satire, more commenters than you expect will take it literally without hesitation.
  2. If there is one comment on a post it will dispute something in the first sentence of the post.
  3. If an Internet commenter struggles to understand a bit of writing, he or she will label that writing as “stupid.”
  4. The first five commenters who attempt to rebut a post by logical argument will raise objections anticipated and thoroughly addressed in the post.
  5. For comment threads longer than one screen, the inanity of a comment is directly proportional to the number of other commenters who’ve already said the same thing up-thread.

 

Boundaries

On days like this I’m not sure whether I’m too lonely or not lonely enough.

On the one hand, I spent the day alone aside from the cat. A few minutes’ phone conversation for work, a few more catching up with Annette, and thirty seconds of conversation when I dropped off the rent check, and that aside I had solitude. I could happily have had more of those contacts, less of that solitude.

And yet I recoiled from other kinds of contact today. Two people I don’t know got in touch with  open-ended demands on my time and attention. Not asking me to write, or asking for other discrete favors: just asking for energy. And time. And attention. Out of the blue. I won’t offer more details except to say they both made the hairs on the nape of my neck jump to attention.

A few weeks ago I decided to scale back my time spent on Facebook, and the fact that both of these people found me through that venue didn’t do much to change my mind.

It’s odd. I’ve done much of my socializing online for the last 20 years. It used to seem a complement to an emotionally healthy life, and it brought me joy. Now it feels like a synthetic substitute for real connection.

I think the difference between then and now may lie in non-reciprocality. In 1994 I socialized in a newsgroup with maybe 30 people in it. It was a community of sorts. Everyone participated and contributed to the discussion.

Now? I have tens of thousands of readers. Many of them are incredibly kind and supportive: in fact, I couldn’t do the work I do without their aid. Some of the people with whom I’ve become acquainted online in the last few years  are people I’m very glad to know.

So it feels crass to say that life online feels less like a community than it used to. But it does.

All of us online grapple with this relationship, a new one in human history. I think Facebook opened us up to a world of drama when it bestowed the name “friend” on its basic unit of relationship. I have “unfriended” a few people in the last week, and how much less fraught would that have been if it was called “removing this person from your contact list”?

I have several dozen contacts on Facebook I’ve never met with whom I’d unhesitatingly make coffee plans. I have many more with whom I have hardly any interaction aside from the occasional “like.” And then there is the third group, a small but growing number of people with whom I have to remind myself that we are all muddling through this world, with our desires to fix others’ problems and sadnesses. The people who forget that they do not actually know me.

It’s usually benign. I am mildly prominent online, and the temptation to treat mildly prominent people as a favorite TV show is well documented. Sometimes it gets annoying but forgivable, as when strangers with familiar names offer unsolicited advice on health or relationship issues. Mainly everyone means well.

But sometimes, as today, it goes over the line into “block this person and forswear all contact” country.

My work is a combination of writing and activism, and having a wide group of cooperative sources and collaborators is part of what has given that work whatever degree of success it can claim. There’s no way for me to refuse to give out an email address to a stranger that asks for one to “talk about something,” as that’s how some of my best work has been sparked. The percentage of contacts who fail to respect personal boundaries is fractional at this point, but it seems to be growing.

I guess it’s an inevitable consequence of relying on a trust-based system: some will take advantage of it, knowingly or not.

It makes me tired.

Ancient historical document restored

I realized tonight that this work of mine* has been offline for some time. So here it is. The backstory is here, but the short version: it’s an in-jokey satire of a book of the same name by Michael Bérubé. Michael’s book won some acclaim back in 2006, and then so, in a smaller way, did my riff, and there was much rejoicing, excepting at some places.

And then as my blog and I went through various server changes and URL revisions and divorces and such, WTATLA;TGN fell off the Internet somehow. So here it is. back again, for the digital historians, in an embedded PDF form that those of us back in 2006 could only dream of. Oh, that was a happier time.

* work may not technically be actually mine in either a legal or ethical sense

What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts? The Graphic Novel by Chris Clarke

 

Some thoughts on semantic HTML tags for nature writers

So you know the <i>italics tags</i> we all once used to italicize text are widely deprecated these days, right? And for good reason. The same goes for <b>bold tags</b>, which nowadays we are told we should not use to make our web text bold.

The reason is that italics and bold are visual styles, and our HTML should not contain visual styling. HTML should contain only semantically meaningful tags, and then we should rely only on browser default settings or on accompanying style sheets to control how that text appears based on the semantic information in the HTML file.

So instead of using <i></i> tags to make text between them italic, we are supposed to use <em></em> tags. The tags do the same thing in any visual browser I’ve seen, but “em,” which stands for “emphasis” or “emphasized,” actually conveys information about how to interpret the text. And <strong></strong> has replaced <b></b>

This is relevant in screen readers for the blind, or in other situations in which the text is not rendered in visible form — search engine indexing robots, for instance. It’s a smart idea. A screenreader can take its cues from the tags as to how to render the text: <em> tag for mildly accented intonation, and <strong> for something more peremptory.

But if you write about any one of a number of topics where accepted styles would have you italicize for other reasons, this can create problems.

I write about wildlife a lot. In the course of writing about living things, I mention those living things’ scientific names.  English language stylebooks with which I am familiar hew to the convention of italicizing scientific names thusly: Canis latrans. Boa constrictor. Turdus migratorius. Tegeticula antithetica.

I typed each one of those out, highlighted them, and hit the button in my WordPress edit scree that has an italicized uppercase “I” on it to make them slanty. And here’s how WordPress turned that into HTML tags:

<em>Canis latrans</em>. <em>Boa constrictor</em>. <em>Turdus migratorius</em>. <em>Tegeticula antithetica</em>.

Which means that according to computers and screenreaders and other non-visual interfaces interpreting the text, I am yelling each of those names. Which I generally would not, possibly excepting “Boa constrictor” if I ran into one unexpectedly.

Sometimes, in other words, italicizing does not mean emphasis. And yet those non-emphasized italics tags are largely engineered away.

At this blog’s last home over at faultline.org, I was using a content management system that let you define your own text formatting buttons, and given that I was spending a whole lot of time italicizing taxonomic binomials I made myself one. When I highlighted a word or two and clicked the button, it would surround the highlighted text with code like this:

<span class="taxon">Eriogonum inflatum</span>

And then I just wrote a rule in the site’s CSS that rendered any text of class “taxon” as italic. It worked fine, and it made sense, and I was thinking of figuring out a way to do the same in WordPress. In my copious free time.

As it turns out, though, the whole “don’t use italics tags” thing has itself been deprecated. HTML 5, the increasingly less new standard by which we’re all supposed to write our HTML, turns out to recognize the importance of unemphasized italicized text. Its italics specification includes the following:

The i element represents a span of text in an alternate voice or mood, or otherwise offset from the normal prose in a manner indicating a different quality of text, such as a taxonomic designation, a technical term, an idiomatic phrase from another language, transliteration, a thought, or a ship name in Western texts.

Terms in languages different from the main text should be annotated with lang attributes (or, in XML, lang attributes in the XML namespace).

The examples below show uses of the i element:

<p>The <i class="taxonomy">Felis silvestris catus</i> is cute.</p>

<p>The term <i>prose content</i> is defined above.</p>

<p>There is a certain <i lang="fr">je ne sais quoi</i> in the air.</p>

It’s nice to know they’ve been thinking this through. But that doesn’t help me with the formatting buttons.

Interview with Meera Lee Sethi, author of Mountainfit

My friend and Coyot.es Network colleague Meera Lee Sethi, who blogs here at Dispersal Range, wrote and crowd-funded a book called Mountainfit. Self-published at first, it was then picked up by a publisher, CCLaP Publishing, a wing of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.

Meera is working on what her publisher calls a “virtual book tour,” which involves a sequence of interviews posted on different blogs. Here’s Coyote Crossing’s, a video chat done with the help of Google+ hangouts.

In the conversation we talk about language and science, about expanding the dimensions of wonder with fact rather than deflating them, and about writers we like. But mainly, we talk about Mountainfit, which is simply a wonderful book about Meera Lee’s sojourn working at a Swedish bird observatory — but it’s about a whole lot more than that besides.

You’ll notice a technical issue that forced me to play cameraman: usually Google+’s hangout feature displays whoever’s talking. It wasn’t working tonight, which was likely the result of my making a settings change without intending to. Anyway, I realized it before we got too far in and coped as best I could. My apologies.

Anyway: here’s our chat. And don’t forget to visit Meera’s joint.

And especially don’t hesitate to check out Mountainfit.

Expanding my wildlife reporting at KCET

rewilddraft

As many of you know, I’ve been reporting on renewable energy from a critically supportive, non-greenwashing perspective at KCET for more than a year now, in the blog ReWire.

A lot of my enewable energy reporting has involved wildlife impacts, some of them regrettably literal. As of yesterday, we’re making that wildlife reporting official, expanding our coverage of California wildlife issues with ReWire’s sister blog ReWild. (Check it out here.)

As part of launching ReWild, KCET has put together a crowdfunding project to provide a contextual backbone for my reporting. Some of the money raised will go to pay me for building that backbone. Here’s the video explanation:

This is KCET’s very first crowdfunding project, and if it’s successful, that would bode well for my continuing relationship with the organization as a freelancer. And that would help me continue to bring stories to light that are essentially unreported anywhere else.

So check out the new blog, and take a look at the Kickstarter, especially the swag they’ve set up for various donor levels, and please consider signing on as a ReWild supporter.

Also, and just as importantly in the long run as the fundraising, ReWild is always in need of tips and leads for California wildlife stories. Though KCET is based in Los Angeles, we’re covering the whole state from Del Norte County to the Algodones Dunes. (Those of you who’ve known me since the days when I was trying to get Faultline off the ground, with its California-centric environmental reporting mission statement, will know how much this opportunity means to me.) So ping me if you’ve got some good ideas.

SciAm and Danielle N. Lee

If you follow the science blogging world and have been online this weekend, you will likely have heard of an interaction Danielle N. Lee, PhD. had with someone who asked her to work for him for free and got outrageously insulting when she politely turned him down. I mean, really insulting.

Basically, an editor (identified only as “Ofek”) asked Danielle to contribute to his site, “biology-online.org,” as a guest blogger. She quite reasonably asked what would be expected of her and how much she’d be paid. He said there’d be no pay and trotted out the old, incredibly stale chestnut about the gig being exposure.

Dr. Lee declined, and Ofek asked her if she was a whore. I kid you not. You can see, if you read DNLee’s summation of the interaction here, part of why I (among many others) like Danielle’s writing very much. She doesn’t hide her anger about having been insulted,  but she persists in speaking to Ofek as a human being, describing just why he is in grievous error, and addressing how he can avoid making the same sort of egregious mistake in the future.

Dr. Lee’s response was originally posted on her blog at Scientific American. As of this writing, you can’t see it there. That’s because on Friday night, her post was removed by SciAm’s management.

That removal happened without explanation, from what I understand, until early Saturday morning, at which point SciAm’s Senior VP Mariette DiChristina offered a cursory comment on Twitter:

Maryn McKenna has a typically cogent response to the issue, as well as a great list of links to others’ takes on the matter. Responses have ranged from accusations that SciAm is more interested in the health of its advertising arrangements than in its contributors (it has one such arrangement with biology-online.org) to pointing out that the way people treat young women scientists of color is very much part of “discovering science.”

I want to say something about the relationship of writers and editors that’s relevant here.

I have spent a considerable amount of my professional life working as an editor. Sometimes I’ve been in a position to pay my writers. More often, I’ve had to ask writers to contribute their work without pay, or at least without direct pay. There are kinds of pay other than money. The feeling of contributing to an important campaign is one such. Getting the word out on an issue about which you feel passionately is another. I wouldn’t have been able to do half the work I’ve done without other writers who’ve consented to work with me without a paycheck.

Their willingness to work with me anyway bestowed an immense responsibility on me as an editor. When I couldn’t write a check, I had to offer those writers something else in return.

Whether or not a writer gets paid, it is an editor’s job to make a writer look good. Polishing their words, straightening out unclear sentences, fact checking and  ground-truthing, keeping them from making embarrassing errors in public//print, and sending pieces back with requests to flesh out aspects the writer missed are all part of the job.

Many of those parts of an editor’s job have been scaled back as demands on editors’ time increase. Other tasks such as promoting those writers’ work have been increasingly foisted onto editorial from declining PR staffs.  But the soul of those tasks remains:

Editors are supposed to have their writers’ backs.

You advocate for the writers’ ideas by clarifying the way in which those ideas are expressed. You advocate for the writers by demanding they be treated with the respect they are due. I’m privileged to have an editor at KCET who definitely has my back, and I have worked with a number of other such.

And on the other side of the spectrum, just as there are writers who really ought to turn their talents to other areas, there are editors who work their whole lives without living up to the obligations they owe to their writers. They might dent prose to suit their own tin-eared rules, or ask writers for substantive revisions that they then rescind because they have no idea what the piece is about. They might introduce errors of fact through their own ignorance or sloth. They make their writers look bad.

Danielle N. Lee wrote a light-hearted, compelling piece about a day in the life of a woman scientist of color and the odious disrespect  that came her way as a result of her insisting on professional treatment. Scientific American chose to delete that post without notice, calling it “inappropriate,” but so far has said nothing about the behavior of the staff at its partner organization that prompted the post.

Without talented, engaging writers like Danielle, the editors at Scientific American would have to find other work, and SciAm’s partner organizations would not be able to ride those coattails.

Time to start backing up those who generate income for you, SciAm.

On comments on blogs

I’ve been spending a lot of time these past few weeks thinking about blog comments and how they work, or (far too often) how they don’t work. The topic’s been on my mind in part because of recent events at Pharyngula, but my mental squeaky rat wheel really got turning when John Scalzi wrote this post on comments, which you should read all of but which was especially valuable to me for this passage:

In a general sense, though, I think it’s well past time for sites (and personal blogs) to seriously think about whether they need to have comment threads at all. What is the benefit? What is the expense? Blogs have comments because other blogs have comments, and the blog software allows comments to happen, and I suspect everyone just defaults to having comments on.

Comments can be a good and useful thing, but if the end result of having them open is that the person running the blog is drained and enervated by them (and by having to deal with them), then that person maybe should not have comments on. If the end result of having comments on a blog is that the site is over run with trolls and assholes, some of whom are systematically attempting to silence the blog’s owner, then that site maybe should not have comments on. If having comments makes a desired audience avoid a site or blog because they don’t want to have to deal with trolls and assholes, that site maybe should not have comments on.

Over this blog’s run of ten years and counting the comments here have been, almost all of the time, a very good thing. I met Annette because she started commenting here, if we include the blog’s previous iteration Creek Running North in our definition of “here.” I’ve made many other friends through comments here, some of whose company I’ve enjoyed in Real Life as well.

Some of the best examples of comment threads on this blog suffered file corruption in 2008, and are far less worthwhile as a result. I’m thinking for instance of a discussion over women’s labor and the late fetishization of domestic work as seen in the “Slow Food” movement and similar tendencies. It was a difficult discussion, with many possibilities for rails-going-off-ness, and yet it ended up being constructive and healthy because the person at the center of the argument was willing to listen, and the people who had problems with what he’d said refused to write him off as a lost cause.

That post is here, but the glitch ate many of the comments — including those from the person who that sparked  the conflict. You’ll just have to trust me: things could have gotten ugly, but things didn’t get ugly because everyone involved (including the moderator) worked to make those things work.

And it is work.

Sometimes it’s nasty work, as evidenced by this now disemvowelled comment from October 2006, which was so unpleasant that it echoed far outside these walls.

That one was all the way over at the far right tail of the unpleasant blog comment bell curve. Most are way better, a low bar to be sure, but it’s increasingly my sense that the most constructive, interesting, engaging comments on most blog posts are no longer to be found on the blogs themselves, with a few exceptions such as the above-linked Scalzi.

Instead, the commentariat for most blogs has dispersed, and where a blog like Michael’s in 2005 could boast a coherent cadre of commenters with enough expertise and interests in common to keep a centralized conversation going, such a blog nowadays would necessarily spawn separate, unfindable conversations in four or five major venues and a host of smaller ones.

In retrospect, this really started in the middle of the last decade with sites like Metafilter. I noticed early on — 2005 or so? — that getting a link from Metafilter meant an uptick in traffic, with all the associated costs, but no uptick in comments. People following a link from Metafilter to this site would come, read a bit of the post, and then return to Metafilter to discuss it. It was an essentially parasitic relationship, and it siphoned off what could have been interesting discussion on the original post to an essentially private site requiring a membership fee to join in on the discussion.

But at least you can read what people are saying about your post in a MeFi thread. When Facebook opened to the general public in 2006,  a new and stealthier parasite on blog comment threads arose: suddenly it was very easy to share and discuss a post with your friends with no way for the post writer to see what you were saying unless the person sharing it on Facebook had their posts set to publicly viewable.

This isn’t a bad thing per se. I think some of the diaspora of commentary on blog posts happened because blog comment threads  are to a first approximation cesspools of stupid hate. As Scalzi says in his post,  the phrase “Don’t Read The Comments” is widely used for a reason. It’s partly because moderating comments is work, and partly because people give inexplicable latitude to vandals whose sole intent is to piss all over your living room rug. Meanwhile? On Facebook? If you post a link to an outside blog post and make a comment on it, and someone replies by insulting you, you have moderation powers. That’s not a bad thing: it’s a democratization of the ability to enforce respectful discourse.

Anyway. What had been a more coherent commentariat for many mid-sized to large blogs has splintered. A provocative blog post might now spawn conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Google+, and a handful of other major venues. With a very few exceptions, I think mainly constituting large blogs that offer their commenters a distinct sense of community, the comment diaspora has happened and I don’t think we’ll be going back to 2005.

The commentariat that frequented this place back in the day seems mainly to have assembled on Facebook, with a few people on Twitter and a few on Google Plus. With some exceptions, few regulars comment here directly anymore. That’s neither a  good thing nor a bad thing: it just is.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have dome things a bit more differently back in the days when discussions about what I write mainly happened here. I would have been far quicker to nuke comments like this without regret or apology.

I might, in fact, have failed to allow comments in the first place. We’d have missed out on some good conversations, but I’d also have missed out on a very large amount of personal stress and unpleasantness.

This weekend I was talking about the whole mess at Pharyngula with my friend Jake, who offered an interesting simile. “Writing is an art form,” she said. “If you were a painter, you wouldn’t necessarily think it was the best idea to have a bunch of brushes and paint available in your studio for passersby to come in and paint over what you’ve done on a canvas. Or to scrawl comments on the wall next to the canvas. Why should writing be any different?”

The question becomes “Do comments add value to a site?” And the next question that logically follows is “if so, for whom?”

Some of the comment threads here have been just sheer delight. Some, like the long-deleted Ally 101 thread from January 2008, were agonizing and contentious things that served no one and were best avoided.

And many of the posts I’m proudest of here attracted no comments whatsoever. Almost 400 of the 2,774 posts  I’ve made here since 2003 attracted no comments. 1,664 of those posts — 60 percent of the posts I’ve written here in more than a decade — have five comments or fewer.

It’s not just hostile or needlessly argumentative comments that cause problems, though those are the kind I’ve had to deal with most lately. There are the comments that are “too friendly,” in which a person decides, based on what I’ve shared here, that they’re entitled to provide medical advice or relationship counseling or some such. There are people who go completely off topic in uninteresting ways. There was the one guy whose comments here mainly consisted of posting entire song lyrics. A few people started to opine back in 2007 about how long it was taking me to get over Zeke’s death, or who just Didn’t Understand why I wouldn’t get another dog. If you put yourself out in public the way I have there will be people who mean well, but who take their own assumptions about you to be immutable truth that must be shared.

A lot of the time the thought of having to deal with comments has severed as a disincentive to writing, at least about certain topics, or when I’m in a certain frame of mind.

I’m not sure yet, but I might be in the process of deciding to end that disincentive.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be thinking this through to see how I want to have the issue of commenting play out here. This isn’t the first time I’ve considered what role comments should play here: when I first rebooted the blog in Summer 2008 I decided to try separating comments from posts. It didn’t work all that well, mainly because of the software limitations in the forum software I used. Perhaps it was a half-measure.

I am not yet sure what I’ll decide to do here vis a vis future comments: leave them available, bar them on some posts, or end them altogether. But I have to say it’s liberating as hell to realize I have the option, especially considering people have other options for discussion now, in places where it won’t be my job to moderate them.