Civility

My friend Eugene Volokh runs The Volokh Conspiracy, perhaps the most widely-read blawg (that is, blog focused on legal issues) on the internet with about 10,000 unique visitors a day.  Originally, the VC didn’t allow comments at all.  Then they started allowing comments, but Eugene adopted essentially a “dinner party” rule – if your comment is something that you would say to someone in a discussion at a dinner party, great.  If not, don’t put it in the comments at VC.  And if a VC blogger finds a comment that seems to violate the dinner party rule, the blogger simply deletes the comment.

This happened to me once for what I thought was a pretty inoffensive comment (I responded “*yawn*” to a post that I found tiresome).  So I ridiculed Eugene for his policy, pointing out to him that the internet is not a dinner party, and that he shouldn’t be so damn sensitive.  But in light of our recent experience here at BMG, I’ve concluded that he was right, and I was wrong – not about my specific comment (I still think that deleting it was an overreaction), but about the policy.  Some readers have expressed concerns that the tone of discourse around here has started to deteriorate.  We share those concerns, and we are doing what we can to prevent the deterioration from continuing.  (More on that subject in this post and the attached comments.)

Here is how Eugene and the VC state their “civility” policy:

Here’s a tip: Reread your post, and think of what people would think if you said this over dinner. If you think people would view you as a crank, a blowhard, or as someone who vastly overdoes it on the hyperbole, rewrite your post before hitting enter.

And if you think this is the other people’s fault — you’re one of the few who sees the world clearly, but fools wrongly view you as a crank, a blowhard, or as someone who overdoes it on the hyperbole — then you should still rewrite your post before hitting enter. After all, if you’re one of the few who sees the world clearly, then surely it’s especially important that you frame your arguments in a way that is persuasive and as unalienating as possible, even to fools.

Our goal is to provide an interesting and pleasant environment that can help inform readers. To do that, we’ll occasionally have to exercise our editorial discretion. Think of this as an in-person discussion group, where having different voices is critical to a great conversation — but where sometimes the leader has to deal with cranks who sour the conversation more than they enliven it.

Naturally, there’s always a risk that this discretion will be used erroneously, no matter how well-intentioned the editor. But discussion groups (especially on the Internet, but also off it) generally need an editor who’ll occasionally make such judgments.

And, remember, it’s a big Internet. If you think we were mistaken in removing your post (or, in extreme cases, in removing you) — or if you prefer a more free-for-all approach — there are surely plenty of ways you can still get your views out.

Frankly, that strikes me as a pretty good starting point.  Bob, Charley, and I have been having a lot of discussions about how to deal with the civility issue, and (not surprisingly) the three of us don’t agree on everything.  So we’re working on it.  You’ll be hearing more from us on this subject soon.

In a way, this site is the victim of its own success.  If no one were reading it, if no one were writing comments and putting up user posts, and if the mainstream media (which of course still reaches way more people than we do, by several orders of magnitude) and the campaigns weren’t paying attention to what happens on it, then no one would care, so no one would spend time or energy writing comments of any sort, much less comments containing the kind of invective that we’re concerned about.  Of course, we’re delighted that people are reading it and are paying attention to what happens here.  But that makes it all the more important that the debates that go on here remain productive, respectful, and civil.  If we want that wider world that is just starting to take notice of our existence to take us seriously (and by “us” I mean the “netroots” writ large, not just the three of us who run this site or the 1,500 readers who stop by here each day), we have to be worthy of that kind of attention.

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Discuss

28 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Put another way

    Don't say anything you wouldn't say to your mother.  Even if she's republican.

    Those are some good guidelines.  Thanks guys.

  2. a good example of non-civility

    For the opposite extreme, look at TheSomervilleNews.com, where most comments are anonymous, and many are insulting, rude, or irrelevant.  The site owner's policies are arbitrary and capricious.  It's a good lesson in what we [b]don't[/b] want here.

  3. But David!

    If we ever got invited to dinner parties we wouldn't have so much free time to snipe at each other on the Internet!

  4. Can I Tell A Person that Something They Like Has Fascist By-Products?

    That is the debate. Don't pin this on me.

    eb3-fka-ernie-boch-iii   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
  5. Word!

    I can't tell you how many dozens of times I've written a post or a reply to someone - and then reread it - and then erased the whole thing.

    Sometimes it helps to lower the blood pressure just to type out what you're thinking - and then erase it.

    I learn a lot here - even from people I don't agree with often -

    Thanks for trying to keep it civil.

  6. Civility isn't so much the problem...

    as accuracy.  People just make wild comments without any proof on here.  I can deal with an a**hole who is right much more than I can deal with a pleasant person who is ignorant and likes to spread it.

    • We need to address both.

      But civility is important because it sets the tone for the whole site, and it is a big part of how the rest of the world perceives us. Also, one of the great things about the internet is the speed with which inaccuracies are corrected.  But incivility can't be "corrected," it can only be excised.

      • True

        I didn't mean to suggest that incivility was preferred, I hope it didn't come across that way.  I was just trying to show that the bigger beef was with inaccuracy.  Though rumors bring up the whole cat out of the bag thing (that takes me back to crim pro which I would rather not remember!), once they are out you can't ever really get them back in.

  7. Unrealistic.

    I'm sorry, but I think you're being a tad unrealistic.  First, we're discussing politics which, by its very nature, is as contentious a topic as, well, religion.  If you're going to demand civility, then you bloody well better define it because what may result is a) an echo chamber or b) flaccid discourse. 

    Look, the heady combination of the internetz, politics, engaged and activist posters, and turbulent times can only lead to a discussion that is pointed, at times outrageous, and, as a result, stimulating.  If you wish to force the activists--and, let's face it, who's posting here?--who participate at this site to inject their daily Prozia II, that's fine, but don't expect anyone who is sincerely  interested in real political discussion, which, by its nature, is bloody and contentious, to accept anesthetized "civil" discussion as a substitute for the real thing.

    • We'll see.

      Frankly, I think you're wrong.  Of course politics is contentious.  We WANT vigorous debate here, and by and large that's what we get.  Bloody, contentious, I'm all for it.  We just don't want people calling each other childish names in the process.  That, it seems to me, is not too much to ask.

      The kinds of posts and comments that we're concerned about are definitely the exception rather than the rule.  But it doesn't take very many of them to drag the whole site down.  That's why we want to get rid of them - the site will be much better without them, and it really doesn't cost us anything.

      • Once again...

        Here comes David trying to police thought... rather, manner of expression (I'm sure he would say).

        Y'know, I really like reading this blog but I really hate having daddy hold my hand while I'm doing it. 

        Some of us think that the thing about blogs that is actually refreshing is that there is real freedom of expression.

        What is this, one week after the whole thing about people disclosing ties to campaigns -- which David will police too?

        I have to say, I've personally seen NOTHING on this blog that I need to be protected from.  Ron Newman is right about the Somerville News blog, and I've read it at times.  But the offensive stuff you just ignore!

        David, you say "it doesn't take many of them to drag the whole site down."  That is an absolutely unsubstantiated opinion.  Simple question: does the readership (which I know you track) go down when people make these offensive comments?

        If that has not happened, you are plainly wrong.  Stop trying to save people from a crisis that does not exist.

        • Saving people

          FactCheck, of the three "proprietors" of the site, I have the most libertarian view of this whole issue. But I really don't think that we imagine that we're "protecting" anyone by deleting personal attacks. It's a matter of exercising editorial control so that a substantive discussion doesn't get buried in endless ad hominems.

          David, Bob and I have values that we share. Some of them are ideological (we're all Dems); but one of the most important things we share is valuing fair play and good faith in dialogue. We have very strong disagreements among us about how to encourage that in our site, but we absolutely agree that we want to strongly encourage that in the discussions. So it's not a matter of censorship; it's a matter of having this place on the web reflect our values (or meta-values, if you wish). In that sense, Volokh's dinner-party analogy is useful.

          I agree with lightiris that the tone should be set by the front-page posts. But we're arguing that we should be able to do a little bit of weeding so that the plant of real discussion can flourish.

          I'm concerned that some folks feel --perhaps justifiably -- that we're acting a bit too authoritarian. I would hope and expect that we'd generally use a light touch, and use a fairly high threshold for deleting a comment.

          For instance, if David posted "yawn", I'd leave it there. Pretty mild. :)

      • You have a ratings system.

        Why not let it work?  If someone starts calling people childish names, why not let the readership start its own censuring process by using the ratings system you provide?  The vast majority of bozos (is that namecalling?) who resort to playground tactics will get the message soon enough, especially if you've got this site set up to bury comments under the accumulation of too many zeros.  If you don't, then you should consider that.

        Big Brother managing vocabulary is antithetical to free and open debate.  Is it too much to ask that people not resort to namecalling?  In theory, no, but in practice, perhaps.  The question becomes one of trade-offs.  Is preserved decorum more important than a short flare of tempers, which, if you follow these things, often work themselves out on the internetz as they do in "real" life?  Lapses in civility are not fatal communicable diseases.  People will learn soon enough not to engage those who can't control themselves.

        Lastly, if you fear a DU type of brawling climate, then it's the job of your frontpagers to maintain the tone and dignity you expect from your readers and to keep them focused on your primary vision for this site.  After that, though, you need to let the readership do its thing.  Otherwise, you've got a rigged game designed to produce the outcome your prefer--and that's only fun for you. 

        • I just gave you a 4!

          We should use the rating system, and encourage other people to do so. To be honest, it's one of those things that came with the move to Soapblox that we haven't used to its full potential.

          So I'll just say it now -- use the ratings system, folks!

          What I'd love is to have a system like Slashdot, whereby one has a default "threshold", where comments deemed to be trollish just get sent to the basement, out of sight and out of mind.

          • Thanks, I missed this comment

            earlier and would have responded sooner had I been paying better attention.  My apologies.

            This entire discussion, while valuable, is not terribly fruitful in that we don't have much to really go on here.  It all feels terribly academic, which, in itself, is not a bad thing, I suppose.  That aside, though, I wish I had more concrete examples on this site of the sort of behavior that causes David so much concern so that a less abstract discussion could take place. 

            • Fortunately,

              the examples are relatively few and far between.  I don't want to give people the impression that there's an epidemic of incivility raging at this site - there isn't, and by and large discussions, though sometimes heated and contentious, are still respectful and focused on issues rather than each other.  What has concerned us is that the number of unpleasant posts has been rising as the campaigns heat up - and they really haven't heated up that much yet, so we anticipate that as the public really starts to focus on these races the level of vitriol will increase.  We want to set the tone now, and stop problems before they get out of hand.

              Thanks for your thoughts on this!

  8. To Charley, David & all

    You guys do a great job, and even as a non-MA resident I enjoy the site.  But it's a losing battle trying to keep trolls off a forum or blog, although it's worked well for you up to now.  Their greatest fear is being ignored, and they work to divide reader opinion.  If anyone is offended, I am not referring to any of the above responses as trolling. 

    It's the bane of those who answer phones for a living all over again: the no-accountability mindset, where you can be as rude or carry on for as long as you want.  There's also the question of campaign spooks who spend their free time deleting Wikipedia entries, and I applaud your efforts to root out this sort of thing.  But call out someone, deserved or no, and you get your standard Internet flamewar, concluding in most cases with the site fracturing into two or more new ones that spend their time libelling one another.  I've seen it happen again and again.  I hope this time is different.

  9. affecting positive change

    While I don’t agree with anonymous posting, I can understand the reasoning behind it. But to argue against civil discourse doesn’t make any sense to me.

    Some people are cloaking themselves in anonymity and turning on the fire hose. Why? In the name of the First Amendment? Please! Why do some people think the Internet gives them license to act differently than they would normally?

    I don’t believe Bob, Charley and David created this site to be popular. I believe they created this site to promote intelligent discussion and just maybe affect positive change in the Commonwealth. I’m sure there are plenty of people to fill the vacuum of any that may leave because they can’t make a point without name calling.

    The world is full of plenty of people who are right. If that was the only criteria for affecting positive change we might live in a better place, but the reality is that you need to be right AND effective to make positive and substantial change. Name calling and the like is not effective, goes against the tenets of this site and should be removed.

    Next time you decide to start name calling and launching personal attacks think about what you are trying to accomplish. If it is to make a difference, to help move Massachusetts forward, you are wasting your time and everyone else’s on this blog. If it is to vent and make yourself feel better or hide the fact you don’t have a real point, please do it somewhere else.

    • Jim,

      I couldn't have said it better myself.  And I think your comment is a convincing response to lightiris's comment above.  What I find particularly troubling about lightiris's view is that she (I think it's a she - if I'm wrong, I beg your pardon) seems to assume that non-civil discourse and passionate discussion about important issues cannot be separated.  I don't believe that for a second.  And lightiris refers to the "short flare of tempers" that supposedly are a cost of doing business on the internet.  But that simply isn't so - all people have to do is read their post over before posting it (just like the Volokh guidelines suggest).  That is not too much to ask, so we are asking it.

      • Okay, we can agree to disagree

        on this issue.  Yes, I'm female, and have been posting  regularly at various sites for a long time.  I first started on the discussion boards at NPR during the Clinton impeachment hearings--using my full name, too, by the way.  I posted there daily for literally years.  I've also been posting at various locations--DailyKos, The Atlantic, etc., using both "lightiris" and my real name.  Do things get heated at times?  Yes.  Do the vast majority of serious people refrain from abusive posts?  Yes. 

        Again, I say let the readership use the tools you give them, your ratings system, to do its job. But since that's not the approach you favor, we'll have to agree to disagree.  Such is the true nature of civil discourse.

        • Actually,

          we are hoping to start using the rating system a lot more than we have been.  So you're right.  And so am I! :-)

  10. Civility in mutliple directions

    I think that efforts to maintain civility are much needed and useful.  I tend to think of Indymedia as one of the greatest cautionary tales of what happens if you don't delete trolls, abuse, and spam.  The collectives that run various Indy sites are now trying various attempts to deal with this, finding more success in some cities than others.

    One of my biggest questions, though, is how we apply this to comments not directed at those on the board.  For instance, if someone makes a racist or sexist comment aimed at a general population (people of color, immigrants, single moms, etc), but not at someone on the board, I personally think that it is just as much of a concern than if someone calls me a jerk.  As with intra-board civility, I'd urge the moderators to have a light touch in what they remove, but there are some comments that ought to be removed to maintain the tone of the discussion.

    On another subject, I agree that a slashdot-style threshold system would be great, though their ratings system is pretty different than this Soapblox's.

    • A good thought, fcg

      I haven't seen too much of the type of outside-directed comment you describe around here (though I've seen a few), but certainly if they start appearing with regularity, that would be a concern.

      As for our exercising a "light touch," I certainly hope that we will do so - that's our intention.  Of course, those whose comments are removed won't consider our touch to have been light in that instance.  But I hope people believe us when we say (over and over again) that we have no desire whatsoever to suppress debate.  Actually, I think demanding civility will spawn more debate by encouraging new participants.  No one wants to enter an ongoing shouting match.

      • Thanks

        Hi, David.  i agree that there haven't been too many comments like that, but I've seen them popping up particularly in discussions of the current immigration debate.  Most folks are fine, but there have been some really sketchy comments in there that dehumanize undocumented immigrants.

        I agree with you that no one wants to enter a shouting match--except for trolls who enjoy stirring them up.  Which is why i think that a policy like this is good!

  11. Civility

      I applaud the effort to promote civil discourse.  The idea that Freedom of Expression means one should be allowed to curse or make personal attacks is wrong headed for several reasons.

    Primarily the concept is juvenile.  It reminds me of children insisting that they have the “right” to say whatever they want and immediately launch a tirade of newly learned curse words. It isn’t adult.  Discourse involves listening – active listening – and responding.  Most response in a serious conversation involves questions to probe and really understand what someone is saying and the basis for those views.  Then, and only then, might one respond with their perspectives and in the process be willing to respond to probing and in depth questioning about their ideas. I recommend in this regard the book, Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.

    Second, however, rhetoric and attack language is being used to intimidate those with whom one disagrees with.  As opposed to a “dinner party”, one gets the sense of a grade school play ground where a group of kids surround someone they don’t like and taunt them until they leave in tears.

    The urgency of one’s cause or convictions of one’s beliefs don’t justify personal – and often nasty attacks.  It seems to me the impersonal nature of the Internet has people behaving in ways that I would hope they never would in person. In any case, it isn’t particularly “free” or “open” or “robust.”  Those conversations would involve detailed substantive responses on the merits of issues, perhaps adapting unique characteristics of the Internet like hyperlinks to set out one's proof-points in the debate. 

    Sam 

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Fri 25 Apr 2:04 AM