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.