About the comments

Posting may be slow this week, since I should really be spending more free time volunteering, plus I have work.

In the meanwhile, I have a question for Alas’ readers, and in particular for feminist readers and long-time readers. How can the comments at “Alas” be improved?

I enjoy a partisan debate more than most people – but only when both participants are willing to at least pretend to be civil and mutually respectful. That’s been very lacking on the “Alas” comments lately, especially in the ongoing abortion discussions.

I’d like most of the discussion at “Alas” to be intelligent, respectful, and spirited – but not full of barely-hidden contempt for opposing views. Although there are frequently good comments here, I haven’t been very satisfied with the discussions here lately. It seems to me that “Alas” is becoming less civil over time.

Am I the only one who is unsatisfied?

Do folks have any ideas about how comments here should be moderated?

Frankly, I don’t think most of the “opposition” posters here are very high quality. But I don’t think that high-quality opposition posters would be tempted to post here, since they’d only be flamed to death by my allies.

(I do apologize to our current crop of “opposition” posters for the above paragraph; I know it may be hurtful for you to read, and I regret that. However, there’s no way to discuss the problem I perceive without bringing this up.)

Is there any way I can get higher-quality opposition posting here? If the only way I could do that is to strictly moderate the pro-gay, feminist and pro-choice posts to make sure that this became a “safe space” for intelligent disagreement, would that piss off my allies?

(When I’m talking about moderation of comments, I’m speaking only for the comments on my own posts. Bean and Lucia and any future co-posters are free to moderate the comments on their own posts however they like, of course.)

Consider this an open thread for discussion of the comments, and also for any suggestions you have about “Alas” in general.

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32 Responses to About the comments

  1. 1
    NancyP says:

    I have noticed a trend, on many blogs (not just yours), for discussion to go downhill after the first 50 or so posts. Among smaller-readership blogs like this one, the downhill-after-50 rule seems to correlate with two to four repeat posters who feel compelled to go electrono-to-electrono with each other. Sometimes I am tempted, but try to remind myself: “don’t feed the trolls”. Generally this is the point at which I get bored and wander elsewhere – most of the time, new ideas will not be forthcoming at this point.

    Is it possible to temporarily close threads, to allow a cooling off period? Or to impose some sort of “x posts from individual y in time period z on any given thread” rule? Since I am not a blogger and don’t know your program, I don’t know how feasible this is.

    Don’t feel bad – abortion attracts trolls like no other topic, for a variety of reasons having to do with the immediate emotional impact (“my body, my choice” vs. “look at me, I am saving babies”).

  2. 2
    yami says:

    I generally stay well-lurked in comments here for precisely this reason. It seems like here, as with many other places, most of us have our minds made up and just want to convince the “other side” to go along with our plans – and/or vent our frustration when our plans aren’t working out so well. With that attitude, we can be as courteous as we like and nothing will come of it but the same old frustrating circles. If I’m not willing to be changed by the next post I read, and no one is willing to be changed by what I say, what’s the point?

    I for one am not ready to give up my views on gay marriage or abortion. Are you?

    For some posts, it might be useful to explicitly create a safe space for key assumptions – e.g., “on this post, you can’t ask people to remain abstinent if they don’t want babies, or argue about the personhood of fetuses in the first trimester” – enforced by disemvowelment or having the offending remarks excised from a post and replaced with stern editorial remarks. Punishments given to trolls can also be given to troll-feeders – otherwise people will respond to the troll-feeders and the bickerfest gets a life of its own.

    Pontificating aside… Amp, I do admire your efforts to keep things civil and respectful. I’m sure if a radioactive blog spill gives you moderating superpowers you’ll use them for Good and not Evil.

    Sans fortuitous comic book accidents, I suspect there’s a serious tradeoff in the control you have over the discussion, and the amount of time you’re willing to spend policing threads. I enjoy your posts even when I ignore the subsequent discussion, and would hate to see comment moderation take away from actual blogging. I don’t know what’s out there, softwarewise, to allow trusted commenters to help moderate, but it might be worth looking into.

  3. 3
    ilona says:

    I don’t think I would quickly use the label ‘trolls’. My personal opinion is that as the blogging mode becomes more popular, that there is a greater influx from the larger internet ‘world’. If you are familiar with forums, you know that many of them went through these sorts of growing pains. They have whole articles dedicated to the art of moderating the dynamics of discussions.

    Basically, if you want real control you must become a mini-dictator on your blog. If not, then you should become less aghast at the messiness of people. Essentially, you set the bar, it is your blog.

    I think it is hardest for people who want to be fair and accomodating. Because when trolling starts in earnest… a quick flick of the hand works best.

  4. 4
    emjaybee says:

    I agree with ilona. I don’t think there’s any way to insure “good” posters–the best you can hope to do is bump out the most obnoxious ones. Blogs are a semi-democratic forum, and as such, messy. You occasionally attract cranks–it’s the nature of the beast.

    I think the overall tone of comments here is actually rather high–I’ve been to lots of blogs where you were lucky if posters knew how to spell correctly.

    And I don’t know that you should get too exercised over a decline in quality–most likely, it’s cyclical. It only takes one new discussion, linked or forwarded by enough people, to attract a whole new crop of great posters to your site.

  5. 5
    Echidne says:

    My experience is that careful and polite debaters are not common on the blogs. It may have something to do with the anonimity aspect of the net which seems to make us show our worst aspects.
    I’d be interested in what you Ampersand believe that could be achieved by a more polite debate. Would it be more likely to change someone’s mind, for example?

    I’ve often wondered if people who engage in a deate ever change their minds. Readers of the debate might, though.

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    I’d be interested in what you Ampersand believe that could be achieved by a more polite debate. Would it be more likely to change someone’s mind, for example?

    To change someone’s mind – not so much a debator’s mind, but the mind of a fence-sitting lurker – the ideal situation is for everyone on my side to be passionate yet civil, while everyone who disagrees with me should be rude, mean and illogical.

    I think that insults and invective are not the most effective ways of being persuasive.

    As for changing minds – I think people’s minds rarely, if ever, change about anything big over the course of a single debate. Sometimes, however, minds do change due to the cumalative impact of many debates, as people gradually move away from positions that begin to sound forced to their ears.

    But to answer your question – what could be achieved? For me, a more enjoyable blogging experience.

  7. 7
    Andrew says:

    I just thought I’d let you know that I thought feminism was pretty much obsolete before I started reading your blog. It is possible to change people’s minds, provided, of course, that they’re open to being changed.

  8. 8
    Robert says:

    Well, as one of your second-rate “opposition” posters, my $0.02 is that Nancy is right. The first posts on a subject tend to be constructive, illuminating, informative, interesting, what have you. After a certain point, though, it almost always seems to degenerate. Just close comments at .

    How to determine n? Easy! Just spend three days of your copious spare time reviewing old high-comment threads and deciding where things started going south, then compute the average.

  9. 9
    Charles says:

    Well, as one of the local attack dogs who drives off decent posters, I think stronger moderation is definitely in order. I am not sure that I agree with the cut off comments at x idea. While most of the 200+ comment threads are tedious screaming, some of the best comment threads on this blog have run into the 100+ length while maintaining quality, while other comment threads have turned to flames within 20 comments.

  10. 10
    Jake Squid says:

    I agree w/ Charles. An arbitrary, set number cutoff point doesn’t seem good to me. Just shut off comments on a post when you feel like it. And/or ban people from commenting on a post if it seems that one or three people are distracting from what is otherwise an interesting thread. But, then it’s your blog so do as you like. I don’t think I’m going anywhere.

    But, yeah, for the most part the enjoyable and well-written opposition isn’t around this month. (Robert, notice I said “for the most part.” Thanks.)

  11. 11
    David P says:

    I lurk here a lot too and read a lot of stuff. I think that a lot of people on here, whom i agree with and whom i dont, are very well “educated” about many particular topics and tends to lead to a rather dismissive and condecending attitude towards the opposition, especially when they can smell someone who isnt as well versed as they are.

    I was reading the “The non-fat privilege checklist” and saw Bean post a few times in response to Lucia with the caps key locked down talking about ice cream drowning studies and never cited one, while at the same time asking for proof, proof, proof, as he put it.

    Which while is silly to have an opinion of since its all still just text, it just seems to me that while Lucia went out of here way in that discussion to be reasonable and look up other things and consider alternate view points, Bean was actively working to be as unconstructive as possible for awhile.

    I dunno what that all means, other than it scares me from posting here usually cause i dont have the ammo to stand up against a salvo like that, which is probably for the best now that i think about it, cause im one of those privileged white men(i try and balance it by being poor and fat so im not TOO privileged) that cant be bothered to really research an opinion one way or another except from what i read here. But really folks, cant we all just get along?

    BTW, is bean a male or female? It doesnt really matter for the most part, i just would like to either assign the MPC or Verizon Voice mail lady’s voice to Bean’s posts when i read them.

  12. 12
    NancyP says:

    Bean’s a legume!

  13. 13
    David P. says:

    Legume….This just proves that i need to lurk more and post less :)

  14. 14
    jam says:

    hmm, i’m not sure here if i’m part of the problem or not… probably. i usually am. don’t worry Robert! there are second-rate non-opposition posters too!

    anyways, i don’t post here very often, but when i do it’s true that it’s usually to offer a big steaming pile of sarcasm in response to a post i disagree with… why sarcasm? well, i guess it seems better than just responding with outright anger. most of the folk i have ladeled the sarcasm sauce on i think have been asking for it. i mean, c’mon! some of the folks who post here engage in some of the most tortured rationalizations to defend their misogynist, racist, authoritarian & other nasty bits. it’s just hard to watch someone act belligerent & self-righteous while stating things you know are simply flat-out wrong. of course, why i’ve appointed myself the every-now-&-then sentinel of sarcasm is another question….

    still, it probably does not help in terms of achieving “polite” discourse, so i will attempt to refrain unless i have something substantial to contribute. like NancyP sagely suggests “Don’t Feed the Trolls”. in the meantime, i’ll go back to the lurky world of lurking lurkers…

    that said, i wouldn’t put all your social change eggs in the civil discourse basket. not all persuasion happens within the boundaries of civility. i mean, i have learned alot reading this blog. but, when i reflect on what i’ve learned i come to the conclusion that it has not, as a rule, been derived from those i’ve disagreed with, but rather in the responses others more eloquent & learned than i have made in response to same. & such eloquence has not always been “polite” per se. in terms of talking to other wannabe misogynists & the like, the ones i have to deal with actually face-to-face, i’ve found many good tools & tactics here in the responses & rejoinders of folks like Alsis38, Crystal, Echidne & others. plus, there’s also simply the sheer pleasure of watching some puffed-up blowhard get a deserved smackdown. some great ones have happened here… so put me down as being fine with the current level of snark & smack i guess.

    before i go, a suggestion: perhaps a comments protocol section would help? a little bit o’ ground rules? y’know… no calling each other poophead unless one can provide documentation of the poopiness of someone’s given head, recourse to the divine irrefutability of the Bible not allowed, NO YELLING, etc.

  15. 15
    zuzu says:

    I’m newish here, but I will say you get some oddball spambots in these parts.

  16. 16
    Tom T. says:

    Amp, I have seen weblogs where the comments box includes a small exhortation urging commenters to maintain a civil tone (see, for instance, Camassia). I don’t know whether such mild moral encouragement is actually effective, but some form of it might be worth a try.

  17. 17
    mythago says:

    Well, speaking only for myself, I prefer to save dismissive sarcasm for posters who behave contemptuously–not for opinions with which I disagree. (I was disapointed when Steve, the ‘all abortion is murder, poster, left, because he was quite capable of talking civilly and presenting his point of view thoughtfully, and I was happy to return the courtesy.) I figure at that point, they have made it clear what level of discourse they prefer.

  18. 18
    Lauren says:

    I use MTClose to close comment threads after a certain number of days. You can close by category, date, or number of comments. It’s very convenient, especially to ward off crafty comment spammers.

  19. 19
    Andrew says:

    I disagree, Robert. I think that your posts are mostly very interesting to read (unlike some of mine). While it’s probably not appropriate here, I also think that the clearing of posts on your blog since you switched software might clear the air for a couple of days.

    In Hugo’s recent post the Amp linked to, he posted in the comments to remind people to be civil. I understand that this is a lot of work, but seemingly quite effective.

  20. 20
    wookie says:

    In my opinion, if you wanted to “moderate” then perhaps set a fairly low bar… no direct insults, name calling or foul-language. Don’t know if you can ban people, but you can probably definately delete. Don’t call it moderation, call it a code-of-conduct.

    Even when things get flamey around here, you don’t have the trolls Trish Wilson attracts (but I’m behind in my comment reading, maybe you’ve caught up ;-). Some of those dudes ought to be put on an ice flow and pushed out to sea.

  21. 21
    Sheelzebub says:

    Amp, can I be mean to spamming poopyheads? Please? Pleeeeeaaaaasssseeee?

  22. 22
    Amanda says:

    I suppose it would help if I quit calling for forced castration to stop abortion, even though I do so with my tongue firmly in my cheek. :)

  23. 23
    alsis38 says:

    the responses & rejoinders of folks like Alsis38, Crystal, Echidne & others.


    [picks self up off of floor]

    Thank You, jam. :)

    Now if I could just get this thing to stop putting up my posts as both “Amy S” and “alsis38.” :o I’m trying to remember to stick with the former, because there are just too many Amys in blogland, like everywhere else.

  24. 24
    Elkins says:

    As a lurker here, it seems to me that sometimes the problem isn’t so much rudeness (although there is often rudeness) as it is sheer inequality of numbers. The two aren’t really unrelated, though: being part of a super-majority does, sadly, often bring out the worst in people.

    I don’t see how you can do much to change that, though. There is always going to be a majority and a minority opinion.

    Heavier moderation seems to me to be a possible solution, but it’s also one that would demand a large expenditure of both time and effort from Amp, and I don’t really think he has it to spare.

  25. 25
    Charles says:

    Instead of moderation, which takes a huge amount of effort, I think that a clearly established code of conduct combined with rigorous enforcement of temporary bans on violators of the code might take less effort while being nearly as effective. Possibly merely bans from particular threads as an initial punishment, followed by a temporary (say, 1 week) ban, followed by a permanent ban. You’d probably have to relent on your policy of holding certain people (say, me and alsis) above the law…

  26. 26
    Andrew says:

    Wow, it’s starting to get really swamped! Would it be possible to put a closing date on comments? Even setting it at between six months and a year would get rid of a fair amount of the spambot-related stuff.

  27. 27
    Ampersand says:

    For some reason, my moveable type is “buggy”; one bug is that the plug-in used to do things like “shut down all threads older than X months old” doesn’t work on this blog.

    I do have a solution planned, which is to switch “Alas” to wordpress.org, and at that time switch to a system in which comments need to be approved before posting, except in the case of pre-approved posters. That way, all the regular “Alas” posters will be pre-approved; new posters will, unfortunately, have to wait for approval the first time or two they post; but spam posts will never show up at all.

  28. 28
    Elkins says:

    Amp, if you’re serious about wanting to do this (and why not? I am always *stunned* by the amount of spam you get), it might be interesting to open it up to the floor, so to speak? I know that I’m rather curious to see how your regulars and semi-regulars might react to the idea of moderated posting, as well what experiences they might have had with WordPress. You might get some useful pointers about using the new program…

  29. 29
    David P. says:

    We are going to have to get your stamp of approval if we want our posts to show up huh….sounds like censorship to me! What is this, canada?

    Help help! im being repressed!

  30. 30
    Chairm says:

    FWIW —

    1. Brief original posts (500 words). Serialize if necessary but use concise posts to set example for brief comments.

    2. A clearly stated topic that is used like a leash to tug commentators back on point.

    3. Word limit on comments (200 words).

    4. No “me too” comments.

    5. Friendly hazing of newcomers. Gentle humor sets a better tone than pointy sarcasm.

    6. A dedicated thread to report suspected trolls outside of active threads. Plus a hands-off policy for non-moderators. If an incident has been reported already in the designated thread, don’t pile on, just leave it to the moderators.

    7. A “meet and great” thread for newbies to introduce themselves and for regulars to say hullo.

    8. [Gasp! long list almost done] Commend the sort of discussions (and commentats) that arise and which you want to hold up as exemplary.

    Perhaps more important than procedures and rules is the spirit of community. If you invite someone into your place, make sure they receive the message that they will have every opportunity to feel welcomed. If the discussions have the look and feel of an echo chamber, interesting interlopers will screen themselves out. If moderators, and longtime commentators, set the example, many others will follow their lead.

    A basic code of sporting conduct might be appreciated as a guide but also as a stick with which to beat the unruly Klingons among us. ;-)

  31. 31
    wookie says:

    I disagree with Chairm in a friendly way.
    I don’t think the word limit of 200 is reasonable, you can’t say much in that few words :-)

    I also think that a meet-n-greet thread is more along the lines of an IRC channel than a message board. Amptoons is a place to discuss politics and stuff, not chat socially.

    I also think that “friendly hazing” is a little silly… I don’t see anyone really being hazed, I think this board get’s it’s fair share of trolls, people who are really out of their depth for the discussion, and people who are inflammed easily. Swim at your own risk, people will disagree with you and some will be more cordial than others.

  32. 32
    Chairm says:

    Yup, any practical word limit could remain a guideline that loosely shapes the flow of back and forth that a site wants to encourage.

    As for welcoming new arrivals, perhaps “joshing” is a better way to put it, a friendly bump rather than a poke in the eye works as an intro in the hockey arena. Legit bodychecks encouraged coz that does invite worthy “opposition”.