A Policy Question: Comments

By Sean Carroll | December 10, 2006 4:46 pm

As most of you know, we pride ourselves here on being a top-down blog. We’re not one of those touchy-feely people-powered sites that are all “What would you like me to post about?” and “Whatever can we do to serve you?” Our attitude is, we know what’s best for you, and we’re taking time from our busy schedules to provide it, and you’ll like it or learn to. At Cosmic Variance, that’s just how we roll.

There is, however, an obvious exception to the rule: the comment sections. (Or should that be “are, however, obvious exceptions”? Grammar is not how we roll.) That’s where the people, our beloved readers, can let their voices be heard. A Habermasian zone of free communication, where all are welcome to participate in reasoned and passionate dialogue concerning the nature of the universe and our place within it. Okay, I’ll stop there.

So the question is: how can the comment sections be better? To decode this for our more innocent readers: how can we increase the signal-to-noise ratio? Increasing the signal is one obvious way, but that’s hard. The real question that I’ve been wondering about (haven’t consulted my co-bloggers on this) is: should we take more dramatic steps to decrease the noise? In particular, should we have a much heavier hand in discouraging, deleting, or even banning people who are rude, disruptive, off-topic, or just plain crackpotty? And in most specific particular: if we did so, are there folks out there who would judge the comment sections to be more useful, and might even be more likely to join in themselves?

Personally, I rarely read the comment sections on other blogs, even my absolute favorites. But I enjoy our comment threads here, and we certainly have some insightful and articulate commenters. Sadly, there are also the crackpots. To be absolutely clear, I am not referring to folks who are not experts in science or whatever else we happen to be talking about, but would sincerely like to join in the conversation, add an outsider’s perspective or ask a question or two. We like those comments, in fact those are our absolute favorites! Indeed, those are the ones that I most worry are being squeezed out by the noise. Likewise, we’re very happy to see comments that represent strong but principled disagreement with what we are saying. (We’ve been accused, unsurprisingly, of taking delight in stifing dissent, but the briefest glance at any of our controversial threads makes that a difficult position to support.)

The crackpots to whom I refer are those who know little or nothing about the subject but are convinced that they do, and are likewise convinced that the world needs to know about their theories, yet have absolutely no interest in listening to what others have to say. You know of whom I speak: the guy who has read the first chapter of The Elegant Universe and come away convinced that he knows more about how spacetime really works than these groupthinking string theorists, or the gal who constructed a model from ordinary household appliances that predicts the masses of all the particles in the Standard Model. (Neither of these examples refers to actual people, at least not to my knowledge; but I wouldn’t be surprised.)

So, do people prefer to let a thousand flowers bloom, even if some are indistinguishable from weeds, or should we play a more active role in deleting the nonsense? We’ve always been willing to delete/ban people who are repeatedly obnoxious, but it’s never fun to do so. We recognize that the free-speech zone that everyone is in favor of is not each individual blog, but rather the blogosphere as a whole. If anyone wants to push their own crazy theories about the birth of the universe, they should feel free to start a free blog and explain away to their heart’s content; we’re very happy to accept trackbacks to nearly any blog.

But individual blog comment sections aren’t public squares; they are more analogous to private living rooms. The preeminent statement of this philosophy was offered by Eugene Volokh, when he explains that comment threads are like cocktail parties to which the blog owners have invited you. It’s not supposed to be a free-for-all fracas in which rudeness and craziness must stoically be tolerated; it’s supposed to be an interesting mix of viewpoints from a wide variety of backgrounds, but one that comes together in mutual respect to create a stimulating dialogue.

And yet… and yet we almost always err on the side of letting people ramble on, at least until they become so impolite and/or disruptive that we have little choice. So what do you think? Would this blog be a better place if the Heavy Hand of the State slapped down some of the noisier contributors, or is the chaos part of the charm? (Responses from people who don’t usually comment are especially welcome.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cosmic Variance
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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