Comment Policy

By Sean Carroll | June 26, 2012 7:52 am

Editor’s Note: Way back in 2007, we here at the blog were struggling with a vocal minority of obnoxious commenters. I was stuck on a cross-country plane flight with my laptop, and took out my frustrations by banging out this proposed Comment Policy. Upon landing, I sent it to my co-bloggers for judgment. They were mildly amused, but didn’t think it accurately reflected our actual sentiments — and they were probably right. So we never posted it.

But now, since I’ve been busy and those same co-bloggers are pretty silent, we’re looking for content. So I’ve dredged it back up, just to offer as food for thought.

So, to be clear: this is not our comment policy. It’s simply what our comment policy would have been in a different universe, where my co-bloggers weren’t as good at talking me down from my less well-thought-out schemes.

Our current comment policy is that we delete obnoxious crap, and ban repeat offenders. Easy!

————————————

Did you know that there are some blogs out there on the internet that don’t have comments at all? Amazing, but true. To us here at Cosmic Variance, comments are a crucial part of the joy of blogging, and we couldn’t imagine doing without them. Nevertheless, we get occasional visitors who don’t always “get” the whole “commenting thing,” at least as we understand and encourage it. But don’t worry, we’re here to help. In order to answer every possible question before it is raised, we have constructed a hierarchical explanation of how we conceive of the role of comments: a set of Deep Underlying Axioms from which all else can in principle be derived; a Fundamental Theorem of Commenting that concisely expresses the upshot of the above axioms; a Grand Explanatory Analogy that should serve to clear up certain common misconceptions; and a set of Specific Examples, Illustrated in an Entertaining Question-and-Answer Format, to guide the thinking of those who prefer concrete imagery to abstract thinking. We close with some inspirational final words on how the comment section is Your Chance to Shine.

All told, we’re pretty sure you will agree that this is the most awesome comments policy in the entire blogosphere.

Deep Underlying Axioms

Just like Euclid’s geometry, our comment policy is a rigorous formal system, in which an array of impressive results may be derived from just a few simple axioms. We’ll start with the Prime Directive of Blogging:

Axiom 1: This blog exists for the enjoyment of these bloggers.

This is the foremost principle to keep in mind when you are wondering why certain comments pass muster while others do not. Our blog is not a public service. We don’t get paid for it. [Update: now that we’re at Discover, we do get paid a tiny amount.] It’s not our real job. It’s just a hobby that we choose to pursue, as others pursue fly fishing or watching TV. The blog is not here for you. You do not pay any fee, in return for which you have the right to expect a certain level of service. The only obligation that we as bloggers have is — well, we don’t have any obligations at all, actually. We could decide tomorrow to devote all future posts to our favorite varieties of cheese, or to elaborately detailed discussions of our continuing health problems. Whatever we want.

The purpose of the blog is to amuse us. That’s it! Anything that does not amuse us is contrary to the spirit of the blog. Admittedly, we do hope that the blog is occasionally informative or entertaining to others, as well. But ultimately, the blog is Not About You.

This one principle should really be enough to figure out everything that needs to be figured out about comments, and the blog concept more generally. But just to be absolutely metaphysically complete, we’ll make explicit two other axioms that are generally true things about life. First:

Axiom 2: It’s a big Internet out there.

Sometimes people will express the opinion that this particular web site does not quite measure up to their own personal standards. Perhaps it occasionally wanders into topics about which they have no interest, or contrariwise doesn’t devote enough air time to their pet theories. People who have had nothing to do with the creation or maintenance of this site nevertheless feel that they have the right to influence what is or is not included, or that those who do run the site have an obligation to give free rein to the visitors. Such is the Way of the Internet, as it always has been since the ancient Babylonians first began jotting helpful notes on each other’s cuneiform tablets.

So, here’s the thing: this is not the only blog on the internet. One could imagine a sensible and compelling argument that the internet as a whole should organized as a zone of free and unfettered speech. But that doesn’t mean that every individual blog is such a free-speech zone. You say that the world really needs to know more about your personal Theory of Everything that will revolutionize physics? Blogging is an excellent medium to get the word out, we agree. The good news is that you don’t have to do it via comments here — you can start your own blog for free, at sites like blogspot.com. Don’t let us hold you back! Or, you say, you are unhappy with some things we post? You don’t have to read this blog! You can read other blogs. We have a pretty good page of links that includes a whole bunch of blogs, or you could just go to Technorati and start searching. Don’t find precisely what you are looking for? Go back a few sentences, and be inspired to start your own blog!

Really that should make everything pretty clear, but just in case there is lingering uncertainty,

Axiom 3: Life is not fair.

Your Mom told you this a long time ago, but perhaps you have forgotten. We will have reason to refer back to this axiom throughout this helpful guide.

Fundamental Theorem of Commenting

The consequences of the above axioms may be concisely summarized in the following Fundamental Theorem:

Be polite, reasonable, and constructive, or your comment might be deleted.

Given the above, it should be clear that we (think that we) have the right to delete comments that don’t conform to our strict-but-fair standards. And we will sometimes do so. What we will typically not do is to email the commenter with an apologetic explanation for the deletion, nor will we engage in elaborate comment-thread debates about whether such-and-such a comment is appropriate. We’ll just delete it and move on with our lives. That turns out to be a logical consequence of Axiom #1 above. We enjoy putting posts up on the blog, and occasionally participating in the comment threads. Stuff like making sure the site doesn’t crash, and coaxing obstreperous commenters into better behavior? Not so much. It needs to be done, but we generally minimize our effort along those lines.

You might think that just deleting comments leads to additional hassle that isn’t worth the trouble. But, experience shows, not true. When we have started deleting impolite or off-topic comments, the threads have generally brightened up almost instantly. Other blogs enjoy wallowing in free-wheeling chaos, or putting great effort into gentle moderation techniques. That’s why there is more than one blog, as per Axiom #2. Diversity is important.

Meanwhile, sometimes there will appear impolite/unreasonable/destructive comments that we will not delete. Perhaps because we are busy, or can’t be bothered, or because our judgment differs from yours. See Axiom #3 above.

We realize there may be some who find such a policy to be mean-spirited and repressive, yet who are either too technophobic or simply too busy with other important things to go about setting up their own blogs, or who feel that the setup and maintenance of a space in which they can freely opine is the obligation of the CV bloggers, not of themselves. Axiom #2 to the rescue! Here is an entire blog dedicated to those ideas that are just too dangerous or controversial or tiresome to be tolerated at CV: Cosmic Variance is Censoring Me. We feel confident that no comments will be deleted from that blog.

Grand Explanatory Analogy

The best way to think about blog commenting has been formulated by Eugene Volokh: comment threads as cocktail parties. A good comment section is a cacophony of views, a bringing-together of different voices in the best possible way. But it is not a random collection of passers-by gathered in a public space to shout at each other. It’s a hosted space, with the bloggers as proprietors. This implies a minor form of social contract: the bloggers provide a common space for commenters to meet and converse, while commenters are expected to contribute positively and politely to the experience.

One goal of a good cocktail party is that you meet people you haven’t met before, and perhaps share an interesting conversation. But the guest list, and some broad expectations for personal behavior, are set the by organizers. Party crashers who are obnoxious, or disruptive, or even just deadly boring, may be asked to leave the party. Nobody has a right to attend whatever parties they like.

Consider, in terms of this analogy, the temptation to complain out loud about what the bloggers are choosing to blog about. That would be like showing up at a party, noticing that the only appetizers being passed around are spring rolls and bacon-wrapped dates, and proceeding to raise a ruckus about the absence of cocktail weenies.

No, come to think of it, it’s not like that. It’s like showing up at a party, noticing that spring rolls and bacon-wrapped dates are being passed around in addition to your beloved cocktail weenies, and loudly proclaiming how offended you are at the presence of such outré finger food at this event. You shouldn’t complain about the host’s taste in appetizers; if there’s nothing there you like, go to another party. And if there is, ignore the offerings you don’t like, and enjoy yourself some weenies. Delicious, delicious weenies.

Specific Examples, Illustrated in an Entertaining Question-and-Answer Format

Q: You’re an asshole.

A: See, that’s not actually in the form of a question. Nor is it very polite. Comments of this sort will be deleted pretty automatically. In general, comments that are insulting, sarcastic, or condescending do less to move the conversation forward than comments that are polite, interesting, and engage with arguments at a rational level.

Q: Wait a minute. You bloggers are insulting, sarcastic, and condescending all the time. This very Comments Policy is dripping with sarcasm and condescension from start to finish!

A: That’s true. Please refer to Axiom #3.

Q: I’m not a professional scientist, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the universe, and I have a new theory that might be important. Will you look it over and tell me what’s wrong?

A: No. At least not until you go through all of the elements of the Alternative Science Respectability Checklist. For real.

Q: Is it okay if I make every thread about me and my pet obsessions?

A: No.

Q: If you refuse to take my ideas seriously, it’s only because you are afraid of them. Real progress doesn’t come from establishment experts sitting in cushy chairs, it comes from untrained enthusiasts struggling at the fringes!

A: Actually, no, it doesn’t. Real progress comes from people who respect science enough to study it thoroughly.

Q: I’m not a professional scientist, but I’m a student, and I have a question; is it okay if I ask it here?

A: If it relates to the topic of the post, sure!

Q: What if I’m a complete non-scientist, just an interested outsider?

A: Still no problem. We are very much interested in encouraging interaction between experts and non-experts. Science is for everyone, and none of us owns it. There’s plenty of room for people to enjoy and appreciate science, even if they don’t do it for a living.

One of our biggest fears is that sincere questions can be driven out by shrill crankiness. You might catch us complaining, implicitly or explicitly, about a woeful lack of understanding evidenced in this or that comment. It’s not the lack of understanding itself that is the problem; most people don’t understand very much about most things. The complaints are always about people who think that they understand when they really don’t, or (even worse) an insistence that they don’t need to understand the basics in order to come up with revolutionary new insight, or (best of all!) a misguided claim that generations of smart people have been consistently making the same elementary mistake over and over, that only they have had the brilliance to see through.

Q: I don’t agree with your assertion that Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s best work. The depth of characterization in Emma is clearly superior, and Austen didn’t give into cheap wish-fulfilment fantasies as readily.

A: Excellent! Nothing on this page is meant to give the impression that we only will allow comments that agree with us, or flatter the bloggers with complimentary references to their wit or charm. (Not that those are discouraged.) As should be obvious from reading any of the actual threads, we don’t go around deleting stuff just because it takes a different perspective. It’s great to read an interesting and insightful comment that disagrees with what we say, and actually provides arguments and/or evidence that rise above the “Your momma” level of discourse. What we’re looking for is disagreement based on reason and evidence, not on ad hominem attacks or other fallacies. That’s what a true conversation is all about.

Having said that, Pride and Prejudice was clearly Austen’s best work. What kind of crackpot are you?

Q: Just because you’re a scientist doesn’t make you an expert on everything.

A: Now you see, that’s an example of an ad hominem attack. We don’t pretend to be experts in everything. We’re just human beings with opinions, both about science and about other things. If you notice carefully, even when we’re talking about science we don’t insist that everyone believe us purely on the basis of our (admittedly massive and intimidating) authority as credentialed experts. We try to give reasons and evidence for our opinions, whether they’re about science or anything else. Everyone else is welcome to do the same, whatever we may be talking about.

Q: Why do you insist on writing about things other than science?

A: Because we find them interesting. Again — human beings first, scientists second. Blogs are an ideal medium for exploring all sorts of interests, not just those within our narrowly-defined areas of professional specialization.

Q: But I don’t find those other things interesting. What about my needs?

A: Then don’t read those posts. There’s even a whole page with science and nothing but science.

Q: But really, it’s not me I’m concerned about, I’m just telling you what’s best for your blog. It’s for your own good to stick to things that I’m interested in.

A: You know that “friend” who so enjoys offering you helpful suggestions about your weight, or haircut, or love life? Suggestions that are completely unsolicited, and frankly unwanted? You’re being that person. Don’t be that person.

Q: I know this post is about X, but can we talk about Y instead?

A: No. Amusing asides are fine, and we aren’t so stuffy that every comment must move the conversation directly forward by some substantial amount. But generally speaking, it’s nice if most comments are somehow tied to the topic of the original post. Duh.

Q: You are failing to live up to my expectations! I’m leaving this blog right now, never to read again!

A: Okay. We love to have people read the blog, but, still, Axiom #2. Ours is a highly idiosyncratic and demanding blog, which only an elite few will appreciate.

Your need to publicly proclaim your feelings as you flounce off is something you might want to bring up with your therapist.

Your Chance to Shine

That’s a lot of negative energy up there; don’t let the bad vibes drag you down. The comment section represents a unique opportunity, and is one of the absolutely best features of the blogosphere. Anyone with something to say can join right in to a high-level conversation, and become a valued contributor. Many of the great bloggers of our age got their starts by paying their dues in various comment sections before working their way up to the big time. If you put some thought into it, your comments can become sufficiently valuable and entertaining that people start reading our blog just to look for your comments! It’s like a Broadway show that invites audience members up to sing a verse or two, or a baseball team that asks fans to come down from the stands to take an at-bat. Remember, the comments you leave are traces of yourself scattered throughout cyberspace. Own your comments! Live your comments! Be your comments!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cosmic Variance
  • Kaviani

    Only supportive comments, got it. Same as it ever was.

  • http://sep.stanford.edu/sep/jon/ Jon Claerbout

    I hope your software is working the way you want. For a time I was blacklisted from a site (Naked Capitalism) where I made occasional, polite, and sensible comments, contributed money (gasp!). The site manager couldn’t figure out why.

  • Todd

    For starters, I love that by appreciating your blog I became identified as one of “an elite few!”

    I am reminded of a proposal some years back in which identified trolls could still post, and could still see their own posts…. but no one else would see them. I wonder if it got as far as implementation.

    • https://plus.google.com/118265897954929480050/posts Sean Carroll

      Todd– that would be awesome. I’d implement that in a second if it were available.

      Kaviani manages to refute the existence of him/her self, in the world’s least clever form of the Epimenides paradox.

  • Moshe

    Very funny…While on the subject, I’m curious about your thoughts regarding anonymous commenting, is it more likely to lead to trouble, and can it be dealt with efficiently.

  • Andy Johnson

    If this is a cocktail party where are the cocktails?

  • Brian

    Very first comment:

    Only supportive comments, got it. Same as it ever was.

    Thank you, very first comment, for demonstrating so clearly the way in which conversations devolve so quickly in blog comments.

  • James

    Not sure why you didn’t post it before; I heartily approve.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/ Mark Trodden

    Ah, back in 2007, I don’t remember if I was for or against posting this. But now, in 2012, having long experience of the way comments sections can evolve, if anything it is almost too polite. It should become our policy.

    • https://plus.google.com/118265897954929480050/posts Sean Carroll

      Of course you were for it.

  • Matunos

    “Q: Just because you’re a scientist doesn’t make you an expert on everything.”

    Actually, that’s an example of a straw man, not an ad hominem.

  • edward hessler

    This post is one more reason I like CV, a rich, diverse, informed and passionate blog. I loved the sweep back into history to the organic texts as the basis for the “in-25-words-or-less-version.” It made me smile. I like both postings–a kind of lite and bold and now both are in the CV literature and available as references. Dr. Trodden’s comment resonates with me, at least until you get to the mechanism that “Todd” mentioned. I like that idea. Thanks again.

  • ossicle

    Kaviani, you’re doing it wrong. Read the Q&A on Emma vs. Pride & Prejudice. Unbelievable.

  • http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~sgralla/ Sam Gralla

    Does anybody ever read the comments on the cnn website? This has to be the most amusing (and horrifying) of all the content-free pastimes available on the internet.

  • Jim Johnson

    You had me at “obstreperous”.

  • MKS

    The Deities of this comment section are the sysops — they have the power and ‘right’ to do anything that they want here. It is up to us to figure out those ‘laws’ and to find out if we’re a fit or not — like marriage, Democracy and America, this ‘blog’ isn’t for everyone :3

  • Gizelle Janine

    Rather than embarrass myself, I’ll never comment again. :D

    Overall, you guys do in fact do a great job informing me when no one else will. Keep up awesome progressive work!

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/ Greg Laden

    This should just be the whole internet’s comment policy.

  • http://faultline.org Chris Clarke

    I like it.

  • Makoto

    I’ve never before started reading a blog just by reading about its comment policy, but I think I have to here… concise, to the point, and useful in keeping the signal to noise ratio helpful, while allowing for disagreements.

  • http://www.flisser.com Bob F.

    Wow, that must have been a long flight and some serious jerks who were posting. And why anyone would hang out on a blog they don’t like is a mystery to me. Don’t trolls have anything better to do? Perhaps that’s a question one could ask about life in general.

    As for me, I have Cosmic Variance and Bad Astronomy directly on my browser’s toolbar, so I can get to them with just one click. There’s limited space there, so I reserve it for sites I really like or need to access often. And hopefully I know not to be a pest unless I have something to ask or contribute.

  • Brian Too

    Interesting. I’ve noticed most people, and myself at times, can fall into the trap of a sort of conversational closer. One that narrows discussion in bad ways. Good conversation tends to open discussions (although not too much) or follow interesting leads (although not endless meandering).

    Seems to me good blog comments follow similar social rules.

    One good tool is the Like/Dislike system. Not sure why, but most blogs don’t provide a Dislike rating. Perhaps overly sensitive to the negativity of the term “Dislike”?

    One site I use, Slashdot, caught me. I assumed the flag was a Like button; wouldn’t you know that just after I clicked it, a tooltip popped up. It was a Flag As Inappropriate button! D’oh! And there was no obvious way to correct the gaffe except to try to gain the attention of a moderator, which I did not do. Again, no simple, obvious mechanism was apparent.

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  • Meh

    I likes the sarcasm.

    This should be made into a book and pushed on the public. It should be touted on Colbert and the Daily Show, Fox news and MSNBC. High school students should be required to take a class using said proposed book as a textbook. Seriously, I’m not being sarcastic. This blog post is something that everyone needs to adhere to, myself included. This is the best set of axioms for comments, and internet discussions in general, I’ve ever read.

    Internet discussions tend to be like highways. People get in their cars (computers) and drive around like complete a-holes, cutting people off left and right, not letting others get in their lane. Then an accident happens and everyone is forced to get out of their car and realize they don’t want to fight because they’re scared of fighting, and the prospect of getting hurt or hurting someone, is scary. Only we never have to actually see each other on the internet. such is life.

    anyway, good post. And I don’t think it’s anything unreasonable.

  • Kaethe

    Overall, excellent.

    I don’t agree with your assertion that Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s best work.

    But I beg to disagree. Northanger Abbey is a superior work for fans of novels because of the delightful meta-analysis of fiction through both dialogue and the plot of the book itself. Catherine Morland is a refreshing heroine in that not only is she not the best or prettiest girl, she isn’t any sort of superlative at all. Her charm lies in her amiable and unassuming nature, and yet, when hard stressed she manages to rise to the occasion.

    But other than that, I think your suggested comment policy is great.

  • floodmouse

    “Axiom 3: Life is not fair.” – My mom DID keep telling me that! Whaddayaknow! Anyway, I think your proposed comment policy is one of the most constructive possible uses of this axiom (much better than saying “no” to staying up late or eating ice cream).

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  • martenvandijk

    This reaction space is private. You are the host in your own right. You set the rules. These rules hace to be observed in this space, not necessarily in any other reaction space. It is up to any other bloghost to set his/her own rules. Therefore I do not agree with your using the word axiom. Your rules are fine, but their validity is not universal.

  • http://swingthebat.net Phil P

    So, the bloggers do this for their own amusement and it’s not about US, the commenters. Would you continue to blog if no one read it or commented? Blogging is about SHARING your thoughts, and it takes two (or more) to share.

  • Charon

    Phil P: Dude, totally! I read Pride and Prejudice, and then tried to comment, and it wouldn’t let me! Jane Austen is a fascist!

  • http://twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    Charon wins the Internet for today. :)

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  • Bill25

    I’ve been reading CV for a year or so but kept my big mouth shut and fat fingers off the keyboard. This is a good policy statement on a subject, unlike science, that I know something about from that deadly boring teacher Personal Experence.

  • MBM

    I think that axiom #3 should be restated as follows: “The world doesn’t owe you a thing”. At least that’s the way it was presented to me by my own maternal unit!

    Aside from that, I really like this as a comment policy.

  • Ray Gedaly

    I was banned from a news website for my comment to a stupid story about alleged photos taken by astronauts of seemingly artificial structures on the Moon. I responded that I had documented proof of an expedition by Apollo astronauts to a site called Barringer’s Crater, and in photos you can see indisputable evidence of artificial structures clearly built by an intelligent civilization. I don’t think they ever got the joke that Barringer’s Crater (also called Meteor Crater) is in Arizona (it was a training site for the Apollo astronauts) .

  • BBMolly

    Your policies have induced me to check your blog out rather often.

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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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