Won’t be too long until Halloween and a Republican Congress!
I thought that today I would outline some implicit rules-of-thumb for comments on this weblog. I don’t have an official comments policy, and won’t write one out explicitly, because I don’t want to give people a false sense of security.
- I’d appreciate it if you didn’t post a comment of the form: “Great post! That’s all.” The sentiment is obviously welcome, but, I’d rather have you retweet the post, share it on Facebook, Digg it, etc. Some of my denser reviews of the literature may not receive many comments, but they are often retweeted.
- The longer a comment, the more dense in fact/citations/link it should be. I’m not really interested in long rambling opinions in the comments section of this weblog, I can find plenty of that on other weblogs. If you keep it short and sweet you naturally have more latitude because I don’t perceive that you’re wasting my time.
- If there aren’t too many comments, don’t immediately switch the topic to something you’d rather talk about (not relevant for this post obviously, and to some extent I’m pretty lenient on link roundups). This isn’t your blog, and I’d appreciate it if the commenting was constructive on the points I was trying to make (or destructive of them, so long as they address them). Obviously once comment threads have gone on for a while the discussion will meander and branch out.
- Be respectful toward me, even if I’m wrong. I appreciate being corrected, being wrong is not the ideal state. But just because I’m rude to commenters sometimes doesn’t mean there’s symmetry here. I’m producing, you’re consuming, and therefore I demand some due deference. Think of it as a psychic subscription fee.
- Who you are matters a great deal in how strictly any implicit rules are enforced. Some people have put a lot of capital into the “bank,” and can withdraw some of that in suboptimal behavior (though you can overdraw!). For example, if you’ve been commenting constructively since 2003 (e.g., John Emerson). Or, if I blog a paper, and you’re one of the authors, obviously I would give you a lot of latitude. In fact, I’d make an exception on the previous guideline about respecting me if you were one of the authors because my production would be downstream of your production. Things such as going by your real name vs. being anonymous also are issues which I weight. I also give more latitude to people who have their own blogs, because they’re producers. You are judged much more strictly if you’re an anonymous commenter who I can’t trace in any way.
- Don’t beat around the bush or be allusive. Be clear and direct about what your’e trying to say. I hate it when commenters are obviously trying to draw me out.
- Understand that I don’t post about 5-10% of the comments submitted (I will remove comments from people who have automatic commenting privileges if I think they’re not appropriate). I probably ban at least one user a week. Sometimes people are flagrantly obnoxious and they’re immediately black-listed. But sometimes after a long sequence of comments I judge a commenter to lack intelligence and integrity.
- I make a distinction between “drive by” one-off comments (e.g., the Mormons who came in this week, or the Turks a few weeks ago) and people who comment multiple times. If you’re in the second category you have the potential of being part of the “community” here, so many of these assessments kick in. If you’re a one-off I naturally have less leverage over you, so I don’t generally judge the first comment too harshly.
- I judge commenters who are out to “win” arguments, or argue in a “lawyerly” fashion, rather negatively. The first issue is straightforward. Unfortunately people often don’t change their minds with new data or analysis, so usually trying to win an argument is futile anyway (of course some people do change their minds, or shift their models on the margins). The second phenomenon is more subtle, but some commenters are obviously used to dazzling stupid people with rhetorical flourish and specious reasoning. There just aren’t too many stupid people reading the comments here, and I don’t like to have my time wasted. If I perceive that you’re trying to win an argument, as if winning arguments against random and anonymous (operationally) people on the internet is of any importance, I’ll downgrade you to “child commenter” class in my mind. If you enter into lawyer-mode I’ll downgrade you to “spends too much time with stupid people” class.
- If you point to a book or paper you are going to go up in my estimation. If you do original data analysis you are going to go up in my estimation.
- Know your audience. If you are politically conservative understand that many of the readers of this weblog are not, even if in general I probably share your viewpoints. If you are politically liberal, understand that I am not, even though you have a rightful expectation that I should be since I am an atheist who blogs about science. There are some views I am intolerant of. Except for purposes of amusement or illustration I do not publish comments by Creationists who make a proactive case for their delusion. If you have strong tribal (ethnic, religious, racial, national) axes to grind tone it down. Though obviously I can’t but help express an Americo-centric viewpoint, so I it is often useful to for non-Americans to point out how my national identity biases my perspective.
I obviously am heavily involved in the comments of this weblog. I at least skim every single comment. I learn a lot from many commenters, but I also get frustrated with time wasted. I will give you an example of the sort of thing which I sometimes encounter that makes me somewhat impatient, and probably explains my short fuse with some commenters. Last spring I posted on Jewish genetics, and made a comment about the indigenous Syrian Jewish liturgy being extinct. A woman of Syrian Jewish background left this comment:
I think the HUGE population of Syrian Jews would be very surprised to find that “The native Syrian liturgical tradition apparently persisted down into the modern period before its recent extinction.” Their liturgical tradition is most certainly alive and well!
I responded like so:
michelle, please read this:
please clarify your comment with more detail as you may know more than this entry in wikipedia, or, if you don’t know more than this, never comment again because your comment had very little value-add.
Comments automatically close after two weeks. “michelle” saw my snippy response a few months later and emailed me to complain about my condescending tone and proceeded to again reiterate her point. We corresponded more as she tried to educate me, and I asked her a specific question about the date of the extinction of the non-Sephardic Syrian liturgy. She then forwarded my question to someone who was more well versed in these things than she, and that individual confirmed exactly what I had said. After another email michelle & I realized something: I had found the fact about the extinction of the non-Sephardic Syrian liturgy on a Wikipedia entry about Syrian Jews which had obviously been edited by the individual whom michelle consulted on the history of her people. In other words, the original comment I made which offended michelle was rooted in information that her intellectual mentor had inserted into Wikipedia.
So that was that. I probably wasted 60 minutes total on correspondence over a six hour period. At the end of it I did not learn anything new. Nor, did I receive an apology from michelle. She assumed I was more ignorant than I was, and, from what I can gather she was fuzzy about the whole issue of the existence of a non-Sephardic Syrian liturgy which went extinct, which I was aware of. Though I guess I can’t blame michelle, very few gentiles would know such details (by the way, multiple Jews over the years have admitted an initial suspicion that I knew too much about Judaism and Jewish history to not have some nefarious motive).
I recount this to you to make you more aware of the time investment which comments can become for me. I’m not irrational, I obviously feel it’s worth it..right now. But to keep comments valuable and of use I need to enforce standards. This does mean that I behave unpleasantly on occasion, and unfortunately probably results in “false positives” and “false negatives” which seem very unfair. But you need to look at it from my perspective. I really hate snarky & smart-ass comments, because very few commenters are better than Chris Rock or The Onion.
Now that I’ve published this, I don’t plan on saying anything about comments ever again in a post.
To a different issue, I much like this article in The Atlantic, I Am a Cyborg and I Want My Google Implant Already.