So today I received an email from regular commenter German Dziebel:
Razib, what’s your relationship with the Discover Magazine? Up until now I thought of your blog as more or less a public forum, rather than a private franchise. Please clarify, so we don’t bicker about ethics in public.
I have no idea what German precisely means by “public forum” or “private franchise,” though I have a general sense. Discover Magazine pays me to blog. I also have an editor who I consult now and then. For example when I discussed traffic patterns to this website I asked if that would be OK, since I know that sort of information is often material sites like to keep somewhat private. When Marnie Dunsmore threatened to sue me for “stealing her ideas” I shot an email to the editor to notify him of her strange accusations. But in general my communication with Discover Magazine is limited to technical issues, as well as some exchanges of ideas and topics to post on (this isn’t formal, the editor knows the kind of stories and papers I dig, and will send me an email or point a tweet my way).
I like it that way. It gives me time to blog. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in my “task stack” which I never get to because of the pressures of time. When I began blogging in 2002 I did so with an assurance I wouldn’t have to spend too much time on technical or administrative crap with my co-bloggers. That didn’t totally work out, but it is an ideal which I like to aim for. This post is a violation of that ideal. I’m engaging in meta blather about comments policy and what not when I could be blogging, finishing the coffee I’m drinking right now, or watching the episode of South Park which I haven’t watched yet.
If I had to condense my summary for how I run these comments, I’d say I run this place as if I’m Sulla during the period in his life when he was the dictator of the Roman Republic. Since most of you probably don’t get the allusion, I will elaborate….
I have a vision for the type of comments which are edifying, or at least not detrimental to the project of greater understanding of the world around us. If comments or a commenter detracts from that vision then you are proscribed. Before I joined Discover I had a long discussion with the editor about the way I run comments. After a few hours of talking as we sealed the deal on the move I still came back to the comments issue. That was my primary concern about moving from ScienceBlogs. If didn’t have the freedom to bludgeon commenters when I deem it appropriate, I’d probably close comments altogether.
I don’t have an explicit checklist. I’m not going to let people “game” the rules of engagement. I’ve been aggressively moderating and pruning my comments since 2004, after seeing what laissez faire hath wrought. I have strong intuitions, and can sniff out future “problem” commenters pretty early on. As I suggested above I don’t like to devote much time to this, though as it happens I do spend a lot of time reading comments, reprimanding people, etc. A few people can burn up a lot of my time, and that detracts from the production of content. I once had a contributor to the Gene Expression group weblog who was a friend from college. Over the years of the weblog he has probably accounted for ~90% of the conflict resolution time which I’ve had to invest (I’ve been involved in blogs from 2002 on). Finally in the winter of 2006 I yanked his blogging privileges, and I’ve had to repeatedly ban him from commenting on my weblogs because he can’t help but be an asshole (I allowed him to comment a few times for the sake of our friendship, but he couldn’t behave himself). I don’t know why he’s like this, but that’s just how he rolls on the internet. I don’t have to tolerate it, and I don’t.
There is no philosophical issue for me with the way I treat people who comment. I am a person of the Right, I believe that there is a need for hierarchy, that humans are not the same and exhibit profound inequality in ability, and great difference in disposition. But I also believe that the world of ideas can be enchanting to all. I invite all and everyone to read and mull over the ideas which I explore in this space, but I do not invite all and everyone to offer their opinions. Some just lack the capacity or will to invest their time and energy with grappling with the topics at hand (e.g., they’re stupid, they’re ignorant, they’re lazy, or they’re inconsiderate, or some combination).
But others are in a special category of kooks. I doubt you’ll ever see a Creationist comment on this weblog, though you might if it’s really funny. That’s because I have to approve first comments, and when a Creationist shows up I usually send it to spam and ban the email and IP. I’m not interested in talking about Creationism. It’s a made up model for people with ideological blinders on. Creationists can, and do, read some of my posts and get something out of them. There’s nothing wrong with that. One of Phylis Schlafly’s sons links to this weblog sometimes. He seems to be an evolution-skeptic, but he doesn’t leave comments on this weblog promoting his views, so that’s his business. I don’t mind when very Left-wing bloggers link to my posts either. Sometimes bloggers take the opposite conclusion from the facts that I would, but that doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is when someone imputes their own norms upon me. This becomes an issue sometimes when readers, who reasonably expect me to be a political liberal like most science bloggers, take for granted that I’ll be on the same page as them when making fun of conservatives. Generally I will simply note that I’m a conservative myself. That being said, my offense threshold is high for political insults, so I don’t mind if readers insult political beliefs or groups that much.
Going back to the issue of German though, there is the nature of his kookiness. The original point of contention which triggered the email me is that I told him to stop acting as if his views were normative. By this, I mean that German has some strange ideas about human origins. That’s not a sin in and of itself. And German provides some interesting citations. Despite the fact that I think he’s really wrong I don’t mind him offering his opinions. What does bother me is when he presumes that he should carry on with his views as if he is the only sane man in the asylum. If this was German’s blog, that would be fine. But it isn’t. I don’t mind heterodox views, but if I’m on the other side of the debate, and you’re in the minority, you need to comport yourself with particular delicacy, understanding the nature of the audience. The world isn’t fair, and there’s no such place as a value-free neutral space.
If people persist in violating the norms and customs which I’ve long established on this weblog over the years, then I ban them. If they persist in emailing, as these types often do, then I block their email address. I very much doubt anyone is losing much sleep over being banned from a moderately prominent science weblog, so I don’t feel much guilt. I don’t mind if these people think I’m being unfriendly. I have friends enough as it is. If I ask you a direct question on this weblog and demand you answer, and you don’t answer directly, but answer evasively, I’m also likely to ban you. I don’t ask direct questions of people often, but since I put a lot of content out there, I feel that commenters who make bold claims should take the time to respond at length when asked by me to justify their claims. When the dictator speaks, you listen. Commenting is a privilege that can be yanked away.
There’s a lot more I could say. I don’t like to spend too much time at this sort of stuff when there’s real blogging to be done, but I do want to add something: if you use your real identity I’m going to give you a lot more liberty. People who are rude on the internet are much more likely to be “anonymous.” I put that in quotations because it isn’t hard to find the real identities of a substantial number of the people who think they’re being anonymous trolls (though often I look up the identities of people who are making technical claims which I can’t evaluate easily, as I want to validate their background or credentials)
P.S. I am aware that discouraging too much stupid back & forth in the comments probably dings me in pageviews. I don’t care.