I think I can safely say that our event on Friday at the Harvard Kennedy School, entitled “Unruly Democracy: Science Blogs and the Public Sphere,” was a success, and perhaps even exceeded expectations. The room was full; the presentations were great; we had a historic first panel bringing together representatives of Seed, Discover, and The Boston Globe to talk about three different approaches to science blogging; we had a real debate about whether blogs are “good” or “bad” for science–and we had a move towards some constructive suggestions for finding better norms in the blogosphere.
If you want proof that the event has caused some very important thought and reflection, you need go no further than this lengthy post from Jessica Palmer of Bioephemera, who attended and gave a rockin’ talk on my panel. Jessica is, broadly speaking, in my camp–or what on Friday was called the “Sunsteinian” camp–when it comes to the negatives of blogging. Why? Some excerpts from her post:
My big concern? While individual blogs often have communities who are internally civil and share norms and history, when you move from blog to blog, those norms and history break down. There are no universal norms in the science blogosphere, much less the blogosphere as a whole – and that leads to a lot of misunderstandings, partisan assumptions, and conflict. Things can get “us vs. them” really fast. . . and once they do, you lost the potential to have calm conversations between communities. I think the types of misunderstandings that arise in interdisciplinary blogging are a microcosm of the communication challenges within the fragmented blogosphere, which is in turn mirroring an increasingly fragmented and partisan public discourse.
Palmer goes on to argue that in the blogosphere, it is exceedingly hard to be neutral or centrist:
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the blogosphere abhors a neutral and nonpartisan blog. For whatever reasons, cultural or historical, participants expect partisanship. They want to know if you’re with them or against them; the dedicated communities at various blogs can be pretty defensive of their space, and sometimes stream like lemmings through the aether to attack a blogger that they perceive as threatening. It’s human nature: when our friends get attacked, we get mad. The problem is, we’re not always so good at figuring out what’s a legitimate attack – and it makes it really hard to have a calm conversation with our adversaries.
And this leads to a stance of pessimism, or at least deep concern:
Frankly, I am worried – not about blogs, because they’re just blogs, after all. I’m worried because science (any academic field, actually) and democracy become utterly nonfunctional when they cease to tolerate reasoned discussion. Democracy is about involving groups with different bargaining positions and interests and generating a workable compromise. Science is also about debate: arguing for your interpretation of the evidence, getting to the best consensus explanation, and then going out to fetch new data and do it all over again. You can hate, resent, dislike, even distrust your rivals – scientific, professional or political – and still maintain a functional system. But if you can’t have a civil discourse on neutral ground without resorting to obscenities or ad hominem attacks, the system is broken. You simply can’t get anything done. This is especially true in Congress: when those moderate politicians who are willing to talk to the other side are labeled traitors by their parties and lose their seats, there’s no one left to broker a compromise.
I want to emphasize that there was a more optimistic perspective articulated at our event as well, notably by Tom Levenson and others. This is, broadly speaking, the view that our discourse has never been particularly rational or very civil, but that blogs offer many new opportunities for two way dialogue, rather than the one-wayism of the old media. Moreover, as was pointed out by Kimberly Isbell of the Citizens Media Law Project, it is possible to tend to one’s blog and set a tone to ensure more civility–and in fact, deleting abusive comments and banning abusive commenters is strongly protected under the law.
But Jessica Palmer has a riposte to this view as well:
…during the afternoon panels, several speakers seemed to reject our concerns about civility. They suggested that it was a blogger’s responsibility to maintain a productive community by aggressively moderating, disemvowelling, even editing (!), offensive comments – and that because legally we’re not prevented from doing so, there is no reason for us not to. Several panelists discussed the potential of commenting systems in which commenters have to earn the right to comment and to have their comments seen by others – perhaps something similar to Slashdot’s system, that encourages self-policing in the community.
Those aren’t bad ideas at all – except for one thing. They make it even harder for outsiders to enter the blog community and exchange ideas. If I want to engage people in interdisciplinary discourse, I don’t want to put obstacles in their way. I don’t think controlling (or, in the words of one panelist, “taming”) comments is the way to improve the conversation. I flatly refuse to edit anyone’s comments, because that would misrepresent what they actually said. And I have two big questions: first, where am I supposed to draw the line of acceptable commenting: mere profanity, or much higher, say at “useful contribution to the conversation”? Isn’t it a slippery slope? Second, how do I find the time to aggressively moderate comments or institute a complex screening system? Even if it were true that by doing so, I would ensure a happy, shiny forum for awesome discourse among all my wonderful readers, I don’t have the resources to mod the playground.
True enough. We’ve deleted our share of comments here at “The Intersection,” banned a few commenters, and have tightened our filters–but it is indeed a massive amount of work to play this role, with uncertain rewards.
Moreover, I’m even more concerned, in many ways, about the propagation of misinformation than I am about civility. And here, I truly don’t see any “fix” for the blogosphere. There was talk at the K School of some sort of system for labeling or certifying which blogs are trustworthy and which are not, but it would be a truly massive undertaking–and whoever tried it would surely get attacked mercilessly by anyone receiving a less than stellar rating.
None of this, of course, means we should either stop blogging, or stop trying to improve the blogosphere. It’s just that it seems like it is going to be quite a lot of work. But I’m certain of one thing: The discussion that began at “Unruly Democracy” and the Harvard Kennedy School begins to point a way forward.
To close, then, I want to thank all the participants–including fellow bloggers Jessica Palmer, Dr. Isis, Amanda Gefter, Tom Levenson, and Joe Romm. We started something. We couldn’t have done it without you.