html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: This is where the party ends...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

This is where the party ends...

In the Marginal Revolution comments comes:
Tyler, after reading this post and comments, I have a post title request: should you judge a blogger by his commentators?
Looking forward to it.
P.S I'm a loyal MR reader.
Posted by: seer at Jul 18, 2007 2:29:04 PM

I’ll take a swing at that one. OH YEAH. If a blog has an active comments section, you can absolutely judge a blogger by her commenters. In fact, commenters filter themselves; the frequent commenters reflect the character of the blogger. Bloggers, if you want to know who you are, read your comments.

I believe that Seer was asking a slightly different question, the question of whether you should hold the bloggers responsible for a nasty racist discussion in the comments to a post. I’ll also say yes to this question. I subscribe to the “blogger as host” model, and hold the masthead responsible for what happens in their house. I think the blogger has an active duty to counter comments that he or she finds repugnant. If they don’t, I’m completely willing to hold the blogger to that sentiment; if not that she believes it, at least that she doesn’t care enough to say anything against it.

There is probably some point where a blog’s comment section is too big to reflect the blogger, but for most of the medium size blogs I read, the aggregated commenters look just like the blogger. Defective Yeti – friendly, offering information and jokes, not contentious. Baldwin mostly keeps it light and so do his commenters. Unfogged, you look exactly like Ogged. Focus on cleverness above all else, occasional serious and sweet flashes, more often funny snark, and a need to keep talking rather than do anything. Crooked Timber is interesting because even within the group blog, the comments reflect the individual poster. Kieran’s tone rides a mean edge*, and the comments on his posts are markedly meaner than others. Bérubé writes long thoughtful posts and gets thoughtful comments in return. Lawyers, Guns and Money get interesting esoterica and partisan agreement back from their posts. Pharyngula writes smart stuff that looks down on religion; he gets smart and dismissive commenters. On Sherry’s blog, she got back the love and honesty she pours out.

So, Seer, yeah. You can not only judge a blogger by his commenters, you can know a blogger by his commenters.






Me? It is harder to say for yourself, and the part about how my readers largely originated from the same source makes it a little different. But I’ll go with – mostly interested in the topic and problem solving, stubborn about ideology, occasionally snap judgments and righteousness, willing to make fun of me and themselves, occasionally insightful and kind.


CORRECTION: I now deeply regret having written this about Kieran. After writing this, I read back through a few months of Crooked Timber archives, and quickly realized that nothing about Kieran's posts is mean, not his tone, not the content, not the threads in response. I was biased by a post of his that ended up going very poorly for me, but my impression of meanness was my bias and not an accurate perception of Kieran's blogging. I should have checked that before I posted, not after. I am sorry.

37 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a response up on MarginalRevolution, in the comments section, at around #70. Do also note I spent the whole day on the road (not unusual) and I have not been home for more than two hours (I can now read you, or blog comments on MR, on iPhone but I didn't even have a chance to do that). Usually I respond over subsequent posts, which are read by more people, rather than in the comments section per se. See my previous posts on the Flynn Effect, for instance, for other pre-emptive responses to the points which have been made. I've responded plenty to the points made in the comments on MR. If I responded regularly in the comments, the points I wish to make would reach many fewer people.
Tyler Cowen

7:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

p.s. I've also deleted some of the comments which are in violation of our comments norm, I may not get to them all.
Tyler

7:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe I've responded too much already, but one final point before going to sleep. It is really really hard running a blog when a single post is read by 50,000 plus people. It's not possible to read every comment, monitor every comment, or respond to any more than a very few comments. It is inevitably the result that many readers or even most readers aren't happy in every way. That includes us, yes we read our own blog too and are often disappointed by the comments, for a variety of reasons. Maybe we don't do the best job we can, that is entirely possible. But in the meantime, I would like to ask our favorite readers (and bloggers, that means you, Megan!) to have more faith in us. We are presenting what we think are important ideas, and beneficial ideas, to large audiences. On the particular post in question, I am taking a stance that I believe you agree with.

We seem to see things differently, when it comes to the question of "personal liability for blog comments". But why is that reason to have so little faith in us? We (and I in particular) have a great faith in you, in the best sense of that word faith.
Tyler

8:02 PM  
Anonymous Peter said...

I now see that some of the comments on Tyler's IQ thread have been deleted, but most of them did not seem racist to me. In fact, considering that the thread involves one of the most controversial topics imaginable, the level of discourse in the comments is remarkably restrained and polite.

By the way, I acknowledge that the Mexican villagers in question have some "native" intelligence that few others do, but in today's world that sort of intelligence is of rather limited value.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Tyler:

My read on the Marginal Revolution commenters is probably not as harsh as you think, and my impression of you and Alex has always been good.

But the way I see it, your comments do damage and you stand by and let that happen. I don't understand that. I do understand not having enough time to monitor your comments. Outsource that. Ask your regulars if anyone is willing to be the MR Comment Czar, just for the experience of being part of MR. Or don't have comments at all. I really believe that racist or sexist or mean comment threads are worse than nothing.

I've told you before that I don't know how to reconcile my overwhelmingly favorable impression of you with the mixed, sometimes very good but sometimes awful, comments that you allow on your site. I do think bloggers who know they are hosting vicious comments are being negligent if they don't address them. (I'm also willing to assign constructive knowledge to a blogger. It is his site. She should know what goes on there.) I know you don't have the same model for what a blog should be as I described in the post. But I also know that you're in a position to solve this, and you don't.

I have great faith in your good intentions, especially to me. You've consistently been kinder and more generous to me than you've had any call to be. I very much enjoyed meeting you and appreciate our occasional correspondences. But what you permit in your comments sections (and it has occasionally been very harsh to me, although that is not my first concern) is not consistent with your personal actions.

Look. If you're afraid that your comments section reflects poorly on you, you can reject the comparison or you can fix your comments section. Don't have a comments section you aren't proud of.

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Nathan Zook said...

But Megan, you are right in what you say about the comments reflecting the blogger but entirely wrong about what that reflection means in this case. Tyler & co are quite libertarian in their views. If they were to open up a public forum and then turn around and control like one of those "town hall" meetings, we'ld beat them up & take away their union cards.

I really see in your comments an implicit demand that people of opposing ideologies accept your standards of judgement. Cold dead fingers & etc.

Yes, the IQ debates have a history at MR of generating far more heat (and less light) than anything other than immigration policy. Their willingness to allow an open debate in spite of the fact that they know that this will damage their personal reputations is to their credit. That they might seek to minimize the damage is to merely confirm this claim.

6:27 AM  
Blogger LizardBreath said...

First, what are the rest of us posters at Unfogged, chopped liver?

Second, passing over the question of moral responsibility for what's in your comments (I do feel that on some level, but that's because I have the sort of deeply work-avoidant obsessiveness that allows me to read and respond to pretty much everything at Unfogged) I do find it fascinating how (this is going to be hard to say without sounding offensive) on political issues, almost every blog's comment section is a more extreme reflection of perceptions of the blogger's underlying political allegiance, rather than their conscious moderation.

The Volokh Conspiracy is largely a bunch of not particularly politically extreme bloggers, mostly focused on technical legal issues, and they're generally very consciously qualified and evenhanded when posting on political stuff. But as a liberal, I'd call them distinctly right of center, and their comments are much more stridently so. Same with Megan McArdle -- while I disagree with her about a whole bunch of stuff, her posts run toward the mild and qualified rather than redmeat political rabblerousing, but her comments are populated by a fairly well roused rabble. You could say the same about Unfogged too -- not so much now, but before I and the other new bloggers came on, Ogged was pro-war, and otherwise pretty centrist albeit leaning left, but the comments were much much leftier.

I don't know if this means that comments are a true picture of the blogger's soul, or a distorted, extreme picture, but it seems like a consistent pattern.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

The commenters are like the bloggers, only more so.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Kieran said...

Kieran’s tone rides a mean edge, and the comments on his posts are markedly meaner than others.

Not that one is able to remove the plank from one's own eye, but I'd disagree with that characterization. I'd say that your view is colored via a selection effect: the awful comments on that post about you and kids (the post itself was not at all mean), and the couple of posts I've written this week in sharp disagreement with someone else.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Kieran said...

In fact, we can call the megan effect.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

First, what are the rest of us posters at Unfogged, chopped liver?

I still think Ogged set the tone and it reflects him more than anyone else there.

rather than their conscious moderation.

I don't think it is completely conscious moderation, although that can clip the bottom end. I think it is absolutely a reflection of what the blogger puts out. That's why I think it is truer mirror to personality than the blogger knows. Political views are only the part of it. I think character traits aggregate as well.

Snippy blogger, shallow self-confirming analysis? Comments run to slams and facially true and self-congratulatory statements about how obvious things are.

Blogger blogs about emotive stuff, that's where the commenters are. Blogger picks fights? Commenters are worse. Tom said it exactly right.

Look, do this for other blogs so your own identity isn't at stake. Run through the ones with active comments sections and decide whether they reflect the blogger.

Kieran:
1. Seems like there is data enough that the hypothesis is testable. Some grad student could code the posts and comments for a year of Crooked Timber, whom we presume are a common pool, and see whether the effect I see is really there.

2. Do your co-bloggers get that same effect?

11:30 AM  
Blogger LizardBreath said...

Look, do this for other blogs so your own identity isn't at stake. Run through the ones with active comments sections and decide whether they reflect the blogger.

I don't think I'm being defensive here -- mostly I'd be flattered to think that the Unfogged commenters were an accurate reflection of me. But you do get cases where the center of gravity of the comments is clearly significantly 'more so' than the blogger, to the point where they disagree.

McArdle again -- while she's well to the right of me, every so often she'll say something that sounds reasonable to me, and liberal to her commenters, and they'll object strongly; there was one of those on immigration not too long ago. So do the commenters' somewhat questionable views on immigration better represent her than the ones she's putting in the posts? And the same with Cowen on IQ.

You can make the tautological statement that a blogger's commenters are the sort of people who like to read the sort of stuff the blogger writes writes, but that doesn't guarantee that the blogger and the commenters resemble each other.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Meagan: I would really like to see a detailed breakdown of how you would moderate Tyler's threads differently. I think it would tell me a lot about you.
I personally wish that you and Tyler addressed your bloggers comments directly more often. For instance, it seemed to me that you never really responded to most of the libertarian points regarding the government initially creating the water conflict in question via subsidies etc.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

You can make the tautological statement that a blogger's commenters are the sort of people who like to read the sort of stuff the blogger writes writes, but that doesn't guarantee that the blogger and the commenters resemble each other.

I think that is the mechanism, but I don't think it is the effect. If you haven't seen that effect, you don't agree with my hypothesis, and that's cool. But that's what I've seen. Are Marcotte's commenters like her? Are Obsidian Wing's commenters like them? Caveat Emptor's commenters are exactly like him.

Think of traits like hotheaded, kind, opinionated, silly, friendly. Characterize the comment section as a whole, and then decide. Maybe you decide the correlation isn't close enough to convince you.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'm off to swimming. Back in a bit.

Michael, I posted on the front that I'm not willing to talk about water rights here.

I'll think more about how I would moderate MR's comments while I swim.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

How I would moderate MR's comments, were it mine to do:

1. I would post a comments policy prominently on the front page somewhere permanent. People should be able to see it at all times, not have to refer to an old post to know the local standard.

2. I would introduce myself as the moderator and set expectations, so that commenters aren't surprised when I intervene.

3. Assuming the comment policy is something like the one Tyler has mentioned in recent posts, ad hominem attacks and repetition would be barred. I would probably stipulate two more things - that disagreement does not mean that the other person does not understand. I would also require that on contentious points, the arguers reveal the core beliefs their argument is stemming from ('people are more important than the environment', or 'the environment is as important as people'). If you're arguing from different core values, you might as well acknowledge that and move on. Argument doesn't convince people with different core values.

4. In practice, I would intervene frequently at first. Deleting comments without saying why makes people think you're being arbitrary, especially since confirmation bias means that they think you are only deleting their comments because they are more persuasive and because they will not realize that you are also deleting comments on the other side, which do not register as strongly with them.

So, you say, "I want to read your point, but ad hominem attacks aren't allowed here. Please re-comment with your content and without your ad hominem attack." And then you say that again and again and again. And delete comments that violate that policy. Disemvowelling could also work to leave the comment but get rid of the attack. That could be a first warning.

Does that answer your question of how I would moderate comments in a large blog? Did I leave something out?

1:49 PM  
Anonymous joeo said...

I think lizardbreath is right on this one. Comments tend to be, or at least appear to be, more extreme than the posts. Part of this is that the more extreme comments stick out more.

2:38 PM  
Blogger LizardBreath said...

And of course once someone agrees with me I can switch sides. I would say that for some blogs you get a clearer picture of the blogger from the comments than from the posts; The Volokh Conspiracy strikes me this way, for one. I just don't think it's universally reliable or anything, and I'd worry, (not that you were doing this explicitly, but coming close) about attributing the unpleasant qualities of a comment section to the blogger.

Crooked Timber's comments, particularly, don't look like anything to me in terms of being cohesive enough to have a personality -- they're just a pile of people arguing. And we haven't even talked about the really big blogs, like Kevin Drum, or Atrios, where I wouldn't blame my worst enemy for the level of discourse in comments. (Not that it's evil, just that it's unproductive nonsense, and not the fun kind.)

3:05 PM  
Anonymous D said...

ah, moderation can be such a pain in the rear... but I think probably 80% is really imprinted by the person running the show, and so no mod is needed for that. Especially if you start out consistantly no matter the size of the blog. That still leaves the remaining 20%, and according to Pareto's, yeah, they'll take 80% of your time.

Still if you start out a rule structure and you stick with it, as Megan points out, it will work for the majority and you can boot the minority if needs be... this leads me to another thing, though.

Time. Blogs are not forever, even if they are around forever. People burn out, because they are passionate for this, they are not selling a can of peas. In the end they get tired of always having to deal with "the blog from heck" [not quite thehell but headin' that way...]
Once you get there, you should just step away. It wont kill anyone. This CAN be accomplished different ways, naturally. No Comments. No Anonymous Comments. Something that I have seen recently is No Anonymous Comments on threads the blogger thinks will blow up...
seems to work.

No matter the system, somebody has to keep an eye on stuff, even if that's regular readers...

In terms of the WHO being representative... perhaps some are, but perhaps some are people who just like the brains. I often don't agree at all with bloggers I read, but that's OK. I want them for their brains, I don't HAVE to agree. I read Megan and McMegan both, and many conservatives, and many liberals, and so on... how many of them would classify themselves as Independents? prolly none.

I don't read for agreement, I read to be challenged. I comment because I'm too stupid to keep my mouth shut. I don't represent Megan anymore than she represents me... Although, rumour has it we are both human, so we've got that.

The bottom line is this is her place, and I respect her rules, just as I respect Tyler or Eugene.

.02
D

3:21 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'd worry, (not that you were doing this explicitly, but coming close) about attributing the unpleasant qualities of a comment section to the blogger.

I'll do it explicitly, if that will help. While I was swimming, I decided that the post framing introduces a priming bias that the commenters then mirror. I've seen it here all the time. My intemperate posts get meaner comments. My absolutist posts get absolutist responses. I think the framing comes straight from the blogger, and if it gets amplified in the comments, it is still reflecting that side of the blogger.

I don't think the unpleasant sides of a comment section come from nowhere. If you don't think Crooked Timber comment sections have a personality, imagine transferring comment sections between blogs; 11d would simply never get the comment threads that Crooked Timber does. I think they reflect the blogger.

Like you, I think this effect drops out at some too-big size, where they all devolve into savagery.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Dagon said...

By commenting here, do I get to be more like you? That's clearly my goal (except in cases where you're wrong), but I didn't realize it was so easy!

4:09 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Dude. Being like your ownself is better.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Nathan Zook said...

From :

"they are pumping hydrocarbons out of the North Sea as fast as their white-skinned little hands can run the pumps"

This is racism, pure and simple. Kieran's response is not the least bit more extreme. Megan, if this is the basis for your claim that he is "mean", you further the stereotype of liberals as thin-skinned hypocrites.

---

Back to the basic issue, although it does tie in somewhat. The MR bloggers do have an unfortunate tendency to condescension. They get the expected response when they fall into it. But there is another, far more important variable relative to your thesis. They value free speech more than they value tea party conversation. They believe that the marketplace of ideas should be a free market, and so they deliberately and as a matter of policy provide one. As a result, the tone and type of comments one their blog is far less of a reflection on them directly than of the results of applying their theories.

I understand your view that a blogger is a host. But, as the Heritage foundation points out once every couple of years, libertarians throw the best (ie wildest) parties--even if they themselves live quite conservative lives. Moreover, TC & company apparently see themselves as providers of a forum for debate modeled on ye olde town square. They supply the soap box, we supply the craziness.

Its a microcosm of the difference in your views of government. When I saw your policy of "affirmative kindness", I immediately thought "censor." (Censors are at best necessary evils, and at worst intolerable ones.) Libertarian-leaning minds are going to do that.

What am I saying? I think that the blog comments are a reflection of the applications of the bloggers' theories of human interaction, being displayed with far less hypocrisy than is usually seen.

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Nathan Zook said...

Double grrr. Now the system won't let me try to fix it. Guys, the preview looked fine...

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Nathan Zook said...

Final try..

6:53 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

is that link still open?

7:12 PM  
Anonymous Nathan Zook said...

It looks closed now. The html was bad. BTW, I don't know how much hackery you do, but the source has all of the posts strung together on one line. Nasty to debug.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

NZ - I disagree with you pretty much down the line.

They value free speech more than they value tea party conversation. They believe that the marketplace of ideas should be a free market, and so they deliberately and as a matter of policy provide one.

I provided the opposite argument to both these assertions in my post on moderating for civility.

I understand your view that a blogger is a host. ... Moreover, TC & company apparently see themselves as providers of a forum for debate modeled on ye olde town square.

Actually, now I am curious what their model of their blog is.

I saw your policy of "affirmative kindness", I immediately thought "censor."

Bullying doesn't contain content; there isn't anything there to censor. If you mean, bounds on the right to express meanness, yep, I do that. I do that so that I get more and different participation.

What am I saying? I think that the blog comments are a reflection of the applications of the bloggers' theories of human interaction, being displayed with far less hypocrisy than is usually seen.

Cool. Say that. I think comment sections are mirrors of the personalities of the blogger.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I don't do any hackery.

7:28 PM  
Anonymous Nathan Zook said...

Well, I was trying to buttress my case. (Without turning your blog blue, of course...)

7:36 PM  
Blogger Noel said...

... occasionally insightful and kind

Occasionally! We're not allowed to be kind on this weblog, at least not to the host. But we're always insightful.

Moreover, I disagree with the host's conclusions. The comments are not like the blogger but more so. Obviously people will tend to congregate with others who share their beliefs, so there is an aspect of self selection, but to take a simple example our beloved Justin frequently disagrees with our beloved host on many issues (music, appropriate restrictions on government, etc.)

Not all people conceive of their as blog as their living room. I think of MR more as a podium, with Tyler speaking to the audience, and the comments the audience talking amongst themselves. Unfogged is like a house party where everyone engages in the game of witty repartee. The acceptable discourse is different in each situation.

(Sorry L. Breath. Though I'll never equate someone whose father wrestles water buffalo with chopped liver but I do agree with Megan that Ogged dominates the site. [I read Unfogged a fair bit but don't comment 'cause I don't have the time.])

(One thing I really like about MR is that Tyler isn't afraid to observe something interesting, come up with a bunch of explanatory hypotheses, and then throw them out to the world. The sneering comments this often draws really annoy me.)

4:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The underlying model? Nathan Zook's first point is right on. I also like a later point: "I think of MR more as a podium, with Tyler speaking to the audience, and the comments the audience talking amongst themselves."

But there is more. I also see MR as a creation of an artificial world, a world inhabited by one very particular kind of person. Of course that world isn't flawless, it couldn't be. Through the medium of linking, Megan "inhabits" this world as well (admittedly perhaps sometimes she would rather not!). MR is a gallery, a simulation, a mini-TV show, and an experiment.

But most of all, MR is a way for Tyler and Alex to learn. It is a very selfish undertaking, and thus at least Tyler underinvests in the public good aspects of the blog.

5:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoops, that last mine was mine...I forgot to sign it...
Tyler

5:33 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

but to take a simple example our beloved Justin frequently disagrees with our beloved host on many issues (music, appropriate restrictions on government, etc.)

And that kind of shit disturbing doesn't remind you of anyone?

I love my theory and I'm not changing it.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And that kind of shit disturbing doesn't remind you of anyone?"

Aha! I knew it all along! Megan is really leaving all of the Justin comments! Justin is a sock puppet!

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Dagon said...

Being like your ownself is better.

But that contradicts your thesis. My natural self (which I think is what you mean by "ownself") is more neutral than affirmatively kind. If my comments are to reflect your blog, it must because I'm more like you (or at least like you-when-blogging) when I post here.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

The comments in the aggregate and the collective tone. Each of y'all should hold to your own selves (while being nice). I contain multitudes and all that.

3:18 PM  

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