The Conversation Is What Matters, From Learning To Journalism And Beyond

from the don't-forget-it dept

A few months back, I wrote about how important the conversation here on Techdirt is for the overall site. The blog posts here (and the discussion starters in the Insight Community) are conversation starters. They're to get a topic and a point of view out there, and kick off a further discussion that we can all learn from. This still upsets plenty of people who want to pigeonhole us into being "journalists" who need to act in a certain way, and it's interesting to note that the pigeonholing seems to go the other direction as well: many old school journalists hate the idea of being a part of the conversation. They see things like "comments" as something to avoid or to wade into only at your own risk. Many refuse to read or respond to comments.

But that's a huge problem, considering the business those news organizations are actually in: bringing together a community whose attention they can then sell in some manner. If the folks who bring the community in then neglect that community, that community is going to go elsewhere. The disdain many journalists seem to have towards their community shows through.

However, I've had trouble getting across to some just how much value conversation really adds. Yet, Fred Wilson just pointed me to a fascinating post about an experimental schooling method, whereby students who were doing well in certain classes no longer needed to attend the class. This may sound counterintuitive, but what happened was that a group of students simply taught each other the curriculum, and then spent more time learning other subjects as well. And, in teaching each other, they discovered that they learned much more themselves:
Now our independent study group was a remarkable group of non-conformists, whose marks -- on tests we didn't attend classes for or study for -- were so high that some wondered aloud if we were somehow cheating. My grades had climbed into the low 90% range, and this included English where such marks were rare -- especially for someone whose grades had soared almost 30 points in a few months of 'independent' study. The fact is that my peers had done what no English teacher had been able to do -- inspire me to read and write voraciously, and show me how my writing could be improved. My writing, at best marginal six months earlier, was being published in the school literary journal. On one occasion, a poem of mine I read aloud in class (one of the few occasions I actually attended a class that year) produced a spontaneous ovation from my classmates.

The Grade 12 final examinations in those days were set and marked by a province-wide board, so universities could judge who the best students were without having to consider differences between schools. Our independent study group, a handful of students from just one high school, won most of the province-wide scholarships that year. I received the award for the highest combined score in English and Mathematics in the province -- an almost unheard-of 94%.
While I didn't go through a program like that, some of my own experiences have been similar. In college, I was four semesters deep in statistics class before I took a job tutoring stats, and then eventually teaching an intro college class in statistics, and it wasn't until I tutored others and (finally) taught that class that I really understood many of the concepts that I'd supposedly "learned" in class. In class, I did quite well, but it was because I'd learned how to get by and solve problems. In actually teaching others, I was forced to really understand the subject so that I could actually answer the questions that came up.

The same is true of posts here. I had learned a lot about the economics of information and innovation in college, and then again working in Silicon Valley. However, the more I wrote about these subjects on Techdirt, the more people challenged different ideas, and got me thinking more deeply about them and how to not just defend my positions (or to change them, if I was convinced otherwise), but to really understand the subjects much more deeply. I've purchased more textbooks (and read them cover to cover) running this blog than I ever did in college or grad school -- and (this is the amazing part) even started recognizing where some of them have made mistakes.

These discussions are like another graduate degree for me, because I constantly have to think, rethink, defend and truly understand the arguments I'm making. It's hard to overstate how incredibly valuable that's been. The fact that many journalists refuse to engage in that sort of conversation actually shows through in their work: they don't want to bother. They like to position themselves as experts, but many don't really understand what they're talking about. Engaging in the conversation may be a lot of work -- and, at times, it can be frustrating or seemingly pointless. But, the massive amount of value I've received from those discussions -- just like the student in the story above -- is almost impossible to quantify. People talk about the importance of ongoing education. That's exactly what these conversations are for me.


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  1.  
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    slimcat (profile), May 1st, 2009 @ 9:14pm

    Excellent, informative and thought provoking article, Mike.

    Occasionally, I can barely contain my anger when an online journalist makes some statement that I know is incorrect, that I can prove wrong, yet, there is no feedback system. Big Internet media seems to allow feedback for a few select articles that are rarely of any great importance but articles of social, economic or political interest to us all offer none. I have actually found a few small newspapers that are more responsive to comments made online regarding articles printed in their paper.

    About a year after Dr Carl Sagan's death, information circulated that he occasionally smoked a joint to relax. A well known, syndicated, southern journalist, whose name escapes me right now, wrote an opinion piece that was in my local newspaper along the lines of 'no wonder Dr Sagan was way out there and blah, blah, haha'. I suppose he found the whole thing pretty amusing. I wanted so badly to respond to this guy, remind him of Dr Sagan's achievements, accolades and honors, but there was absolutely no way to contact him and I sincerely doubt he would have cared anyway.

    Nowadays, I tend to ignore journalist who ignore their readers.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 1st, 2009 @ 9:24pm

    I accept that articles here are intended to start a "conversation". However, it is difficult to reconcile this with replies to comments that all too often are stated as being "moronic", "stupid", "ignorant", etc.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 1st, 2009 @ 11:05pm

    Re:

    >> However, it is difficult to reconcile this with replies to comments that all too often are stated as being "moronic", "stupid", "ignorant", etc.

    If your comments deserve such a response then why shouldn't someone point that out?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 1st, 2009 @ 11:21pm

    Engaging in the conversation may be a lot of work -- and, at times, it can be frustrating or seemingly pointless.

    If the Internet is an example of what we have to look forward to, I sympathize somewhat with the journalists' reluctance to engage.

    I don't agree with everything posted on this site. I'm probably one of the bigger detractors here, although not nearly as famous as Weird Harold. Often, it's not that I disagree so much as I think that there are consequences and aspects of issues that aren't being explored. Sometimes I post, and sometimes I don't.

    My posts are usually long, and probably a little academic-sounding. I usually try to consider a couple different perspectives. I work to genuinely understand the argument made by the other party or the original article as deeply as possible. Whether or not the other party believes this, or whether I'm adequately able to convey it in my post is another matter, of course.

    To call what results a "conversation" would require substantially redefining the word.

    I've been called, variously, an idiot, a moron, and more and less polite versions of those things. Because of the length, there's usually at least one "tl;dr". Generally Mike is more polite, he calls my arguments "idiotic" and "moronic," rather than calling ME an idiot or a moron.

    For the record, I have made it a point never to call anyone an idiot or a moron, or to engage in ad-hominem attacks directly or indirectly. Not that I don't occasionally WANT to, but I make the effort.

    This site, and so many like it (Digg, Slashdot, popular blogs), may superficially host "conversations," but honestly a lot of what happens reminds me of a combination of Fox News and Jerry Springer.

    Like Fox News, there's a prevailing opinion, and if you hold the opposite opinion, you are (by definition) an idiot, or worse. Opposing opinions are permitted, but quickly shouted down. Conversational tactics that would never fly in a real, face-to-face conversation among peers are the norm. For example, on the Internet, if someone makes a point you don't like, you can just ignore it. If that point goes against the prevailing wisdom of the community, you can be 99% sure that nobody is going to call you out on it. Nobody's going to say, "yeah, what about that, huh?" Questions - even directed at specific individuals - routinely go unanswered. This isn't conversation, this is punditry.

    Like Jerry Springer, while the host may be relatively polite, the guests are generally not, and there's little effort to moderate that. How often do you see someone saying "hey, it's not OK to call people idiots" on the Internet?

    Like all TV news, there's also an aspect of timeliness and the short lifespan of information. If you read something in an article that you think isn't correct, and you go off for two or three hours, do some research, really get your thoughts together, provide some primary source data, and then carefully write a response...nobody's going to read it. That article is already off the front page. You can use this to your advantage, too: if you get called out on something, you can just shut up and filibuster. It'll be off the front page by tomorrow.

    I once spent about an hour writing a response to an article on this site; it was long and I had links to a lot of external information sources. For whatever reason, the software decided that my post needed to be moderated. Guess what happened to my hour's work? I don't know. Maybe it got posted three days later and two people will read it someday. Maybe it just went into the bit-bucket. "First Post!" may be a joke, but on the Internet, conversations are dominated by the people who speak first and fastest. The value of an informed opinion seems to drop exponentially as the seconds tick by after the article appears.

    What's interesting is that I work with a wonderful group of people, who command and earn a great deal of respect. I have conversations with these folks about the kinds of topics that come up on this site all the time. These are real conversations. We disagree all the time, but nobody calls anybody an idiot or a moron. Nobody calls anybody's ideas "idiotic" or "moronic" either. If anybody actually DID this, the rest of the group would quickly moderate it down, since it's socially unacceptable and ultimately counterproductive. There is mutual respect. People are given the benefit of the doubt. There is persistence of relationships: if somebody who I know to be very, very smart says something that doesn't make sense, I don't assume they're an idiot, because I know they're not. If someone takes some time to research an issue, they can come back hours or days later and pick up the conversation. None of this happens on the Internet.

    The Internet is not making conversations better. It's just making them "more." If valuable opinions come out, it's always feels to me like the law of large numbers at work. Sturgeon's Law is alive and well (although perhaps he was optimistic about the percentage). Still, I find the ten informed, insightful, respectful, and often dissenting opinions I get from colleagues infinitely more valuable than the two good nuggets I pick out of the sea of posts on the Internet.

    Sometimes I ask myself why I post on here (and other sites) at all. It's highly unlikely, in this environment, I will change anybody's mind. Maybe I do, but they just keep it to themselves. If so, I'm happy about that. In general, I do it because all the writing is a way for me to clarify my own thinking, and test out some arguments. Unlike most people I know (even the smart and articulate ones), I heavily edit my blog posts, forum posts, and emails, like they were college essays. Just in the course of this post, I've written and deleted three paragraphs.

    The Internet Masses don't care. The "free market" of ideas has decided. Valuable: speed, ideas that agree with your own, ideas that feel or seem right, ideas that are popular, opinions, egalitarian-ness, and acerbic dismissal. Not valuable: thoughtfulness, facts, depth, ideas that are unpopular, expertise, credentials, hard-won consensus, and respect.

    I know, I know:

    tee-ell, dee-arr.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2009 @ 3:08am

    Oddities

    Someone mentioned Harold Hill, err, Weird Harold and I have to say, he was quite the person.

    I was actually thinking about this on a deeper level as it applies to TechDirt, where Big Kieth O called Steven Colbert out on Friday and presented the idea that he was a conservative, according to Kristen Landreville's study really made me think. But I suppose many things were learned from that Olbermann/Landerville study, assuming that's what we wish to call it these days.

    But perhaps the most interesting thing is that over the past 8 months of Stephen Colbert Wikipedia edits one thing has survived true and true under the "Personal Life" section:

    Although by his own account he was not particularly political before joining the cast of The Daily Show, Colbert is a self-described Democrat.

    Yes, that has stayed there, and I have watched thru many changes. But it makes sense: after all, it's easier to be Catholic and Democrat, so I somewhat believe the statement left thereof. It's also easier to be a Catholic with a sense of humor, something Biden hasn't been able to truly show, even as of late.

    But what's most interesting is that I tend to think the ide of being a Catholic and a dark sense of humor has merit. If you recall, Colbert, who is supposedably a Catholic was supposed to be in Denver but, I imagine his Catholic Satirical nature was probably too complicated for anyone to really comprehend to make a decision one way or another. I can somewhat identify with this, as often the most important thing is to get the conversation started.

    To understand the person, perhaps the best place to start is in their actions. I was somewhat amused that the day Obama was Elected, he had Stan Lee on the show with intent to give him a signed Spiderman Comic Book, but Obama wasn't available that week.

    It's rumored that this comic book remains on a bookshelf in Colbert HQ, awaiting it's rightful owner, but who knows these days. Perhaps a Hedgehog which rhymes with blog, whose curious name of "Mike" is peeing on it. I am sure these are all questions which will be answered some day, some how.

    Anyways, I'm not going to continue to take up the space as the other Anon before me did.

    I will tell you this though: Read everything you see online with a playful nature. Most people who are online actually will play with you and fall back when you prove them wrong.

    I think it's worthwhile to reiterate that this entire comment is entitled "Oddities". As such, please click my name and if your in the area, stop by.

    Here's the reason:
    I’m poor, but I’m not retarded. See if you can catch it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2009 @ 3:32am

    Re: Oddities

    The link regarding Stephen Colbert's journey for Spiderman didn't come thru. Admittedly, it is a long URL. Perhaps this TechDirt site doesn't like long URLs:

    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1209294/stephen_colbert_attempts_to_bribe_presiden telect.html?cat=2

    Also, if that one didn't work, here's a TinyURL address:
    http://tinyurl.com/co3rf6

     

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    Bob Weiss, May 2nd, 2009 @ 7:12am

    How the Dailies May Survive - If They Dare

    You are so completely right on. I teach computer classes in Community Education, not exactly a demanding instruction environment, but I will say I learn something new because of, or from, my students every session.

    Hear in the Twin Cities we have 2 dailies, the St Paul Pioneer Press, and the Minnespolis Star Tribune. I generally won't read the Tribune because the political slant is so far to the left it makes me fall over. They are on the ropes in bankrupcy now, and called the other day with a free subscription offer. I decided to go for it.

    After a week I cancelled. It was the same wire stories I was already getting in the Pioneer Press, plus a bunch of feel good features, local puff pieces, and politically motivated indoctrination-style "news stories" that I was not interested in. So I cancelled the subscription.

    In the St Croix Valley, where I live (the beautiful east coast of Minnesota) there is still a local daily paper, the Stillwater Gazette. I usually read it every day, why? Because it has news about people I know, and issues going on in my town and the surrounding area that I do care about, because I live here. News that can help me figure out things I may need to do, not about things I can do nothing about.

    The local dailies, even the big metroplitan papers, cannot compete with the Internet, TV, and radio for international and non-local news feeds. They just get it out faster and with better graphics than the newspapers ever can. The solution is to focus on the local, do what ONLY YOU CAN DO WELL. Do the local news and drop the stupid national and international wire service stories.

    And get engaged with those of us who live here and are involved enough to share a comment. Maybe you do need to get over your training, and shared world view which has been pounded into your head by a bunch of ivory tower college professors, and come and share my world view with me, someone who makes a buck the good old fashiond way, not in theory, but in realty.

    Journalism will survive as it always has, from the dawn of mankind. But individuals who fail to adapt to life altering changes in their environment DO NOT survive. So.. make the change or move over for someone else who is willing and able to do so.

     

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    Joseph Sanchez, May 2nd, 2009 @ 7:52am

    Ed

    Too many variables here. We need a lot more context before we can say anything conclusive about "collaborative learning." This is all the rage in education, and it can work very well. But there are a million more questions to ask. This method seems eerily familiar with classical liberalism that we rejected in the early nineties for postmodern education pedagogies. How do these students compare with students coming out of classes where the prof actually educates and inspires? This may say more about the quality of current education than anything else. When profs spend all their time indoctrinating rather than educating it is not surprising to see students educating themselves. How does this compare to a truly classical system like Aquinas in Santa Barbara? I would have a hard time believing that these students can compare with those students because that environment combines the collaborative and hierarchical approach. Don't believe it... yet.

     

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    Petréa Mitchell, May 2nd, 2009 @ 9:30am

    Not *that* new...

    I was extremely lucky to spend a couple years at a high school with a similar structure in the late 1980s. More emphasis on study hall than on group learning, but it was self-paced and had a certain amount of peer mentoring and tutoring. Lowest teacher-to-student ratio of any school I attended before college, and yet the one where I learned the most.

    A lot of high schools have the option for students to take some classes at the local community college. I wouldn't be surprised if the same sort of students do well in that.

     

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    Mike (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 10:03am

    Re:

    If the Internet is an example of what we have to look forward to, I sympathize somewhat with the journalists' reluctance to engage.

    I believe you're making the typical mistake of many people who in the past brushed off blogs and are now brushing of twitter: just because *some* or even *many* of the comments are not that interesting or you find offensive, you brush them all off.

    Furthermore, I believe you're too focused on the language itself, rather than the ideas here. You're suggesting that if someone calls an idea "moronic" that the conversation has been shut down. I've seen no such thing. Instead, it leads to someone trying to defend and explain their ideas.

    In general, I do it because all the writing is a way for me to clarify my own thinking, and test out some arguments. Unlike most people I know (even the smart and articulate ones), I heavily edit my blog posts, forum posts, and emails, like they were college essays. Just in the course of this post, I've written and deleted three paragraphs.

    And that's exactly the idea I'm trying to get across in this post. These discussions are a way to clarify my own thinking, test out some arguments and continue to refine my ideas... because people challenge them and question things, and it makes me want to rethink things, and if there are better ways to explain them.

     

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    Mike (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 10:04am

    Re: Ed

    Too many variables here. We need a lot more context before we can say anything conclusive about "collaborative learning." This is all the rage in education, and it can work very well. But there are a million more questions to ask.

    Hi Joseph. To be clear, I wasn't suggesting that this is a good system for all education. I wasn't really discussing the program as a school program at all. Just using it as an analogy for why the conversation here is so important.

     

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    Mike (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 10:05am

    Re: Not *that* new...

    Hi Petrea: wasn't saying that it was new. Just that it was an interesting experiment, and got me thinking about the reason I value the discussion here...

     

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    Leigh, May 2nd, 2009 @ 10:52am

    Attitude of journalists...

    Read most older journalists' opinion columns and editorials and their attitude is as plain as day thanks to their style of writing: they all think of themselves as beloved pundits with avid readerships who venerate their every word.

    Okay, that's exaggerating. But it is that *kind* of attitude that seems to dominate. I find they are always assuming a tone of wisdom, a manner of writing that says "this is the final word, and I'm confident you agree."

    No wonder they hate discovering that a big portion of their readers actually disagrees with and even hates their ideas. They don't seem to realize that if these people all continue to read their work and debate over it, the journalist should realize it means they are far more interesting and valuable than an ideologue with a flock of like-minded readers. But they don't - instead they disable comments, and write columns about how comments are worthless.

     

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    Leigh, May 2nd, 2009 @ 10:55am

    hmm...

    and THIS journalist should realize that he needs to get more sleep on Friday nights since he is clearly not paying attention to his writing. That final paragraph was virtually unreadable, and I apologize.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2009 @ 10:55am

    About that print media thing.

     

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    Michael, May 2nd, 2009 @ 11:25am

    Re:

    The fact that you recognize the "problem" of name-calling or poor argumentative structure and want to shy away from such things shows that there are people out there with differing opinions of what a proper conversation should entail, leading to better thought or more careful, critical arguments that attempt to not only position their view of the conversation as the better view, but advance conversation to a degree of professionalism that can and should be appreciated by the "expert" journalists.

    Mike's point seems to be saying that journalists are burying their heads into the sand in order to avoid seeing the bigger picture, due to it most likely going against their self-interests. Elitism in journalism is a very big problem and often leads to the sensationalistic, truth stretching news that disregards alternative views and only serves to feed the irrational, often tantalizing presumptions we make about the news. Yet that kind of outrageousness can be countered with debate and discussion, often lending to better fact checking by those who are compelled to know the whole truth of the matter.

    So, in reality, your post directly agrees with Mike's in that the internet and blogging are very valuable conversation and fact checking tools that are far more valuable than one journalist's take on the matter, simply because of people like yourself that see the internet as not the proper means of solid, fact-based arguments and insist on posting 'tldr's that try to make the internet and blogging more like that. Regardless of the large numbers that seem to produce more noise than anything, it's because of the noise that we attain more valuable knowledge as the news, opinions, arguments and what have you can be attacked from many more sides than what one journalist or even a small group of people could ever do.

    So, in short, I guess I should call you an idiot or something so we can continue this lively, informative, value-rich debate. Maybe you can attack my poor use of hyphenation and I can agree with you (dating a snobby english major helped me further my knowledge of the language, but damn if I'll ever understand hyphenation).

     

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    bshock, May 2nd, 2009 @ 11:54am

    Re:

    Any public discussion is going to require some internal filtering.

    But perhaps that's part of the point: we can learn and/or practice our critical thinking skills in the process.

    When someone refers to a comment as "moronic," "stupid," "ignorant," etc., that could perhaps be an indication that his opinion -- if not further elaborated -- is less valuable.

     

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    P. Orin Zack, May 2nd, 2009 @ 12:55pm

    Changing the role of Journalist

    Since I write political short stories (Google lists me first for that search), I decided to explore what it would be like if journalists dropped the conceit that it was possible for the press to be purely an observer of what went on in the world, and instead engaged directly in what was happening in a way that helped the citizens to better understand what was going on. The fictional organization that my reporter works for is a hybrid. They are primarily an Internet site focussed on politics and the framing behind it, but they also publish a single printed edition on the weekend, and use that to provide the extended depth of analysis and context that might be uncomfortable for people to read purely on a screen. The most recent story in that series (so far) is called "Terms of Debate". In it, our reporter steps into the political discussion to help the people at the event, and those following electronically, to understand what's being said, as well as what's being implied. Here's a link to the story:

    http://klurgsheld.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/short-story-terms-of-debate/

    Phil

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2009 @ 12:56pm

    I believe you're making the typical mistake of many people who in the past brushed off blogs and are now brushing of twitter: just because *some* or even *many* of the comments are not that interesting or you find offensive, you brush them all off.

    No. If you read my post, what I said was that there are occasionally still nuggets of valuable information in the sea of flotsam, and yes, I'm perfectly capable of picking those out. I also said that, even including those nuggets, the value of the "conversation" as a whole is generally lower than a real, actual conversation between human beings. I posit that the reason for this is that the default structure of "conversation" on the Internet incentivizes low-value contributions.

    I get the sense from the general community here that the prevailing opinion is that the Internet can do no wrong. The Internet always enhances, never detracts. The Internet never has any negative, if unintended, consequences. The Internet makes absolutely everything better for everybody in the long run. We therefore never have to consider the potential negative ramifications of vastly changing incentives and group dynamics.

    This is why I like reading Clay Shirky. He knows three words I don't see in this community: "I don't know." As Shirky says (quoting an earlier thinker): "More is different." Not "more is better."

    In a lot of ways, more IS better. Technology DOES improve our lives. But I feel like we're in this digital industrial revolution, where we're so obsessed with what we can do that we don't examine all the consequences. It took 30-50 years after the development of the automobile for environmentalism to start to take hold and ask some sobering questions. Will we do the same with the Internet?

    You're suggesting that if someone calls an idea "moronic" that the conversation has been shut down. I've seen no such thing. Instead, it leads to someone trying to defend and explain their ideas.

    Calling someone an idiot, or calling their ideas "moronic" are not conversation starters. These are not friendly invitations to elaborate. They are not pointed questions. They are not fact-based refutations. And yes, they do shut down conversations. And they do drive people away. Seen Weird Harold lately? (Yes, I know his disappearance could be for a thousand different reasons, but it raises the question). They probably drive some groups away faster than others: women, for example.

    Of the LARGE group of people that visit this site, precious few take the time to participate in the conversation. This precious few is the core of the "community" that separates Techdirt from mirror sites that just scrape the content and repackage it as their own. These are the core "fans," whether you agree with them or not. Calling them idiots and morons is not a good way to "Connect with Fans."

    When someone refers to a comment as "moronic," "stupid," "ignorant," etc., that could perhaps be an indication that his opinion -- if not further elaborated -- is less valuable.

    That would be nice if it were true, because then we could all feel good about running around flaming everybody as gentle reminders that they have less valuable opinions. The truth is that these labels are attached to ideas of all shapes and sizes, by anonymous trolls and venerated moderators alike.

    Look, I have as thick a skin as anybody. I'm not going to go QQ all day long because 10 people called me an idiot on the Internet today. I can perform internal filtering just fine, thank you.

    Calling someone a moron, or their ideas "moronic": THAT is the low-value opinion. That's just shorthand for saying: I'm not interested in trying to understand what you have to say. I'm not interested in going and doing more work to try to convince you otherwise, with (for example) facts. I'm not willing to thoughtfully consider that position.

    This conversation reminds me of John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which is incisively true.

    The Internet doesn't seem to naturally invite structured debate. As we get more content, we seem to get less editing. Just because the Internet allows you to ignore valuable rhetorical rules of conversation doesn't mean that the rules themselves should be devalued.

    It doesn't have to be this way, though. I participate in a handful of Internet communities, and there's one in particular that bucks the trend. The signal to noise ratio in that community is at least two standard deviations higher than anywhere else I go, including here. The context isn't that different: it's still random people who don't know each other and have wildly differing opinions and backgrounds. But the conversation is miles closer to an actual, real life conversation.

    The difference is extensive high-quality moderation, both by the community and the site moderators. Anyone who exploits John Gabriel's theory to run around calling people names is shouted down by the rest of the community and usually gets a temporary ban. "Me too" opinions that don't add to the conversation are also discouraged, more by the community than the moderators. However, well-reasoned and articulate opinions - wrong or right - are actively encouraged. And guess what the result is? By incentivizing quality rather than quantity, they GET quality. The reason this community works is because it has made an effort to import some of the social rules from real conversations into the Internet space. Although some will probably decry this as censorship, it very much isn't. This is effective chaos management.

    Sadly, it's the exception rather than the rule.

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 2nd, 2009 @ 1:29pm

    Re:

    In a recent article pertaining to Amazon, the following response was offered to one who posted a comment:

    Yup. I give up. That is more idiotic than what you said earlier. Anyone who thinks that Google is undermining the news business isn't using their brain. At all.

    Yup...this is surely a means by which to encourage "conversation".

     

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  21.  
    identicon
    Dave Barnes, May 2nd, 2009 @ 2:55pm

    teaching helps you learn

    "it wasn't until I tutored others and (finally) taught that class that I really understood many of the concepts"

    For me, it was Thermodynamics.

     

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  22.  
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    Jason Buberel (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 4:01pm

    Re: Moronic, stupid, ignorant

    There is certainly some of that in every crowd. One solution that I like and have seen implemented elsewhere:

    Charge reasonable fees for the ability to participate in the conversation, making it a premium service.

    It can still be pseudo-anonymous (site visitors may not know who you are, while site operators do), but by charging a fee for what the users value - the feeling that they are interacting with the author n a meaningful way - you only get comments from people who are willing to put their money where there opinions lie.

     

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  23.  
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    Jason Buberel (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 4:32pm

    Re: Making it conversational

    I agree that most news 'discussion' platforms do not do enough to make conversations:

    1. Easy to follow.
    2. Simple to participate in.
    3. Structured enough to be coherent.

    However, I do think that there are technical solutions to many of those problems. Features such as

    - auto notify me of replies to this thread
    - well designed conversation visualization tools
    - real-time 'reply posted' notifications, as in Gmail

    Tools such as these make it much more satisfying to actually engage in longer more fulfilling discussions.

     

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  24.  
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    Mike (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 4:43pm

    Re: Re:

    Yup...this is surely a means by which to encourage "conversation".


    Yes. It's a way of encouraging more thoughtful conversation, and discouraging idiotic thoughtless conversation.

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Petréa Mitchell, May 2nd, 2009 @ 5:12pm

    Re: Re: Not *that* new...

    Oh, well, n/m then. :)

     

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  26.  
    identicon
    Petréa Mitchell, May 2nd, 2009 @ 5:14pm

    Re: Re: Making it conversational

    A few far-flung corners of the net still solve this by using moderated Usenet groups.

    ...Well, what doesn't that solve?

     

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  27.  
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    Willton, May 2nd, 2009 @ 5:17pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Yes. It's a way of encouraging more thoughtful conversation, and discouraging idiotic thoughtless conversation.

    Man, you just can't admit when you're in the wrong, can you? Can't you understand that being an asshole to your readership does not encourage them to continue posting?

    Do you act like this when you're on a discussion panel? Do you outspokenly call the ideas of other panelists idiotic when you don't agree with them? If so, how many times have you been asked to return to such panels?

     

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  28.  
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    Jan Hopmans (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 5:56pm

    Re: Hey

    Hey,
    Just a question, could you next time also sign your text with something. So that I can at least which posts are made by you.
    Maybe unlike some of the others I check back after a few days on topic that are in my interest.

    Thanks. ^^ Hope to see you around or even recognize a name. =)

    Greetings, Jan.

     

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  29.  
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    Philippa McKee, May 2nd, 2009 @ 6:03pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Hmm,

    I think you're going to get out of it what you put into it. But first off, I believe often we're a product of the environment we're in and social links we maintain.

    What you may see as being unsavory may be the proverbial 10% of the iceburg of research, information, data, and result of other social interactions or otherwise. The converse is also true: there's often an additional 90% that isn't brought into the conversation, discussion or the like.

    Perhaps this is offense you feel. Offense is often considered an emotion. I'm also pretty sure it's not written in the Bill of rights that you are granted life, liberty, freedom, and absolution from offense. So long as it remains that way, well, consider curing offense with a request for facts. Consider focusing on facts that aren't leading towards the character of the person.

    I suppose a question I have is this: when one does not request additional information, is that ignorance, and if so, how does that feel? Does ignorance feed this "offense" sensation? I am never offended, and I'd like to better comprehend this feeling. Perhaps that's because I have no problem asking additional questions for clarification, as that generally offers a better understanding of something beyond the 10% that is actually shown, discussed, presented, or the like. But perhaps accepting offense is just slightly easier.

     

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  30.  
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    Jan Hopmans (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 6:43pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    To bad I have not much better to add to this conversation, but I also must say I agree with this a bit.

    It seems like Mike can't admit a fault. When somebody make a right, or not so right, point a lot of times he starts to act overly defensive. Or starting to call people idiotic.

    Some times you really see people try to understand, of let them make their point and that can be said it that they are an idiot.

    If you have followed me you will know my standpoint, so that is not it. You don't call people idiotic, at least try to explain them what should be idiotic. Avoid the word, if they were an idiot they wouldn't even be able to post.

     

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  31.  
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    Willton, May 2nd, 2009 @ 7:40pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    What you may see as being unsavory may be the proverbial 10% of the iceburg of research, information, data, and result of other social interactions or otherwise. The converse is also true: there's often an additional 90% that isn't brought into the conversation, discussion or the like.

    Perhaps this is offense you feel. Offense is often considered an emotion. I'm also pretty sure it's not written in the Bill of rights that you are granted life, liberty, freedom, and absolution from offense. So long as it remains that way, well, consider curing offense with a request for facts. Consider focusing on facts that aren't leading towards the character of the person.


    I'm not saying that Mike has to be cordial when he responds to posts that present a view contrary to his. He can be as offensive as he wants to his detractors. What I am saying, however, is that Mike is being disingenuous when he says that he wants to promote a conversation with each post after spending most of his time on this blog calling people "idiots" and their opinions "moronic" when they present contrary views.

    If Mike really wanted to engage in a conversation, then he wouldn't resort to name calling and would instead invite people to explain their points by saying things like "That doesn't make sense to me; please explain," or "Yeah, you're going to have to present more evidence if you're going to convince me." I can handle Mike's stubborn and acerbic nature just fine, but I'm sure that other people, including more learned people than me, would find him more appealing if he did not act like such a jerk.

     

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  32.  
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    Mike (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 7:48pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Man, you just can't admit when you're in the wrong, can you? Can't you understand that being an asshole to your readership does not encourage them to continue posting?

    I absolutely can and do admit when I am wrong. It happens plenty of times. I'm wrong quite often, and I have no problem admitting it. But I'm not going to apologize for calling an idiotic idea idiotic.

    Look, I engage in quite a friendly manner with people when they show up on the blog and want to discuss stuff. The only times I call ideas idiotic are when they insist on repeating things that have been debunked or proven wrong over and over again. It's a waste of time for people who know better to continue to state incorrect things.

    I don't call ideas idiotic the first time. But when you insist on repeating them over and over again, it's better to call them what they are and move on.

    Do you act like this when you're on a discussion panel? Do you outspokenly call the ideas of other panelists idiotic when you don't agree with them? If so, how many times have you been asked to return to such panels?

    I can't think of a panel discussion where there's been another one that I haven't been invited back to. So, obviously, some people have no problems with my behavior on panels.

     

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  33.  
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    Mike (profile), May 2nd, 2009 @ 7:54pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I'm not saying that Mike has to be cordial when he responds to posts that present a view contrary to his. He can be as offensive as he wants to his detractors. What I am saying, however, is that Mike is being disingenuous when he says that he wants to promote a conversation with each post after spending most of his time on this blog calling people "idiots" and their opinions "moronic" when they present contrary views.

    Willton, there are very few times that I call something idiotic, and it's only because it is. Encouraging conversation doesn't mean accepting idiotic ideas. It means dismissing them and moving on to more important discussions.

    It's a waste of time to have debunk the same nonsense once it's been debunked.

    If Mike really wanted to engage in a conversation, then he wouldn't resort to name calling and would instead invite people to explain their points by saying things like "That doesn't make sense to me; please explain," or "Yeah, you're going to have to present more evidence if you're going to convince me.

    That is, in fact, exactly what I do. It's only when people insist on making arguments that make no sense despite having been debunked that I start pushing them harder. And if they insist on sticking by unsupported ideas, and have no ability to support them, then perhaps it's okay to call them what they are.

    In the meantime, I find it amusing that you seem to think that encouraging conversation means encouraging idiotic ideas. I disagree.

    When people first arrive, if I disagree with them, I may challenge them to further explain their ideas. It's only when they have trouble doing so, and continue insisting things that aren't true are true that I may take offense. I have little time for people repeating stuff that doesn't further the conversation.

    For the most part, there are only a very small number of people who tend to do that. However, I see no point in lying to people for the sake of politeness. If someone says something idiotic, I may ask them to think it through more carefully, and if on second thought they stand by it and cannot defend it with evidence or reasoned thinking, then it's fair to call it idiotic and explain why it's idiotic.

     

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  34.  
    identicon
    Tgeigs, May 3rd, 2009 @ 3:52am

    The value of the discussion

    Mike, what do you think of the "roaming discussion", as in when a topic goes 180 degrees off course. I have mixed feeling myself, as I can see both the good and bad in it.

    There was a recent post on Craigslist, hookers, and stupid political grandstanding, and it ended up in a vehement debate on Science v. Religion, Darwin v. God. It was fun, mostly intelligent, informative, and cosmically off topic. As the "conversation starter", what impact does the roaming discussion have on the community, and is it in any way your "job" to reign the discussion back in? If so, please do so in a nun's habit w/a yardstick.

     

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  35.  
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    ChisB (profile), May 3rd, 2009 @ 6:32am

    Re: Excellent, informative and thought provoking article, Mike.

    I too will avoid sites that don't allow comments.

    As others have said, comments can get out of hand, off-topic, and rude. Mike hints at how you deal with it in the article above: crowd-source. Give commenters the ability to moderate the comments and the idiots who just like to hear themselves speak will be quieted down. If you can't say what you need to say in a few paragraphs, you haven't thought about it enough.

     

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  36.  
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    Jan Hopmans (profile), May 3rd, 2009 @ 6:33am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    But when you insist on repeating them over and over again, it's better to call them what they are and move on.
    Or you could try and find out why they can't see your point and debunk that.

     

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  37.  
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    Lonnie E. Holder, May 3rd, 2009 @ 10:36am

    Re: Re: Ed

    When you speak like a person exploring possibilities, or when you are introspective, you sound like someone I could readily respect.

    I like passion. Passion often makes us who we are. However, passion without intellect and direction is typically useless. You are a passionate person and you are always at your best when you engage your analytical gears and ponder successes and asking "what if...?" questions.

    Your responses to three posts in a row show my the analytical, pedantic Mike Masnick. Your readers are students (though some - perhaps myself included - style themselves as aspiring teachers). You have a chance to ask the right questions, propose alternatives, and ask others to think for themselves. You are at your best when you do that. Certainly, you will always appeal to those people who like to think through the questions and respond in depth when you are at your best.

    As for those people whose best response is that someone's post is stupid or dumb, perhaps they lack the skill to formulate their responses in a reasoned fashion. What better place to learn how to do so then here, when you place yourself in the role of a facilitator in the manner of Socratian school of thought.

     

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  38.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 3rd, 2009 @ 12:53pm

    Re: Re: Re: Ed

    Mr. Holder,

    How nice to see you once again. Hopefully your comment will be seen, as you no doubt intend, as something other than a rebuke of Mr. Masnick and his colleagues at techdirt. At its core the art of teaching depends in major part on mastering the art of listening, as well as a determined commitment to ensure that discussions comprise two people talking to, and not past, each other.

    Case in point...the constant use of the term "innovation" wherein two parties engage in spirited debate without realizing that each is using the term to signify a different thing. Techdirt principals appear to use the term to signify the continuum of the process from the formulation of an "idea" to the market introduction of a product and/or service. In contrast, others use the term in a much more limited manner to signify an "invention". In this latter use of the term the remainder of techdirt's definition is covered by terms such as "proof of principle, prototyping, productization, marketing, product support, etc." Personally, I much prefer the restricted definition because it has the salutory effect of breaking down techdirt's "innovation" process into its constituent elements, which in many instances is quite important in order for a thoughful discussion to transpire.

    Perhaps if more effort was made to understand the meaning ascribed to such terms a more enlighted and informative "conversation" would ensue, and the pejorative terms mentioned in the above comments would fall by the wayside.

     

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  39.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 3rd, 2009 @ 12:56pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Ed

    I just noticed I failed to insert the final portion of my comment, which is now reproduced below"

    "Regards,

    Mike Slonecker"

     

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  40.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 3rd, 2009 @ 5:54pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Ed

    Mike Slonecker:

    My comment was a compliment to Mike Masnick. This web site would be more interesting if he responded like that more often.

    Regarding your comment, I do understand there is a difference between innovation and invention. However, the actual, long-term, historical definition of invention is that it is an innovation. However, innovations are made up of more than inventions (which I also understand). However, Mike seems to think that inventions are not innovations, which is abhorrent to the definition of innovation.

     

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  41.  
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    Mike (profile), May 3rd, 2009 @ 6:41pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Or you could try and find out why they can't see your point and debunk that.


    True, true. But in most of the cases where the discussion gets to that level (and, let's face it, it's pretty rare), it's because someone has already had their ideas debunked, and rather than responding credibly, they sink into the ridiculous. It's a waste of time to keep trying to debunk in those situations.

     

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  42.  
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    Mike (profile), May 3rd, 2009 @ 6:46pm

    Re: Re: Re: Ed

    Your responses to three posts in a row show my the analytical, pedantic Mike Masnick. Your readers are students (though some - perhaps myself included - style themselves as aspiring teachers). You have a chance to ask the right questions, propose alternatives, and ask others to think for themselves. You are at your best when you do that. Certainly, you will always appeal to those people who like to think through the questions and respond in depth when you are at your best.

    Fair enough. I'm sorry about it. My responses to one of the individuals here in particular tend to resort to a more rude level because it was the level he had taken the discussion to. After being proven 100% incorrect on multiple occasions, this individual stopped signing his name to posts, and went into what can only be called "troll" mode, often posing ridiculous questions and scenarios designed solely to disrupt the conversation. He also started attacking and directly insulting both myself and many other commenters here.

    Unfortunately, I took the bait and responded in kind. I probably should have taken the higher road.

    In the future, perhaps, I will just start ignoring this individual, rather than engaging with him.

    Conversation is good, as I noted, but when someone is purposely trying to derail the conversation, it does no one any good.

     

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  43.  
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    Lonnie E. Holder, May 3rd, 2009 @ 7:39pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Ed

    Mike Slonecker...

    The post just above is from me...I forgot to type my name.

    Lonnie

     

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  44.  
    identicon
    Lonnie E. Holder, May 3rd, 2009 @ 7:42pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Ed

    Mike M.:

    In fairness, I get sucked in as well. Sad, but human. I wish I could keep emotion out, but that is difficult, particularly when I am passionate as well. I am truly not Spock.

     

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  45.  
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    Luci, May 3rd, 2009 @ 9:42pm

    Re: Re: Moronic, stupid, ignorant

    And these sorts of sites are the ones that a lot of people will ignore. Why should we pay to say our piece? Sort of misses the point of 'conversation,' doesn't it?

     

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  46.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 3rd, 2009 @ 11:35pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Ed

    Don't let them get you down. It could be a lot worse. Nonetheless, this was an interesting thread. One would think that more people would be engaged in an such a forum with such an interesting topic.

    I think I speak for many of the people that pass through here that when we visit other blogs, most of the comments don't pertain to the subject at hand and often have an incredibly high derailment factor to them. These sites are far and few between. It seems that TechDirt, like WaPO does a great job in this area of "Community Maintenance" (if that's what we should label it) and the article authors will often manage their little group to ask additional questions or the like.

    As you may recall, Mike Arrington recently called it quits, but after a week, he came back. The few times I've tried to engage Arrington wasn't as interesting as The Maz often does here. An interesting observation between Maz, WaPO, and Arrington is that is that Maz and WaPo aren't afraid to get in the mud and ask additional questions to test the concept at hand. I think this has an effect on the quality of commentary at TechDirt and WaPO's site.

    All too often, it seems that news organizations want to get a community going, add commentary, but for the wrong reasons. As such, they often decide to outsource the community aspect to 3rd parties such as Pluck. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but by merely adding community functions doesn't create a community unless there's some skin in the game.

    I've come to respect the Silicon Valley sites the most as most have the capabilities to accomplish this in house. A real community can't be built based on terms of service, disclaimers, or report this as abuse buttons, as many people try to clam as some sort of panacea. Silicon Valley companies decided not to outsource the community aspect and bring it in-house tend to have better conversations.

    I imagine the ones who keep coming back here and go into "Troll Mode" probably get something they don't get elsewhere at those outsourced sites. Perhaps you listen Mike, perhaps as a little group, we all listen a little more. The signal to noise ratio is going to be a little higher at the places that are more controlled, and you've somewhat instrumental in that.

    As long as someone is going to talk (write), someone will listen (read). But who is going to find anything of value, or even a single solitary commenter within a group of people they can identify with on one level or another on a Fox News article that Matt Drudge decided to link to?

    Quantity is not quality. To get quality you need to Moderate. Good Job, Mike.

    http://www.mentalfloss.com/quiz/quiz.php?q=623

     

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  47.  
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    Ilfar, May 4th, 2009 @ 4:32am

    Similarity?

    I find I learn a lot more from this site. I can not only read the posts, but the comments go on to add further depth to the subject. This is pretty much the only news site I bother to read for that reason.

     

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  48.  
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    george, May 4th, 2009 @ 9:46am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "Do you act like this when you're on a discussion panel? Do you outspokenly call the ideas of other panelists idiotic when you don't agree with them? If so, how many times have you been asked to return to such panels? I can't think of a panel discussion where there's been another one that I haven't been invited back to. So, obviously, some people have no problems with my behavior on panels." dodged the question there Mike. The question was to the nature of your behavior on discussion panels and if it mimicked your behavior in this forum. If it was similar (i.e. you called people idiots) then the question was whether or not you were invited back.

     

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  49.  
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    Mike (profile), May 4th, 2009 @ 2:16pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    The question was to the nature of your behavior on discussion panels and if it mimicked your behavior in this forum. If it was similar (i.e. you called people idiots) then the question was whether or not you were invited back.

    Uh, let's be clear. I have never called anyone an idiot. I have called an idea they have put forth idiotic, after said idea was debunked and then they still stand by it without providing any data or evidence to back it up. And I only do so rarely.

    And, yes, I have also done that on panels. And, no, it's never been a problem.

    But mostly that's because it's clear in the context, and no one tries to twist it into me calling someone an idiot unprovoked. I don't do that. Here or on panels.

     

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  50.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 5th, 2009 @ 12:11am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    You should have seen this question was answered.

    What do you bring to the conversation?

     

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  51.  
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    annette, Mar 3rd, 2010 @ 12:37pm

    dropping mindless thinking reguarding smart anything and shuting up cave in to myself ask for no nothing just laughs

     

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