If Your Comment Section Is Awesome, It's Your Community's Fault

from the chaos-theory-at-work dept

Meek Barbarian informed us that veteran blogger Anil Dash wrote a piece recently discussing websites having open and anonymous commenting on their sites. I'll preface this with a quick anecdote. I discovered Techdirt some three years back when my boss informed me that, as a technology consultant, it would be useful to follow a couple of technology related blogs to keep up on what is occurring in the industry. I came across Techdirt, found an article I was interested in, and dove in. I was immediately drawn in by the comments section and the community. There were anonymous cowards bravely trolling the threads. There were other anonymous cowards offering up valuable statistics, links, and points of view. There were folks using funny names and cartoon pictures as their avatars, while others used what were apparently their real names and real pictures. Even the author of the article was diving into the comments and responding to some.

I saw information. I saw jokes. I saw supporting views and dissenting opinions. I saw trolls, academics, lawyers, techs, etc. etc. etc. It was true chaos theory at work, with the article setting up a comments section sensitive to the conditions discussed but open to the topological mixing of the wide open world. More than anything else, I think I was most amazed at how this tumultuous soup of free communication provided surprising and useful information, laughter, and references. I was hooked. This was the place for me to offer my view on stories I cared about, read responses from others, get opposing views, and most of all, make more phallic-related jokes than an Adam Carolla on meth.

So that was the background I brought when I read Anil's piece, which he conservatively and open-mindedly titled, "If Your Website's Full Of Assholes, It's Your Fault." Let's dive in:
"The examples are already part of pop culture mythology: We can post a harmless video of a child's birthday party and be treated to profoundly racist non-sequiturs in the comments. We can read about a minor local traffic accident on a newspaper's website and see vicious personal attacks on the parties involved. A popular blog can write about harmless topics like real estate, restaurants or sports and see dozens of vitriolic, hate-filled spewings within just a few hours."
I'll thank Anil here, because we immediately get to my baseline issue with this viewpoint. I read all of the above, hear all about how rudeboy knuckle-draggers will show up on the most innocuous article and scream racist nonsense, spout uninformed conspiracy theories, and call you the kind of names that would make Sam Kinison do that screaming thing he did, and all I can think to myself is so what? Words don't hurt unless you let them. I, as someone with an Irish background, can be called a dumb potato-farming mick, and I can ignore it. More importantly, the idiot that calls me that loses all credibility in the formed community. Even if he's anonymous, all such behavior does is provide a reason for the community to couch their faith in comments provided by ACs in skepticism. The community provides a reason to identify yourself, in the hopes that you'll be taken more seriously. In other words, from the chaos emerges order. And not an unnatural kind of order provided by head-in-the-sand policing and moderation. Assholes exist, both online and in real life. So what?

In any case, Anil prescribes us his wisdom-medication on how everyone should run their website:
"You should have real humans dedicated to monitoring and responding to your community."
I happen to agree. As does Techdirt, actually. You know who is dedicated to monitoring and responding to our community? Our community! As long as we aren't working from a supposition of "words can hurt," we see our community policing itself just fine. Trolls get called trolls, true. But I've seen dissenters stick up for Techdirt supporters. I've seen Techdirt contributors and those with like-minds stick up for dissenters and their opinions (I know this one in particular, because I make a point to do this, though I'm not the only one). ACs have a tougher road in the realm of credibility because of the way the community polices itself. Those with accounts and names have a tougher road because we have a comment history we have to own up to. It's as simplistic as it is beautiful. And it's all emergent behavior, meaning it's natural and not forced or faked. That's what open comments do: they create fertile ground for emerged behavior. And it's amazing how productive that is.
"You should have community policies about what is and isn't acceptable behavior."
Bullshit. And here's why: one man's asshole is another man's prophet. Who am I, or Mike, or anyone else to say what is acceptable and what isn't? Are there things that most can agree suck? Sure. Racism is just plain stupid and ignorant. What does a policy against racism do? Really? "Don't be racist, Techdirt community." Did I just end racism? Did I somehow change the minds of anyone who would read a racist comment and think of it as anything other than pure stupidity to be rebuked or ignored? No, I didn't. So why bother? Remember, words don't have any power unless we give it to them.
"Your site should have accountable identities."
No, it shouldn't. It should certainly offer that option. But I've seen value from both sides of the debate on this site coming from Anonymous Cowards. And I know that some of the folks that contribute anonymously here do so because they're afraid of real repercussions in having their names associated with their words. Does that make their words any less valuable? No, it doesn't. And would making some racist, trolling, or ignorant jackwad sign in with a name make his/her words any different? No, it wouldn't. So why bother with this at all? What's the upside?
"You should have the technology to easily identify and stop bad behaviors."
Again, unless it's just flatout illegal or automated annoyance, what's the point of this? I think we can all agree that a relatively intelligent spam filtering system makes sense, but that isn't the kind of "bad behavior" Anil appears to be discussing. He's talking about controversial speech. Who is getting hurt when someone exhibits "bad behavior"? And how do you define that? If the site is community driven, shouldn't they be the ones to decide what is "bad behavior" and respond accordingly?
"You should make a budget that supports having a good community, or you should find another line of work."
It isn't a matter of cost, it's a matter of reason. What's the point? You're killing off all the good you get from the anonymous and semi-anonymous chaos, and what are you getting in return? People don't have to hear certain words that make them itchy?

I apologize for repeating myself, but I can't say this enough: words do not hurt. They never do. When someone says something designed to inflict pain, you get to choose how to react and respond. If an anonymous coward calls me an idiot and my response is, "Nice argument there, captain logic", then what has that person accomplished? I'm not hurt, they've put themselves on display being a jerk, and the community at large will react accordingly.

Don't lock down your comments. Don't kill off anonymity. Don't pretend the trolls and jerks don't exist. Do the opposite. Open it all up and trust in your community to be smart enough to react accordingly. I know that's largely what occurs here at Techdirt and elsewhere.

And I can't tell you how thankful I am for it and for everyone here, from those that generally agree with us to those that don't. You're welcome here. Forever and always.

Filed Under: anonymity, community, enforcement, speech

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jul 2011 @ 12:27pm

    Maybe for some sites

    You make some good points. But there are certainly places on the Web where more control over users might be desired. For example, I've got a chess website up in the other window. There's very little reason why someone on that site would need to remain anonymous or post anything rude.

    When I go to TechDirt, I can be pretty sure I'll read at least one thing that gets my blood up, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But when I go to play a game, I'm looking to relax. I see nothing wrong with some enforcement of the forums designed for the enjoyment of everyone on the site.

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