Burt Likko is unhappy with the response of several commenters on a recent (now withdrawn) post on Ordinary Times. Among other issues, Likko laments,
Toxins brew in our comments threads — seemingly forgotten is the principle of charitable interpretation, commenters labor to frame others’ statements in the worst possible light, and then demonstrate smug self-satisfaction in having done so.Likko wishes,
This site ought to be the online equivalent of a dinner party amongst interesting friends. A college bull session, fueled by beer and fellowship and the thrill of sharing newly-learnt things. A re-creation of a symposium from classical times, where we fill each other’s wine glasses even while we debate. An environment where a multiplicity of different ideas are aired, heard, discussed, and shared. A place where people can engage in intellectual explorations, learn about new things, and try on new and different thoughts for size. For quite a while, and when the community is at its best, that’s a thrilling and exciting sort of place to be, a joyous bazaar of the mind where all manner of wares may be found on display.
I spent a few years as a contributor, moderator, and administrator of the now defunct Internet Infidels Discussion Board, as a contributor to the Straight Dope Message Board, and of course, I have this blog, so I know exactly what Likko is talking about. I've also had experience a college instructor, especially in political science. Likko wants, I think, something close to the environment I have to create in my classroom.
I could talk about rules and regulations, procedures, standards, but that's not the point. The point is to understand the attitudes and purposes of people who comment on the internet, and act to reconcile those attitudes with the desires of the publisher.
It seems too obvious, but the vibe of a dinner party between interesting friends presumes that the participants are already, you know, friends. I give my actual friends much more benefit of the doubt than I give to strangers or acquaintances. If one of my friends says something apparently dumb, I'm inclined to at least think for a moment. And even if my friend really does say something dumb, I also have an investment in the relationship, so I'll try to gently persuade them, or at least just ignore it and maintain the relationship. In contrast, if a stranger says something dumb, then I usually just write them off. There are a lot of people in the world, and I don't have time to dig into everyone's mindset to determine if they really are smart despite appearing dumb.
Second, people really really really want to be heard, and for some people, internet comments are the only way they think they can be heard. Also, everyone thinks they're right about everything (if they didn't, they would have already changed their mind), and they view contrary opinions as something wrong in need of correction. It takes enormous personal discipline to view even the best contrary opinions with charity, and even more discipline — and usually an alternative creative outlet, as I have here — to simply disengage with the worst.
The closest I've come to participating in and creating a collegiate environment among people who are not already friends is, well, in college. The college environment depends on both the ethics and substantial authority of the instructor. The instructor has not only power over the class discussion, but power over the students in assignment of grades. Furthermore, the scope and limitations of the instructors' power is pretty consistent across any student's experience, so they develop internal habits of what they can and cannot say, and how they can and cannot say it. When they come into my classroom, they already know their role and my own in the process.
A site like Ordinary Times has neither of these features. The commenters are not all friends with each other, they often have not developed or do not exercise the discipline to be charitable or silent (and why should they? I'm not making any universal normative claims for this kind of discipline), and the moderators of a site have little actual power over the commenters. Moderators can edit or delete comments or ban commenters, but that's the extent of their power; unlike instructors, moderators do not have something that the commenters desperately want and have paid a lot of money for.
I think for blogs and websites, there is no middle ground. Either you go the old PZ Myers route* and allow pretty much all comments besides spam and harassment, or you go my route and pretty much eliminate comments**. You can make all the rules you want, but people want to have their say, and they always believe they themselves are being perfectly reasonable and polite; it's the other guy who's being an asshole... and sheesh! do they get pissed off when the moderator disagrees.
If you want a friendly, collegiate environment, I don't think there's anything to do but hang out with your friends or go to college.
*I have no idea if Myers still has this commenting policy. I stopped even reading his comments a long time ago.
**I still permit comments, but I am deliberately rude to people I don't like, so they will leave, and I ban them quickly if they persist. I get very few comments, especially compared to the early days of my blog, which suits me just fine.