CATEGORY: ScholarsAndRogues

S&R makes major change to commenting policy

CATEGORY: ScholarsAndRoguesOnce upon a time I could be counted on to say something like “the comment thread is often the most important part of a blog post.” When you have an intelligent community of good-faith readers and commenters, the initial post need not be fully baked and comprehensive – it can instead be treated as a conversation-starter, a jumping-off point for something larger and organic. I have learned a great deal in comment threads, and I imagine many of our readers have, as well.

I not only participate in comment threads here at S&R, I have been aggressive in counseling my former employers and business clients with blogs to keep the comment section as open and free as possible because such a policy promotes clear, productive communications between the company and its customers. (It also serves an important canary-in-the-coalmine function – if you let your customers say what they want, a lot of times you’ll glean useful information and you’ll frequently get a clue of impending problems before you would through conventional channels.) In sum, comments good.

Lately my belief in the value of the comments sections has waned, and I’m not alone. Nearly everyone on the S&R staff feels some level of frustration at how unproductive our comment threads have been lately, and many other online publishers are encountering the same issues. How to respond? Some sites, including Xark, Dan Conover and Zen Habits, have gone so far as to completely shut comments off. (Some big names, including Seth Godin, The Dish, John Hawks and Talking Points Memo, never enabled comments in the first place.)

Fueling our individual and anecdotal suspicions that the train has jumped the tracks is a new study suggesting that the modern-day comment thread can actually damage the perceived credibility of the original post.

In an experiment mentioned in the Science paper and soon to be published elsewhere in greater detail, about 2,000 people were asked to read a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments. All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.

“Disturbingly, readers’ interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story,” wrote authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele.

“In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself.”

Researchers found that even knowledge of science did not seem to mediate the effects of the comments.

These findings are specifically concerned with scientific conversations, but I suspect a similar dynamic plays out around nearly any kind of expertise-oriented post. I know what I see in comment threads these days often follows the path suggested by the study, regardless of the topic.

Why Have Comment Threads Deteriorated?

So, once upon a time comment threads were great and now they’ve gone to hell. What has happened? I described what I called “Thinkworld vs. Shoutworld” for an op-ed in Editor & Publisher back in 2004, and I suspect what Brossard and Scheufele are finding is eight years of further deterioration around a couple of predictable variables.

First, the rise of social media is siphoning off discussions. There have been a number of times where an S&R post has spurred lengthy and lively comment threads…somewhere else. Like at Reddit or Current or, of course, Facebook. Perhaps the reason here is simple: blogs and online publications like Scholars & Rogues are perceived as “public” space. Anyone can wander in and say whatever.

Your social networks are controlled by you, however. If you want to discuss something we have written, you can port it over to FB and do so with your own circle of trusted friends. You have constructed those networks in a way that suits you – if you don’t like flaming and shouting, you have unfriended the people who are prone to that kind of behavior. Beyond that, these people are “friends,” not strangers. While you may not know them very well all the time, there exists a social contract between you.

Second, what’s left once the nice people are gone? We have known since the ’90s that online conversations can quickly get nasty. Online forums are impersonal and seem to foster appalling behavior of the sort we’d never exhibit in person. There have been any number of times when participants in online groups have hidden behind anonymity and said things to me that they wouldn’t say to my face, and if you have spent more than ten minutes online you have seen this happen. It has probably happened to you. Perhaps you have been the one exhibiting the anti-social behavior yourself, and if so, you may well have felt embarrassed later as you reflected on your actions and words.

The Internet also tends to be a very “male” environment – that is, it favors those who speak loudly and aggressively. Women have never participated as much as we’d like because many of them, if I might generalize a tad, don’t like being bullied by testosterone-soaked jerks. Further, loud debates are frequently not thoughtful ones, which has the effect of driving off a lot of smart folks, most of whom have better things to do than trade insults with people who are more reliant on attitude than intellect.

In other words, over time online environments self-select for the worst elements: the loud, the belligerent, the less informed, those with agendas and firmly closed minds. In other words, says Bora Zivkovic at Scientific American…

But there is another problem here – most of the good, nice, constructive commenters may have gone silent and taken their discussions of your blog elsewhere, but the remaining few commenters are essentially trolls.

This isn’t always the case, of course. We’ve been fortunate here at S&R to host some fantastic comment threads. Lisa Barnard’s recent online dating post, for instance, spurred a genuinely friendly response, and we heard from dozens of people who shared their own experiences in ways that reminded us all of what a comment section ought to be like.

What Can Be Done?

The staff has kicked the comments question around a good bit. We’ve discussed the good and the bad, we’ve offered up a variety of proposals (ranging from “leave it alone” to “kill them entirely”). In the end, we decided that as badly as we want to rid ourselves of the ignoramuses, the jackasses and the trolls, we don’t want to sacrifice those moments where our readers can be genuinely enlightened by smart input from other readers (nor do we want to deprive our thoughtful followers of the chance to engage in public discussions that interest them).

After some discussion, we think we’ve hit on a better model given the current environment: the old newspaper “letters to the editor” section. Our new policy, which is effective immediately, will operate like a cross between that and what we have now.

The New S&R Comment Policy

The comment section will remain at the bottom of each post, and we will encourage readers to craft thoughtful responses to what they’re seeing. Unlike a regular comment thread, which posts the comment unless it’s objectionable, our new approach will reverse the presumption: we will not post a comment unless we feel it legitimately furthers the conversation. This doesn’t mean we’ll require a fully sourced and cited thesis, but it does mean that we need to see evidence of thought and/or insight.

It also means that we won’t be green-lighting any of the “me, too” comments you find on most blogs. If your response is essentially “hey, I like this,” then please hit the “Like” button at the top of the page (and even better, click the links at the bottom of the post, which make it easy for you to share the article with your social networks).

We don’t want our new policy to come off as too intimidating. We do want to set the bar higher, though. If you read the site regularly, it’s obvious how much effort our writers put into S&R, and we can no longer abide those cases where our hard work is undermined by commenters who aren’t advancing the conversation or who are deliberately sabotaging it for their own narrow, cynical ends.

It goes without saying that hateful, ad hominem, substance-free submissions will be deleted and repeat offenders will be banned.

Announcing a new policy: I'm going to slap you in the lips.

I had a small disagreement with a hotel yesterday.

I had booked for three nights, but a change of plans required me to cut the trip short and come home a day early. As the clerk was processing the change, she said that she’d be refunding the third night, minus a “15% administrative fee.” Now, I know that changes like this don’t manage themselves magically, and I understand that I was inconveniencing them a tad, so I didn’t put up a fight. However, I won’t be back. Continue reading

Nota Bene #122: OWStanding

“When I lie on the beach there naked, which I do sometimes, and I feel the wind coming over me and I see the stars up above and I am looking into this very deep, indescribable night, it is something that escapes my vocabulary to describe. Then I think: ‘God, I have no importance. Whatever I do or don’t do, or what anybody does, is not more important than the grains of sand that I am lying on, or the coconut that I am using for my pillow.’” Who said it? Continue reading

If a news story claims knowlege of public opinion, test the claim

When a news story claims certainty in expressing public opinion — or uses sources that claim such — readers should be wary.

Such is the case with a Friday NPR story that commingled analysis, reporting, and commentary (without a commentary label) about the impact of “tough economic news” on President Obama’s re-election prospects.

Some phrasing in the 1,081-word story represents guessing or labeling instead of reporting: seems, perhaps, hardly has a pulse, appears, near certainty, dismal harbinger, liberal wing, political environment, seems a distant memory, progressive community, recent experiences, some in his own party (tell us who, please), and a pervasive view.

But it is proclamations of knowledge of public opinion that irritate most.
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The painted kipper (pt. 5): an end note

Part 5 in a series.

In a piece about the American cult writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide on September 12, 2008, James Ryerson writes: Continue reading

What would a progressive society look like? The Tricentennial Manifesto

The Tricentennial ManifestoOne of my lists is currently engaged in a fairly dynamic discussion about “what is a progressive?”

In thinking about the issue, I realized that it might help to ask the question a slightly different way: what would a progressive society look like? Maybe I can better understand what it means to be progressive in 2010 if I reverse-engineer the definition from a vision of the future where things work the way they ought to.

I have argued that the success of the progressive movement hinges on seriously long-term thinking. It’s not about the 2012 elections or the 2016 elections or even the 2020 elections – those fights are about the battle, not the war.

Instead, if we do things properly, if we concentrate on and win the war, what does America look like on our Tricentennial? The following 40 articles suggest some ideas. Continue reading

Keep the Voodoo and the economics separate, please

From the Scholars & Rogues White House Desk

“The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world. Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough.” – Masdar Mas’udi, deputy chairman of Indonesia’s largest Islamic group

So all you have to do is solve the Middle East crisis, Mr. President. Make the Jews, Muslims, and Christians put aside the crusades, victory mosques and well poisoning, and start getting along. Mr. Obama is in Indonesia right now, the world’s largest Muslim (86%) democracy. His trip will be cut short because the volcano is menacing. Maybe it’s the left over jinx from George Bush’s 2006 visit, when an Indonesian mystic named Ki Gendeng Pamungkas slit the throats of a black crow, a snake, and a goat, and then drank a potion made with the blood. Continue reading

Peering into the Housing Abyss

The New York Times had an interesting article yesterday about the unpleasant prospect facing the Obama administration on housing. The specific problem is that the administration is pretty much out of policy options on housing, which continues to drag. Well, “drag” is perhaps an understatement—July new home sales were 26% below those of July 2009, and, as Bloomberg points out, pending home sales in July were down 19% over the same period. The same Bloomberg article points out that, on average, median home prices are down 26% from July 2006. The market isn’t picking up, and it’s not clear what else the Obama administration can do about it. Given that two-thirds of Americans own homes, and that homes represent some 80% of Americans’ wealth, this remains a pretty big deal as the economy continues to sputter along as the stimulus efforts fade, and as unemployment hovers around 10%, in part from the horrible state of the homebuilding industry.

The Times article discusses one possible, but thus far pretty unwelcome, policy option—just let home prices collapse further. Get it over with. Continue reading

Bring Back the Draft–the All-Volunteer Military Should be Retired

The United States gave up universal conscription in 1973. The Draft, as we all knew it, had been in effect since 1948, when President Truman and Congress re-introduced it. It was the main source of troops during the Vietnam conflict, which also ended up killing it. But I’ve always believed the main problem with the draft was the Vietnam War itself, not the principle. And this is true even though I was drafted as potential fodder for that colossal waste of people and resources. And I believe it’s time to bring the draft back—and it’s not just for reasons of giving young men and women something to do in economic hard times, although that’s a side benefit. The US military should not be a social engineering project, although it becomes one occasionally as a by-product of more direct concerns. In any event, there are more compelling arguments for bringing back the draft, arguments that I think go to the heart of whether America will survive as one nation, or will continue to fracture along the seismic fault lines that are becoming all too evident. We need to get rid of the all-volunteer army.
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SB 1070 Implementation Day: a view from the front lines in Arizona

by Pollyanna Sunshine

In her Tuesday column in the Arizona Republic website, columnist Laurie Roberts noted that

We are now less than 48 hours until Senate Bill 1070 becomes the law of the state – unless, of course, Judge Susan Bolton nixes the whole thing. . . Already, the barricades are up at the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse . . .  Busloads of folks will be coming in from California to join with Arizona opponents of the new law.

[Ed. Note: Judge Bolton issued an injunction against key portions of the law this afternoon.]

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious immigrant-hater who has for many years been violating the civil and human rights of  citizens and non-citizens alike, has just drawn his own line in the sand.

Thousands of people will reportedly descend upon Maricopa County this week in support of or in protest to SB1070.  Continue reading

WordsDay: Merchants of Doubt

What do the following things all have in common: tobacco safety and the dangers of secondhand smoke, the Strategic Defense Initiative, acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming, and the recent attacks on Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring)? According to the new book by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt, they were all manipulated by a very small group of once well respected scientists whose radical free-market and anti-communist ideologies corrupted them to the point of attacking scientists, scientific organizations, and ultimately the process of science itself.

Merchants of Doubt focuses on seven different areas that are presented roughly how they’ve occurred chronologically, starting with the safety of tobacco in the 1950s, proceeding through nuclear war and the misguided defense of SDI, the opposition to regulation of both acid rain and CFCs, and finishing up with the recent attacks on global warming and attempts at historical revisionism with respect to Rachel Carson and the regulation of DDT. But through all of these areas, the main cast of characters barely changes, the methods used to attack scientific conclusions remain remarkably consistent, and the goals of the attacks become clearer and clearer. Continue reading

So how’s that coalition thingamajig workin’ out for ya, Britain?

Well, we’ve had, let’s see, a month of the now-old-hat Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, and the sky hasn’t fallen yet. I guess it still might, but then again, it might snow in London today too. The odds are probably similar. To date, I would have to say it’s been a bit smoother than most prognosticators thought it would be, somewhat to the dismay of the Tory right and the Lib Dem left. Now, personally, I would also have to say that I would put myself on the Lib Dem left end of things. But I’m not particularly unhappy. This is, I suspect, because (1) both Cameron and Clegg are turning out to be much smarter than anyone gave them credit for, and (2) while I expect I’ll be unhappy with some aspects of the final product, they pretty much seem to be doing the right things, and in the right order

Like what? Well, for a starter, rolling back some of the more egregious Labour violations of civil liberties, both potential and actual, including national id cards. Making some sensible environmental decisions, like cancelling the third Heathrow runway (BAA has also cancelled the Stanstead third runway proposal as well.) Pretty aggressively moving on a proposal that would dramatically change the composition of Parliament, and how MPs are elected, if passed and approved by the voters. Reducing some of the extraordinarily bloated government departments stocked by Labour when in power. Getting rid of a bunch of probably useless Quangos. And most importantly, trying to get to grips with the burgeoning UK deficit.
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Louisiana's Vitter again screwing around with hypocrisy

Y’all remember my good friend Sen. David Vitter, he of the errant penis. You remember the Louisiana senator who described himself as “a conservative who opposes radically redefining marriage, the most important social institution in human history.” And you’ll remember that “his phone number was among those on a list of client numbers kept by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called D.C. Madam, who is accused of running a prostitution ring in Washington,” sayeth The New York Times.

But what you may not remember is I twice encouraged S&R readers (here and here) to forget Vitter’s penis and follow his money. As I wrote two years ago, “Sen. Vitter’s ‘serious sin’ has nothing to do with sex. It’s the sin far too many senators and members of Congress seem to commit with corporate abandon: ‘Give me money to get elected and I’ll make sure you go to the head of the line for federal cash.’”

Vitter is a fixer. He gets campaign contributions, particularly from Louisiana construction and defense contractors, and, lo and behold, those donors get money from the feds.

Now he’s back in the hot water, this time over donations from … a dry cleaning firm?
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Another nail in the coffin of the Chicago School; an unsolicited review of Barry Lynn's Cornered

Way back in 2002, we were visiting the US for Thanksgiving, and it was an extraordinarily depressing time. We couldn’t turn on the television, because all you got there was the non-stop and relentless drumbeat of COUNTDOWN TO IRAQ or some such, and it was really bumming me out. I distinctly remember thinking, “I want to go home,” and that was something of an epiphany.

So Mrs W, in an attempt to cheer me up, said “Hey, Elliott Spitzer is going to be in town at the Kennedy Library.” And, sure enough, he was, as part of a panel discussion on corporations and social responsibility. The line-up looked a lot more impressive than it turned out to be—Spitzer, who had just gone after Wall Street in no uncertain terms, and won; William Donaldson, who had just been appointed to head the SEC the previous week (and therefore had to decline); some muckamuck at Starbucks, and a former Kennedy aide muckamuck at Nike (or maybe the reverse—I can’t remember); and some blowhard named Elizabeth Ross Kanter from Harvard Business School. Continue reading

When Jesus Attacks! Why don't we care that the Catholic Church is officially whipping Congress?

Part 2 of 2. (Read part 1…)

It’s Time to Separate Church and State, Once and for All

If you recall, anti-Catholic prejudice was once a problem for Catholic politicians in the US. John F. Kennedy went so far as to address the issue head-on in his 1960 campaign – probably because he didn’t feel he had much choice. Here’s what he told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12 of that year:

I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me.

He went on to assert his respect for the separation of church and state and vowed that Catholic officials would not dictate policy to him. As noted in part 1, the times, they have a-changed. Continue reading

Jesus Gone Wild! It's time to separate church and state, once and for all

Part 1 of 2.

I tripped across a provocative headline in the Wall Street Journal the other day: “They Need to be Liberated from Their God.” Turns out the story was about Mosab Hassan Yousef and his spying on Hamas. Which was a little disappointing. There’s no doubt that Palestinian Muslims need to be liberated from their god, but given the recent explosion in documented attacks by US Christians on their fellow Americans (as well as on reason and basic common sense), I thought perhaps the WSJ was going to be the first mainstream “news” outlet to do a story on Jesus Gone Wild!

I keep a running tab of stories that strike my interest. Continue reading

Nota Bene #107: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #104: Large Marge Sent Me

“Everything is changing. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.” Who said it? Continue reading

Exclusive: How corporations secretly move millions to fund political ads

by Brad Jacobson

“It’s unclear whether the Court was being naive or disingenuous.” – Paul S. Ryan, an attorney and expert in federal election law at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., on the Supreme Court’s touting of disclosure provisions during its decision last month in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

My latest article for Raw Story:

The Supreme Court’s seismic January ruling that corporations are free to spend unlimited amounts of their profits to advertise for or against candidates may have been the latest shakeup of campaign finance – but gaping holes already allow corporations to spend enormous sums without leaving a paper trail, a Raw Story investigation has found.

Campaign finance experts confirmed that though disclosure rules remained intact in the new Supreme Court decision, there are effective methods to circumvent them.

READ THE REST…