Taking your pulse…What makes a good discussion?By: Andrew S
Hello once again, dear readers of Wheat & Tares…We’ve taken pulses twice before now, and now makes three…the issues I’d like to discuss today is blog commenting, discussion, and community. Or, to put it in a different way…
Mirror, mirror — you-know-who — who’s the fairest commenter in your view?
But before we get to that part of the post, I’d like to share my experiences.
A Brief Personal History of Online Forums
Over my internet-surfing life, I’ve been involved with several different communities. The first message boards and discussion boards I was involved with were the ones at GameFAQs.com. After all, I was already at the site looking for frequently-asked-questions and walkthroughs (sure beat buying actual game guides!) so moving to the forums was only natural. While most of the boards were devoted to particular games (a forum for each game, in fact), there were social forums as well for discussion on, well, anything else.
Eventually, I migrated from GameFAQs to a private, secret (…or was it sacred) spinoff forum that doesn’t exist. I can’t say I’m too proud of it now, but since joining that site on August 2, 2005, I’ve wasted 11,214 hours there. (Yes, the site *does* have a statistic for “hours wasted”.)
The reason that this spinoff site existed was because of many reasons, but one reason in particular was that the creator of the site and the earliest users of that site were protesting against what they felt was the heavy-handed moderation of the GameFAQs mods. So, in contrast, this new spinoff site had very lax moderation: basically, anything went.
For many years, this was fine by me. As I grew older and wanted to discuss more serious topics, however, I realized the inadequacy of that site’s model. It wasn’t just the lack of moderation…rather it was the lack of moderation combined with a culture that pushed people to exploit the lack of moderation. While that’s fun in some cases, at some point, you simply get tired of people trolling, insulting, or derailing threads without warning.
The SomethingAwful forums, rather unlike its name would suggested, had many moderators who weren’t (and aren’t) afraid to suspend or ban members to keep discussions good. In fact, SA has a continuously updated list of users who are put on probation or who are banned with the reasons they were banned…and when reading the forum, posts that lead to probation are marked as such. Before joining, I read several horror stories of people spending $9.95 for a SomethingAwful account, being banned within hours of buying, and then having to pay the money all over again. An idea that many posters provided as advice to new members: lurk, lurk, lurk. Only post after having lurked for months.
To this day, I have not actually made a single post or created a single thread there.
Heavy moderation had one nice effect — it made it possible for really engaging discussions to take place without threat of derail or disruption (or, in my case, it made for really great threads just to read). But I always personally feared to post because I was worried about being banned or put on probation.
Even more recently, I had begun reading MetaFilter. It was easy getting into the best of the web, because it’s free to read MetaFilter…it only costs to comment or gain the ability to post front-page posts. MetaFilter, like SomethingAwful, has consistently thoughtful, intelligent discussions on seemingly any issue (really: any subject that gets a front-page post will draw subject matter experts from out of the wood-work.)
…and yet, there are some issues that don’t go over as well as could be. When religion is discussed, the discussion tends to slant in a secular atheistic way, which is fine by itself, but I can often tell the very thoughtful, conservative religious commenters are 1) outnumbered and 2) not always taken as seriously as they could be.
…yet, for all of those problems, MetaFilter is loads better than other communities I could mention: take Reddit, for example. Although this post addresses Reddit’s problems with sexism from an atheist community perspective, the things written within are true of Reddit in general. Or, to synthesize some of the other sites I’ve mentioned, at MetaFilter you can read a great post summarizing Reddit’s escapades with child porn and jailbait and the fact that it took an organized SomethingAwful movement (To Catch a Redditor) to use the collective force of the internet to get these subreddit forums shut down.
I don’t know about you, but the way that has turned out says a lot to me about the different communities at play.
…What does this say for any of us here?
Obviously, here on our Mormon interwebs, we don’t have some of the drama that, say, reddit has. (Thank goodness; that’s absolutely MESSED UP stuff.) But we can see that, around the bloggernacle, different sites develop different communities…there are different atmospheres to posting at different blogs.
Much as with the difference between the ban-trigger-happy SomethingAwful and the apparently more lax Reddit, there are differences around the bloggernacle as far as who gets suspended or banned. But even more than the official moderation policies of a site, the quality of discussion is molded by the spirit of the community.
Wheat & Tares isn’t going to start charging people membership fee, and we certainly then aren’t going to start banning to enforce more thoughtfulness through fear. In fact, our moderation policy has been to be as hands-off as humanly possible, especially because we recognize that we have often been seen as outsiders, especially in contexts relating to the church, so we know how bad it feels to be shunned, to be banned simply for saying something. We understand too how it feels to be outside of a clique, so that even when we have tried to engage in conversation, we have been thoroughly ignored.
So, our policy has been (and still is) not to moderate or suspend for content (unless it is gratuitously offensive…which we haven’t seen all that often, fortunately.) And on a personal level, when I have a post, I try to engage with every commenter, just so that they know their comment has been read and acknowledged. The only exceptions (which end up mattering): I also know of sites where all people do is say, “Great post!”, “Thanks for this!” “I agree!” for comments upon comments…I’m not a huge fan of this, so whenever I don’t have any substantial responses to make or a person (either positive or critical), I probably won’t respond. Whenever my only comment would be to say I agree, I may not make that comment.
Content vs. Tone, Time, Place, and Manner
…there is one thing we have seen with respect to commenting, both here or elsewhere. Some discussions simply stop being fun. It’s not necessarily because of the content of what people are saying…rather, it’s because of the tone that the discussion takes or the manner in which certain commenters comment. For example, there are certain commenters who can be predicted almost as if on cue to post concerning certain topics, and what they will say will be just as predictable as when and where they will say it. Even if a discussion is not directly focused on that issue they want to talk about, if it is tangentially related in any way, they will find a way to talk about that.
Let me just give you a protip: this is obnoxious. Don’t derail threads for your pet issues.
Another thing that we sometimes is this dismissive tone that people tend to take on certain issues. This tone produces comments which are oh-so-staccato…there’s not really much content there, because the comments are so abrupt, so short…and yet the comments drip with disdain or dismissal of someone or something (TBMs? Ex-Mormons? It depends on who is making the comment, but I’ve seen it go both ways.)
Let me just give you another protip: this is also obnoxious. Make your comments count.
We really want as many people to feel comfortable with commenting here as possible, so instead of just throwing people out, what we as the permabloggers at W&T want to do is communicate with you when we feel there is something that a particular commenter could improve upon. So, don’t feel bad if, whether in the comments or in a private email, we make a statement regarding commenting behaviors that we want to be changed. Don’t feel bad if one of the bloggers asks you to either relate your comment back to the topic at hand or sit out of that discussion.
Mirror, mirror — you-know-who — who’s the fairest commenter in your view?
So, now we return back to the opening idea…today, this discussion is for us to talk about what makes a good discussion, what makes a site more appealing to comment to (and what makes people want to lurk or leave), and which people here make the entire experience the most enjoyable.
For me, I really enjoy LDS Anarchist‘s comments. LDS Anarchist consistently shows that you can disagree with someone in an agreeable manner. I always find his comments about religion to be well-thought and well-reasoned, even if I understand as well that his reasoning and thinking process comes from such different assumptions and foundations than mine, so functionally, I disagree with many of his conclusions.
…In fact, the agreeableness to which we disagree causes me to think of a different way to phrase it: I like his comments so much that I feel “disagreement” is too harsh a term. Rather, I feel it’s more that, “I am not yet ready to agree.”
That, IMO, is a huge compliment. If I had to encapsulate the spirit of a good discussion in one line, then it would be a spirit where even though the positions the various commenters take may be very different…we are engaging in such a way that it’s easy for us to like a commenter’s thoughtfulness and logical process, even if we didn’t agree with their actual conclusion or accept their premises.
In other words, I think a good discussion is one where we can feel the difference between staunchly disagreeing (with no perceived possibility for coming to the other side) and not (yet) agreeing (but recognizing that we really could see ourselves getting there at some point.) If we find ourselves “not (yet) agreeing” more often rather than “staunchly disagreeing,” then I think we can have a lot more fruitful of discussions.
There are, of course, several other commenters I like…some I agree with on many issues, some with whom I don’t…but I just wanted to mention LDS Anarchist for one.
For today’s questions, I’d like everyone to focus on positives rather than negatives. So, who are your favorite commenters, rather than who are your least favorite commenters.
- Who are your favorite commenters either here or elsewhere? What do you think makes them so enjoyable?
- What do you you the like and dislike buttons we have here for? Do you ever find yourself using them instead of commenting, or do you generally use them along with commenting? Do you use them for a comment’s tone, content, or logical strength? (As I mentioned before, as a post author, I try to respond to the majority of commenters on my articles, especially because when I’m commenting at other sites, I hate the feeling of being ignored, so I don’t want that to happen to anyone. However, I dislike empty comments almost as much as being ignored, so I don’t have anything constructive to respond with or something to ask…OR if the only thing I have to say is, “I agree with you,” then I probably won’t comment. This is bad, because sometimes, you don’t know that people like what you had to say unless they EXPLICITLY say it. So, I use the like button when I like what the person said — so that they know that someone’s out there reading them. However, I use the dislike button considerably differently. I don’t use it when I didn’t like content. I use it when I didn’t like tone, or when I thought the comment was an empty, one-off critical comment. Finally, I use it when I think a comment is plain illogical.)
- Are there sites — either in the bloggernacle or completely outside of Mormon issues — that foster consistently good discussions? What do you think is the reason for the success?