Thursday, August 5, 2010

Imagining communities

I've been thinking lately about the similarities between a blog comment thread and a classroom discussion. It was an odd comparison for me, at first, because I've often used the blog for teaching, as a supplement to and (for the shy students) a replacement for discussion in class.

But I was thinking lately about comment policies, and good commenters, and bad commenters, and what makes a commenting community good. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic often writes about the high quality of the comments his blog receives. A guest blogger, G.D., recently wrote:
The commenters here have a rep of being smart and thoughtful. Rare is the internet cohort with whom you can thoughtfully chop it up about the Civil War, pro quarterbacking, and the finer points of beer.
This is true.

The canonical inverse of the good commenting community is YouTube, where a thousand ignoramuses bloom. Here are some comments on a randomly chosen video (random to me; promoted on YouTube's front page):

These comments are insubstantial, unthoughtful, etc. (Surprisingly, for YouTube, they are grammatical, however.)

When there's a good commenting community, there's inevitably someone invested in creating that commenting community. There's usually a commenting policy and pretty vigilant moderation. Coates has this; YouTube does not.

I think comment moderation might be controversial for (1) people who haven't thought much about it and (2) trolls, who inevitably call this "censorship." To me it's completely clear that ground rules have to be set and enforced in a commenting community, and that that enforcement is what enables high-level discussions. In this sense, it's like a classroom discussion.*

But there's also one more reason that people resist the notion of comment moderation, or certain forms of comment moderation, and that's due to the ideology (I use the word advisedly) of the democratic web. The web is thought of as a leveller, a place of "freedom," where "information wants to be free" in both senses of the word, where anyone can go anywhere or say anything. "Walled gardens" like Facebook and publications with paywalls are regarded as an affront to this principle.

While the web does operate in ways that make openness advantageous (Twitter's openness, for instance, makes it a very focused social form, paradoxically), the many valences of "openness" and "freedom" are too often mistaken for one another. Since these concepts have very strong affective registers, people on the internet often seem ready to give their lives to defend another's right to troll. If there is one reasonable argument in support of the claim that the internet naturally tends toward shallow discussions, it lies herein. The ideology of openness in many cases encourages behaviors that prevent high-quality conversation.

For example, "openness" might dictate allowing commenters to ask basic questions about the topic under discussion. It's easy to see why. The ideology of openness would dictate that anyone operating in good faith should be allowed into the discussion, that no question is stupid, and that to demand a certain degree of familiarity with the topic up front smacks of elitism.

This attitude is pervasive among even the most thoughtful digital humanists, as evidenced in Dan Cohen's recent call for suggestions for a book title:
I’m crowdsourcing the title of my next book, which is about the way in which common web tech/methods should influence academia, rather than academia thinking it can impose its methods and genres on the web. The title should be a couplet like “The X and the Y” where X can be “Highbrow Humanities” “Elite Academia” “The Ivory Tower” “Deep/High Thought” [insert your idea] and Y can be “Lowbrow Web” “Common Web” “Vernacular Technology/Web” “Public Web” [insert your idea]. so possible titles are “The Highbrow Humanities and the Lowbrow Web” or “The Ivory Tower and the Wild Web” etc. What’s your choice? Thanks in advance for the help and suggestions.
Dan explicitly wants to leverage a distinction between an academia that is "highbrow," "elite," and closed (an "ivory tower") and a web that is by its very nature "lowbrow," "vernacular," and open ("wild"). Is that Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" I hear playing in the background?

It should be obvious that I think this is a false dichotomy and a false kind of openness, and a comparison to the classroom makes it obvious why this is so. In the classroom, we establish rules not to restrict conversation but to enable it. To fail to regulate a conversation is not to promote openness but to privilege certain voices for reasons other than their merit: loudness, lack of self-awareness, a superabundance of free time, and ignorance of the topic at hand, for instance.

Here are some things for which we routinely regulate a class discussion, which I think we should also regulate in online spaces designed for high-level discussions:

  • One voice dominating the discussion (as The Onion has so eloquently explained)

  • Irrelevant comments.

  • Counterproductive (as opposed to productive) questioning of fundamental premises. A course in evolutionary biology won't get very far when twenty minutes of every class are taken up by students disputing the legitimacy of the fossil record.

  • Ignorance inappropriate for the context: not having taken the prerequisite, not having done the assigned reading.

It might be argued that, since online discussions aren't bound in time and space is potentially infinite, there's plenty of room for de facto trolling in addition to on-point discussions. But as I've argued previously, even where space is infinite, attention is not. It isn't worth my time to hand-sort a comment thread that's 30 or 40 percent irrelevant, self-aggrandizing, self-linking, or otherwise trolliform comments. If we fail to regulate these voices, then the shy students will never be heard, and the smart students will be irritated and start doing crossword puzzles (or rather, defect to some better regulated blog). That's not openness.

So what would a truly productive online academic discussion require? Editing. Moderation. Curation. Someone empowered to make these calls, who is smart and cares--often somebody who is paid to be smart and to care, because this work takes time. Information may want to be free, but sometimes unless we pay for it, all we'll get is noise.

*I guess I should back up for a moment and note that this blog hardly has any commenting at all, and while I do get the occasional troll or spammer, they're deleted so swiftly and heatlessly that they're never a problem.

Also, since this blog rarely gets comments, I've come to know of various readers' existences in very unexpected ways. For instance, once a reader introduced himself to me in a coffee shop. Naturally I had no idea who he was, but the whole thing was charmingly uncanny. The issue of blog sociality might warrant a separate post. Or not.)

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