Letter From The Editor: On Commenting Culture
Let me start with an announcement
A little over a month ago, Maribou informed me that she would like to transition out of her role as comment moderator. It was initially going to happen sooner than now, but several conflicts with our domain host have taken up most of my Ordinary attention and I asked her to delay, which she happilly did.
While the response has been somewhat mixed, it’s difficult to fully convey how good and important it was that she took this task. I’m not exaggerating when I say that she might have saved Ordinary Times. When Burt announced his intention to step aside, no one was very enthusiastic about taking it over, including myself. I won’t get too much into detail, but there are a lot of things that needed (and need) to be done on the back-end to keep this site going, our traffic was not what it once was, and the comment threads had become less pleasant and more acrimonious over time.
Don’t get me wrong: I love you guys. When I approach new writers, I brag on you guys all day long. You can ask the new writers: When I pitched the site, the commentariat was somewhere in the first four sentences or so. We have the best commenting section on the entire Internet, as far as I’m concerned. We consider it a central part of the site and if it weren’t for you all, writing for this site would be a lot less worthwhile and rewarding.
At one point, we considered blowing the site all over, putting it palliative care (changing the name and mission), or what we would do with the archives if we just took it down entirely. Then Maribou volunteered to take over comment enforcement and an opportunity to try a new vision. That, in turn, allowed me to focus on other aspects of the site which suddenly no longer seemed so daunting. But not only that, it gave us an opportunity to shake things up in a way that I believe was needed. We considered a lot of things, but continuing the status quo wasn’t one of them.
That’s what I mean when I say she saved the site. So from the bottom of my heart: Thank you, Maribou.
It was a dramatic change, but I think that’s what we needed to get out of some of the habits we had gotten into. What I hope we all gained from her time as the moderation chief is changing the way we communicate with one another. That desperately needed to change, and whatever happens now we can’t go back to the way it was before. I know that for my part, I spiked many comments on the basis that it might put Maribou in an uncomfortable position… and it’s actually a good thing I did because most of them were far more heat than light. As we loosen up comment enforcement, I hope that the recalibration has a lasting effect. One of the questions I ask myself before posting a comment is whether or not it adds to the conversation or distracts from it. That’s what I want us to all be conscientious of.
Maribou’s more interventionist policy cannot continue to exist in large part because there is nobody to run it. She didn’t just get the job because she offered, but because she is among the only people I trust to intervene regularly and fairly. I don’t even trust myself, as far as that goes. Partially because such interventionism runs against my instincts. We cannot go back to the way things were before she took over because my instincts weren’t working for this site anymore and we needed to change. The good news is that Maribou’s tenure has been very instructive in some respects, and hopefully her legacy will be the ability to lighten up on our moderator intervention without going back to full-bore commenting warfare (at least, by OT standards).
And, apart from the ways I have adjusted my own commenting behavior, perhaps the most important thing is how she has shifted us by thinking of our comment section as one that needs to be guided more by culture than by rules. We need to talk briefly about what that culture is and is not going to be, going forward.
Our commenting culture has long had a conflict between two different objectives: embracing diversity of personnel vs diversity of opinion. The conflict has arisen when the two are in conflict: What do we do when diversity of opinion means people who believe that other people on the site are mentally ill? Or, for that matter, a good Third Reich German over mainstream political disagreements? I fear our ideological diversity has never been as great as we wanted it to be, and even the diversity we’ve had has strained in the Era of Trump.
On the one side…
We don’t have a great many conservative commenters, and that’s a shame. I am personally kind of saddened when some contested issues go uncontested whichever side of them I am on. A lot of the ones we have are great and I genuinely hope nothing I’m about to say chases them off.
Going forward, ideological diversity will exist within the parameters of our ability to have a conversation and a willingness to accept some basic social norms. The broader political environment has put a fork in the road and the only way forward is to walk down one path or the other. Otherwise, we’re just congregating out front in perpetuity and getting nowhere.Imagine a site of Evangelical Christians discussing theology. Now imagine someone coming in and saying “But there is no God!” in every single conversation. That ends up preventing more conversations than it enables, at least as it pertains to that community and the things it wants to talk about. Not everybody in the conversation has to believe in God as envisioned by Evangelicals, but to some degree it does have to be assumed for a lot of the conversations to occur. We at Ordinary Times are not as narrow as a religious sect, nor a political faction, but there are tenets that we must agree to in order to converse and if you can’t at least superficially accept them then this may not be the place for you.
What this means in practice can be tricky, but while you don’t have to believe in the current liberal conception of gay rights, there are a lot of related issues that you either need to approach delicately or not at all. We can discuss marriage or adoption, wedding cakes and employment law, but we’re not going to actively discuss questions of fundamental dignity. We’re not going to countenance suggestions of perversion or mental illness. Every editor here is past that, and we make no apologies at the altar of ideological diversity for that. You don’t have to agree with us on the major or minor points, for the most part, but if you think every conversation about gay rights (or trans rights) needs to start at the entry point of fundamental dignity, we’ve already chosen our path on that and then this site may not be the place for you.
If this leads to further political imbalance, to whatever extent that is mathematically impossible, I am no longer willing to consider that our problem.
If none of this applies to you, then I’m not talking about you. I’m not writing this with current readers in mind so much as people we’ve had and people we will have again as we loosen up.
And on the other…
We are a place where ideas are going to be discussed. And by “ideas” I don’t mean “How best to beat Republicans” or “Republicans what Nazis amirite?!” That fork in the road I mention above does not include allegiance to the Democratic Party. I understand the inclination to say that Trump has changed and this site needs to change to adapt to that new reality, but I only agree with that up to a point. I strongly considered whether this site would be better off if we simply submitted to O’Sullivan’s Law and took it to its logical conclusion of this site being an outpost of the resistance. Depending on your perspective or your metrics, that might be a better site. But it’s not one that I am qualified to run (and frankly, not one I care to participate on).
In the spirit of that, we have to countenance disagreement. Disagreements can’t be regularly chalked up to crypto-Trumpism. Suggestions of bigotry need to hang on something more specific than having the wrong position on conventional political issues when there are other explanations we can work from.
If over a sprawling host of issues you do not believe that people disagree with you in good faith, or at least aren’t willing to act on the basis that they might, this site might not be the place for you. If you want to dig in your heels because you don’t think there is any productive conversation to be had anyway, this site might not be the place for you. Or, at least, maybe not the political side.
If somebody comes in talking about Mexicans being a bunch of rapists and murderers, hit the report button and we will hopefully take it from there. If their position is that we need less immigration, don’t reply under the assumption that they’re really talking about rapists and murderers. If we’re talking about abortion, don’t frame their arguments as being about punishing women for sex unless that’s the argument they present. And if we want to look at it from the other direction, unless they’re saying all Trump supporters are racist to a man, don’t assume they’re saying that just because they’re speaking in general terms, and every criticism of the Trump voter can’t pivot to liberal elitism towards “the common man.”
Ascribing universal (and negative) motives is usually a bad idea that takes us further from a productive discussion, even as we may discuss general tendencies. Avoid shortering altogether. Are we going to redact people who do otherwise? Usually not. They will be allowed to hurt the site, if they wish. I mostly ask you not to join them.
If you think somebody is consistently acting in bad faith, make your case to me or the editors. I haven’t decided what the decision-making will look like, but I will say that one of the changes from the pre-Maribou structure is that we’re not going to let people hang out in some bad faith DMZ where as long as they don’t cross the line we can’t take action. That means, however, that I would like those that remain to be treated in as good of faith as you can muster. And if you can’t, to simply ignore them. I’m not asking you to do anything here that I don’t do every single day, and haven’t done for most of the last nine years I’ve been associated with this site. We even have a tool to help you do just that, as well as one to bring our attention to unacceptable behavior.
Long story short, it’s not always easy to get along with people that disagree with you. But while we don’t explore all disagreements, that’s what this place is for. We have our own squishy libertarian-minded upper-left-centrist mainstream and things you say out of it – whether against immigration or abortion on the right or the importance of the deplorability of Trump supporters on the left – are going to get varying degrees of pushback. If you see someone putting themselves out there (and they’re not being an asshole about it), please keep in mind how much pushback they are already getting. Likewise, though, for your own sanity’s sake, pick your battles when it comes to expressing and defending unpopular views.
The last point, which applies to all of the above and more, is that we do need you to work with us on this. Especially during the transition period and even after, we will not be quick to pull the punishment triggers. I hope most enforcement will be redaction and shutting down threads. But if there is one thing I am going to start coming down harder on, it’s being in out-and-out opposition towards us. I have a really low tolerance threshold for “I’m going to say what I’m going to say and you do what you have to do,” and the fastest way to a long-term suspension or ban is sockpuppeting while on suspension.
Most of this is aspirations rather than the laying out of rules, but everything falls apart without that last bit. In the coming weeks, I will come up with a more formal system since it can’t be me trying to do what Maribou did. There will probably be a panel. Until we have a more firm idea of what the above looks like in practice, I’ll be pretty patient with anyone who is interacting with us in good faith.
But the bigger thing is this: If we’re relying on the rules, we’re already losing. Not just because we just lost our chief enforcer, but because of the rules-lawyering that occurred before she took over. This entire project relies on a sense of community, and no set of rules can give us that. Despite how many times I said “maybe this site is not for you,” I hope that you all decide it is, stick around, tell your friends, comment more, and try to make this site the best it can be.