A note on courtesy and posting behavior

Reading this post at Scientific American, “Why is everyone on the internet so angry?“, I was prompted to reiterate some guidelines for posting at this website.  The general internet problem highlighted by authors Natalie Wolchover and “Life’s Little Mysteries” is this:

These days, online comments “are extraordinarily aggressive, without resolving anything,” said Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “At the end of it you can’t possibly feel like anybody heard you. Having a strong emotional experience that doesn’t resolve itself in any healthy way can’t be a good thing.”

Some of the reasons for this behavior:

A perfect storm of factors come together to engender the rudeness and aggression seen in the comments’ sections of Web pages, Markman said. First, commenters are often virtually anonymous, and thus, unaccountable for their rudeness. Second, they are at a distance from the target of their anger — be it the article they’re commenting on or another comment on that article — and people tend to antagonize distant abstractions more easily than living, breathing interlocutors. Third, it’s easier to be nasty in writing than in speech, hence the now somewhat outmoded practice of leaving angry notes (back when people used paper), Markman said. [Infographic: A Typical Day on the Internet]

And because comment-section discourses don’t happen in real time, commenters can write lengthy monologues, which tend to entrench them in their extreme viewpoint. “When you’re having a conversation in person, who actually gets to deliver a monologue except people in the movies? Even if you get angry, people are talking back and forth and so eventually you have to calm down and listen so you can have a conversation,” Markman told Life’s Little Mysteries.

Now I don’t think that this website is severely afflicted by the kind of vitriol that characterizes some blogs, and I do try to keep people on topic and steer them away from name-calling.  I also try to read every comment, though sometimes it’s hard to keep up with them. That’s why the lucubrations of trolls, and some nasty name-calling, sometimes intrudes.  When I’m aware of commenters insulting each other, I try to intervene, either on the site or via private email. Nevertheless, people seem to have become a bit more splenetic around here lately, perhaps as a spilloff from squabbles that afflict other websites.  I want, then, to emphasize some guidelines for posting here.

1.  If you can, please use your real name rather than a pseudonym when posting. I recognize that people may have good reasons to be anonymous, and won’t demand the disclosure of names, but I’m convinced that people are more civil when they have to take public responsibility for their remarks. I never comment anonymously on other people’s sites. Please try to avoid using pseudonyms unless you have good reasons for doing so.  Again, I won’t ban anyone for not using their real names, but do consider taking responsibility for what you say.

2.  Do not insult other commenters.  Sometimes it’s okay to call public figures names like “morons”—I do this myself, but am going to try to cut down on that—but readers of the site should have some respect for each other as persons.  If I see an egregious insult, I try to intervene, often asking for an apology. If it happens twice, I’ll ban the person.  You will not change anybody’s mind if you insult them as a person. (Granted, it’s hard to change anybody’s mind about some of the topics we discuss.)

3. Please try to stay on topic.  I am quite proud of my commenters, who are diverse, educated, usually classy, and often have instructive and useful things to say about a post. As I’ve said many times, I learn more from the comments than from writing the posts themselves.  If there is an intellectual or moral issue under discussion, try to stick to that.  Countering my own arguments, or those of other posters, is welcome—I want free discussion.  But it’s not okay to make a comment that simply insults someone else without adding anything else.  Try to avoid obscenity if possible: that degrades the tone of the site. (I realize that sometimes this is impossible.)

4.  Don’t post if you don’t have something to add.  Reactions like “I like this post” or “I hate this post” are okay only if you give reasons. Posting “sub” to subscribe is okay.

5.  Please don’t tell me that I shouldn’t have written about something, or that you don’t like posts about cats, food, boots, or whatever.  I write about what strikes my fancy, and that is not going to change. If you don’t like the content here, you are welcome to go to other places having more congenial material.  Also, don’t insult me.  By all means take issue with what I say, but try to avoid saying I’m disingenuous, lying, or other such stuff.

6.  Religious people often will post here.  Many times they are simply trolls (you wouldn’t believe the comments I’ve put directly in the spam file!), but sometimes they have sincere arguments. Do not call them morons, or deluded fools, or other such names.  Yes, most of us don’t like religion, but calling religious people names will not foster any dialogue. Remember, some of them can be swayed.  My policy, though, is if you make a post asserting something like the reality of God, I will usually demand that you immediately provide us with the evidence for your deity.  That evidence then becomes fair game for discussion. But remember, attacking religious believers is not the same thing as attacking religious belief. Go after ideas, not people. I do believe that religion is a terrible thing for society, and have no problem excoriating the stupidity of religious belief. Quite often the religious person takes that as a personal insult, but that is their problem, not ours.

7. Please don’t insert the URL for YouTube videos in comments if you can avoid it–a link will suffice.  The URL will put the entire video in the comment, which eats up bandwidth.

8.  Please write posts, not essays.  Some comments are extraordinarily long, and often aren’t germane to the discussion. I don’t have a word limit, but sometimes write privately to people to shorten their comment before I’ll post it.

9. I know from private emails that a lot of people lurk here but never comment. That is perfectly fine, but I encourage lurkers to join in from time to time. If you have a question that you want answered, by all means ask it. As I tell my students, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question, and if you don’t ask you won’t learn.”

10. Remember that all first-time posters are automatically subject to moderation. Once I approve the first post, everything you write thereafter will appear automatically. Since I’m not at the computer 24 hours a day checking email, first-time approval may take some time. (If your first post is wacko, though, it won’t get approved!)

11. Use your real email address when making a comment. I will never disclose it without permission, but if I have to communicate with readers (for example, if you don’t close your italics properly!), I’ll need a valid email address.

I encourage readers, as always, to send me interesting material via private email; my university address is easily obtainable with a bit of Googling. Many of my favorite posts have been prompted by reader submissions. I always try to acknowledge these with a “hat tip” (“h/t”), but sometimes I forget or lose the original email. Forgive me if you’re not acknowledged, as I get a lot of suggestions.  And forgive me as well if I don’t take you up on a suggestion for a topic worth posting about.  There are simply too many of these, and I can’t use them all. But I do appreciate every suggestion.

And of course I welcome pictures of your cat along with a paragraph of information about it.  I have a long queue of readers’ cats to post, but that’s good.

Finally, I again want to thank the readers for their thoughtful commentary.  I have learned a lot (and changed my mind!) on many issues, especially that of free will and other philosophical matters. I am a biologist, not a philosopher or an expert on politics or literature. On the latter issues I post as a tyro. (Even when I post on biology I often make mistakes, and am usually corrected within an hour!) Yet we have such a diverse readership that I—and others—can learn a lot from experts who comment on these other fields.  There is hardly a profession (or nation) not represented by one or more readers.  Do remember that we have an international readership, so things immediately comprehensible to Americans may be unfamiliar to others.



  1. Cremnomaniac
    Posted July 26, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Jerry,

    I visit your blog regularly because of my revived interest in evolution. One of the primary reasons I continue to do so is because the discussions are largely civil, intelligent, and interesting. I am learning a lot from comments, so thanks to all.

    In regards to real names, my wordpress login has always been cremnomaniac, so that’s what you see. If anyone wishes to know who I am, my blog by the same name has an “about” page for viewing.
    And for the record my real name is Rick.

    I have already stopped visiting at least 2 similar blogs because of the vitriol in the comments. Another thank you to the readers here for not descending into acerbity.

  2. Posted July 26, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    I really need to stop reading the comments on these “civility” posts.

    • tomh
      Posted July 26, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      Likewise. I’m just waiting for PZ’s comments to be called a “cesspool” – that’s how it usually ends up.

      • mordacious1
        Posted July 27, 2012 at 3:08 am | Permalink

        I wonder why.

  3. lisa
    Posted July 26, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I have been guilty and apologize. (especially because rudeness was what I was angry about.)

    Mea Maxima Culpa

  4. Posted July 27, 2012 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    You should all be anonymous so that we can see what you really think. :P

  5. Steve in Oakland
    Posted July 27, 2012 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    Courtesy and posting behavior is certainly worthy of study, and I’m glad to see that Scientific American has published an article about it. Like Road Rage, internet rudeness shows that there are a lot of folks with short fuses running around out there. Like the presumed anonymity of a driver, internet participants lurk behind just such presumed anonymity to unload on anything or anybody that rubs them the wrong way. It isn’t just scientific blogs, either: I have a friend who is a Jane Austen scholar. She was on a Jane Austen discussion list for many years, but finally got off because of the nastiness involved. One woman who didn’t like one of my friend’s posts replied that my friend should be “locked in a cage, and tortured like an animal.” [Certainly a lot of food for psychological thought in that statement]. It was almost nonstop. For instance, someone on the list would post an off-topic political rant. My friend would respond to it, and suddenly there would be a bunch of folks chiming in about “posting off topic,” not directed at the person who initiated the political discussion, but directed at my friend for having dared to respond. I tried to put it in perspective for my friend: These were people who read all of Jane’s books, written a couple of hundred years ago about characters who never actually existed. So speculating and fighting about what Jane Austen would have thought of the women’s movement today was fruitless, but, even more so, fussing about what one of her invented characters thought, or would think now, was totally useless, and served no good end. Following the simple rules outlined in the WEIT post above is just common sense.

  6. DV
    Posted July 27, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Using your real name is overrated. Think how much clamped down discussions would be if people have to worry about their real life friends and family members seeing their controversial opinions. Some of us are not out of the closet atheists for one thing. What if grandma reads my bashing of Jesus. She’ll have a heart attack.

    And a pseudonym is an identity in any case that one maintains and through this identity takes responsibility for ones postings. It’s not hard to change online identity but it’s a hassle building it from scratch again.

    • gbjames
      Posted July 27, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      “What if grandma reads my bashing of Jesus. She’ll have a heart attack.”

      You say that like it’s a bad thing. ;)

  7. Posted July 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t this just “don’t be a dick” from the guy that said “show me one or I won’t believe they exist”?

  8. Posted July 28, 2012 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    WEIT is probably one of my favorite sites. I lurk a lot and comment little, but whenever I do it’s under my real name (because I’m a public figure and have nothing to hide).

    I strongly disagree with some posters at other venues, but when they also post here, I find the level of discourse more engaging and am compeled to interact in polite and mesured manners.

    Kuddos Jerry, you’re doing just fine!

  9. Posted July 28, 2012 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Huh, my comment here never came up…

  10. Sean
    Posted July 29, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    I’m a new reader here and like the site so far as well as the general quality of the comments section. I am wondering if something can be done about the nesting of comments here, where replies to replies to replies get smaller and smaller until you have these long, 3-inch wide columns that are very hard to read. It’s a minor quibble to be sure, but one that makes it hard to skim through the comments and get to the ones of interest.

    • Filippo
      Posted July 29, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      The current indenting system is good in that it is immediately clear to whom a commenter is responding.

      I notice at this site that a commenter occasionally deals with the problem by starting a new “thread,” taking care to clearly state what s/he is up to.

      Subscribing to a given posting seems to help expedite separating the commentary wheat from the chaff.

      (There is much more wheat than chaff at this website. For sure, topics discussed here deserve more than a Twitter modus operandi.)

  11. Norman Hanscombe
    Posted August 4, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s refreshing to come across such obvious (though rarely followed) suggestions. I came here via a ‘philosophy’ site whose authors are so fervently faithful to whatever they believe that even a gentle contrarian is feared.
    You’ll have an uphill battle in our postmodern age trying to convince posters to analyse their own sacred ‘true beliefs’; but I fear the decline in intellectual analysis (combined with a flight from the high level language skills on which it depends) means you’ll need to remain a super-optimist. I watched it occurring at all levels in Australian ‘education’, as we concentrated on raising students’ self-esteem.
    This not, by the way, another, “Things used to be — etc.” I still remember my teacher’s bemused reaction when (in 1948) as we chatted while walking the 3-4 kilometres to our respective destinations, and I expressed concerns about falling standards in English.
    “You’re right, Norm, but I don’t think anyone else in the class is worried.”
    Nothing has changed. The education caravan has disappeared into the postmodern desert, and the dogs have long since stopped barking.
    Hope I haven’t breached too many of your 11 commandments?

  12. pjlandis
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the word “disingenuous” is all that insulting. People often respond or comment on other people’s ideas and present those ideas that they disagree with somewhat unfairly, or in a way that others might view as unfair, simply because they disagree so strongly.

    At the very least I wouldn’t equate it with calling someone a liar.

    • pjlandis
      Posted August 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      And my first name is Patrick, but I use PJLandis as a username.

      • Norman Hanscombe
        Posted August 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        The word “disingenuous’ has nothing to do with treating people’s views ‘unfairly’. Nor, as you say, is it same as lying.
        It is, however, used dishonestly to say what is true, but is also misleading.
        That’s why Courts ask us to tell not merely the truth.

        • pjlandis
          Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

          I take it to be similar to insincere. Your definition is about as confusing as you could make it.

          Calling someone you disagree with disingenuous is common. I believe it’s actually why it was mentioned in this post, someone called the blogger disingenuous but I don’t think it was meant as an insult even if the author didn’t agree.

          • Norman Hanscombe
            Posted August 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

            I was around when the word ‘disingenuous’ was first coined, Patrick. Its meaning was quite clear, and I remember thinking it was a far more valuable neologism than many summing up as it did so well an all too commonly encountered aspect of our species’ behaviour.
            It means saying something which is true, but leaves the listener with a false interpretation of the facts, because it doesn’t tell significant parts of the relevant information.
            Of course it has an ‘insincere’ aspect; but it’s not the same as lying, otherwise there’d have been no need for the new word.
            I acknowledge that, as you say, “Calling someone you disagree with disingenuous is common”; but regardless of whether or not the accuser’s assertion is correct, it doesn’t change the meaning of disingenuous.
            I lack the insight to assess whatever the intention was of that blogger’s post, and am content to fall back on what we’re told Socrates suggested re the definition of terms is the beginning (only) of wisdom.

            • Stephen Barnard
              Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

              Norman Hanscombe: :I was around when the word ‘disingenuous’ was first coined, Patrick.”

              I doubt that, because the word usage extends back to at least 1911, which would put you at around 101 if you came out of the womb understanding English.

              “Disingenuous” is the negation of “ingenuous”, which means, essentially, “free from reserve, restraint, or dissimulation; candid; sincere.”

              • Norman Hanscombe
                Posted August 8, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

                Thanks, Stephen. Mea culpa, as I’m neither quite as old nor near as precocious as that. It was only in the 1950s that the terms cognitive dissonance and disingenuous suddenly became widely used in psychology, and had I been concentrating more carefully when typing, that’s what I should have said.
                As for the definition of disingenuous (which IS the important issue) I’m glad you didn’t feel it needed correction?

              • Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

                Wiktionary has a citation from 1726!


              • Norman Hanscombe
                Posted August 9, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

                A shame you missed my 9.44 p.m. confession, anonymous ant, or you’d not have spent time finding another example. Still pleased, though, you apparently found no flaw in my reference to the far more important question of what disingenuous actually means.
                You have, of course, reinforced my acceptance that at a time when I’m slowing down, don’t have full use of either hand, and am engaged in serious discussions elsewhere, I need to concentrate more closely on quick responses related to my hobbies, so that I don’t encourage people to become so riveted on trivia that they pay less attention to the core elements of a discussion.

              • gbjames
                Posted August 9, 2012 at 4:37 am | Permalink

                “anonymous ant”

                FWIW, Ant is probably the least anonymous commenter on WEIT.

  13. Posted September 11, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Here’s my experience – active, zero-tolerance moderation is necessary. All social settings require constant, low level policing. Apparently, the same is true in other primates.

    I moderate 3-5 groups in social media and multiple blogs.

    Online bullying generally:
    - Is very few people
    - They are easy to identify. They are unbalanced.
    - However, they have outsized influence as bullies always do so can ruin a site.
    - They degrade and prevent principaled discussions and learning
    - They drive away normal folks and the quietest voices.
    - Their main tool is personal attacks.

    Best to remove them and block from group. That has solved the problem in my groups and led to some very useful, open discussions and the group really growing.

    I started the Linked In groups to avoid sales spam, poor moderation and bullying and the groups are now running well and attract high levels of participants and sharing.

    It’s all about safe open sharing and that cannot happen if one two people are calling anyone names or attacking them. Kick ‘em out.

    • Steve in Oakland
      Posted September 13, 2012 at 1:52 am | Permalink

      Internet bouncers. There is also the delete key.

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  1. [...] at the moment about the merits of requiring charity and civility on comment threads. For example, Jerry Coyne has a post about his rules over here, while Daniel Fincke writes about his rules here. Before I go on, I’m not necessarily [...]

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