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.