Thursday, July 12, 2012

Blogs, Pool Parties, and Bodily Functions

When a blogger puts up a post he is exercising a right to participate in the great marketplace of ideas. Just putting a post out there and letting it sit is similar to the days when someone could go to the public square, stand on a box, and pontificate to his heart's content. At the end of his speech, he could simply walk away and be forgotten, or possibly have rotten fruit thrown at him. The speaker/blogger has had his say, gotten whatever was on his mind out into the open, and been satisfied by the process.

If a blogger allows comments on his posts, then he is seeking engagement, and possibly validation of his ideas. Or he may be looking to kick over an anthill by saying something outrageous he knows will set off his readers. At any rate, allowing comments is the blogger's way of saying, "tell me what you think, I want to know." Some blogs have a transient readership, and the people leaving comments may be new and different on every post. Older blogs and more popular blogs tend to gather a group of readers that build a sense of community as they express their own varying opinions in the comments by responding to the blogger and to each other. Sometimes calling out each other out as boobs, sometimes agreeing with each other, sometimes simply carving out different aspects of the ideas presented along the lines of "yes, I feel that way too, but not for the same reason you do." These blogs tend to feel like the old USENET groups I used to frequent: a core group of mostly like-minded individuals who could share jokes, offer advice and support, or have raging arguments over small differences of opinion, but all within the bounds of civility, at least in the groups I frequented.

A blogger has a choice to allow comments or not, and to moderate those comments, if allowed, or not. This being the Internet, and the spammers being what they are, I'd imagine most bloggers that allow comments subject them to at least some light moderation. For example, making sure it's an actual on-topic comment and not a robo-comment by a spam bot or a porn bot whose keywords were tripped by the original post. Sometimes bloggers will let controversial comments stand, even if they disagree with them, because they contribute to the discussion. Sometimes a comment is too outrageous, or violates the commenting policy set forth on the blog, and has to be removed or selectively redacted to remove the rule breaking bits while allowing the basic conversational element to stand. When bloggers allow comments on their blogs it is akin to having a bunch of folks over for a pool party: everyone knows each other, at least on a superficial level, and everyone is comfortable enough around everyone else to appear in proper pool party attire, which is usually a lot less than they'd be wearing if they met on the street. There is a group comfort level, in other words. As long as everyone behaves within the expected rules the party continues.

There are times when the party, or comment thread, gets out of control. This might be because of someone new to the party who doesn't understand the group dynamic and unintentionally disrupts things. It might be because someone over reacted or took something the wrong way, and a wildly inappropriate comment thread erupts out of what was a civil conversation. And of course there are times when someone just decides to be an ass and pee in the pool, ruining things for everyone.

Recently, the author of Popehat put up a scolding, angry post about a comment thread that had gone off the rails on an older post, and he was very right to do so. It's not a post I had commented on, because I didn't really have anything to say on the subject. I didn't even read the first few comments after I read the initial post because I knew I didn't have anything to add to whatever conversation was brewing. After the latest post, which said, in part:
I'm quite angry about that thread. I'm rather disgusted it happened here. I'm irritated that, because I'm on vacation with my family, it got to that point without me reviewing it. It's leading me to give some thought to the future of comments in particular and Popehat in general.
I went back and read the thread, and was shocked and surprised by what I saw. Someone had peed in Popehat's pool. I have to agree with the author that it was completely not cool. I understand the imperative to defend one's honor against attack, and I understand the impulse to call out a seeming asshat on a stupid, trolling statement that they made. A person wants to know if the asshat/troll in question is in fact a troll or just a misunderstood person from another part of the spectrum of ideas who isn't very good at presenting their views in writing. Once things start to degenerate, however, and the trolls are exposed as trolls, and everyone knows they are peeing in the pool, it's time to stop and walk away. That didn't happen until the thread was closed, and it shouldn't have come to that.

So now one of my favorite blogs may be making some fundamental changes, but I don't know any more than what was stated in the quote above. It would make me sad if Popehat were to go away, or to change in some fundamental way that would make it not-Popehat. I could understand it though, if changes happened. After all, we aren't paying a fee to read or comment, we are guests in his forum. The author, to my knowledge doesn't make any money from the blog. And the primary author has a successful business and a family to keep him occupied IRL, so I wouldn't blame him if he just pulled the plug and walked away, but I think it would be a loss to the blogosphere, all because someone peed in the pool.

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