Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Blogs, Communities, and Comment Moderation: Finding a Balance

I have some thoughts tangentially (but only tangentially, so if you didn't follow the whole thing, this should still make sense (or at least as much sense as it was going to make) related to the Feministe controversy over the interview with Hugo Schwyzer. There's a whole complicated argument going on that resulted in this post apologizing for ever running the interview in the first place. While there are plenty of interesting things we could talk about in this debate, I'm most interested in one of the comments from the author (Caperton) on the apology:
I agree that a community like Feministe is made up of strong people, and that censorship in the interest of protecting people from controversy isn’t in anyone’s best interest. As I said above, open discussion is the goal, even if that discussion isn’t entirely pleasant. Bloggers are in a unique position of having a responsibility both to the subject matter and to the community. In this case, a controversial and sensitive subject was presented without acknowledging that controversy and sensitivity, and ultimately the discussion was shut down before any of it could really be examined. Ideally, no topic will be off limits, and no readers will have to be coddled. But some posts would be best left out or amended to acknowledge the kind of discussion that’s likely to arise.
Obviously, I run a teeny, tiny blog that doesn't even begin to compare to Feministe and the community that holds them accountable, so my personal experience on this front is limited. I do think that this raises some interesting questions about the nature of community (online and off), the goal of discourse in general, and the role of blogging in particular. 

I think these things are especially interesting when juxtaposed with a view like the one recently explored on Tiger Beatdown:

The creation of comment threads where functional discussion can happen isn’t just about eradicating spam, or pointless comments that don’t add to the discussion, or derailing, or outright hate speech. It’s also about selectively choosing not to publish comments that could potentially steer that conversation into a direction that makes it unsafe for readers. As a moderator at FWD/Forward, for example, it was very important to me that the conversation centre the voices of people with disabilities at all times, that it be not just a disability-friendly space, but, explicitly, a disability space. We got a lot of angry email demanding to know why we didn’t publish comments from caregivers, from parents, from nondisabled people with Thoughts on disability. And the answer, simply, was that there are lots of other places for those thoughts to be expressed, and very few public spaces with a curated conversation where people with disabilities can feel like they are not just part of the conversation, but actually are the conversation.
And later in the post:
As moderators, as curators, especially as people who sometimes host discussions about groups which we are not a part of (I am not Muslim, for example), it is critical to make commenting threads places where actual productive conversation can occur. And that means taking responsibility for their contents, choosing to create a space where people feel comfortable participating. That means carefully reading and considering comments, just like letters to the editor, and deciding which to publish. Yes, it is work. It is a lot harder to read and approve comments than to let most things through, to not moderate at all, or to wait for people to complain before taking action. But it results in a space where people can feel like they are actually wanted in the conversation. 
There are some similarities between these two views--primarily the sense of the individual blogs as a defined "community" and the sense of responsibility in creating a space where discussion is possible.

It is the method to creating this discussion that differs, and I think that's closely connected to that idea of community and space. The Feministe post apologizes not only for posting the interview, but also for shutting down the comments. Many of the commenters were also incensed over this, expressing the feeling that they'd been shut out of their own community, silenced when they had something to say.

But I also understand the point of view on Tiger Beatdown. The internet can be an ugly, ugly place. A community of any kind is dependent upon communication between its members, but this is doubly true for a space that is literally crafted out of communication and not bound by geography. It is much harder to pack up and leave a town that makes you feel unwelcome than it is to leave a blog. And it is much easier to inhabit multiple blog communities simultaneously, leaving you with more options for membership and inclusion.

To this end, blogs have the freedom to craft multiple kinds of communities and allow members to find their own places within in them. I (and I suspect many other blog readers) appreciate the diversity in perspectives and find myself participating in blogging communities in a variety of ways. In some I am just an observer. I don't even participate in the comments either because I feel I have nothing to add to the conversation (though I still appreciate hearing it) or I don't yet feel informed enough to comment. And there are times when--yes--I don't really feel safe commenting in some spaces. Unmoderated spaces where the conversation quickly degrades into name-calling and personal attacks usually aren't worth it to me--even if I like reading the original posts in those spaces. At the same time, I've seen communities where the posts are so moderated that people end up corralled into little boxes. The moderators might allow some discussion of a nuance in the original post, but any real dissent is silenced. This is their right, and I understand why some people might want/need those spaces, but they don't feel like a community that I can claim, either.

In true Aristotelian fashion, I appreciate debate and disagreement. While I don't necessarily believe in a universal truth, I do believe in the benefit of diverse viewpoints. A belief that cannot be questioned is not really a belief at all. The greater the variety of challenges, the stronger a belief can become.

So blogs offer tremendous potential. Here is a space where variety of opinion is nearly unlimited. People from all over the world can bring in viewpoints informed through different cultural lenses and life experiences. But only if people feel safe enough--or just heard enough, if safety isn't a concern--to talk in the first place.

What does that look like for you? What kind of comment moderation makes you most likely to participate? How do you decide that you're part of a blogging community? Or is it an organic process that doesn't have a clear beginning?


  1. This is a tricky one. A lot of the time I feel far too intimidated to comment on blogs, and feministe in particular. I understand that many of the commenters are survivors of abuse or discrimination and feel that these experiences, and their being female, silences them in society. Online forums like this are a place where they can be angry, where they can finally feel supported in their reactions to the injustice that is perpetrated against them (though ironically it is my own experience with abuse that means I have anxiety about participating in these kinds of threads).

    I don't support the anger that is being directed at Clarisse Thorn though. She totally has the right to create her own space and not allow the feministe community to dictate her boundaries - particularly seeing as that site is a fairly lightly moderated one and many of the commenters can get very confrontational, and that gets backed up by the regular commenters and also the author or moderators.

    There are quite a few blogs where the moderation does not accept that. I do not feel that this kind of moderation silences me, I just make sure I frame any disagreement in a way that is respectful to others on the thread. One that comes to mind is bluemilk - I think she does a great job of protecting the readers of her blog from trolling and abusive comments while still providing some very thought-provoking and insightful debate, as do others that I have read.

  2. I felt the discussion following Caperton's apology post was quite raw, but very enriching. I thought that the silencing of Delphyne by the moderators because of her hostility to transwomen was a mistake. It resulted in the loss of a voice that added much to the discussion, regardless of how jarring her comments were to both the trans community and those who feel their voice is part of the feminist agenda.

  3. Most often, what I look for ends up being three factors:

    1) Communication -- That is, I want to know ahead of time what the commenting policy is in fairly clear terms. I am good at following the rules, but first I need to know the rules.

    2) Consistency -- If something (e.g., personal insults, rape apology, etc.) is against the rules on one post, I like it to be against the rules on all the posts in that community -- and I like when community moderators are consistent in what they correct/warn/refuse to publish/etc. I'm a member of enough online communities that it's enough for me to remember the rules and commenting atmosphere of each one; I don't like when I need to remember different nuances for, say, each individual author or moderator.

    3) Activity -- I gravitate toward spaces where moderators are active enough in the comments to respond to something problematic before it becomes a huge spiraling shitstorm.

  4. Another issue that affects online discussions and people's sense of safety is anonymity. People feel more safe and confident when it comes to commenting online when their identity is protected - in case something goes wrong in the discussion, it can be contained in that particular space and will not spill over to other areas of the person's life.