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Tuesday, November 1, 2005

The privilege of commenting.

Now would seem to be a good time for a metablogging post — a meditation of sorts on what a blog is, and especially on what blog comments are for. I'll be speaking, of course, about this blog and about the expectations I have for comments on this site. I'd be eager to hear about your thinking about your own blog and/or the comments you contribute to the blogs you read.

For most of my readers, what I'm about to say will seem obvious and natural; for others, my operating assumptions may differ from yours and maybe we can come to some new understanding; for trolls, this is explicit notice about why I feel no shame in deleting your comments and limiting your participation.

First, my blog is mine. I set it up so I could easily publish what I'm interested in talking about. If for some reason you think my site should be transformed into a publication that takes up your cause, I'd urge you to get your own blog. I enjoy receiving your suggestions, but I resent efforts at manipulation. (You're unlikely to get a ringing endorsement by cajoling me.)

Second, I welcome reader participation through comments. Not all blogs do. Unlike some blogs, I don't require users to register before they begin commenting, nor do I screen comments before publication.

This has apparently led at least one reader to conclude recently that Philocrites is an unmoderated forum where absolutely anything may be said at any time. Not true! It's a personal blog that welcomes reader comments. Happily, blogs enable pretty much anyone with access to the Internet to set up their own small periodical: The Web itself is the unmoderated forum; this blog is a moderated conversation hosted by me.

I think of comments on this site to be very much like conversation at a dinner party I'm hosting in my home. I set up the space and furnished it with amenities like my Annotated Guide to UU Blogs. As readers, you're my guests. If someone's behavior begins to disrupt the basic quality of the conversation, I disinvite them.

Commenting on this site is a privilege, not a right: I am under no obligation whatsoever to publish or promote your words, although in almost every case I'm delighted to host your contributions to the conversation here.

I have disinvited three people in the past three years. (Plus several thousand spam robots, of course.) Every large blog I've encountered has attracted trolls, and many blogs have systems in place to corral or block them. I moderate comments — which means rarely and selectively deleting them — for a small handful of reasons: I delete duplicate comments; I often delete extremely brief "gotcha" comments and "me too" comments; I delete expressions of raw bigotry and racism; and I delete comments that verge into accusatory gossip and scandal-mongering. I try to err on the side of toleration, but my first priority is maintaining a civil and welcoming space.

I've been greatly influenced by Teresa Nielsen Hayden's contribution to “Spam, Trolls, Stalkers: The Pandora’s Box of Community.” One of my goals in hosting reader comments is to encourage people to use the Web to raise the level of liberal religious discourse and to make it more visible to more people; I can't encourage people to participate if it looks like it's easy to derail or dominate the conversation. You can set the rules of engagement at your blog, but to the extent that I can simultaneously encourage openness and dialogue here while keeping the volume down to a lively roar, I will.

Do I delete comments because I'm afraid of criticism? No. Two things need to be said about this: I'm happy to be shown where I'm mistaken; I'm even willing to be very strongly criticized. But it's almost impossible to offer a defense for what someone perceives to be a sin of omission. Why haven't you said X about Y?! is the sort of comment that I have little patience for. If you want somone to say X, you say it. If you wonder what I think about Y, ask me; I'll decide whether I have something to say about it or not. But do not presume that I must say what you want me to say about anything.

Second, many readers are aware that professionally I'm one of the editors at UU World, and that I'm the editor of, the magazine's weekly online publication. To the extent that it's possible to do this, I attempt to keep my work separate from this site. I do not use this site as an extension of my role at the magazine or at the UUA, nor am I a spokesperson for the magazine or for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. (Nor does the magazine represent an extension of my own particular point of view.) Because I do not speak here on behalf of the magazine, I won't defend or justify editorial decisions in this space; it's simply inappropriate to blur those boundaries. My comments on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of the Periodicals Office, Communications staff group, administration, board, elected or appointed commissions, General Assembly, member congregations, or affiliate organizations of the UUA; they are certainly never intended to look like official statements on behalf of any of those groups. My comments here are strictly my own.

If you have a comment, story idea, news item, letter to the editor, or complaint to lodge about the magazine, this is not the place for it. Here are the magazine's submission guidelines. I am naturally very interested in what other people have to say about the magazine, and am glad to see people comment about it here and on other sites.

Here endeth the disclaimer. I've been thrilled to see the conversation evolve here over the years, and I can't tell you how happy I've been to see comments here stay at such a relatively high level of respectfulness and thoughtfulness. Thanks, readers, for your participation, feedback, constructive criticism, lively disputations, and patience. Thanks especially for coming back again and again.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 1 November 2005 at 7:45 AM

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Next: Jimmy Carter on Southern Baptist Convention and US politics.





November 1, 2005 12:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

Good call, Chris. I view my blog as mine. I've spent a lot of time on it, and I'm a bit protective. When someone trolls, they're trolling on my front yard. I don't take kindly to that, and I'll be damned if someone is going to threaten my home or my legitimate guests inside.

Bill Baar:

November 1, 2005 01:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

That's why bloggers have our own delete buttons.

Clyde Grubbs:

November 1, 2005 05:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks. I was feeling picked on.

Trackback didn't take. I was inspired to write on my experience with trolling comments.


November 1, 2005 08:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Its been an interesting week in the UU blogosphere! My sympathies to you Philocrites. You've dealt with the majority of it and have once again modeled integrity for the rest of us. Kudos.


November 1, 2005 11:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

Yup. I think this is why most of the general discussion type email lists have become less active, and often dominated by a few voices, and much of the energy and community that surrounded them has moved into the blogosphere.

When electronic communication was a scarce good, email and usenet tended to be self policing, and most venues did have some sort of "owner" who would put his or her foot down. The blogs are a different sort of thing because they aren't an "all comers" forum. I read the blogs I read because the writers interest me and I can have good interactions with them. It is relationship based, not rule based, and the person whose space it is can run things any way they want.

You do have my sympathy in having made this decision though, and the good piece is that it in no way silences anyone who has a few minutes to set up a blog in any number of venues. But nobody can force anyone to come read one. It transcends the "just skip/delete/killfile" model of email lists.


November 2, 2005 08:48 AM | Permalink for this comment

Spot on, Philocrites. I try to read blogs from people with other viewpoints than UU/religious humanist, and I occasionally comment there. It's been interesting, because I find myself getting lumped in with "trolls" simply for having a divergent opinion, even if it is voiced with logic, substantiating evidence, and respect.

The comments on blogs are becoming the equivalent of message boards--which I think is not correct. Bloggers are, as you say, hosting the discussion, so some element of moderating presence is a good thing--though, I suppose, up to the choice of the host. Guests who attack other guests (regardless of which "side" they are on) should be rebuked, perhaps especially if the attacker is representing the perspective of the blogger.

Anyway, timely post with some good thoughts. Thank you.

Adam Tierney-Eliot:

November 2, 2005 01:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

I found this to be very helpful, Chris. Thank you. My blog doesn't get quite as much traffic as many of those I read regularly (like yours!)so I hadn't given much thought to actual rules for posting. At first pass, I would have to say that comments need to be topical and constructive. When they are not, it is like the drunk guy at a party who blurting things out from the couch. Sometimes it is hurtful but mostly it can be annoying and distracting in its randomness.

I have appreciated your good work, by the way. If you ever need to delete any of my comments I will still be your friend...


November 3, 2005 07:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

This is so much common sense, that Im surprised you're having to talk about it. Sort of an extention of "If you're so liberal and affirming of the dignity of every human being, then you'd put up with me talking about anything and everything for hours, even take me home with you and feed me - and let me stay there, and if you dont, you're a big fibber, gotcha" conversation.

Bill Baar:

November 3, 2005 09:02 AM | Permalink for this comment

There has to be a hole in a post with this much warm and fuzzy agreement.

Chris, you've just given us your rules for censoring comments on your blog.

Ratzinger has rules for censoring comments in his Church.

In Chicago, one of those rules was please remove the comment with your rainbow-sash before taking communion.

It caused a bit of a stink for some of Ratzinger's flock.

My thinking is don't like the rules: ...start your own blog ...start your own Church.

I like to think I would not take shot at either you, or Ratzinger for censoring because society needs a few rules.


November 3, 2005 07:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

There's a broader issue in Bill Baar's comment that I think I'll address separately -- which is whether anyone has a moral right to challenge rulings or statements or policies made by a traditional authority in a church or other social institution, whether it's your own or someone else's. He's asked me that before, and I think it deserves a thoughtful response. (I'm still struggling to understand how he'd root that particular view of the world in Unitarian Universalist thought, but there is intellectual precedent for conservative, traditionalist Unitarianism.)

But here's what I'd say about my "censorship" of comments: I don't delete comments because they disagree with me or challenge my small bit of authority; I delete comments when I'm convinced that they actively detract from the quality of the experience of the audience I'm trying to attract to this site. That means that I'm more sensitive to the tone and stridency of a comment than I am to the argument it makes.

Since I have no authority at all to declare someone anathema or to excommunicate them or to fire them or cause any other disciplinary action on anyone who reads this blog, I can't quite see how my editorial decisions resemble choices made by the leaders of hierarchical organizations like the Roman Catholic Church.

But I will come back to the question of social rules and the preservation of traditional authorities in a separate post. Hopefully soon.

Dan Harper:

November 4, 2005 12:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

Sure, I delete comments. If it's off-topic, it goes. If it's rude, it goes. I believe Miss Manners would approve, too, because it's all about common courtesy. And yes, good manners can include snubbing people who behave inappropriately.

Bill Baar:

November 4, 2005 08:30 AM | Permalink for this comment

I look forward to the longer response.

Oddly, I feel less conservative and more radical than I ever have.

Augustas Conant was the Abolitionist minister who's comments were deleted so to speak by the Unitarian Society of Geneva Illinois in 1848 by an anti-War congregation.

I feel his radical ghost in that Church.

But do think the labels have become very confusing as of late.

PS. The Bishop didn't excommincate or deny communion. He just asked people to take their sashes off.


November 5, 2005 12:31 AM | Permalink for this comment

Kudos, especially for the persistent spam comment removal. I am amazed when I see someone respond to a spam comment with "gee I got spam" instead of removing it. Perhaps they don't know all the reasons spam comments are bad. Hopefully my trackback worked. I pointed to an article in my blog that expands on why blog comment spam is bad.

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