Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Why Do You Get Involved in Online Discussions?

I had an interesting experience in the comments section of someone else's post recently. I don't want to link to that post, because I can almost guarantee that doing so would derail the conversation I hope to have here, so I will try to use a metaphor. I'll make it ridiculous, but try to capture the flavor of what happened.

It was a post about how our society stigmatizes people who have elephants for pets, and how even if we are uncomfortable with the idea of having elephants for pets, we should recognize the humanity of the people who have them for pets, and treat them better than we do now.

I had never thought much about the issue of elephants as pets, and I for some reason decided that I would wade into the comments and see if I could learn something. In fact, I thought I might learn enough to actually formulate a somewhat informed opinion on the topic, because this site has a smart, articulate readership, and I figured some of them probably had thought a lot about elephants as pets.

But what actually happened is that I would write a comment, and then someone who actually kept an elephant as pet would write back arguing against something I hadn't said. Or at least something I hadn't thought I had said.

This went on for awhile, and I eventually gave up and went away.

But it occurred to me later that the problem was that the elephant owners and I were there for different reasons.

I was sort of interested in the topic, and thought I might learn something. So, while I didn't set out to write anything mean or inflammatory, I probably didn't take as much care in my comments as I could have.

Meanwhile, the elephant owners were there arguing for their right to choose the pet that they wanted, and came with a lot of history of having this argument with a lot of people- so they thought they knew what I was arguing, because they probably felt like they had heard it all before. And they came with a history that would understandably make them sensitive to comments such as the ones I was writing.

In the ensuing failure to communicate we both lost out. I lost out on the chance to learn something. And the elephant owners lost out on the chance to bring me closer to their way of thinking about the topic.

I felt pretty bad when I realized what had happened, and went back and tried to apologize. But this was actually better than some conversations I've been in. At least in this case, the elephant owners were making reasoned arguments, and not just saying "you're wrong" and calling people who disagreed with them names or writing snarky, condescending comments implying that anyone who disagreed with their opinion must be an idiot. I've actually banned myself from one blog whose main posts I found interesting and thought-provoking because whenever I engaged in the comments section I was likely to be treated in this way, and I decided that the blog, as good as it is, wasn't worth that aggravation. (Incidentally, the blog-writer in question and most of the commenters were academics, which made the experience even more disappointing. I expected academics to be more open to other points of view, and willing to discus things in a reasoned manner.)

All of this got me thinking about the various reasons I have for commenting on controversial posts.

I've been in various positions: sometimes I'm the elephant owner, sometimes I'm someone with a strong, well-thought out opinion against elephant owning, and sometimes I'm the person who has never thought about elephant owning and is trying to learn. I hope I'm never in the position of someone who has never thought about elephant owning and is just spouting off uninformed nonsense- but I can't swear that the elephant owners on the post in question didn't think that of me.

In thinking about it, I think I am less likely to comment when I'm the elephant owner, particularly if other elephant owners are doing a good job of presenting my opinions. I find that role to be a bit emotionally draining and very time consuming, and so will only do it on issues I feel strongly about- or sometimes on other issues, but then I just comment once or twice and go away.

So what about you? Do you comment on controversial threads? And when you do, which role are you playing?


  1. This is actually why I don't comment on many blogs. I just can't be bothered making comments if I think they'll be responded to poorly (i.e. without well-reasoned counter arguments).

    This is definitely a real-life personality trait too. I just can't be bothered arguing with people. I'm happy to have wide-ranging discussions and I'm happy to disagree with people - but I won't invest my limited energy in attempting to change a closed mind. This is why, to my husbands frustration, I refuse to argue/engage with my mother when I think she's wrong (unless she's accusing someone else of something unjustified and I have physical proof to my counter-argument). Her opinions aren't going to be changed by my comments, I'd just end up exhausted emotionally and nothing would have changed.

  2. tee hee first of all I'm laughing that you expected academics to be open minded. SIGH sadly not.

    anyway yes indeed I think that you've captured the crux of the internet. Intentional communities, like our own little acad/mom/feminist portion of it, are often built on norms of support/sharing/civil discussion, and when that is breached, the shit does go down. On the other hand, there are def. academic blogs that enjoy being controversial and hope for those comment threads in the hundreds, in which people passionately debate their points of view.

    Me I like a little of both. Who wants to hear "elephants are great pets" all day, but then I don't also want to hear "people who have elephants as pets SUCK" all the time either.

    There are def. days when I will not post on something because I know I will get sucked into a long conversation, and there is one blog I've stopped commenting on (academic only topic) simply because it is totally clear that I'm speaking a completely different language than the other frequent commentators.

  3. Anonymous4:10 AM

    "banned myself from one blog whose main posts I found interesting and thought-provoking because whenever I engaged in the comments section I was likely to be treated in this way"

    me too on this particular blog... especially since I'm fairly sure the blog owner does not want me commenting there. And partly I think that's because I'm a type of social science that she DESPISES... especially given that she's said some nasty things about people I know personally because OMG they use NUMBERS to make their arguments. Apparently that's not kosher. And occasionally she's made some comments, like about things like limiting fair trade, that are just theoretically wrong based on my discipline... and God help me if I don't give a tiny little lecture on comparative advantage... when one has to educate Freshmen... Yeah, I make myself totally unwelcome. So better not to start. Which is a shame... she used to like us...

    On places like Get Rich Slowly on which I have a strong reputation AND the blog owner welcomes different points of view and welcomes discussion that gets at all parts of an issue, I have a much easier time arguing for or against a position and the ensuing discussion is often illuminating. So illuminating, in fact, that I've had to cut back so I can get work done during the day.

    Finally, there's blog posts that attack entire groups of people. Clarissa's blog does this a lot. Some of the science blogs do this. And sometimes I just have to post on that even though I *know* Clarissa's autistic and I should make allowances for that. But it pisses me off when she equates people who cosleep with child molesters. (I wish she weren't on so many blogrolls.) Or all those posts where women complain about mothers who do X, even if I don't do X. I'm sick of mothers being told they're terrible people for doing or not doing something that is pretty irrelevant or that wouldn't be a problem if the poster weren't making it a problem. I try not to come back to those posts, but they irritate the heck out of me, so it's hard to stay silent so I tend to say something before not returning. Especially when people are piling on in the comments. Elephant owners shouldn't be told they're horrible people unless they actually are horrible people, which they generally aren't.

  4. the "hit and run" approach to commenting also raises interesting questions about the norms of civil discourse online. So if you disagree and post a one off, is that sufficient? IRL one probably couldn't just say "I completely disagree and think XYZ" and then exit the room, as much as one might like to.

    So to me that is both a benefit and a drawback of online discussion. You don't get sucked into annoying debates, but sometimes I would like the conversation to be more extended. I try not to comment on things that annoy me or on days in which I can't fully participate, but there are also definitely times when I do the drive by "WTF you are wrong" and never return!

  5. I try not to read comments on some blogs because the posts are good enough that I don't want to read the comments and ruin it. But then there are times when the post is 3 sentences long and there are 144 comments and I just want to know if everyone is exchanging recipes in the comments or something since the post didn't do that. But I read more and comment less. There is one blog I read that is frequented by a slightly older crowd (of attorneys, mostly) and I tend to comment on IVF, breastfeeding, current topics in childrearing, etc, where I can be the "expert". You'd be amazed by how many people who are currently raising children think X (whatever X may be that all of us in the trenches know).

  6. I get into much more trouble in comments than I intend to and that proves to be an emotional and a time drain. Typically I say something, and, because I may not know the blog owner well (so don't know that I am about to press a button), or I don't have the time to smooth the edges of a comment, or simply have a personal experience or an opinion that may or may not be fully informed, someone gets really ticked off. If I encounter a hostile reception once or twice and I know my intention was not to be combative or offensive, I generally stop commenting on those blogs altogether.

    Then there are the cases, comparatively few, where I know full well that what I have to say won't be well received and I am in for a lot of wasted time arguing online, but I feel very passionately about the topic so I must say something. These are generally topics on women in science, motherhood, and the immigrant experience.

  7. This is where the anonymity of internet-personas has done a huge detriment to discourse.

    If no one uses their real name and flaming rants can't tarnish others impressions of the "real" you -- what's to stop you from behaving like an absolute boor?

    People think I'm crazy for using my, you know, actual name online, but I don't write anything that I wouldn't say to someone's face.

  8. I wish you would link back to that blog. I'm dying of curiousity!

    I do sometimes comment on controversial topics and just "leave the room" without seeing if I got any responses. However, if it is a blog I read regularly, I will go back to check out the comments section from time to time, if the topic is important enough to me. I sometimes think that if I could just change/influence one person's mind, that's enough. Of course most times, people are pretty firm in their convictions.

  9. scantee11:08 AM

    I'm fairly certain I know the blog and post you're referring to and I had a similar reaction as you. At first, I found myself thinking that it was a topic, a potentially incendiary one at that, that I know nothing about so I should keep my trap shut. Then my thinking shifted to, "why shouldn't I comment on topics I find interesting?" but I didn't have a chance to comment that day and revisited the post the next day. By the time I returned I was glad I never posted. People were commenting past each other and the conversation didn't seem productive. I think that's the trouble with certain online discussions; unless you have a community of people who "know" each other and expect that the arguments of others are made in good faith, the impulse is to assume that differences of opinion are personal attacks.

    I find I don't have enough time to keep up with extended online conversations. By the time I've commented and returned the conversation has moved on and my thoughts don't seem relevant anymore. The places I do comment are ones where 1) I get the sense that the readership does take my opinions in good faith, and 2) usually one or two comments is enough to feel like I've participated in the conversation.

  10. Thanks for the comments, everyone. It is interesting reading what you all think!

    @SteveB- this wasn't a flame war, actually- it was just a massive failure to communicate. Everyone was very polite. I don't think an outright flame war would have piqued my interest as much!

    On the anonymity thing- I can't speak for anyone else, but there are two reasons I blog under a pseudonym:

    1. I write about my kids, and I don't want their future classmates to be able to easily find this blog by Googling their name or my name.

    2. Given the fact that there are still some neanderthals out there who are looking for an excuse to judge women- and especially lately, it seems like working mothers- as less capable in the workplace, I'd rather that potential employers not come across this blog if they google my name. I feel like it is smarter to keep my professional and blog identities separate.

    But I definitely have one blog identity. I post with the same pseudonym everywhere, and see a lot of the same people in different places- so I don't feel like I can spew venom and not be judged for it. It would reflect back on me.

    And I have a rule that I never write anything I would not want my mother to read. That is easy, since she reads this blog! I also never write anything that would compromise me if it were to be discovered by people at work. As you know, I don't go to great lengths to keep my blog identity secret.

    So for me, it is really all about what comes up in Google if you search my name. Right now, you can find my LinkedIn profile, a bunch of other people with the same name, and a smattering of professional things. Which is how I want it to stay!

  11. I'm the type of person to let posts/bloggers really get to me, let it fester in my head, and I'll even rant to DH about it...but I very rarely voice my opinions about controversial subjects unless I am an "expert" (or more expert than the blogger or commenters) or feel I have something very important to contribute.

    I HATE confrontation, even to the point where a simple debate can make me feel like I want to run away as fast as I can. There are some (science) blogs I used to read that I just can't anymore because it was so emotionally draining (even if I wasn't participating).

  12. I try to think about what my purpose in commenting would be. Am I lending support to the blog author? To other commenters? Am I voicing a minority opinion with the goal of maybe reaching someone who is ready to hear? Am I trying to clarify a misconception?
    I try to consider what the outcome of my post will be. Will it actually make a difference (if that's my goal)? Will it change anyone's mind? Will it unjustly harm someone else?

    I do find myself reading more and commenting less now-a-days. Mainly because I'm trying to spend less time online and more time being present in my actual life (That's a statement about me, not anyone else... I have addictive tendencies and can easily lose myself online for hours out of a day when I only meant to pop in for a few minutes.) Keeping up with comments adds a LOT to the amount of time a blog/thread takes - hence limiting my posting.
    I'm also trying to contribute more to my *own* blog(s) where I can revisit easily, and share with others, rather than "giving my thoughts away", so to speak.

  13. I so agree with what zenmoo said. I often find that not engaging keeps me stress-free, even in real life. Which frustrates my hubby because sometimes he likes to just discuss things, and play's devil's advocate without telling me he's doing it. WHich in turn frustrates me, because I'm thinking "OMG! I married someone who thinks THAT about x issue?!"

    I pretty much stay out of the controversial topics as much as I can, because I get too emotional and stressed. :)

    It's like that awesome xkcd comic about how "someone on the Internet is WRONG!"

  14. I tend to hang out in friendly spaces where I'm in sync with the community (ie, I will probably agree with most of any given post, and where the community is small and friendly). Somehow, small blog communities seem more respectful and friendly than bigger, more anonymous ones. There are some (academic) blogs where I occasionally hang out and comment, but I tend to avoid them when there's a post I disagree strongly with. I don't like debates; I'm interesting in conversation. So if there's a situation where a topic devolves from a conversation to a conflict, mostly I'm outta there. Life's too short. It's not that I don't want to hear differing viewpoints - I do - I just don't like defensive arguing. (When I first came online, the first place I ever commented was over at askmoxie, so later people would write about the Mommy Wars and I was always like What Mommy Wars? I hang out at Moxie and we are so kind to each other there!) I should also add that I don't have my own blog, and comment under two names, my real name and a pseudonym (I use the latter mostly on academic sites and my real name on more personal sites)

  15. @feMOMhist- I guess it is more that I associate academics with PhDs, and I think that people with PhDs should be trained to have a discussion about an issue that is open-minded and in which they try to put aside their preconceptions. That seems like part of the point of getting a PhD, really. I know, I'm hopelessly naive on this front.

    @oilandgarlic- maybe I'll post an update post at some point with the link to the discussion.

    Which I got sucked back into when I went over to apologize. I'm such an idiot. I think I will need to ban myself from that thread for my own sanity.

  16. Which I got sucked back into when I went over to apologize. I'm such an idiot. I think I will need to ban myself from that thread for my own sanity.

    One thing I have learned from my many accidental steps into virtual doggy dung is that trying to make it better, e.g. apologizing, only makes things worse. You end up providing people with more fodder from which to take stuff out of context, accuse you of being inconsistent or something more unflattering etc. (I wish I could say I always have the ability to step away and not look back, but alas I do not. I'm working on it, though.)

  17. You're right @GMP! But in this case, it is nothing that bad. Just a continuing case of failure to communicate.... I have decided to let it go. But I may summarize my position (and link to the original post) in an update post next week, so that you can all tell me if I am crazy or not making sense.

  18. I guess I'm not reading enough blogs. The few I read have a coffee house chat feel to the comments sections. Sometimes I scan the comments section of news articles and the ridiculousness that ensues never ceases to amaze me. I'm always like who has the time and then I remind myself I'm taking the time to read them and move on.

  19. I thought I'd come back and qualify my original comment. I have a much greater tendency to defend a particular point of view or follow up a contentious issue at work than in my personal life (and I guess I include commenting on blogs as part of my 'personal life').

    A lot of the "issues" I deal with at work are very much capable of being viewed as shades of grey or matters of perception. Unlike a lot of engineers, I'm very comfortable with a solution that isn't "technically" the best, but manages the human factors as well as possible. I would characterise my work as maybe 40% technical and 60% stakeholder management - and it's that stakeholder management that determines the success (or otherwise) of a project. So, I spend a lot of time at work talking to people, trying to understand what their issues are, fitting that into the constraints on problem solving I've got to work within (like limited budgets and environmental regulations!) to identify a solution that I feel is achievable, ethical and defensible. I then spend more time explaining and re-explaining the solution and maintaining a consistent position - potentially over a number of years. Frankly, even for an extrovert - that gets tiring.

    So, when I come across an online discussion of a controversial topic I might read the comments, but I probably won't comment myself because as I said in my first comment, I just don't have the extra energy to do it as well as I would like and I also feel online discussions lack the cues (like tone of voice, body language) that can help smooth an IRL discussion.

  20. I know the blogpost and thread you are referring to. Why? Because I appreciated your comments so much there that I followed you here! I always love your comments on that blog because they are so balanced and respectfully communicated. Whenever I see that you have commented I take the time to read it. Indeed, you have helped me with some difficulties that I have had by commenting directly on something I have written.

    I think the problem with that thread was a certain poster made it personal - if we tried to discuss and of the downsides to elephant owning then we were criticising her. And then if we were criticising her then we were elephantphobic. Elephantphobia was then aligned with sexism and racism. So at the end of the day we were just plain nasty people for even trying to discuss the issue.

    I try not to get dragged into online debates especially if they become so personal but failed in that regard especially when I saw you getting dumped on. I think that you were just presenting what many of us thought but didn't have the energy to. And you did it in a much more respectful way than I could manage.

    Like you, I went from being supportive of elephant-owning to feeling completely alienated by the end. And felt shouted down for even expressing any sort of nuanced view. Like you said, we probably agreed on 90% of things but the elephant owners almost seemed to want to make as agree on less.

    TBH, I am quite disappointed with the blog owner for allowing the discussion to become so toxic and not sure I will return for a while.

  21. Sorry for all the errors in the last post - it was written in haste as my battery was dying on my computer.

    What really got my goat up with that blogthread was when you were told that you were asking such basic question that you should go an use google. Incredibly patronising.

    I wouldn't put any store in the readers of that blog being academics. Pseudo-intellectuals more like. Any academic should know how to consider both sides without making it personal. And that the complexity of an issue can lie in the most basic of questions.

    I liked your post in that thread about how the best thing about that exchange was that it forced you to think through your opinions. That is why I like discussing issues with people on a different part of the political spectrum from me. It forces me to challenge my assumptions and think through what I am saying.

    That blogpost went to poo because the elephant-owner just couldn't take having to come up with a response to your points and so just resorted to telling you that you were elephantphobic and the other poster to google it.

    I would never speak to someone in that way. If one of my students asked me a basic question, I would use that to raise their knowledge instead of telling them "Duh, that is so 101. Go google it, idiot."

  22. @Jen, thank you for your kind comments! That thread did get nasty at the end, didn't it? It was really nice of you to come over here and say these things. I also very much appreciated the comments you left on the other blog.

    I agree with your basic summary of what happened, and I, too, was surprised and disappointed with the blog owner's behavior. But it is her blog, so she can do what she wants. By the same token, it is my time, so I don't think I'll be spending any of it over there for awhile.

    One clarification- the academic blog I referenced in the post was a different blog. They both include examining feminist issues in their "goals", though, so I'm starting to conclude that although I consider myself a feminist, I shouldn't hang out on feminist blogs. I'm not orthodox enough for them, I guess.

    Anyway, thanks again- and you're always welcome here!

  23. Anonymous8:54 AM

    @ cloud
    except grumpy rumblings, of course!
    We're totes feminist, but from our liberal (#1)/post-modernist (#2) feminist perspectives we strive for inclusiveness.* Radical feminism is too exclusive for our tastes.

    *(Except people that annoy us... we're also human and have limited time to save the world. Especially if we're not getting paid for it.)

  24. @nicoleandmaggie- yes, of course! I won't be disappearing from your site.

  25. Anonymous12:52 PM

    Dr. Crazy (Reassigned Time) I think is our favorite other feminist blog. She's really good at educating about feminism when she talks about it. And educating in the, "think about this" sort of way, not the "this is the way it is and if you disagree you're privileged" sort of way when it comes to feminist topics. I know I've definitely learned a lot from her.

    Not that she doesn't give the occasional beat-down, but generally not with feminist topics.

  26. Thanks for the response, Cloud. I was thinking again today about how disappointed I was by the whole exchange. I went into the discussion very open-minded. Indeed, I have always been a vocal supporter of the decriminalisation of elephant-owning. When elephant-owning was decriminalised in my country I let out a loud whoop in my law office and then had to deal with much antagonism from many of my colleagues. But I came away from the discussion on that blog feeling marginalised, alienated, and silenced. Oh, and not feeling particularly great after being told that my questions were stupid/ignorant and my views were akin to those of a racist or misogynist. I think the pro-elephant owning group tactics are a bit screwed up if they manage to alienate a sympathetic feminist. Good luck to them with getting the fundamentalist Christians onside.

    My work (loosely philosophy of law) has made me very aware of how complex many issues are once we start to unpack them. But there was no nuance in that discussion. Just a whole lot of assertion rather than argument. Very disappointing. I am not sure what the point was of the post at all really when it just became about one person acting insulted every time someone raised a point that was against her own personal experience. And then the blogowner would just valid that in her moderation. Why didn't she just have the elephant-owner post about her personal experiences as a guest blogger - we would have responded differently then - rather than raising it as a general issue for debate but then shutting it down by taking sides when someone didn't tow the party line and because they were purportedly oppressing the elephant-owning poster.

    Tempted to go back to that blog and write all that but think I should save my energy. There was too much right-fighting there and not enough listening. And on that front, I am most likely guilty too.

  27. Anonymous3:39 PM

    All righty...

    After all this discussion finally had to go and figure out what elephant-owning is a euphemism for.

    After reading through those brutal comments, I have decided that the elephant owner just proved that elephant owning is detrimental. If it weren't so detrimental then she wouldn't be so nasty and reactionary about it. I feel really really sorry for her. Having to be an elephant owner must suck. Which would not necessarily have been my prior for upscale elephant owners that one hears about in political scandals who presumably have more agency in which elephants to own, so to speak.

    Would elephant owning be so detrimental to the owners if culture and society wasn't down on it? Well, I kind of bet that there wouldn't be such a big market for elephant owning if culture and society weren't down on it. That's part of what makes it attractive and exciting to the elephants.

    Should elephant-owning be legalized? Well, elephant-owning is going to happen whether it is legal or not, and the question is which has worse consequences for the people involved? That's an empirical question. Here I tend to side on regulation for rank-and-file.

    It's weird because my much more militant feminist than I am cousin protested the use of elephant dancers at fraternity functions at Amherst, whereas I went with a roommate (not #2) to support her during an elephant dancing try-out to help her make money for college. It's odd that the "official feminist statement" is on the side of objectifying women. Not what I would have expected.

  28. @jen, @Nicoleandmaggie- thanks! When something like that happens, I always wonder if maybe I just completely misread the situation, or in fact said something terrible without meaning to do so. It is nice to hear that you guys think I'm not insane.

    For anyone else who wants to read the post in question- back when it was just a case of polite failure to communicate, I had fully intended to post a link. Now, however, I've banned myself from that blog, at least for awhile, so I can't do that. However, it was on Blue Milk's blog, which is easy to find via Google, and it was the second post about the "turn off the blue light" campaign poster from Ireland. The campaign is about legalizing sex work. The post was about reactions to the campaign and poster.

    I want to be clear that I am NOT asking people to pile over there and defend me. I'm not reading anymore, and it was abundantly clear that the folks who disagreed with me were not open to arguments.

  29. I'd figured out which post it was a while ago (after I read your post, I happened to read the Blue Milk one and had an a-ha! moment.)

    I have to say, I started to read the comments, saw the direction it was starting to go and pulled out of reading more. Am slightly tempted to go back now to check out what it degenerated into - but not really. I'm not a fan of ogling train wrecks.

  30. Anonymous4:24 AM

    Wikipedia has a really interesting page discussing feminism and legalization of prostitution. It is apparently a very nuanced subject.

    Obviously there is not one right answer even for "feminists"... but is there ever?

  31. Oops, sorry Cloud. Didn't mean to "out" that blogthread. As you can tell, subtlety isn't my strong suit.

    Yes, I would definitely discourage people from going over there to defend Cloud. I think the best statement we can make is to refuse to engage.

    I still can't believe how the posters managed to alienate supporters of their cause so thoroughly. I almost wonder whether we became targets for the vitriol that they wanted to spit at the real haters. Because the real haters weren't on that thread we became the next best thing.

    Yes, I won't be back there for a while.

  32. ps: you didn't misread the situation at all. I didn't read anything you wrote as being offensive.

  33. Oh, I do read blue milk sometimes and like that blog. I saw that post but didn't read it. I just read topics that interest me. I consider myself a feminist but I don't know which category I "fit" in.

  34. @Jen, no worries about outing the blog post. I was going to do it eventually, anyway. I just wanted the initial discussion to be more general.

    @oilandgarlic, yes I usually like reading Blue Milk. I may go back, once I've forgotten this mess. But... I am not sure I would feel comfortable commenting anymore. So then I have to wonder- why read, if I don't feel safe joining the conversation?


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