Anonymity, Harassment and Blog Moderation

At SkepTech this last weekend, I moderated a panel on Anonymity and Harassment, which is now available on youtube! If anyone is interested, the document I was looking at on the computer which has the questions I prepared is here.


So, what do you all think? Did I do a good job? What do you think of what the panelists said?

My Thoughts on the Panel

 > I had a ton of fun writing the questions based on emails the panelists had sent me about their views. I was glad that there was a good diversity of opinion on the panel.

 > I think panels are most interesting when there’s some back and forth, so I’m happy that that ended up happening a few times.

> When Beth was talking about blog readers being customers, several people got irritated on twitter about “capitalism ruining everything” and similar ideas. I think this is both untrue and a misinterpretation of what she said.

 – As she noted at the beginning of the panel, her experience with online communities is fairly limited; she was invited to be on the panel because she can bring a marketing perspective to the current discussion in the atheo-secular-skeptic movement about harassment, anonymity, moderation and tone, and I think that perspective is valuable. I think many of us, when thinking about whether a certain moderation policy is fair or reasonable, or thinking about the benefits of having people say awful things so we can all respond to them, think about the issue only in terms of oppression, free speech, harm to the readers and the value of openness. Those are really important factors, of course, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about how it affects the broader community to have new people see blog comments and get freaked out or frustrated and not want to come back, and I’m glad she brought that to the table

 – Second, thinking of blog readers as customers is a metaphor. It means that instead of writing whatever we want and hoping our readers respond the way we want (and then either blaming them or ourselves if they don’t), we should be more thoughtful about how our blog comes across and what space it creates. As Kate and Zach said in the panel, different communities need different types of spaces, and when there’s a disconnect between the community and the appropriate space created, there are problems.

So news sites (as well as bloggers and science sites, as Tim Farley said) should think carefully about whether or not they want to have comments at all, and then whether they want to have anonymous comments. They should do this by considering what community they’re looking to create, thinking of what that kind of readership is looking for, and providing it. Greta Christina and Leah Libresco come to mind as examples of bloggers who do an excellent job of moderating and setting the tone of their blogs. New readers quickly get a sense of what that space is and isn’t, and whether its right for them. All bloggers should look at their space from the outside that way, to be sure it’s presenting what they want it to. That way of thinking is not unique to businesses and money-making enterprises, but it is currently woefully lacking in the blogosphere, since people seem to assume largely that spaces will create themselves. Hence the usefulness of the metaphor of customers.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not a metaphor.

> People got similarly annoyed over Tim Farley’s suggestion of “gamifying” online communities. One person thought it was cynical, and others worried that it would suppress minority opinion, or conversely, unfairly favor it. I think given the complexity of the issues discussed in the panel, it’s important to keep an open mind to all solutions. As the panelists said, the questions are tough to answer. How do you get the benefits of people being able to say unpopular things without personal retribution without the harm of bigots derailing a thread because they feel entitled to express any and all opinions? How do you make sure not to normalize horrendous ideas without censoring them entirely? How do you apply social pressure to the degree that hateful comments don’t pass by without mention but without the negative consequences of sending that hatefulness underground to fester? What are the harms of under or over moderation, and which should we be more concerned about? Are any of these questions ethical, or are they all simply practical?

In a world this complicated, I don’t want to stick only to the approaches we already have, like banning comments or allowing full anonymity. I want to think about the pros and cons of psuedonymity relative to anonymity, and how the tiniest difference in the difficulty of creating a new reddit account versus a new gravatar account can totally change the feel of a blog space. So maybe upvoting and downvoting comments is a good idea, and maybe it’s  not. But I haven’t seen any data on it, and I think it’s irresponsible to assume from the outset that there’s no good in them. I want to be able to tweak and fine-tune all the settings of our blog world, ruling out none before we’ve even started, and see where we end up. I want internet communities to be intelligently designed.

> Finally, not that anyone asked me, but my own personal opinion regarding moderation and the back and forth between Kate and Zach is that regarding tone and feel on blogs, different standards for different communities makes perfect sense. Pharyngula is a place where people will mock you and criticize everything you’ve ever said, Brute Reason is a place where if you’re uncharitable and obnoxious to the author, you might get a sarcastic gif sent to you, etc. That’s all fine.

But I think that in the case of sites that are intended to report facts, like news sites and science sites, the best study we have indicates that if there are comments at all (probably a bad idea) they should be heavily moderated for tone and quality of argument. Otherwise, the site has undone its very purpose of communicating ideas to the public. And in the case of hateful or bigoted speech, I think the harm those comments do individually to anyone who reads them, the harm they do more broadly by potentially normalizing those types of opinions, the way they derail comment threads and the unlikeliness of publicly changing that person’s mind about how it’s appropriate to talk makes it a very likely ethical obligation to delete or edit those comments on one’s own blog or internet site.

What do you all think of the panel and the issues? How do you moderate your own blog, if you have one? What is your impression of other blogs?

Also, Kate’s recap of the panel is here.

4 thoughts on “Anonymity, Harassment and Blog Moderation

  1. Tim Farley says:

    Very thoughtful post. I too thought the folks who reacted angrily about the business-oriented speak were totally missing our point.

    I would strongly caution anyone who uses (for instance) the simplistic upvote/downvote on Reddit as their example of gamification gone wrong and therefore trashes it. Thoughtfully gamified sites are much more than just upvote/downvote. For instance, on Stack Exchange Q&A sites there is an elaborate scoring system that (for instance) penalizes you for voting things down but encourages you to vote things up. This is just one of many rules that go into their system. This is combined with a classic manual moderation system to keep bullying and other undesirable user behavior in check.

    • Chana says:

      Yes, I agree! I think people put far too much stock in that one example. One of the most interesting parts of the idea of gamification, I think, is just how many approaches and options there are.

  2. Beth says:

    Excellent, thoughtful post. You did a great job as moderator. It was a lively, interesting discussion.

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