I’ve had to think hard about how best to moderate the comments on this website. A number of the recent posts have had more than 100 comments, and one has passed 200. Just following them is a decent amount of work, and it gets in the way of other writing important to me. My own practice has been to respond to anyone who I think is seeking a real answer to something, or who has found a weakness in what I have written, or who seems to have misunderstood what I wrote. I learn from such encounters. If I find I have been wrong I say so.
Since the beginning of the year there has been a significant increase in the number of comments, and in particular in the number of what I see as quite unproductive comments. A disproportionately large amount of the latter has come from two commenters, ‘David’ and ‘Ross’. I put their website names in inverted commas to indicate that they may or may not in real life possess those first names. ‘David’ has been a frequent commenter for a long time, while ‘Ross’ seems to have arrived on this website in mid-March. What is an ‘unproductive comment’? Well, I am sure that it depends on your point of view.
Mine starts like this. My essays tend to be based on data of some kind, in relation to a question of some kind. This is particularly the case where the subject matter is ‘climate change’ or anthropogenic global warming (AGW). I recognise that I have a position, and I put it forward, using the best data that are available. If there were a superior position, I would recognise it because it came with even better data and argument. I am always pleased if a commenter directs me to something I haven’t seen that is relevant to the question, and usually somewhat mortified if I ought to have seen it myself. I think those are most productive comments. I have let commenters say what they like, even when the language is abusive or coarse (there have not been many of the latter). I try to be courteous and helpful, and hope that commenters take their cue from my own style and tone. That has been the rule up until now.
Unproductive comments, in my opinion, are those that sledge another commenter, that contain no useful information, that try to lead discussion down a different path altogether, or that simply comment on a comment. You can live with a handful of these, but when they become dominant they seem to me to change the character of the website and its discussion. And people complain, not just in the Comments section itself, but in emails to the website manager — me. Not only that, some other commenters cannot resist replying in kind, or going down the new, hi-jacked path. The Comments then become an unproductive mess.
What to do? I thought I should go back to the beginning of the year. ‘David’ is fond of suggesting more work for me to do for him, so I looked at each of his comments since the beginning of the year. From January 11th to the end of April there have been 31 essays and a little over 2500 comments. Just under 20 per cent of them have been provided by ‘David’ (I may have missed one or two), twice as many as my own, and I am dealing with all the subjects that have been in all the essays. ‘David’ has a real penchant for anything to do with ‘climate change’, and early in April I felt that his attitude was so aggressive and unproductive that I said I would not respond to anything he wrote for the remainder of the month. That was perhaps not an inspired reaction, for it was as though the teacher had left the classroom, with ‘David’ if anything then increasing his verbal activity, which a number of commenters found obnoxious. He must spend a significant amount of his life on this website.
His contributions over these four months can be divided into five groups:
- Quips, irony, sarcasm, ad homs and judgments as from on high: 186
- Comments on other people’s comments: 150
- Hi-jacking the thread to an interest of his own: 48
- Criticisms with some content on the actual subject under discussion: 48
- Offering links to something else without much or any argument or evidence: 22
It will be plain that the boundaries between these categories are rubbery, and on another day I might have provided slightly different totals for the Quip and Comment groups. But it will be plain that the positive contribution that ‘David’ offers is pretty small — about 10 per cent — while the total amount people have to wade through to get there is high. From mid-March to the end of April commenter ‘Ross’ added 239 of his own comments, of which only 36 have any useful content at all (about 14 per cent), and that is being most generous about the meaning of ‘useful’. Most are cheap shots, as the Americans call them (see Merriam-Webster).
After some consultation around the Internet, I have decided to change what I do with comments. From now on all commenters will be restricted to a maximum of three comments in any one day, which is a common rule for websites like mine. The contributions of ‘David’ and ‘Ross’ will go into moderation, meaning that I have to vet them before they are published. In their case, I will want to see two contributions that contain data and argument, not just links, for every quip or comment on someone else.
If they wish to continue the new rule will mean that both will need to avoid tedious repetition and smart-arse comments about other commenters, to stay on topic, to desist from changing the subject to one of their own choosing, and generally to engage here with good argument and data, not grand assertions that lack both.
Since ‘Ross’ believes in free speech, he will doubtless feel that Big Brother is about. He could with profit go back and read the arguments he and I have had on that subject (no, ‘Ross’, do your own work). With freedom comes responsibility: to dominate discussion with egregious comments may illustrate that one has freedom, but it is a pernicious freedom. Which is why we have rules about freedom of speech — even in the USA, where the First Amendment apparently guarantees free speech.
I am sorry that I have to do this; it has not been necessary in the four years that this website has been operating. But I did not create it in order to allow someone to have a free ride at the expense of other commenters. The same rules will apply in the case of any other commenter whose contributions become numerically excessive, or who cannot follow the general civility rules that have been part of this website since it was started.
I’ve saved this cartoon for the right occasion. I think this is it.