Home > Uncategorized > The internet is no place for conversation

The internet is no place for conversation

October 22, 2015

I admit I’m lucky. On a daily basis I think to myself, “damn my commenters are smart, and thoughtful, and they make me think and rethink my positions.” That’s amazing! I love you people!

But it’s really not like that in general. The crazy, outsized responses and reactions to responses you find on almost any unmoderated discussion are just… terrible.

Case in point: a few people yesterday – including some wonderful commenters! – pointed me to this Atlantic article on calculating the chances that a 20 person panel at a math conference would contain only one woman.

[As an aside: the assumption was that the pool of possible panelists was 24% female, since 24% of recent Ph.D.s are women, and the probability mass function from a binomial distribution was used, which is reasonable. What’s possibly controversial is the assumption that every person who has a Ph.D. is equally qualified and available to be on a panel. The reasons they aren’t are interesting and complicated, and what’s important is that we understand it, not that we put all the blame on people who organize panels. Although people who organize panels should obviously try to do better than 1 female panelist out of 20.]

Well, take a look at the comments from this article. The very first comment contains this:

Of course panels like this will be dominated by men. If the women had a panel, most of them would want to talk about volunteering at– you got it– the local PTA.

And – guess what? – the conversation doesn’t get better after that. It’s such a shame, and such a wasted opportunity. Only people willing to resort to very low level, hostile accusations are willing to wade into that muck.

I’m just not sure what can be done about this. Do we turn off comments? Do we turn off comments except for moderated comment sections, like the New York Times? That’s very expensive. Do we devise algorithms that try to detect hateful or hostile speech and put that stuff in a harder-to-reach area? To some that stinks of censorship, but on the other hand those people often have a weak understanding of freedom of speech. Here’s a good explanation.

I guess the question is, what do we owe to the idea that everyone gets their say, and what do we owe to the idea that we want to have an actual meaningful conversation?

Personally, I moderate the first comment someone suggests, and once they’re in, they’re in. It doesn’t always work – sometimes I have to delete further comments by someone, if they become disrespectful – but it mostly does. And it really only works because on a given day I get a dozen or so comments. I wouldn’t be able to do it for a large site. Even so, I’ve really appreciated the resulting conversation.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Allen K.
    October 22, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Not wholly on-topic, but The Toast has _amazing_ (moderated) comment boards, enough to give one renewed belief that comment boards should exist. At least for women (I get the impression that 95%+ of the comments there are by women).


  2. October 22, 2015 at 7:54 am

    The best solution I’ve seen (don’t know how hard it is to implement), are sites where comments get a thumbs-up-or-down from other readers. “Thumbs-up” comments stay (or even rise in their position) while those accumulating thumbs-down votes drop lower in the feed or are even “hidden” (still accessible but requiring an extra click). Of course this still means the trolls and thumbs-downers get their time in daylight before votes cast them downward… and perhaps it can be gamed (i.e., trolls organize, and vote each others’ comments UP, but I’ve not seen it done).


    • Natalie Arellano
      October 22, 2015 at 7:49 pm

      Yes to thumbs up/down! I tend to find discussions on Reddit to be at least passably intellectually stimulating most of the time, and sometimes downright insightful!


      • Moeen
        October 23, 2015 at 1:23 pm

        This can definitely be gamed and doesn’t work as well as you might think. A perfect example of this is any YouTube video about sexism and misogyny, particularly in gaming. Anita Sarkeesian had to close down comments in her videos simply because the level hateful comments in her videos was so overwhelming, and this was even before the so-called “GamerGate” movement came about. Long before that is the so-called “ElevatorGate” where sexists flooded the comments of a video by Rebecca Watson where she discussed an incident, in passing, about a guy hitting on her in an elevator. The comments are still open, and you can see the top comments, and the video, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKHwduG1Frk

        You run into similar problems with videos involving religion, particularly Islam, where Islamophobes take over. Reddit is already having problems and it’s only going to get worse, and fast: http://wehuntedthemammoth.com/2015/07/18/reddits-plan-to-contain-hate-is-so-ass-backwards-that-reddit-bigots-are-begging-to-be-contained/

        Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to have unmoderated comments anymore that won’t get taken over by bigots. For any comments section or forum to be successful, there has to be some level of active moderation going on. I wish that weren’t true, but that seems to be the reality.


    • 27chaos
      October 23, 2015 at 5:08 pm

      Why not a mixed solution? Have multiple comments sections, one which is anonymous, another which is pseudonymous, another which is pseudonymous with a reputation system, and a final one that’s integrated with Facebook. Allow users to determine which comments they do or don’t see, or what sorting systems are and aren’t activated.


  3. October 22, 2015 at 8:08 am

    I don’t see a real way to win this. Some comments, of course, I just meant to be insulting. But what about comments from someone who just completely disagrees with you or is just that far away from you regarding a particular belief? Also, often so, people can’t handle their particular opinions or beliefs being criticized. They can’t handle the idea that something they were taught since childhood may not be the center of existence. Americans, for example, tend to believe their way is the right way and that other cultures are wrong. Take Brazil and the Ms. Bum Bum contest. Many find that deplorable here but in Brazil that’s just the way things are. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Is anyone right or is anyone wrong?

    “Luke, you’ll find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

    —Obi Wan Kenobi

    Like tends to attract like. I’m kind of a conservative/libertarian so I don’t get along very well on some left leaning boards. I’ve been ridiculed, told I was a backwards redneck, and all that because I don’t believe in unions and I’ve personally seen poor people sell their welfare checks for 50 cents on the dollar for cash money. And, of course, being a computer science major, I rarely get along with business types who have no idea how much work writing their software takes, don’t care, and don’t want to pay for it (see the recent thing Suntrust is doing trying to outsource development and IT).

    Accepting other people’s opinions is HARD. Voicing your own articulately is HARD. Especially when speaking with people with vastly different backgrounds.

    Good luck to us all.



    • Josh
      October 22, 2015 at 9:07 am


      Thanks for the comment and noting the value of diverse opinions (and contributing yours to this forum). I knew the Jedi were insightful.


      I like the column but not the title. The internet can be a wonderful, and generally safe place (relative to, say, the extended family Thanksgiving dinner) for this kind of exchange. You are certainly right that separating the wheat from the chaff is a hard, not well-solved problem.

      I’m not sure the “thumbs up”/”thumbs down” works so well as countervailing opinions tend to get voted down. I confess that I give “thumbs up” to opinions I agree with (and are well said) but not so much comments I disagree with (even if expressed well). But, for the discussion to have value, it really is good to have the dissenting opinions show up.

      But, I do think it is valuable to have well curated discussions. Maybe we can look to better automation (or to automation giving us all free time so we can spend it moderating) or something.

      Of course, for any of this to be of value, people need to be open to hearing contrary opinions and that is not so common. Another problem to tackle, probably even harder than the “moderation problem”.


      • October 22, 2015 at 9:10 am

        I agree, “thumbs up/down” might be too ambiguous. It’s not even clear whether you are voting for the opinion or the way it was expressed. And I agree that we don’t want to just push people out of the forum for having a different opinion.

        We need a better way to measure comments, that’s for sure. Even if we just ask people for a “respectfulness” score. The problem is that yes, it’s hard to admit other people are being thoughtful when we disagree with them.


      • October 22, 2015 at 4:07 pm

        Don’t be too quick to give me too much credit just yet. I’ve allowed my own “passions” to get the better of me when posting on here before. Sadly, I have much progress to make, myself.


    • October 26, 2015 at 7:59 am

      Off topic. But I’m Brazilian and what’s this ms bum bum contest? If it is what I imagine it is, I at least don’t think it is fine. I think it’s terrible.



  4. Julie
    October 22, 2015 at 9:26 am

    The problem with the argument that you have to look at the distribution at the top is that it assumes the path to get there was fair. If you assume 10% unfairness at each stage of career (which honestly is generous), then in four stages (say undergrad, grad, postdoc, asst prof) you are down to 65% fairness. Go to the full professor level where most of the panelists live at, and it’s hovering around 50% fairness.

    You could probably estimate the amount of unfairness (assuming it’s uniform across professional level, which I doubt) by comparing the fraction of equally qualified women at the bottom (say, grad school, so around 25%) with the fraction of equally qualified women at the top. If I taught probability, I would write a bunch of exam questions like this. For some strange reason, it seems like women might be better able to grasp and solve them!


    • October 22, 2015 at 9:28 am

      Absolutely. And there is no way – at all – that I think it’s fair, but as you point out I think we have to thoughtfully distribute the blame, both to people and to institutions. In other words, it’s silly to blame only panel organizers. But it’s not silly to work out what’s happening and why.


  5. October 22, 2015 at 9:47 am

    Sadly, I’ve concluded this situation is hopeless. I mean the situation where on an unmoderated discussion site, it seems virtually impossible to have a rational interaction that doesn’t quickly degenerate into “name calling” or other equally offensive verbal behavior.

    I’ve been lamenting this demoralizing state of affairs for years. I’ve always had this “vision” of being able to have discussions on what I call a “detached plane”. That’s a place where people meet in a spirit of friendship to talk about the issues of the day, with the understanding that we’re all in the dark about a lot of things and simply trying to get a better understanding of who we are and what’s going on.

    On this plane, people understand that on most complex issues, there really is no “Truth”, but only opinion based on personal values. And they understand that the idea behind talking with one another is to enhance one’s understanding of the often mysterious world and the always mysterious universe beyond it. And that we’re all pretty much confused about the ultimate nature of reality.

    On the “detached plane” disagreements are welcome, and in fact encouraged, because talking in a spirt of friendship and mutual respect with someone you disagree with on a serious issue is by far the best way to learn something.

    Every once in a while, I meet someone with whom I can talk about serious things in this way. A few have become lifelong friends. But, it’s a rare event. Regrettably, I’ve concluded that finding anything resembling a “detached plane” on an unmoderated website is impossible.

    I’ve come to realize that my “detached plane” is essentially a pipe dream.

    As you realize Cathy, your site offers exceptionally high-quality comments by exceptionally thoughtful people. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you were to do no moderating at all. But…please don’t try that. Your site (given the low-level moderation you do) is the closest thing I’ve seen to a public “detached plane”.


  6. James Mitchell
    October 22, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Some level of moderation is simply necessary. The Kinja comment system seems to work reasonably well on the sites I read. The commenter starts out unapproved on every blog- where comments are hidden unless you go looking for them. The comments are taken out of hiding if an approved user likes them (I think). And if the blog owner approves approves the user, they can then comment. The comment system only shows a few of the most liked (responded to?) comments to start with, and you have to dig to get everything.

    That pretty well stops drive-by commenters who aren’t at least invested in the site from having an impact. I haven’t looked at the comments on some of the larger, more political sites, but Jalopnik (cars) comments are remarkably civil and insightful.


    • October 22, 2015 at 9:54 am

      Interesting. Do people become unapproved if they go off the deep end?


  7. Christina Sormani
    October 22, 2015 at 10:54 am

    The one positive thing about unmoderated comments is that it makes it very crystal clear to everyone how much sexism and racism there is in this country. Back in the 1990’s we all had comments whispered to us but no one would believe anyone had said it. The older generation of women remembered hearing such things publicly said with plenty of witnesses but by the 1990’s few people would say things like this in a public way. Now its all over the internet. The disadvantage is that we have to see and hear it even more often and that it might be becoming more acceptable. If replies to comments are set up, we get to see people respond to sexist and racist comments in inspiring ways.


  8. Jeff Sweeney
    October 22, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    Media (blogs, print, etc.) need good editing because it adds value. It adds at least as much value as a good story or presentation. Moderating is a kind of editing. So, keep editing!

    I learned from Usenet (1990-ish) that anonymous and un-moderated forums require thick skin and a quick eye. They are not for the squeamish or the very young. Our society is not as civil as we would like. Is that a reason to auto- or crowd-filter these forums? I don’t think so. If there is filtering to be done the consumer should be in control of it.


  9. Don Rawlins
    October 22, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    I believe that comments should be made with your real name (backed by an invisible, but verified email address). Much harder to be a troll in the light of day.


    • October 22, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Excellent point. When anonymous and with the power of zero consequence, the vast majority of people you have ever known in your life will devolve. Some very quickly.


    • October 22, 2015 at 4:22 pm

      Don: I disagree. Consider the case of a professor who wants to post about “one of my graduate students who had the following experience ..:” (say talking about sexism in mathematics). If this post is made with one’s real name, the student may very well be identifiable as well.


  10. October 22, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    I know it’s not the main topic, but I’m grateful for the distribution-of-blame comments, as someone who from time to time feels under a certain pressure about this kind of issue. (I’m not just talking about decisions that have an impact on women in mathematics, but also about constant accusations that my university is biased against applicants from state schools, which are often based on looking at discrepancies between various percentages and then heaping all the blame on the people — that is, us — who are desperate to increase the percentage of successful applicants from state schools, but have to take our decision right at the end of a long process that disadvantages them at each stage.) For what it’s worth, I’m in favour of a certain degree of affirmative action (or positive discrimination as we call it in the UK). It has its disadvantages, but I think that they are outweighed by the advantages.


  11. October 24, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    wow, a nice problem to have. its extremely difficult to build up commenters on the average blog. and it seems cyberspace is continually getting spread even thinner. hey, just think of commenters as “microbloggers” wink 🙂


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