The internet is no place for conversation
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.