Debate in the blogosphere: A small case study
Steve Patterson over at RAIL recently wrote a typically fine piece on How Comments are Killing the Commons. Coming at the subject as a student of public discourse, I find myself a little more tolerant of the blogosphere’s “partisan clowning” etc. I’m more curious about specific communication strategies we can adopt to make comment threads work. Steve McIntrye of Climate Audit recently referenced an essay by myself & Michael Dahlstrom, and my participation in the comment threads gave me an opportunity to observe close up several helpful and unhelpful strategies at work. Here are three things I learned about blogospheric debate, especially in contrast to communication in more face-to-face settings.
Managing interpersonal tensions
It’s long been recognized that in online discourse, the “cues” we rely on in face-to-face talk get “filtered out.” In a conversational debate, we have signals of intonation and body language that indicate how upset or angry our opponent is getting. Online, without these cues, it is easier for speakers to lose track of their audience’s possible feelings, and for audiences to misjudge a speaker’s intention to insult. One result: “flame wars.”
Climate Audit manages this problem through what could be called an aggressive insistence on mutual respect, at least at the beginnings of posts. After my comment, I was repeatedly greeted by name and “welcomed in.” For example:
Jean, thank you for joining the discussion,
jeangoodwin, Glad to see you join the CA discussion.
Jean: First it is great to have you engage directly on this site.
Less consistently but still noticeably, participants in the comment threads made an effort to avoid ad hominem attacks, identifying the target of their critiques as my work, as opposed to me. For example:
I would be more intrigued with your taxonomies if your research… [NB: not “you”]
That’s not really true. [NB: not “You are saying something false.”]
all of your good ideas so far are totally worthless. I hate to be blunt… [NB: not “You are worthless”; also note the hedge “I hate to be blunt”]
Both these are good strategies for maintaining a basic level of mutual respect and awareness of each other as living, breathing human beings behind the pixels. As McIntyre said during the discussion,
I try pretty hard to be polite and I think that it pays off over the long run. I know that I occasionally do not live up to this policy, but I also understand departures from this policy are counter-productive and self-indulgent and still try to adhere to the policy.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that many disputes–online and in person–are driven more by misunderstandings than by actual disagreement. In face-to-face conversations, misunderstandings can be managed by a variety of means. Participants often know each other, reducing the frequency of misunderstandings. Further, possible misunderstandings can be detected through body language, and repairs can be sought quickly and easily. And in oral discourse at least the misunderstanding can disappear quickly as the talk flows on to another topic.
None of these conditions hold in the blogosophere. People may not share much common knowledge, the comment threads lack interpersonal cues, and the statements at the center of a misunderstanding just hang there, perpetuating the problem.
The desire or even demand to be understood–perhaps characteristically American?–can lead to problems in the blogosphere. Speakers, diagnosing their audience’s lack of agreement as a misunderstanding, can begin to repeat their points over and over again, cluttering the comment thread and eventually irritating their fellow commenters.
Climate Audit appears to be managing this problem well by a general culture of patience; commenters just let things go. One indication of this is the relatively short thread “depth”; only occasionally does a comment thread go beyond 3 levels of responses, and there isn’t a conspicuous jockeying to have the last word. It’s my impression (at this point, undocumented) that several of the commenters are blog regulars, and resolve possible misunderstandings by listening to each other over a relatively extended period.
So this, too, is a good strategy for comments in the blogosphere: let it go, try again next time.
Managing argumentative responsibilities
Key to any successful debate is managing the basic responsibilities: who is obligated to defend what. If responsibilities aren’t limited, a debate e.g. over some immediate political issue can easily devolve back into a debate on how we know anything at all–philosophically interesting, perhaps, but far from the original topic. And if the responsibilities aren’t clearly defined, participants can find the debate slipping from one issue to another in what may be an unproductive fashion.
The extended abstract of an as-yet unpublished conference paper by myself and a colleague had been brought into the conversation at Climate Audit by Steve McIntyre. I entered the discussion understanding that I’m responsible for defending what my colleague and I said in that paper, and for clearly indicating areas where we remained uncertain/where the draft is under development, and for changing what we said if it turns out to be indefensible.
Other participants in the debate appeared to think that we had much, much broader responsibilities, however. For example:
Many commenters complained that our paper was “irrelevant” to the topic at hand, and asked me to “address the main point made by Willis and Steve,” even though our paper had made no claims on that point. Remember, the link between the paper and Steve McIntyre’s point had been made by Steve McIntyre.
Several commentators asked me to defend our claims with sources of evidence and methodologies other than the one we had chosen in the paper (conceptual analysis), and in particular to undertake specific case studies. While that kind of work would certainly be valuable, I didn’t think that by submitting one conference paper we had undertaken responsibility to do all the work of an entire interdisciplinary field.
We had relied on one set of results from a very large poll; one commenter asked for a response about a possible problem in an unrelated part of the poll analysis.
Finally, one commenter replied: “I don’t know why Jean and other concerned parties don’t simply write to Briffa and tell them their data obstruction is hurting their cause”–apparently imposing on me an obligation to get the CRU to change its conduct.
Of course, sometimes participants in a blog discussion do attempt to evade their argumentative responsibilities, and in that case it is legitimate to call them out and demand that they defend what they said. But in this case I believe we are seeing an un-helpful communicative strategy at play: an attempt to insist that a commenter has a much, much larger burden of proof than she has actually undertaken.
My sense was that my audience at Climate Audit had placed me on “one side” of what they saw as a “two sided debate,” and held me responsible for everything “my side” had ever said. That kind of refusal to allow a conversation partner to define the responsibilities she is willing to undertake is unlikely to lead to a productive discussion. In this particular case, I think the demands for to defend things we hadn’t said occluded possible areas of agreement about what we did say.
McIntyre himself recognized a better communication strategy when he commented:
Most negotiations between suspicious parties work on trying to reach agreement on small issues as a start. … My own approach to a difficult negotiation would be try to see if you can reach agreement on about 2/3 of the problems and then just split the difference on the balance.
In the face of deep disagreement, in other words, small can be beautiful. Allowing other commenters to limit their responsibilities, and not forcing them to defend things they haven’t said: that’s a third communicative strategy for fostering online debates worth reading.
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