Wasted effort

Lately I’ve found that I spend a lot of time moderating posts that are simply back and forth arguments between just a few people whom have inflexible points of view. Often the discussion turns a bit testy. I’ve had to give some folks (on both sides of the debate) a time out the last couple of days. While the visitors of this blog (on both sides of the debate) are often more courteous than on some other blogs I’ve seen, it still gets tiresome moderating the same arguments between the same people again and again.

I’ve come to the conclusion that much of this is wasted effort.

Notice this entry has no ability to comment. Given the daily effort that is required by myself and the volunteer moderators, to moderate these arguments, I’m asking everyone to think a bit about that and think about ways that you can simply concede and move on, rather than prolonging arguments that go nowhere. Discussion is good, entrenchment buries the scope of thought.

UPDATE: For a fresh perspective on the role of blogging, see this article in the Atlantic by Andrew Sullivan. I’ve decided to open comments now, mainly because of that article. – Anthony

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20 thoughts on “Wasted effort

  1. Andrew Sullivan wrote in the article you asked us to read, “He can provoke discussion or take a position, even passionately, but he also must create an atmosphere in which others want to participate. ”
    This you do amazingly well, Anthony. I see all levels of skill and expertise in posted comments. I really, really appreciate the worldwide participation that your blog attracts and encourages. And I find some of the “OT but…” posts lead to some of the most interesting new ideas, viewpoints, or scientific results. You have created a blog where people want to participate.
    However, the headaches and frustrations you posted are legitimate;the C02-acidification-sea coral brouhaha being a notable 600+post example. Yet I read that sucker through to the end and I’ll continue to check it to see how it all ends up.
    My wish is to see you continue as in the past with the deft moderation that allows some heat but snips to maintain civility. And also I’d wish to continue to see those “This is off topic but…” gems scattered through the various posts.
    But to keep the long, mule-headed arguments that flare up here and there from grinding you and the other moderators into dust, might I recommend you call a halt after a couple of dozen shots with return fire and tell the participants that the argument is over on the current thread and to take the argument to…? (The only thing I’m not sure of is where you can send these artguments so the participants can continue and others who are interested can go follow the action.)
    It is your blog, Anthony. Go with your instincts. They seem to be very good. Do what’s best for your sanity. I learn so many new things here every day that you could run this blog more strictly than nuns run a parochial school and I’d still drop by every day to read.
    Thanks for putting up with my $0.02.

  2. stuck pixels — it doesn’t matter whether they are stuck on or stuck off — they don’t contribute to the big picture. So when I read a blog, I skip entries from certain known commentors and look for and study entries from other known commentors. It would be helpful if the comments from the experts were highlighted (experts using their real names). The experts provide the best answers, but others provide the good questions,
    so I thank them too. As for wasted effort, it’s not at all wasted, so many thanks to the moderators also, they save us from Chaos.

  3. Seriously though, I do like the idea (as mentioned on the current “sun” thread) of a running “Off Topic” thread.
    More helpful, but definitely related perhaps, would be a section on the Home Page for FAQ’s where common questions could be repeatedly be discussed/distressed/addressed/disected and distracted. (Though, of course, given the nature of some of these FAQ issues, the actual title of that section should be “Frequently Argued Questions” …. )

  4. Anthony: “I’m asking everyone to think a bit about that and think about ways that you can simply concede and move on, rather than prolonging arguments that go nowhere.”
    One solution to the moderation workload would be to institute two types of thread, one type to be formal, the other more informal. The two types could be headed with a textual sign, eg ‘Science’ and ‘News’, to enable posters to understand that different rules will apply.
    The science threads would be subject to stricter rules, eg no abuse of opponents, third parties and generic categories; no imputation of motive; nothing about funding, hoaxes and Big Oil. These threads would be moderated.
    The news-type threads could be a free-for-all, with perhaps a minimal prohibition on obscene language, and would be unmoderated. If technically feasible, there could be a facility to direct new posters to the structure and rules.
    The moderators’ workload would be cut, and people who wanted to vent would know where to go.

  5. Anthony – 1st time I have addressed you by name – thank you for your interesting and informative venue, please keep up the good work in so far as your busy schedule and patience allows.
    You are indeed correct about some of the seemingly endless bickering that goes on between some participants. A possible suggestion for countering this: ask each of the participating “belligerents” if you can release their email address to the other. Let them carry on that way. Probably not a good suggestion, but possible. Lacking that, and with a pro forma warning at the beginning of each topic, as it is your blog and simply cut off those who abuse your goodwill.
    While it is good to defend rationally what one thinks is true, I am reminded of the wisdom expressed in the lyrics from The King and I song “A Puzzlement.”

    “…
    That tho’ a man may be in doubt of what he know,
    Very quickly he will fight…
    He’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!
    …”

    REPLY: et cetera, et cetera, et cetera….
    Thanks for the kind words, Anthony

  6. I’ll make this short and a bit disconnected, I’m in a hotel room at the moment with a flaky Internet connection on my wife’s MacBook.
    Before the web, and even before the Internet there was USENET, a messaging platform implemented on Unix computers and used by zillions of people in universities and industry. It’s still around, but I’ve drifted away, aided by access issues and my ISP.
    USENET forums were largely unmoderated, and often quite contensius, I have a “frozen flame” page preserving a typical flamewar I allowed myself to join.
    One thing USENET “news readers” usualy let people do is to skip posts on a certain topic or certain people for some amount of time. Unless I write a “blog reader” its one of the reasons I’m not all that fond of blog formats.
    One defense I used is to follow the updates to USENET stories for the first 5-7 steps in the tree of replies. After that there was very little content, and much noise. Anything new would usually show up in a new storyline, in WordPress, it would be like anyone being able to create a guest post. Here new and interesting stuff can show up deep into the comments section.
    This is a bit of a dilemma, especially as WUWT grows I used to be able to keep up with everything, but I have to cut back and will start to stop following articles after a few days. I might write a program to check things looking for favorite posters or questions to “werme” a very handy search string.
    I’ll post a few more suggestions, but one thing that might help soak up some of the bickering would be to create a weekly (mostly) free-for-all thread and encourage the debate between people who won’t change their views to move over there. Moderation could be lax, I’d check each for a day or two, etc. Truly interesting entries could be referenced on the regular article comment sections, etc.
    Trying to keep the “signal-to-noise” ratio high on USENET was always a challenge, but moderated groups were often shunned. In the blogosphere they’re much more accepted, pretty much out of necessity. However, it will still be a challenge here, especially as readership grows.

  7. I would actually want to see you answer some of those arguments. Those of them that had some actual weight, and there were a lot of them.

  8. A tough job, which Anthony and his team handle well.
    A dialogue of the deaf is rarely edifying and soon lapses into repetition.
    Keep it fresh people.

  9. I like the idea of, “If it’s that important to you, take it to email.” If you agree, I will send your email address to the opposing party. Otherwise, move on or be censored. If you have a free-for-all thread, you will end up having to babysit that one too.

  10. You could always set up a forum for off-topic discussions, however this will likely increase the workload for the moderators, rather than decrease it. It may still be worthwhile the effort.

  11. Sorry, I swore off Andrew Sullivan. Observing emotional, mental and spiritual illness is damaging and I get my quota.

  12. Anthony, EUReferendum blogs articles and uses each article as a forum thread. I’d suggest a forum set-up since it is easier to set up sub-forums as work-groups on projects etc. I’ll happily help set up and moderate if required, please e-mail me if you’re interested.

  13. On Fruitless Debate
    The psychology behind USENET flame wars and debates that never end is mildly interesting, at least to this non-psychologist software engineer. Some milder forms are relatively harmless. For example, every so often John Philip posts something I think is wrong. So I feel duty-bound to post my “correct” interpretation. (It would help if I could remember the topic, but I’m sure it’s important. 🙂 ) Then we both leave it at that until next time a month later.
    Even Anthony is involved in a similar exchange. He says “I’ve pointed out several times the incident of the abrupt and sustained lowering of the Ap Index which occurred in October 2005.” Then Leif posts a note reminding Anthony that similar events have happened before and they aren’t all that significant.
    On the other hand, if you have two (it’s usually two) people who:
    1) are certain their view is right,
    2) insist on getting the last word,
    3) and like being on the soapbox,
    then you get what I just named “Fruitless Debate”. At some point each post has no new information, people seeing the debate late aren’t quite sure what the debate is about, people who saw the start can’t quite remember how the debate started, and no one is being convinced of either’s view.
    There seems to be no good way to end some of these. Eventually they may just move to a new topic and continue there. Trying to move it to Email or some unmoderated place doesn’t work because they’re off the soapbox, and there’s no sense of winning the debate and no satisfaction of educating the masses about the Truth.
    One thing that would be nice, but I’m sure WordPress doesn’t support, would be to limit people to something like 5 posts per day. Then people would have the impetus make each post count. One thing that some people do (Leif does this the best here) is to put semi-complete essays on a private web site and direct people there. That saves a huge amount of time and you wind up with a very good resource. It doesn’t necessarily stop a fruitless debate or flame war, but it lets you walk away from the debate knowing that everything you wanted to say is available to interested people.
    Something that moderators can do is simply snip a few posts that do not add to the discussion – while debaters seem to have way too much time on their hands, not getting their post on the sandbox does a lot to discourage the debate.
    What to do? Some of the other posts have good ideas (I can’t find one list), some changes I’d like to see include:
    1) At the top of each page are buttons for Home/About/Projects/…/Resources. I’d like a new entry “News hints” where people could post links to breaking news. How many people have posted about the latest BBC article (aside to people reading this in June, “latest” still works)? That’s one reason I read deeply into comments. Having a place for people post links worth attention would be nice. I’d recommend that discussion be strictly limited so that the history is worth reading and uncluttered by discuss and me too posts.
    2) Perhaps another section on “Suggestions” where people could post ideas for new articles, but this could be fiercely moderated with only really good ideas that Anthony or guest writers might want to pursue. Anything that starts with “Anthony, I think you should” could be deleted as it’s clear the writer doesn’t understand the effort that goes into this blog.
    3) A weekly soapbox article that might keep the soapboxers busy and a place to discuss new posts to 1) and 2). I think Steve McIntyre (or someone) has done this from time to time. Anyone who would like to bring up a discussion could do it at the start of the week. That would be a much better place than in the middle of a week-old article’s comments.
    4) If someone has time, clear out the discussion in Resources. Anything that isn’t a resource doesn’t belong there. Be ruthless. It’s a long term, always visible page that would be a better resource (sorry) if it lived up to its title.
    5) The above would make it “safer” to stop reading the comment thread of fairly recent articles. When one degenerates into a fruitless debate, if other people are using suggestions 1-3, then the debaters will get the sense that their audinence has left and maybe it’s time to give up. Moving to the latest soapbox thread requires cooperation (hah!), and doesn’t bring the context gave some meaning to the old dialog.
    Recent growth here is going to require some changes to keep things managable for everyone involved. In the year I’ve been reading here I’ve been very impressed at how well Anthony has kept things under control. We do need some changes for the next year, but I for one will support pretty much anything that Anthony wants to try out. After all, it is his blog and I disclaim any right to make demands from him or his blog. But please, do keep up the good work!

  14. May I offer some moderation suggestions:
    1) Posts must be about the topic and not the person making the argument. Personal attacks will be punished. Maybe have a point system with a known “loss of privileges” threshold. Most violations are 1 point, “STFU” is more. Maybe make the loss of privileges at 3 and call them “strikes”??
    Or something like that.
    2) Somehow encourage brevity. Some of the best posts are long though so I’m not sure what you might do here. Maybe just ask people to try and be brief (without pasting in whole other posts unless really needed). It’s not easy to read a whole thread. I can’t imagine moderating them all.

  15. Speaking of wasted effort,
    1) Why are there 110 comments on the thehttp://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/02/16/nisidc-makes-a-big-jump-but-why story?
    2) Why did I look at at them all when I could’ve stopped with Walt Meier’s post halfway through?
    This would be a good sort of article to put up with comment closed and a note saying that you’ll open the comments after you hear back from Meier.

  16. “Personal attacks will be punished. Maybe have a point system with a known “loss of privileges” threshold.”
    This is already in place.
    I sympathize with Anthony’s predicament and have pressed too hard more than once myself.
    Nietzsche was mad and preternaturally wrong to mankind’s detriment. But would it be wise not to consider him? How to include a Nietzsche and exclude trolls without merit?

  17. As someone who has run an online community for 9 years now, I have to say first, I feel your pain.
    More importantly, though, I really want to congratulate you on a very vibrant and instructive blog/community. It’s very good. I suspect that it would be very good with a higher level of moderation or a lower level of debate for debate’s sake, but I really don’t know. I do find that I can’t read through all the comments, even though the signal to noise level is pretty solid.
    I just wanted to say that I appreciate all that you do for both my own edification as well as the education of the “lay” public.

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