The Jury Talks Back


Re: Comments on comments

Filed under: Blogging Matters — Amphipolis @ 8:15 am

Justin Levine raises some very good points. I agree with just about every one of his arguments, but I do see value in blog comments in spite of the many drawbacks Justin describes.

A phone conversation is only heard by one person. Comments may be read by tens of thousands. Or by one, but there is no way a phone conversation can have the same reach. Comments allow a guy in pajamas to correct an error or make a point that would otherwise be left out of public discourse. I would not be writing this post if it were not for the pajamas effect.

The poor quality of debate in comments has often almost driven me to (temporarily) give them up. The constant pattern of make a statement, defend against the straw man, defend against the next straw man, and again, and again, until the “debate” ends with ad hominems is very frustrating. It sometimes requires more patience than I can muster. Be that as it may, half of the point in my mind is teaching people how to think through issues logically. For every brain-dead ideologue there are ten curious people who may learn reason. It can be worth the effort.

The monitoring of comments must be tiresome. Freedom draws abuse which runs the gamut from the profane to the off-point. But readers can tune out the trolls. Trolls are not persuasive. However, they can effectively shut down debate and thereby stifle the ideas they oppose. This is annoying, but over the long haul those ideas are still getting out.

Anonymity certainly can encourage abuse, but it can also lead to more openness. For all of their infuriating annoyances, blog comments on sites like Patterico’s are the only place I know where at least somewhat open minded conservatives and liberals share ideas. I know that my ideas have been influenced by the experience and my respect for the other point of view has often increased.

Ultimately, each format has advantages and disadvantages. I am glad to be able to use both, and I wouldn’t want Justin to change a style that works so well for him.


  1. I just don’t see the point in arguing back and forth in the comments with someone who will never change their mind. Thoroughly state your position, state it well, anticipate your opponents best two or three arguments and refute them and sit down and shut up.(Kind of like a good closing argument, if you do it properly you can waive rebuttal!) My positions tend to be to the right of most others, that’s o.k. everyone is entitled to their own opinions, even right wing, classical liberal, evangelical, christian, patriots who believe in the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”

    Name calling and ad hominem attacks are like Junior High School and a waste of my time to scan through because I certainly won’t read any.

    Ronald Reagan Rocks!!!

    Comment by J. Raymond Wright — 12/16/2008 @ 8:28 am

  2. added the link…

    Comment by Amphipolis — 12/16/2008 @ 8:31 am

  3. I can’t see taking the position that a post of mine cannot be improved by some comment. Not all comments, but some comments. God knows I’m capable of error, and comments offer me a way to see those errors.

    Yes, some comments are other-than-helpful. Fine. I skip them myself and try very hard not to rise to troll’s bait. But many many commenters have valid points to make and some just might change some people’s thinking.

    To my way of thinking, commentless posts can be as much an unwillingness to defend the indefensible than some principled stand for blog purity.

    Comment by Kevin Murphy — 12/16/2008 @ 9:13 am

  4. The comments section is like phone calls to a talk show, but the talk show has an advantage: They can hang up on “Troothers”, Kos Kids, and other trolls and stooges of the Democrat Party.

    Comment by PCD — 12/16/2008 @ 9:56 am

  5. PCD — yeah, but we CAN ignore them if we want to. And in a way that’s better, as it drives the truthers even crazier than banning them outright — which, I suspect, validates their asinine theories and thus their pathetic lives in some small way.

    Plus, these sites gets a fair number of liberals who are thoughtful and engage others in their topics (apharel comes to mind, though there are others). I think their contributions are a positive, as they keep this site from turning into an echo chamber. And my own experience on other sites that have tried a more aggressive banning policy is that the administrators tend to eventually go overboard (that whole power corrupts thing) and a lot is lost in the process.

    Comment by Sean P — 12/16/2008 @ 11:18 am

  6. Sean,

    Actually having worked in Talk Radio, I’ve encountered the entitled Liberal like TnJ who believe they have the right to make you listen to their insanity. Those are the ones I will hang up on for our Internet radio show.

    Comment by PCD — 12/16/2008 @ 12:01 pm

  7. I can fully understand the problem with allowing comment debates to become p***ing wars, but not having really undermines one of the main purposes of blogging. Nothing against Justin, but I don’t read his posts as much as I do those of others here, simply because there is plenty of opinion on the Internet I can read and I would just as soon focus my time and effort on opinion that allows my participation.

    The problem with ignoring the trolls is that many of them come over here from other sites to make their comments. Someone else then wanders over and ends up engaging the troll, so even if the “regulars” here tune out the troll, rest assured that he or she ends up getting their argument anyway.

    Comment by JVW — 12/16/2008 @ 3:47 pm

  8. I think people should do what feels best to them. Some bloggers like comments and others don’t. Some write essays and others post brief thoughts or links. It’s like the difference between books, short stories and poems. There’s a place for all of it. As for me, I think I write better posts if I know someone can post a comment that points out my errors or weaknesses, plus I like the give-and-take.

    Comment by DRJ — 12/16/2008 @ 9:44 pm

  9. “For every brain-dead ideologue there are ten curious people who may learn reason.” I’d argue that the ratio is likely lower, and likely favoring the brain dead. Still, for sake of argument, I’ll stipulate to your ratio. The problem is that, like the disruptive few in a class of otherwise teachable students, those disruptive few command far more attention and time than their numbers merit. How many members does Code Pink claim? 50? 100? 200? Whoop-ti-do. How much press coverage did they receive? Dialogue does not get them attention like confrontation can. That’s why the cynical are “cool”, they disagree with the coventional, the corrosive effect of their cynicism be damned.

    Comment by Chris — 12/17/2008 @ 2:34 pm

  10. OK, I admit it – I pulled the 1 : 10 ratio out of thin air. I am counting lurkers, and I believe (or hope?) many trolls are ignored when their posts are compared to calmly reasoned comments.

    But I may be engaged in wishful thinking. Either way, the writing is there and I am willing to let readers judge for themselves. I have had people inquire about comments they googled years after I made them. They are on the record.

    I have had long and civil debates here and elsewhere that have not been hijacked. I think that my opinions have been thoroughly expressed.

    Comment by Amphipolis — 12/17/2008 @ 7:33 pm

  11. Has anyone been a victim of identity spoofing? It happened to me once on another site. Someone posted comments under my name late on a thread I had been commenting on.

    Thankfully I noticed it and pointed it out by denying that I had made certain posts that bore my ancient moniker.

    Comment by Amphipolis — 12/17/2008 @ 7:53 pm

  12. Amphipolis – It has happened to me on this site, twice in the last 6 months or so. Each time the troll/Leftist posted incredibly inflammatory statements under my name, that clearly ran contrary to the person the regulars know me to be.

    Comment by JD — 12/17/2008 @ 10:31 pm

  13. JD: that’s one of the best defenses against identity spoofing: if you have a consistent and recognized behavior pattern, it’s going to be hard for a spoofer to both maintain that pattern and do whatever he was trying to do by spoofing you.

    It’s actually one of the reasons I was so confused when the new Dana showed up. :)

    Comment by aphrael — 12/19/2008 @ 12:15 pm

  14. I’ve been thinking about this particular post on commenting since it was put up. In reading it through several times it would appear that motive for posting directly effects how one views comments from readers.

    It sometimes requires more patience than I can muster. Be that as it may, half of the point in my mind is teaching people how to think through issues logically. For every brain-dead ideologue there are ten curious people who may learn reason. It can be worth the effort.

    When I read this it struck me that your intent is to teach and enlighten the commenters. Thus you have a built-in expectation of response. I think this perhaps limits those who might otherwise be willing to comment in that they may not meet said expectation, or there may be a brushing-off of anything less than a view framed in proper debate form. While the endless trolls, strawman and ad hominen does get tiresome, it also may speak to the fact that some people truly do not know how to engage in formal debate but nonetheless are still trying to express something they’re thinking about no matter how sophomorically. Can a person who has not yet developed critical thinking skills still offer substantive comment and provocation of serious thought or is there a standard that must be first met before taking the comment into thought and consideration?

    I contrast that with DRJ’s,

    As for me, I think I write better posts if I know someone can post a comment that points out my errors or weaknesses, plus I like the give-and-take.

    It would appear she has less of an expectation of readers which in turn makes her more open to learning from her commenters and as a result having her own views challenged, refined and/or solidified. I would suspect that more people feel comfortable commenting with this blogger mindset than one who is teaching.

    The relationship between blogger’s and their motive with what constitutes a valuable commenter is very interesting.

    Comment by Dana — 12/20/2008 @ 4:09 pm

  15. Dana – thanks for the interesting and insightful comment.

    I suppose that I do expect a response when I comment, although that response could merely be the reader quietly considering my point. I don’t expect people to be pre-trained in the informal fallacies. Most people inherently understand them even if they can’t identify them by name. After all, the common ones are just clever distractions. In my experience people usually gracefully back off when their fallacy is challenged, and think before doing it again. Thus they learn. As I have. It gets frustrating when each one has his own straw man.

    Some on other blogs seem to consider these fallacies to be reasonable. These are the guys who deliberately attempt to distract from a point they don’t like, and when that fails they end with an insult. They come off looking like the fools they are.

    Constuctive debate on blogs has certainly modified my opinions, as I stated.

    Comment by Amphipolis — 12/20/2008 @ 4:44 pm

  16. Justin Levine has posted a response to this response here. I don’t plan to respond again beyond this post, I’ll let someone else pick up the baton if they are interested.

    I have thought a lot over the years about the anonymity issue. Justin raises some good points, and I am vulnerable to them since I am obviously anonymous. I don’t like this, it is a sore spot for me.

    I hate anonymity. If I get a survey, I write my name on it. I generally abhor anonymous criticism. I have seen people say things behind their pseudonym that I don’t think they would say otherwise. This has tempted me also; I have worked hard to resist the temptation.

    But on this format, I have dealt with some hot issues that have on occasion generated threats. Maybe I am a coward, but I do not want my family or my employer to be harassed.

    Bloggers have portrayed themselves as personally involved with some situations, and I have questioned their veracity here. Were you really adopted by gay parents? I have no way of knowing. Exposing the anonymity can actually eliminate this anecdotal evidence and the emotional response it is meant to generate. If it can’t be verified, it can’t be considered as evidence.

    As for me, I have been posting on sites like this since at least 2003. I got my start on worldmagblog and my profile is here. Patterico knows my name and town because I thought I should tell him before I posted on his site. An enterprising googler could find out my identity, I have left plenty of footprints. I have given my identity to several fellow commentors over the years.

    I still think that good communication is possible in spite of the abuse of anonymity. A real person is on the other side, and lots of quiet people are reading. Take the anonymity into account and consider the logic behind the actual arguments. That’s where the power of these comments lies.

    Comment by Amphipolis — 12/20/2008 @ 5:06 pm

  17. Dana and Amphipolis,

    Dana’s point on blogger’s motives is something I haven’t thought about, so that makes it twice as fun and interesting to me. I’m often a teacher in my “real” life: As a parent, as a business owner working with my employees, and I’ve even taught at area colleges. However, I don’t see myself as a teacher when I blog. That may be because of my law school training that, years ago, was based on open-ended discussion called the Socratic method. The teacher’s role was to guide the debate without unduly limiting it, a technique that can result in a confusing and inefficient learning experience. (At first, there were many days when I left class more confused than when I arrived.)

    In contrast, my goal as a blogger is to introduce subjects that I think will lead to an interesting debate, but I have little or no desire to guide that debate to a desired result. Maybe that’s unusual but I think open-ended debate keeps people invested in the discussion. It can be an excellent way to learn, reach a consensus, consider new ideas, and/or identify differences. I also think it’s fun, especially when the discussion is with people as courteous and thoughtful as you both are.

    Comment by DRJ — 12/20/2008 @ 5:41 pm

  18. With the wounds of the Vietnam War barely healed, are we really ready for a new emotion-driven debate that threatens to divide our country in two: Whether anyone gives a hoot about Justin Levine’s comment policy?

    Comment by nk — 12/20/2008 @ 6:01 pm

  19. Amphipolis,

    I’d like to discuss the issue of anonymity in blogging. My theory is that if my identity is not already known or discovered, it will be at some point, so I try to always act as if I’m posting under my real name. However, I tend to discount the theory that posting under one’s real name makes for a more civilized discussion. While I concede that some people are more polite when they post under their real name, a name doesn’t make people treat others with respect. Attitudes, not names, make people respectful of others.

    I choose to post anonymously for several reasons but the main one is that I don’t want people to focus on my sex, race, or age when they decide whether my opinions are worthwhile. As a blogger and a commenter, my goal is to contribute to a discussion and readers don’t need to know who anyone is to decide whether a post or comment makes sense.

    Comment by DRJ — 12/20/2008 @ 6:04 pm

  20. nk,


    Comment by DRJ — 12/20/2008 @ 6:06 pm

  21. Post under my real name? NEVER!!!

    Oh, wait…

    Well, I certainly won’t ever say where I live…

    Oh, wait, I’ve done that too… Heck, at one point I think I named the city.

    I guess I just don’t give a darn if someone wants to go nuts and come pay me a visit…

    Comment by Scott Jacobs — 12/20/2008 @ 6:37 pm

  22. For example…

    There will always be retards and morons who like to pretend they can scare you. If I had a dollar for every whck-job who thought they were intimidating me by even suggesting they had personal info – let alone the guy who posted my full name, address, phone number, and then threatened to detour from his road trip to “teach me a leason” – I’d have been able to afford Obama’s Senate seat…

    The novelty of it got old more than a decade ago. I just laugh at them, and make sure I set an extra spot at the dinner table, just in case.

    I wouldn’t want to be a poor host, you know…

    Comment by Scott Jacobs — 12/20/2008 @ 6:53 pm

  23. Amphibolis, I think motive plays as a much a part with commenters as well. Those that you mention who deliberately attempt to distract from points they disagree with are not in it for discussion/debate but I believe simply to be right. It’s personal to them.

    I tend to feel that the right and wrong of an issue almost becomes superfluous to the discussion at hand and being challenged to think through issue more clearly and to dig deeper takes presidence. It’s certainly not personal but rather more like being handed a petrie dish full of interesting bits of thoughtful goo to be examined, probed and extrapolated from…

    I was a regular commenter at another blog for years. I sadly left after being repeatedly and habitually singled out for personal insult by another commenter. Both of us used our real names, he is first and last as well. It became upsetting to have a thread full of interesting and insightful comments be hijacked by his overwhelming need to be the center of attention by making offensive comment and as a result, see everyone else leave the issue at hand to defend me and/or put him in his place. Too many important discussions and comments that deserve thoughtful consideration get sidelined as trolls move an entire group of people away from said discussion and toward another discussion where they win – happily ending up as the center of attention.

    I appreciate DRJ’s reasons for anonymity and understand it. Unfortunately there is also a safety issue, moreso I think with women.

    Comment by Dana — 12/20/2008 @ 8:29 pm

  24. May I be frank? Or even Frank? Justin is full of shit. Patterico has the best site on the internet in very large part because of his comment policy. If Justin does not like backtalk, he should talk to his bathroom mirror.

    Comment by nk — 12/20/2008 @ 9:11 pm

  25. Anonymity is preferable, AFAIC, and anyone who is looking for a name or description is looking for an ad hominem attack.

    If you can’t debate the idea, then what are you doing on a text based communication system anyway? Using text comments to intimidate is laughable, as the ‘identity’ of anyone making a valid threat would necessarily need to be concealed, as it is a criminal act – thus the protests of ‘show yourself’ are just a distraction.

    Comment by Apogee — 12/20/2008 @ 9:48 pm

  26. I view the commenters here as a pretty good bunch, all in all. Sure, there are some problems, but I’ve been really pleased with the comment threads on my posts overall.

    I also view the comments as a public thread, an effort to engage not just the original poster, but the other commenters. It also forms the better commenters into a sort of social network.

    I’d be dismayed at a no-comments policy.

    As to anonymity, I am unconvinced by Justin’s argument that it creates worse posts by each anonymous person. I would be fairly shocked if de-anonymizing DRJ or aphrael (for instance) improved their quality or quantity of posts.

    I suspect this will be my last note on this topic.


    Comment by JRM — 12/20/2008 @ 10:51 pm

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