The virtues of moderation, part I

philosophy_discussionedited by SciSal

[This is an excerpt from James Grimmelmann’s paper “The virtues of moderation” published in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology (2015) [1]. The relevance to our webzine should be obvious… The excerpt presented below was pieced together by SciSal editor Dan Tippens and is reproduced here with permission from the author. Part II will appear in a couple of days.]

Introduction

If you’ve never seen the image known as “goatse,” trust me — you don’t want to. But if you have, you understand why it was such a disaster when this notoriously disgusting photograph showed up on the website of the Los Angeles Times on June 19, 2005. It wasn’t a hack. The newspaper had invited its readers to post whatever they wanted. One of them posted a gaping anus. It had started off innocently enough. Inspired by Wikipedia, the Times launched a “wikitorial,” an editorial that any of the paper’s readers could edit. At first, readers fought over its position: should it be for or against the Iraq War? Then one boiled the argument down to its essence — “Fuck USA” — touching off an edit war of increasingly rapid and radically incompatible changes. By the second day, trolls were posting hardcore pornography, designed to shock and disgust. The Times pulled the plug entirely in less than forty-eight hours. What had started with “Rewrite the editorial yourself” ended with the admission that “a few readers were flooding the site with inappropriate material.”

The wikitorial debacle has the air of a parable: the Los Angeles Times hung a “KICK ME” sign on its website, and of course it got kicked. Open up an online community, and of course you’ll bring out the spammers, the vandals, and the trolls. That’s just how people act on the Internet. But consider this: the Times’ model, Wikipedia, is going into its thirteenth year. It is the sixth most-visited website on the Internet. And despite being a website “that anyone can edit,” it remains almost entirely goatse-free. Anarchy on the Internet is not inevitable. Spaces can and do flourish where people collaborate and where all are welcome. What, then, separates the Wikipedias from the wikitorials? Why do some communities thrive while others become ghost towns?

The difference is moderation. Just as town meetings and debates have moderators who keep the discussion civil and productive, healthy online communities have moderators who facilitate communication. A community’s moderators can promote posts or hide them, honor posters or shame them, recruit users or ban them. Their decisions influence what is seen, what is valued, what is said. When they do their job right, they create the conditions under which cooperation is possible. Wikipedia, for all its faults, is moderated in a way that supports an active community of mostly productive editors. The Los Angeles Times, for all its good intentions, moderated the wikitorial in a way that provided few useful defenses against vandals. Wikipedia’s moderation keeps its house in order; the Times gave arsonists the run of the place.

The Problem of Moderation

By “moderation,” I mean the governance mechanisms that structure participation in a community to facilitate cooperation and prevent abuse. Our object of study is an online community. A community can be as small as the handful of people on a private mailing list or as large as the Internet itself. Communities can overlap, as anyone on both Twitter and Facebook knows. Communities can also nest: the comments section at Instapundit is a meaningful community, and so is the conservative blogosphere. There is little point in being overly precise about any given community’s boundaries, so long as we can identify three things: the community’s members, the content they share with each other, and the infrastructure they use to share it.

The Internet as a whole is both an agglomeration of numerous communities and a sprawling, loosely knit community in its own right. Its moderation includes both the moderation within its constituent communities and moderation that cannot easily be attributed to any of them. Thus, even though it is not particularly helpful to talk about Google as a community in its own right, it and other search engines play an important role in the overall moderation of the Web.

Members can wear different hats: there are owners of the infrastructure, moderators of the community, and authors and readers of content. For example, on YouTube, Google owns the infrastructure; video uploaders are authors; video viewers are readers; and the moderators include everyone who clicks to flag an inappropriate video, the algorithms that collate user reports, and the unlucky YouTube employees who manually review flagged videos. Owners occupy a privileged position because their control over infrastructure gives them unappealable control over the community’s software-based rules. This control lets owners decide who can moderate and how. Moderators, in turn, shape the flow of content from authors to readers. Of course, members can wear multiple hats. “NO SPOILERS!” is both content and a gently chiding act of moderation.

Members have varied motivations. Authors want their messages to be seen; readers with diverse tastes seek content of interest to them. Moderators, like authors, want to promote the spread of content they care about. All of them can derive personal fulfillment and a sense of belonging from participation. Because the same person could be an author, reader, moderator, and owner, these motivations interrelate. Thus, for example, users connect their computers to peer-to-peer networks to download files they want, but in the process they make files on their computers available to other users. They are willing to act as owners supplying infrastructure because of the value they receive as readers receiving content. Similarly, participants on a discussion forum may shoulder some of the work of moderation by flagging unwanted posts for deletion because they enjoy being part of a thriving community. Divergent motivations become important only when there is a clear separation of roles (e.g., paid professional moderators) or when a community is torn between participants with incompatible goals (e.g., amateur and professional photographers).

Goals

From these individual motivations, we can derive goals for moderation overall. Broadly speaking, moderation has three goals. First, a well-moderated community will be productive: it will generate and distribute valuable information goods. Some of these information goods are valuable in themselves (Welcome to Night Vale fan fiction), others because they facilitate transactions (Freecycle listings), and others because they are part of socially important systems (political discussions). Productivity is the greatest common divisor of moderation goals, the one that everyone can agree on. Members share in the gains from productivity as authors and readers. Society gains, too, when valuable information spreads beyond the community — a classic example of a positive spillover.

Second, moderation can increase access to online communities. Openness is partly about efficiency: more members can make the community more productive. But openness also has moral consequences: cutting people off from a community cuts them off from the knowledge the community produces. Openness exists along a spectrum. A wiki usable by anyone on the Internet is more open than a wiki open to anyone on a school’s network, which is in turn more open than a password-protected wiki open only to the graduate students of the geology department. An important aspect of openness is democracy — participation in moderation and in setting moderation policy. Again, part of the justification is instrumental: broad participation can help make moderation more effective. But it can also be important in itself for members to have a voice in making moderation decisions. Democratic moderation is online self governance.

Third, a well-moderated community will have low costs: it will do its work while making as few demands as possible on the infrastructure and on participants. Costs here include the obvious computational ones — servers, hard drives, network connections, electricity, etc. — but also include the work required of participants, such as flagging a post for removal, removing a flagged post, or appealing an incorrectly removed post. Each individual decision may be small, but they add up quickly. Yahoo saved one million dollars per year in customer support costs by substantially automating its moderation system for Yahoo Answers. These virtues are incomparable. Different moderation techniques inevitably trade off among them. Excluding the heaviest users, for example, hurts productivity and openness while also reducing costs. Even productivity and cost, both efficiency concerns, have distributional components: two members may agree that a burden is worth bearing but disagree on who should bear it.

Abuses

The interface between infrastructure and information is vulnerable to some predictable forms of strategic behavior, including spam, harassment, and other famous pathologies of online life. These are the abuses against which moderation must guard. Moderation need not prevent them entirely — and probably cannot without killing the commons — but it must keep them within acceptable bounds, and without driving up the costs of moderation itself to unacceptable levels. The abuses fall into four broad categories: congestion, cacophony, abuse, and manipulation. The first pair of problems involves overuse. Each participant’s contribution of content makes demands both on the infrastructure and on other participants. At the infrastructure level, overuse causes congestion, which makes it harder for any information to get through and can cause the infrastructure to stagger and fall. At the content level, overuse causes cacophony, which makes it harder for participants to find what they want. In trademark terms, they must incur search costs to sort through the information available to them.

Both congestion and cacophony are problems of prioritization: bad content crowds out good, to the private benefit of the content’s promoters but at an overall cost to the community. The difference is that in congestion, the resource constraint is the infrastructure’s capacity, whereas in cacophony, the constraint is participant’s attention. Spam is the classic example of overuse causing both congestion and cacophony. A denial-of-service attack is an attempt to create congestion for its own sake.

Like abuse, manipulation is distinctively a problem of information exchange: it is possible whenever some information can be deleted entirely, or when participants can exploit each other’s cognitive limits. A classic pathological case of manipulation is the edit war, in which wiki users with conflicting ideologies engage in a wasteful conflict to make a page reflect their point of view. The difference is that, in abuse, the content itself is the problem, while in manipulation, worthwhile content is handled in a way that harms the community. The dueling pro- and anti-war edits to the Los Angeles Times wikitorial were manipulation; the pornography that followed was abuse.

_____

[1] Grimmelmann, James. The virtues of moderation. Yale J.L @ Tech. 42 (2015).

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31 thoughts on “The virtues of moderation, part I

  1. As a blogger who writes about evolution, I had to decide a policy for dealing with creationists, whom I have seen creating cacophony on other sites by endless commenting and hijacking discussions. However, I was uncomfortable about censorship, since freedom of expression is a good, and so is the experience of being exposed to viewpoints with which one does not agree.

    My compromise was to clearly state a rule; creationists are allowed two comments on any one post, and I reserve the right to truncate their comments if I think they are boring.

    Trivial, no doubt, but I would suggest that it is a good idea for moderators to state the principles behind their decisions, while reserving the right to override them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Moderation is a modern social term for one of the oldest problems of the human civilization: separating the wheat from the chaff. Or in technical terms, increasing the signal-to-noise ratio. 🙂

    The essay is very good, and contains a nice and well-phrased overview of various aspects of moderation. However, it somehow fails to address the most important question — how does one decide what is wheat and what is chaff?

    Moderators are essentially content judges (and often jurors and executors all in one). They ascribe value to each piece of content material, and then accordingly discard it or promote it. The process of ascribing value is a problem that has no universal solution, and is being done on a case-by-case basis, most often according to personal opinion (or taste) of the moderator.

    What I would like to read about is some nontrivial input from philosophy regarding the process of ascribing value to content. I would expect that the lack of answer to this is the real core issue behind the necessity of moderation in general. If everyone managed to agree what is valuable content, moderation would be unnecessary.

    The essay somehow discussed all aspects of moderation except that most important one, and left me wanting. Will part two get into that topic?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marko,
    The process of ascribing value is a problem that has no universal solution, and is being done on a case-by-case basis, most often according to personal opinion (or taste) of the moderator.

    You raise a good point but I think it is not so much the content(facts of the matter) as the attitude that the commentator evidences. I suggest that the attitude can be weighted for compliance with the following points:

    On the positive side:
    1. a desire to know, exercise curiosity
    2. a desire to understand, show insight
    3. a willingness to respect other opinions
    4. a desire to contribute constructively
    5. a desire to cooperate or collaborate.
    6. a willingness to entertain other points of view.
    7. an ability to appreciate nuance and context.
    8. a willingness to give credit.

    On the negative side:
    1. schadenfreude, exhibit meanness or unpleasantness,
    2. querdenkers or contrarians, make a habit of contradicting everything,
    3. dogmatiks, unyieldingly insist on propagating a narrow point of view on every occasion,
    4. resentimistas, have favourite targets for resentment and lose no opportunity to pick on them,
    5. shockers, attention seekers, delight in flouting norms,
    6. whiners, have incessant complaints, some other party is always to blame,
    7. monochromatics, see matters in stark alternatives, in extremes with no context,
    8. anosognosics, lack the self-insight to understand the faults in their reasoning.

    These represent extremes, Most of us will be somewhere in between and on occasion oscillate between positive and negative contributions. Some of our better known commentators can be easily labelled on these scales 🙂 For example, it can readily be seen that you, EJ and Aravis dependably make positive contributions. As for the negative side, no names, no packdrill, but it is easy to work out 🙂

    Like

  4. I’m surely not the only one who expected a discussion on the virtues of non extremity here, given that the term “moderation” was used. I’m pleased to find governance to be the true topic at hand given how essential this seems for us to productively function together under social settings. Furthermore those of us who enjoy this site must not take for granted what it takes to keep it running as well as it does.

    Marko, I second your desire for “nontrivial input from philosophy regarding the process of ascribing value to content.” This is where we get “meta” really fast, however, and so must assess what is ultimately “good” (a question which philosophers have always argued about). But let’s say, for example, that we were to agree upon the answer which utilitarians like myself enspouse. Even if it were agreed that “happiness” is all that matters to us, this shouldn’t make online discussions more civil, and this is because we each have our own happinesses to tend. If I’m happier with government funding to preserve rain forests, and if you’re happier with such funding to stop cruelty to our pets, then even utilitarians should fight about what to actually do.

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  5. There are unmentioned ethical issues here at major “content” websites. First, Facebook, above all, “outsources” much of its comment moderation work. And outsources it to the developing world.

    Setting aside the over-the-top claims of some social justice warriors about their social media experiences (which also, arguably, were voluntary to a degree these aren’t), it’s clear that there’s some trauma involved with doing this.

    Both Gawker: http://gawker.com/5885714/inside-facebooks-outsourced-anti-porn-and-gore-brigade-where-camel-toes-are-more-offensive-than-crushed-heads And Wired: http://www.wired.com/2014/10/content-moderation/ have written about this. Gawker’s piece notes that Facebook’s moderation system is inconsistent, and like a lot of such in the US, thinks sexual content is the devil while feeling free with passing on higher levels of violent content. Maybe that’s why the Filipino moderators sometimes are traumatized.

    Twitter, speaking of SJWs, had seen the rise of things like the Block Bot.

    And, that, in turn, gets to another issue. When does moderating or blocking “offensive” content go beyond actually offensive content to blocking or moderating “content offensive to my worldview”?

    To use an analogy, because people know I love to do so, it’s the online world equivalent of deciding to erect a gated community.

    Paul The idea of principles is good, and for other reasons. Take using comments from Facebook. When an original post is NOT posted to “public,” or comments are made on such a post, I feel it is unethical to reuse them in other venues, such as part of a blog post, a Tweet, etc., without express consent of the commenter. I hope that others, here and elsewhere, adopt such a policy if they have not already done so.

    Per Labnut and his riff on Marko, part of the issue is what value the facilitator(s), or leader(s) (depending on how said person(s) view themselves) place on development and maintenance of community, as well as what items they value in communities in general. In much of the libertarianish Net, the $$ is part of the value, hence the decision to outsource moderation. Since Jimmy Wales already made his money off cheap porn sites and other things, and actually has some value for development of a valuable online encyclopedia, he has some paid editorial staff, as well as having gotten moderators to buy into developing that community.

    Per Grimmelmann’s paper, Wiki is usually very good on the natural sciences and at least decent on social sciences. On history, the more ancient the history is, the better Wiki is. Modern history, biography or political science, one should take it with a grain, or several grains, of salt. Even then, it’s not always bad, but it will have errors. It will also have “unevenness,” in that some historical events or figures get either longer or shorter write-ups than they deserve.

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  6. Paul Braterman,

    I like your comment, and really recommend you stick around for part II of this paper. Grimmelmann taxonomizes the tactics of moderation you said you employ, and discusses their pros and cons.

    Marko,

    Yes to be sure, Grimmelmann is mostly a taxonomist in this paper. He lays out all the different facets of moderation, classifies/describes them, and labels them.

    “However, it somehow fails to address the most important question — how does one decide what is wheat and what is chaff? Moderators are essentially content judges (and often jurors and executors all in one). They ascribe value to each piece of content material, and then accordingly discard it or promote it. The process of ascribing value is a problem that has no universal solution, and is being done on a case-by-case basis, most often according to personal opinion (or taste) of the moderator.”
    _________________________________________________________________________

    In Part II you will see what Grimmelmann calls the “grammar of moderation,” which essentially contains the various types of actions a moderator or community can perform in order to moderate content. Some of the tactics he describes you may find reduce the amount of bias that an individual moderator might have if he is the sole judge of content.

    Here is one strategy I came up with after reading Grimmelmann’s paper.

    He pointed out that each community will have different goals about what content (generally) it wants to produce. In order to be fair (least biased) about what content gets through and what doesn’t, the moderator can, for a while, allow *most or all* comments to go by regardless of their content, take a look at the response of the community (do most people disapprove of a certain kind of content – agreeing that it is not relevant to the production goals of the site, or not?) and then moderate comments in accordance with what most people seemed to agree was valuable and in accordance with the content-goals and what was not. Yes there will be some vagueness, but the problem of totally biased moderation would be mitigated.

    This has actually been something that has helped me moderate here. In addition to discussing comments with Massimo and Phil, on occasion I may (sometimes accidentally) let a comment go through which, it turns out, the community widely disapproves of or perhaps approves of. When this happens, I update my prototype of what makes a “valuable comment” and moderate in accordance with that prototype.

    I think this kind of question is what you were getting at, but if you were trying to get at some deeper philosophical question about values feel free to state it again for me, perhaps you can break me free from my tunnel vision.

    Everyone,

    I hope you don’t mind if I bring things back to SciSal for a minute. I would love to hear people’s thoughts something Grimmelmann said which is relevant to this community:

    “…and the moderators include everyone who clicks to flag an inappropriate video”

    Grimmelmann observes here that moderators are sometimes not separate entities from the readers. For example, a “like” button can give readers the ability to become moderators. This is a social-moderation. People’s comments are discouraged if they aren’t liked or if they are disliked, and certain types of comments are encouraged when they are liked.

    This is something that is now present in SciSal. Indeed, Massimo, Phil, and I are no longer the only moderators.

    We recently added the “like” function (around 6 months ago?) and I at times have felt the force of its moderation ability. Bandwagons are formed, due to mass “liking”, and an individual comment thread becomes a place where only a certain type of comment which conforms to what most people are “liking” seems acceptable to post. Indeed, people reading the comment threads may feel uncomfortable posting a comment with content which disagrees with what most others are liking and will refrain from doing so.

    One reason for refraining from posting a comment which disagrees with the community is that, and this is the case for me, one values being a part of the community. Since I am not commenting anonymously, if I make a comment which most people will disagree with, it puts social pressure on me to say something which aligns with most other commentators on the thread lest I be remembered in the future as “the guy who said such and such.”

    In this way, the “like” function can actually moderate content: it pressures people to offer up a comment with a certain kind of content, otherwise they can become community outcasts.

    Do people think this is a good thing? A bad thing? I would appreciate an open discussion of this.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I don’t think censorship or free speech per se is ever an issue with private moderated sites, and I would agree that there can be no universal rules for separating wheat from chaff content. A private site is essentially a creative work on the part of the site’s owner, and so long as rules to participants are clear and adhered to, the most that can go wrong is that the site is unpopular.

    To illustrate, there would be nothing inherently wrong with a site that gave the following rule to commenters:

    To be considered for publication, a comment must be either irrelevant to the original post or else troll at least one other commenter. Courteous, on-topic comments will not be considered, and any participant who submits three or more such comments in any twelve month period will be permanently banned from the site.

    So fairness is not a matter of what the rules of submission are, but only that they are clear and adhered to.

    Matters of unfairness arise only when the moderator’s selection criteria are tacitly other than the stated rule of submission in a way that causes some commenters to spend time on comments that have no chance of acceptance (a tiny tort, in a manner of speaking). A familiar example is a site that says it welcomes all polite, well-stated, on-topic comments but in fact limits publication to one side of the issue.

    In such a case, what’s wrong has nothing to do with censorship or free speech, but only with stealing people’s time through misleading submission rules. If one is not talking about the government or a government affiliated entity, one is not talking about issues of censorship or free speech. Private citizens have no obligation to sanction the unfettered speech of others. Again, the worst a private moderator can do is steal people’s time through misleading rules.

    But the problem of framing fair and productive discussions might seem to remain. This is an illusion. Fairness is just a matter of clear and adhered-to rules, and productiveness is relative. Hearing all sides of an issues might be productive, but so might be a discussion devoted to working out the nuances of one side of an issue, i.e. one that excludes a swath of reasonable views on the matter.

    Like

  8. Dan,
    Do people think this[the “like” function] is a good thing? A bad thing? I would appreciate an open discussion of this.

    Yes, I definitely think it is a good thing. But, having said that, this community has hardly used the like button. Why should that be? I use it liberally. Perhaps the Editors could do more to promote its use? For example a reminder at the top of every essay?

    The StackExchange group of question/answer sites have a very effective mechanism. Comments earn reputation points and ‘likes’ quickly increase the reputation points that one receives. Their aggregate reputation is displayed next to their name. The effect of this is that commentators strive to increase their reputation by making thoughtful contributions. I was, for a while, an active participant in http://photo.stackexchange.com/ and found myself(http://bit.ly/1RtXYzZ), like others, working hard to grow my reputation as a knowledgeable photographer. For this reason, the replies given there are generally of a high quality. In fact I have found that, for this reason, the StackExchange sites are the go-to place to find good answers to programming questions. I am a frequent visitor.

    But the software at StackExchange was designed from the ground up for this purpose. Our problem is that WordPress was not designed for this purpose. If some way could be found for tallying the total likes received by commentators this would serve as a measure of reputation that would reward good commenting practice.

    But this does not seem possible with WordPress.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Pmpaolini,

    I agree that many sites are privately owned and that free speech isn’t an issue in some moral or legal sense in these communities. Yes, it is up to the owner of the site to decide what content will be displayed.

    However, for communities such as SciSal which strive to be open intellectual communities that foster (almost) all lines of thought, issues about content moderation become extremely important. In particular, issues of fairness.

    Hi Labnut,

    The only concern I have is that if a commentator aggregates a large amount of likes, content is going to be shifted in that commentator’s direction. So for example, let’s say I hold one position on morality and someone else holds another position. If you have few likes (perhaps because you are new, or just dont comment much), then what tends to happen is people are more likely to strongly disagree with your comment purely due to a type of group-think we can call “like-think” (whoever has the most “likes” is more likely to be right or have the better position).

    So, in this case the community is socially suppressing views that accord with what you have to say in this case, and are actively amplifying and promoting views that accord with my views. In other words, we are getting a skewing of content due to, at best, non-rational mechanisms.

    Also I don’t think I agree with you that this community hardly uses the “like” button. On various emotionally-charged essays and topics the “like” button gets used quite a bit. Take a look through old posts and I think you will agree.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Dan,
    a commentator aggregates a large amount of likes, content is going to be shifted in that commentator’s direction

    You are right in that there are two possible effects:
    1) the commentator strives to earn more likes by posting more thoughtful comments.
    2) other commentators are influenced by high reputation commentators.

    Given the vigorous independence of opinion we see in SS I think the second effect will be small. In fact that was the case in photo.stackexchange.com. Photographers are also highly opinionated! I shudder to think what photographer-philosophers would be like 🙂

    On balance I think that encouraging thoughtful comment is the greater good that outweighs the likely small bandwagon effect.

    Take a look through old posts and I think you will agree.
    I did, to check before I made my comment, and I will grant that there has been a healthy increase in usage but I remain unimpressed. Perhaps I expect too much.

    Like

  11. Hi dantip,

    “However, for communities such as SciSal which strive to be open intellectual communities that foster (almost) all lines of thought, issues about content moderation become extremely important. In particular, issues of fairness.”

    What do you mean by fairness in the above context? As I tried to explain in my last, beyond adherence to clear rules, fairness, regarding private sites, appears to lack any absolute standard; that is, the notion of fair rules in an absolute sense is somewhat empty in this context as such rules define what a site is in a certain sense, which can be anything; it’s only matters of adherence to rules that brings up issues of fairness.

    If you disagree, please give an example of how a moderator could be unfair in a way other than non-adherence to stated comment submission rules.

    Like

  12. Hi Paul,

    You and I actually basically agree (as I mentioned in my above comment when I said that “I agree that many sites are privately owned and that free speech isn’t an issue in some moral or legal sense in these communities. Yes, it is up to the owner of the site to decide what content will be displayed”). I may have unfortunately made it look like we disagree due to phrasing.

    I just thought you might have been dismissing the importance of fair adherence to the rules in the minimal, as opposed to the absolute, sense of “fair” you outlined above; for a moderator to be fair s/he should adhere to the set of rules he, or the owner, laid out.

    I guess the best way to put this would be: yes, I agree with you that issues of free speech and some absolute sense of fairness aren’t relevant here. But I’m not sure anybody thought that was the case. What is important, and being discussed, is how to uphold the minimal sense of fairness you outlined in your comment; how do you get moderation to accord with the set of rules that the owner laid out?

    That is what most of the previous posts have been trying to get at, and I was just trying to emphasize the importance of that discussion. Hence why I said, “However, for communities such as SciSal which strive to be open intellectual communities that foster (almost) all lines of thought, issues about content moderation become extremely important. In particular, issues of fairness.”

    Admittedly, I should have specified that “fairness” here was referring to the minimal sense you had described.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I couldn’t help laughing when I read pmpaolini’s statement:

    “To be considered for publication, a comment must be either irrelevant to the original post or else troll at least one other commenter. Courteous, on-topic comments will not be considered . . .”

    Fortunately, I think it fair to say that by and large this is not the case at SciSal. But it does touch on one aspect of commentary that I weigh heavily in deciding whether I “like” a comment, namely, its relevance to the OP. This doesn’t preclude my “liking” a comment that may express disagreement with an OP’s position or a particular point.

    In my case, it is fair to say that given my background and lack of familiarity with many of the topics, I’m appreciative of comments that help to clarify an OP, or to identify its weaknesses, or to broaden its implications. In other words, I view this as a learning experience, and I tend to like comments that are well-written, even-handed, and sensitize me to points I may otherwise have overlooked (and there are many).

    There are times, though, when a comment includes a remark or a position that I’m hesitant to endorse with a “like,” even though the comment is otherwise excellent. In short, I like this “like” feature. And I’m not unduly swayed by its use by others.

    As to the “bandwagon” effect, ’twas true. In fact, not only have some comments on commentators been deferential. At times, they have been obsequious and hilariously histrionic. That distraction seems to have been moderated lately, for which I kindly thank you.

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  14. Dantip wrote: “…for communities such as SciSal which strive to be open intellectual communities that foster (almost) all lines of thought, issues about content moderation become extremely important.”

    I thought this site was basically designed to promote to the general, educated public the value of academic work in certain philosophy-and-science-related areas (‘scientia’). It clearly also bears Massimo’s personal stamp, and (as the likes of Chomsky and Corey Robin are cited in the About page) clearly has a leftish orientation. This is fine, but let’s be explicit about it here.

    Fostering “(almost) all lines of thought”? I don’t think so. It goes without saying that extremist views are unwelcome. But what about moderate forms of classical liberalism or secular conservatism? Or — to give a non-political example — strong forms of naturalism (often referred to here as scientism). The expression of such views is rare or non-existent in recent posts, and in the comments section is tolerated but clearly not encouraged or fostered.

    My personal preference is for more robust debate: I think it’s more interesting. So why not just filter out (or delete) the crass and the obviously crankish?

    Some people are positive souls, team players; others are natural contrarians or whatever. My suggestion would be simply to welcome all intelligent comments and to eschew moderatorial moralizing altogether.

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  15. Hi Mark English,

    I’m glad that you commented, because it does force a few clarificatory remarks from my previous comments and does raise good points. Let me try to respond to what you said, though there was quite a bit packed in so it is possible I am misinterpreting you at some points.

    First I should clarify that “fostering” was probably a bad choice. What I should have said is that this site *allows for* (almost) all lines of thought. We rarely filter something based on content unless it violates some of the standards of discourse we laid out (which aren’t too many, we just ask people to be civil and on topic, basically).

    Of course, since this a community of people, certain views will be more encouraged in the community than others, but in terms of what SciSal’s moderation very generally, there really isn’t much. We let almost all comments through.

    With this in mind…

    You said, “I thought this site was basically designed to promote to the general, educated public the value of academic work in certain philosophy-and-science-related areas (‘scientia’)” in response to what I said which was, “…for communities such as SciSal which strive to be open intellectual communities that foster (almost) all lines of thought.”
    _____________________________________________________________________________

    I think it is worth pointing out that the tagline for the site says, “Philosophy, Science, and all interesting things in between.” The latter half of the tagline pretty much is as inclusive about content as it gets. So I think the tagline and title of the site are consistent with the idea that we are a pretty open intellectual community that *allows* for (almost) all lines of thought.

    You also said, “It clearly also bears Massimo’s personal stamp, and (as the likes of Chomsky and Corey Robin are cited in the About page) clearly has a leftish orientation. This is fine, but let’s be explicit about it here.”

    Could you elaborate more on what you mean by “Massimo’s personal stamp?” I have a few different interpretations for this and I’m not sure which one you are talking about, so it is hard for me to respond. For example, you could mean that we see more posts from massimo than from anyone else. Or you could mean that the majority consensus in the community accords with massimo’s views. Or you could literally just mean this is Massimo’s project/creation (though I don’t think you mean this trivial last interpretation). It would be helpful for me if you could clarify this for me, and how you think it connects with what I claimed.
    _______________________________________________________________________________

    Lastly, you said, “Fostering “(almost) all lines of thought”? I don’t think so. It goes without saying that extremist views are unwelcome. But what about moderate forms of classical liberalism or secular conservatism? Or — to give a non-political example — strong forms of naturalism (often referred to here as scientism). The expression of such views is rare or non-existent in recent posts, and in the comments section is tolerated but clearly not encouraged or fostered.”

    As for “extremist views being unwelcome,” I think that wit my previous clarification in place this can be handled. Extremist views may be unwelcome to this community, but they are allowed to pass through for discussion.

    As for “strong forms of naturalism” (scientism) being non-existent, I think you are just dead wrong on this one to be honest. So yes, these views may not be present in recent posts. But that is actually primarily because the topic has just been discussed *too* much and people want a break (just like with the topic of free-will). Evidence of this is that we have a collection of essays (compiled in ebook format) on this exact topic with authors defending both sides being published soon (thanks to Peter, the editor of the SciSal ebooks).

    This leads me to the last general qualification I should make about how “almost” was being used here. I like to think back to David Lewis and his paper on contextualism about knowledge. One thing he points out is that certain words’ truth-conditions change depending on their context. For example, suppose we are at a dinner party. The guests are seated and eating. I then exclaim “all of the glasses are empty!” Obviously, if we took “all” to its most extreme form, my exclamations would be false. All of the glasses in the world are not empty. But these global truth-conditions are clearly not the ones at play in this context. What “all” refers to is the set of glasses on the table at this party.

    Similarly, I thought that the context I used “almost” in here would reveal that what I meant can be understood in a more relaxed sense. Compared with something like Fox news we clearly allow for almost all lines of thought, and more generally we allow for (though like I said perhaps this community doesn’t foster) all lines of thought.

    I should also say that from countless conversations both over email and some in-person with Massimo and Phil about comment moderation, I am pretty confident that we want to allow (almost) all lines of thought to be posted on this site.

    That said, Massimo (and his assistant editors) can’t prevent communities from preferring some views over others. But it is also worth noting that I was suggesting earlier ways to prevent the community from being able to skew content in the direction of one view over another (and it is also worth noting that the other assistant editor Phil Pollack told me over email he was sympathetic though still undecided on this) by removing the “like” button.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I don’t particularly like “like”. The level of usage it has at the moment is about right (ie occasional). As you point out, it’s not too useful when 10 people like the correspondence theory of truth while only 2 like the coherence theory. I might be in favour of an emotivist system, where people comment yay and boo, but they do that anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. By the way it should also be noted that Scientia Salon is still in the early stages of a huge moderation policy change. It went from being a popular site that was “anything goes” on comments (perhaps except for excessive rudeness), though that changed on March 31 — a five day, five comment, and five hundred word per comment limitation was applied to each post. Furthermore a stiff mandate for apparent relevance was implemented (and yes, I’ve certainly been moderated). I somewhat doubt that these changes have been successful commercially however given their natural restrictions on traffic. These changes do nevertheless appeal to me very much! I certainly hope for them to bring commercial success in the end as well.

    The strange thing about me being so positive about the site however, is that my own views happen to be quite radical (…utilitarianism, physicalism, determinism, and even a belief that philosophy will need to found our mental/behavioral sciences some day. Scientism? At the very least!). But shouldn’t I be vilified here for expressing such unpopular positions? I’ve been amazed by an absence of disrespect, and attribute this to being in a society of truly critical thinkers. (You should all now be ashamed of yourselves, however, if my ideas do happen to be crap!)

    Liked by 1 person

  18. There seems to be a lot in play here. At first I was confused with the word ‘moderate’. Was this about how to be moderate, or civil, in one’s writing? Or was this about how to moderate, or censor, a publication stream? I wasn’t sure.

    And then there is the whole ever-expanding universe of publication streams and technologies today: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Medium, Disqus, WordPress, Blogger, … . Each system has their own vocabulary and system for articles (posts), comments to articles, “rating” articles, and how they appear.

    (Even if all anyone ever writes is a single comment to someone’s The New York Times opinion post on http://nytimes.com/pages/opinion , they become effectively a published writer — if the moderator publishes it! Of course one can comment more directly to an article in the parallel (another technical innovation) stream: http://facebook.com/nytopinion )

    So in such a universe the role of the moderator, whatever that is, would seem to be problematic.

    Like

  19. Hi dantip, thanks for the extended reply. I think you may be over-analysing my remarks however.

    For example you ask me to clarify what I meant by saying that this website bears Massimo’s personal stamp. (I proceeded to mention his acknowledged debts to Noam Chomsky’s political writings and to Corey Robin.) You suggest that there is a ‘trivial’ interpretation of my remark as well as other interpretations.

    But I see my remark as quite clear. The site does bear Massimo’s stamp, doesn’t it, and in all sorts of ways.

    In my original comment I elaborated by referring, for example, to a couple of political orientations that are not much discussed here. I’m not saying they should be, but just pointing out that not all ‘lines of thought’ are being fostered here.

    And, the funny thing is, if you hadn’t written “fostered” I wouldn’t have made that point. You wrote fostered and I thought you meant fostered!

    Another misunderstanding: I didn’t take the phrase ‘lines of thought’ to be referring to subjects but rather to approaches (i.e. ideological, metaphysical, etc.). This also relates to the issue of Massimo’s stamp.

    Perhaps however, given the expanding list of ‘collaborators’,* the site is evolving into one which is less identified specifically with its founder and chief editor.

    That cocktail party example doesn’t help a lot (‘all’ and ‘almost’ are very different kinds of words…). On the broader point, I think we all know about context.

    And I give you credit for letting comments with content that the editors disapprove of through. Though my earlier remarks were in part about comments, some related to the site as a whole.

    * It’s no doubt just me — I have a special interest after all in 20th-century French intellectual history and especially in the 1930s and 40s — but the word ‘collaborators’ conjures up something rather more than just a bunch of people cooperating with one another!!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Hi Mark,
    but the word ‘collaborators’ conjures up something rather more” referring to “French intellectual history and especially in the 1930s and 40s
    I decided to ‘like‘ your comment for your amusing allusion to Vichy war-time collaborators! I thought that was very humorous, for all sorts of reasons. Philosophy needs to be lightened up with more humour 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  21. davidduffy, “I might be in favour of an emotivist system, where people comment yay and boo, but they do that anyway.” The thought, no doubt, has occurred to many.

    It appears I’m in a minority, but I don’t think a “like” is necessarily captured by “it’s not too useful when 10 people like the correspondence theory of truth while only 2 like the coherence theory.” Sometimes, one may simply use it to signal appreciation for a particularly well-done, cogent comment. But I suppose one can question the “utility” of a “like” just as one might question the “utility” of any comment.

    As Philosopher Eric notes, the substantive change was made when the “five day, five comment, and five hundred word per comment limitation was applied to each post.” So what’s to be preferred in some cases? A simple “like” or a comment along the lines of “What he said” or, worse, 500 self-indulgent words that reduce to “What he said.”

    As much as I’m annoyed by some of the commentary on commentary on commentary ad nauseam and appreciate SciSal’s concerns about a bandwagon effect, readers will take sides and gamesmanship will be employed to have the “last word.” Part of the problem is captured in dantip’s comment: “But that is actually primarily because the topic has just been discussed *too* much and people want a break (just like with the topic of free-will).” Amen.

    And perhaps it might be expecting too much to ask for some self-moderation by the readers themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Philip, I think it’s a both-and on the meaning of “moderation.” My first comment took it as the former, but, I also know that Massimo, as a devotee of Greco-Roman philosophies, surely means the latter as for commentary style he appreciates in comments here.

    Per what I noted there about different commenting standards, you’re also write about different platforms and how they can be tweaked. I comment regularly on NBC Sports’ baseball blog, which like here is WordPress. It automatically rejects comments with four-letter words. (Umlauts and other diacritical tools get around that, though.) But, those are filtering options for the program, besides any human moderation, or lack thereof.

    WordPress there also has a “report abuse” link as well as both “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” compared to just the “like” here. G+ and Facebook, of course, just do like/plus and not dislike/minus. Some studies indicate that a thumbs down/dislike can coarsen discourse, and that was talked about here a few months back.

    (This all said, specifically the part about classical philosophers, Massimo, in light of the Charleston shooting, the Confederate flag, and related issues, and people of all sorts of stripes calling me a “presentist” for my observations about Aristotle and racism, I’m working on an in-depth blog post refuting most uses of the “charge” of presentism in general.)

    Paul Paolini, nice post. Rather than no “fairness,” let’s make this more philosophical and stipulate there is no such thing as “justice.” And, let’s also say this is much more broad of an issue than comment moderation on Internet sites.

    I’ve done that before, and will once again refer to Walter Kaufmann’s book that tackles exactly this subject, “Without Guilt and Justice.” While I don’t agree with everything, I agree with a fair amount, and that’s why I appreciate Kaufmann in his own right as a philosopher, beyond him being an expositor and rehabilitator of sorts of Nietzsche.

    Anyway, here’s the link to my review of the book: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/485939752

    And, since fairness, or even justice, is somewhat arbitrary, if complaints about it at a particular website don’t change the owner/proprietor’s standard, you, and I, have the option not to participate any longer. This is just a subset of the issue of how private entities, technically and legally, don’t practice “censorship” as legally defined.

    Mark English, I am, otherwise, myself a natural contrarian. That part of the myth of Socrates is why I picked my particular nom de Net. As long as the contrarianness doesn’t dissolve into trolling, I kind of like it from others, as well as myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. A story on the moderation of publication streams today* refers to social media companies “hiring media pros — many of them journalists or former editors — to use their news judgement to determine which content their users should see (or not see) when it comes to following a particular story.” But the future in moderation may lie to a large degree on their “AI” software.

    * http://recode.net/2015/06/24/theres-a-shiny-new-trend-in-social-media-actual-human-editors/

    Like

  24. In the terms of the OP, I think congestion, cacophony and abuse are all relatively easily handled (in fact, the protection against them can in many cases be automated). Manipulation is the only area where substantive issues are likely to arise, and I doubt that they can easily be resolved.

    Unlike Marko above, I don’t think there’s much difficulty in determining the nature of value in online fora. It’s just relevance. For example, I could write the most exquisite poem (or copy one of Keats’), and post it here. No-one would want to deny that the thing has its own inherent value; but it would have no relevance to this forum, and hence no value here. Images of goat sex, on the other hand, are highly relevant to 4chan forums, because they make the users laugh, despite having very little inherent value.

    That’s why congestion, cacophony and abuse are easily delineated: they are not relevant to the fora in which they appear. Manipulation is precisely a subversion of this rule. The creationist arguments mentioned by Paul above are a good example, and the fact that he had to expend considerable time and thought before coming to a conclusion illustrates why manipulation will always be a much harder problem to solve.

    Like

  25. I’ve not much to say yet on this topic, still working through the original essay (as time allows).

    I did want to share this very recent video from activist comedian John Oliver of Last Week Tonight, on a separate – but I think clearly related topic – the abuse many women face on the internet, and the lack of regulation and legal recourse to this:

    (I provide the link because I’m 1) unsure how to embed, and 2) unsure whether embedding in a comment is entirely appropriate. Commenters are really guests at a site such as this, and ought to allow the editors and OPs the respect any host deserves.)

    Like

  26. Mark,
    My personal preference is for more robust debate

    The problem here lies in the choice of the word ‘robust‘. It carries in it an implication of strong confrontationalism and conflict. Unrestrained, it becomes a polarising force which serves mainly to more deeply entrench people in their existing thought patterns. Worse still, it tends to drive them towards more extreme positions.

    Had you instead called it ‘vigorous and thoughtful’ debate I would have supported you.

    Some people are positive souls, team players; others are natural contrarians or whatever.“.

    Your very simplified taxonomy ignores reality, see my first comment for a more complete taxonomy(schadenfreude, querdenkers, dogmatiks, resentimistas, shockers, whiners, monochromatiks, anosognosiks)(note my deliberate misuse of the letter ‘k’). We are dealing with complex psychological urges that demand a theatre for their performance. Now if only they would go away and work out their urges in their own lonely theatres. But no, they demand to be centre stage in someone else’s theatre with disruptive effects on the intended performance. What we really need is reasoned, even vigorous, argument and not the compulsive display of psychological urges.

    My suggestion would be simply to welcome all intelligent comments

    I wish it were so simple. Some of our commentators have ably displayed the misuses of intelligence. We have had intelligent but obsessive querdenkers, intelligent(also obsessive) dogmatiks, intelligent schadenfreudinistas and intelligent resentimistas. What we have seen is that their intelligence is misused to amplify the problem, all in the service of their psychological urges.

    Having said all this, I sympathise with your sentiments to a certain extent. Vigorous debate is not only informative, it is also entertaining. More than that, vigorous debate stimulates better and clearer thought. It is all part of the adversarial system that underpins law and democracy. Our overworked moderators tread a narrow line tending to a fragile community. Too much moderation and the community disperses, too little and it becomes a chaotic echo chamber of our worst natures. It is an art that requires a light hand that guides more than it corrects. Thankfully, the Quislings have a much easier job.

    Mind you, we all feel the compulsions of psychological urges but there is a counteracting force we acquire as we grow towards maturity. It is called, strangely enough, moderation, and yes, it is a virtue.

    All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players;
    They have their exits and their entrances,
    And one man in his time plays many parts,
    His acts being seven ages

    And then the justice,
    In fair round belly with good capon lined,
    With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
    Full of wise saws and modern instances;
    And so he plays his part.
    -Jaques in As You Like It

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.
    -Macbeth

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  27. Thomas Jones: “one may simply use it to signal appreciation”: I don’t mind that, if that’s what people are doing. FWIW I think I prefer Usenet type appreciation – some kind of useful elaboration on the original point, or at least a good pun. Up and down voting as a means of social control of trolling or technical informativeness is different from what one wants here which I guess is more like a symposium (not the ancient Greek with three kraters of wine type, though I believe our host has that kind too!).

    Like

  28. Hi labnut, not sure what to make of the remarks you address to me.

    I agree, of course, that some people are more mature and balanced than others; but these are the very sorts of things (maturity, self-control, etc. or lack thereof) that are on display in any comment thread, and readers usually take note and respect the cooler heads.

    You claimed that my “very simplified taxonomy ignores reality” and referred me to your “first comment for a more complete taxonomy…”

    Only I wasn’t trying to present a taxonomy. I talked about some people being team players, others being “natural contrarians or whatever”. Note the “or whatever”. It may not be scintillating prose, but the phrase was there for a reason. I don’t think your claim that I was ignoring reality here was warranted. I might even go so far as to call it inappropriately robust!

    Like

  29. Good call EJ with the John Oliver video. While perhaps those specific sorts of issues don’t happen at SciSal, I’d say that there is still great danger associated with commenting here. We comment out of a human need for respect from others, I think, and especially those who we respect ourselves. Nevertheless there is certainly the potential for disrespect to instead result. Furthermore some do become heavily invested in this site, and thus there is the potential for wonderful friendships to be strained or even destroyed through the challenges associated with the ancient conundrum of philosophy. (Perhaps if there were no such risk, however, then the potential rewards would vanish as well?) In any case I’m quite sure that horrible sensations may be experienced here beyond just the good. Some of the exchanges regarding the first post for the book “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/the-singular-universe-and-the-reality-of-time/comment-page-1/#comments) struck me this way particularly, and regarding various people that I find especially respectable.

    Holidays can be wonderful things. I do hope that all of the most respectable that need to recharge, are indeed able to have themselves a really good break. When that’s all done however (and managers are people too!) you are quite needed here, and with all of the vigor that you’re known for!

    Like

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