Some of you may have heard about the "Shitstorm in a Snow Globe" regarding Bitch, Ph.D.'s blog these past few days. I'm not going to comment on it directly, because I have no interest in visiting The Moron's self-humiliating blog to get the full picture, but I'm fascinated by all the various responses to it.
The ones that fascinate me the most are those that get at what is a continuing debate across the blogosphere: that is, what the obligations of a blog owner are regarding his or her commenters, the commenters' obligations in turn, and in particular these obligations with regards to blog content and banning policies.
On the one extreme of the spectrum are those who believe simultaneously that (a) blogs should not post anything that might offend them, even if they are only visiting a given blog on a first-time fly-by and (b) that anything should be allowed in the comment threads, up to and including insulting the blog owner and his or her other commenters. I call this the "The World Exists to Serve Me" contingent.
On the other extreme are those who believe that (a) blog owners can say whatever the hell they want, however they want, and if the people visiting the blog don't like it, they can go away (common rallying cry, "No one's making you read this blog") and (b) blog owners can do whatever they want with regards to their comments threads -- ban randomly, edit comments according to their own whims, refuse to have any comments, ban people who disagree with them, etc. I call this "It's My Blog and I Can Do What I Want" crowd.
Personally, I lean more toward the latter than the former, in that I don't give a rat's what some random stranger thinks about my blog, I dislike intensely the arrogance involved in telling other people how to blog, and I see no reason to spend my money to host comments that are insulting and unhelpful, or to provide a forum for jerks.
In practice, though, I think most people who blog (and who comment) fall in the reasonable middle, trying not to be deliberately offensive in their choice of topics and writing style and word choice (or, alternately, warning people up front about what to expect at a given blog), and allowing reasonable debate to occur in their comments threads, if said debate is constructive and respectful, at least according to the culture of that particular blog.
It's that last part that gets tricky: according to the culture of that particular blog.
This is one thing that I think proves challenging to a lot of people new to the blogosphere (as well as a few tone-deaf old hands). The blogosphere is not a uniform, homogenous place, operating according to universal rules and expectations. (My god, how boring it would be if that were so.) Instead, the blogosphere varies with the whims and inclinations of each blog host and each commenting community. Some places are fine with profanity, others aren't. Some specialize in trading witty one-offs; others prefer thoughtful, meandering conversations. Some are snarky and sarcastic; some are warm and touchy-feely. Some develop small, close-knit communities into which a newcomer must ease slowly and cautiously; others are big raucous public parties that anyone can jump into without prior experience. The blogosphere is anything but homogenous.
However, to a newcomer, it often looks that way, so the clueless go around bulling their way into existing conversations, committing social faux pas, etc. until someone calls them on it. The honestly clueless wise up, learn to "read the room" and adjust their commenting styles to the norms of each particular blog and its attendent culture.
Other folks, on the other hand, don't.
Some don't because they are incapable of reading the social cues and linguistic nuance that pass for body language and tone in a text-based forum. They blunder about, annoying everyone, but they aren't malignant; if they find the right community, in which their personal styles and interests are mirrored by the rest of the group, they do fine. If not, they continue annoy people, get banned, and remain confused as to what's going on. This group, while irrititating, are not actively malicious, and will probably remain a fact of blogospheric life, must as they do in "real" life.
Some don't because they feel that the blogosphere ought to have consistent rules, and are continually irritated that it doesn't, and take out that irritation on blog cultures that follow rules they disapprove of or are uncomfortable with. The best advice for these folks is for them to start their own blogs, where they can run things as they wish, because otherwise they run the risk of becoming cranky, bitter trolls who have no friends. (Again, we can see them in everyday life, in the form of the old ladies who scold mothers for not putting socks on their babies, people who correct other people's pronunciation, cranks who blow their stacks when someone doesn't put the stapler back just so, and so on.)
Some don't because they have an axe to grind that has nothing to do with the blogosphere per se. A particular variant of this is the proudly self-proclaimed conservative who rails at liberal bloggers for failing to tolerate dissent in their blog threads. (There are liberal equivalents, but the rhetorical tools at their disposal are different, as are those of their opponents, so the dynamics play out differently. They can't and don't level hypocrisy charges at sexist bigots, for example, if they get banned.) There's no use arguing with these types. They are not interested in hearing evidence to the contrary, because they are trying to promote an ideology, not educate themselves. They are not amenable to accusations of hypocrisy (cue LGF reference here), because they do not define themselves in terms of tolerance and open-mindedness; they are using the stereotype of liberal tolerance as a rhetorical club against ideological opponents -- if it didn't exist, they'd find another approach. They want to be banned, because then they can spin the result as proving their point about liberal hypocrisy; explaining to them that "tolerance" does not equal "putting up with every stripe of foolishness under the sun" (let alone treating such foolishness with respect) does not work, because, again, they are not interested in arguing about actual ideas, but about scoring ideological points. The closest equivalent I can think of in offline life are radio talk show hosts, or the hecklers who show up at political rallies, and the like -- the gotcha, stir-up-shit crowd, in other words.
Ultimately, though, the culture of a given blog is not entirely in the hands of the blog host. It rests in considerable part in the hands of the people who make up the community centered around that blog and its host. (Or blogs and hosts, given how many of us are part of small networks of bloggers-commenters, commenting on each others' blogs as much or as more as we post on our own.)
I've written about how I operate under the principle of The Benefit of the Doubt rather than under the principle of tolerance, and that applies here as well. Basically, I assume that all of you out there reading this blog are reasonable, thinking people, and that you can behave yourselves without active policing on my part, and continue to believe it until offered evidence to the contrary. In return, I expect that you will see me as a reasonable, thoughtful person too, and give me the benefit of the doubt in return. I don't want to be "tolerated" by my audience; that makes me feel like I'm some unpleasant medicine you're taking in order to feel good about yourself -- I'd like to think you come here because you enjoy this blog, and interacting with other commenters here, not because I'm homework or you feel obliged to be here or you want to be able to pat yourself on your back about how "tolerant" you are.
What this means in practice is that I write about what pleases me, but I try to keep it focused on things either (a) relating to me personally or (b) relating to wider trends and developments, avoiding (c) things dealing with specific individuals, unless I can do so in a positive way or make it more about (a) or (b) than about someone else per se. (Thus here, I'm writing about a specific event involving specific individuals, but I'm more interested in my own reactions to the case, and in the wider implications, than in passing judgement on the particulars.) This approach seems to work for me; doubtless other approaches will work better for others. But I would argue it's good to have at least a general sense of the "rules" or philosophy of one's blog, even if you never articulate it directly.
It also means that I rarely ban people. I delete spam without comment, and I generally warn people who are heading toward dangerous ground (being rude and insulting); I know people sometimes have a bad day, and write stupid things on the internet (I've done it!) so it seems reasonable to give fair warning. If it's ignored, or if the thing said at the outset is so rude that I can't stand seeing there, it'll go away right away, without any warning at all, and a ban may get slapped on too. If this happens to you, email me and explain, and maybe I'll let you back. (I have, in the bare handful of cases in which this occurred, let most of the banned return. I don't ban much, preferring to reserve it for serious offenses. Pretending to be me, for example, is an insta-ban offense, unless you can convince that it was an honest accident.)
Disagreement with me or other commenters is fine, but I reserve the right to get bored with your arguments, to tell you to give it a rest, to ignore you, to close comments -- and if you insist on talking over other people's comments, I'll warn you that banning is a possibility -- just as I would in real life.
But, again, the culture and feel of this blog is affected at least as much by you as it is by me. I want conversations here, people, and 99% of the time, y'all are wonderful. You make me happy to see new comments and to read what you have to say, and to just connect with such funny, thoughtful, interesting people. I want to keep that going, and if that means showing the jerks the door, so be it. I haven't had to do that all that much though -- maybe 5 times in the course of two and a half years -- and it's in huge part because of you all. Jerks and blowhards and ideologues don't get much traction here, because it's so totally clear that my "blog posse" doesn't include of that kind of person. You create the blog culture here, and you've been doing a great job. Thanks.
*stands and applauds*