Monday, August 2, 2010

some thoughts on how to cultivate valuable discussion online

i'm sure that many people are going to walk away from Silliman's termination of his comment section with the idea that productive dialogue is just not possible on the internet. this is just not true. and if it is true for poets, then it's all our fault, not the internet's.

anyone arguing that the internet is bad for dialogue can go ahead and tell me what a better medium is for organizing 1,000+ people's ideas in real time.

it's not easy. it takes time, effort, and community cooperation (which is going to be the difficult part for poets). also, it's probably not something a blog with an unpaid staff of one can really reasonably accomplish. so it's probably not going happen on Silliman's blog without some good volunteer moderators. the Harriet blog could have done it, but they gave up for some reason, perhaps due to a lack of faith in their online users.

but it is done. valuable conversations happen online. Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog accomplishes it with hundreds of comments per post (and not just better than any solo writer's blog, but probably better than any other blog). Slash Dot and Reddit have had their ups and downs of useful large-scale discussion. there's plenty more, these are just the ones i've had direct experience over the last few years.

i can think of three things (right now) that the online poetry community has trouble with that contributes to the overall difficulty of having good discussions.

1. interface:
some of these sites that actually have good discussion are user moderated, where each comment can be given a positive or negative rating, and each user can select a negative parameter at which they'd like a comment to be hidden from them. for this to work, however, it requires a user base who truly desires to cultivate a community of varied voices, rather than a user base where each member's only desire is to be heard. you can't just downmod a comment because you disagree. this will be difficult for poets, i think. poets (online at least) tend to view a comment section as their own soapbox, issuing a strong demand to be listened to, and rarely to reciprocate.

2. banning users:
poetry bloggers are slow to ban users. this isn't entirely bad of course, valuing (or at least allowing) dissenting opinions is a necessary part of productive dialogue. poetry blogs however, have a high percentage of independent dissenters who tend to not respond to any kind of criticism themselves. these people will quickly flood the entire comment space if they are not reprimanded for some of their more obnoxious behavior.

poets are also among the whiniest people when they've been banned from something, running and crying on their blogs about how they've been censored. sorry, but obnoxiously dominating a thread with your long-winded, and only vaguely related comments on someone else's personal blog is not freedom provided by the constitution.
Walter: Am I wrong?
The Dude: No you're not wrong.
Walter: Am I wrong?
The Dude: You're not wrong Walter. You're just an asshole.
Walter: Okay then.
another problem with banning within the poetry community is that it's probably hard to ban people who's work you're familiar with, and may even like. for instance, ■■■■ ■■■■■■■, and ■■■■ ■■■■■ (names removed cause i'm at least trying not to be a hypocrite) are both very intelligent poets. they're productive contributors (in their own ways) to the larger poetry community, and both have uniquely important voices. however, acting the way they consistently do on any decently moderated forum would get them at least temporarily banned. whereas on poetry blogs, they are rarely banned, leading to them dominating threads to the point where no one wants to participate anymore.

3. comment navigation:
part of cultivating dialogue online is just having a user base that knows how to navigate online discussion. you can't respond to the assholes, and if you do, the results are partly your own fault. there's always going to be a few that sneak in, and you just have to ignore them. these people are called trolls, and all they do (whether it's their intent or not) is distract discussion. sometimes they offer a seemingly intelligent comment in an abrasive manner. you might respond to them calmly, hoping to quell their anger and spark a useful discussion, but the more you respond, the more everything just seems to spiral out of control. you've been trolled. you can't get a persecution complex (which is hard for poets, i know) you have to respond to the mature comments, the ones that add something, not just the abrasive controversial ones.

every single user bares at least some responsibility to cultivate useful dialogue. poets need to stop being so single minded about their own voices being heard, and start thinking about how what they're saying builds into the whole environment of conversation. saying that poets just need to develop thicker skins is just kind of boneheaded and lazy, as is calling Jessica Smith a "silly young self-righteous poet." "cultivating useful dialogue" doesn't mean we can't have heated, strongly worded conversations. it just has to have a point. it has to go somewhere.

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