Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sticks and Stones v. Sharp Darts and Razor-Blade Tongues

A friend of mine asked why I closed the comments section on my blog (particularly since I get so low traffic that it's really unnecessary) and my only response was once there were enough people wanting to comment then I would reopen the comment section. Now I've argued before about the dangers of reading message boards and some of the insanely stupid things said there. I've also argued that it's the right of whoever run the board or blog to moderate comments however they wish. I like as much transparency as possible as it tends to engender better discussions. Yet, in the same day I've read two posts from mid-level to major blogs that tackle their own problems with comments and perceived censorship.
The first came from BoingBoing concerning their removal of several post related to a particular blogger. As they rightfully argued, it is their site to run and they hold the ultimate decision over what content appears on their site, particularly when that content derives from outside sources they have no control over. To remove a selection of posts, for whatever reason, that were not original works by the people at BoingBoing is not an attempt to silence or censor the original creator. The fact is, those posts still exist, whether on the original author's site or in places like Google Cache. It's not an act of censorship to remove posts that run contrary to the ethos of a blog, particularly one as well-read as BoingBoing. If they no longer want their name, and the legitimacy it brings, associated with a certain blogger then that is entirely within their rights.
The next post comes from Obsidian Wings and their reworked posting policy. To quote from part of the new rules:

We have no desire to censor people whose views we disagree with. However, there is a difference between stating and defending an unpopular position on the one hand, and repeated drive-by insults on the other, and the fact that we welcome the first does not mean that we must accept the second.
In other words, the people at Obsidian Wings have staked out a position against trolls and other types of commentators who offer nothing to the discussion but persist in attempting to derail the conversation. Simple name calling does not count as honest participation in my opinion and is the primary reason why I avoid message boards and comment sections. I can get enough of that in the letters to the editor section of my morning paper.
The idea, as hilzoy from Obsidian Wings states, is not to prevent people from saying what is on their minds but to end nonsense postings that lack an argument or point. Most well run message boards and comment sections have similar policies because, well, there are just some stupid people out there who thoughtlessly spout off.
It's a balancing act really between maintaining the ideal of free speech and the ideal of civil conversation. Civil discourse cannot exist without free speech but free speech does not mean an anarchy of speech. Honest moderators will rarely pull the plug on someone, but as with the Violet Blue problem on BoingBoing, the ability to do so is necessary to maintain the point of free and civil speech. It's not an easy problem and is one that should remain on the forefront of any moderator, poster or even mere reader of a message board or blog.