Comments Threads as Parties:

One of our readers took exception to our comments policy (see the bottom of this page for its text) as being "inappropriate." Oddly, he was complaining about the policy itself, not its application. This suggests that he thinks it's inappropriate to ask people to be "as calm, reasoned, and substantive as possible," to "avoid rants, invective, and substantial and repeated exaggeration," to "[s]tick[] with substance," or, "[i]f you think people would view you as a crank, a blowhard, or as someone who vastly overdoes it on the hyperbole, [to] rewrite your post before hitting enter." Those seem like pretty reasonable requests to me.

But in any case, this prompted me to speak a bit more explicitly about how I see comment threads. To me, a comment thread on our site is like a party to which we're inviting you. Thanks to technology, we don't need to worry about our beer and chips budget, or about your breaking our furniture, and you don't need to be stymied by travel time or your having another party that evening. The party could thus (in theory) be much larger than a typical party we'd throw in real space.

Still, we throw parties because we think they would be fun for guests; and a few guests can sometimes ruin this fun (or at least as best we, as hosts, can guess) for other guests. Chiming into a conversation with insults is one way. Coming across like a crank, or ranting and throwing around exaggerated invective, is another. Or so we think based on our experience as party planners.

That's why some guests don't get invited back to future parties, and occasionally even get thrown out of the current party. Same thing goes for comment threads — if a host thinks that a commenter is making the party less fun, the host doesn't have an obligation to keep having the guest over.

Now naturally sometimes the host might get it wrong, and kick out a guest who only looked like a crank, but was really a Valiant Seeker of Truth who sees the world much more clearly than the host and the other guests. The natural check on this is that the host wants to be known as throwing interesting parties, and if he kicks out people who have important things to say, his reputation may suffer; plus it takes time and effort to kick someone out. Yet sometimes despite this, the host errs.

But remember, (1) it's the host's party, and (2) hey, it's only a party. If the host's narrow-mindedness led to your being shown the door, what have you really lost? Not much — it's a big Internet out there, you can go to lots of other parties, and you can even throw some parties yourself.

If you're a thoughtful visionary with lots of interesting things to say, people will likely be eager to show up to your shindigs. On the other hand, if no-one comes to your parties, and people don't want you at theirs, you might think a bit about the reason why: Might you not be using enough deodorant? Might people be alienated by your rhetoric, and as a result miss your substance? If they think you're a crank, might you actually be a crank, or at least someone who doesn't take the trouble to avoid seeming like a crank?

Of course, maybe you really are a genius, and because of our foolishness, self-interest, or conventional thinking, we're not seeing it. Indeed, they laughed at Columbus (well, except the ones who paid him, and who sailed with him, and . . .). But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. On the Internet, you have lots of opportunities to prove that you're the former and not the latter. Go to it. Build yourself a great reputation and make us feel sorry that we struck you off our guest list.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Comments and Civility:
  2. Comments Threads as Parties:
The fact that you even have to explain this is a reason in favor of your comments policy (or of disallowing comments altogether).
7.5.2005 3:50pm
PG (mail) (www):
Hardly a reason to disallow comments altogether, considering that while I have seen many interesting remarks made in the VC comment section, I've never yet seen a comment so odious that it made me not want to come back again. I agree with the part of the comments policy that asks potential commenters to do their best at being thoughtful and reasoned; such a reminder can be useful in overheated arguments. I'm less inclined to delete any comment or ban a commenter as long as she is contributing *something* relevant. Better to let others correct those who are wrong -- in a grapple between Truth and Falsehood, etc.
7.5.2005 4:14pm
LiquidLatex (mail):
The only problem I have is only half or less of the posts are able to be commented on. This is unusual in the "blogosphere", and I find it doesn't really help as much as I think you think it may.

Nice experiment but allowing public comments seems to be the best bang for everyone's buck. Especially as a site becomes more interesting and popular. Although at some point then it becomes reasonable to just have a forum and strictly controlled registered users.
7.5.2005 4:18pm

1) Filtering/Censoring comments takes time away from your regular blog entries.

2) Many see policies such as yours as a way to stifle dissent (or at least passionate dissent), even if that is not the policy's original intent. May I suggest that from the point of view of the moderator an "uncivil" comment may be to others just a statement of facts or opinion.

I do understand that you may feel the comments reflect on your character and your site, and therefore wish to monitor them accordingly. You have a high quality blog here, which has acheived a lot I can understand not wanting comments to muddy the waters. I'm not sure how I feel about the comment policy. On one hand, I think it has kept things "on topic" and more civil. But I don't know what comments I have missed or how the discretion is used.
7.5.2005 4:21pm
Silicon Valley Jim:
I think that you have exactly the right comments policy, and I have absolute faith that you will administer it fairly. The discussions in the comments, while vigorous, are civil and enlightening, and I suspect that your comments policy has something to do with that.
7.5.2005 4:29pm
Stifle, schmifle. When people insult me on my blog using rude language, they get deleted. It's my blog, after all and not Speakers' Corner at Hyde Park. That does not mean that I delete comments in which the writer disagrees with me, but if I would have been likely to punch him in person for what he said (and I don't punch people in person, typically, so my threshold is kind of high) I see no reason to put up with gross incivility.
7.5.2005 4:31pm
Wince and Nod (mail) (www):
In a way this relates back to the Orin Kerr's Leiter post. There's a very good book called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. It makes the claim that organizations benefit where folks know how to communicate when opinions differ, stakes are high and emotions are strong. Under these circumstances people tend to go to silence (not comment) or violence (which includes such rhetorical tactics as ridicule).

By discouraging commenters from moving to violence, the comment rules here keep many from being either intimidated into silence or threathened enough that they resort to rhetorical violence as well. This expands the pool of shared meaning, and makes leaders who use such means of guiding these crucial conversation, such as Professor Vololkh, more effective.

7.5.2005 4:42pm
Dave Schuler (mail) (www):
I made the observation of comments sections being like parties about a year ago.
7.5.2005 4:47pm
Tom Hanna (www):
So, you're saying that Bozo the Clown was not a genius? I always knew I was a crank - now I know why nobody comes to my parties.
7.5.2005 4:48pm
elliottg (mail):
I was having this discussion with my wife recently. She sees comments as feedback for the host of the site only. She doesn't read previous comments and she doesn't expect anyone to read or respond to her comment in the comments section so she never checks a particular thread again. The most she expects is possibly an email from the blog owner.
On the other hand, I see the comments more in the way that Eugene just described although I think of it more like a lecture presentation with an open reception after. In that regard, I don't like long comment threads and prefer non-anonymous posters. For those reasons I avoid reading comments at atrios or kevin drum. The Volokh Conspiracy comment threads are some of the best even if I disagree with the content in most cases. Other favorites of mine are Delong and Crooked Timber.
7.5.2005 4:59pm
NR (mail):
I have no problem with the comments policy, but wonder why you permit comments so rarely. Why not invite your guests to a small party following each and every post? So long as they're tucked away in the comments section and guests continue to adhere to your house rules, these parties shouldn't intrude on your overall look and feel of your site.
7.5.2005 5:11pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
To respond to LiquidLatex: I leave the matter to each coblogger. Some default to soliciting comments on nearly all posts (I'm in that camp). Others pick and choose. Others don't solicit comments at all (I used to be in that camp).
7.5.2005 5:13pm
Timothy (mail) (www):
I think that's about right, comments aren't a public space, they're a space you pay for on a site you own. Have whatever policy you want. At the OC I always warn a poster a couple of times, then delete and perhaps ban. On my blog I don't have comments because I don't want to bother monitoring them.
7.5.2005 5:13pm
Speaking of commenting on previous commentors or not, any desire to find a blog software with threaded comments? (LiveJournal or whatever GrokLaw is based on?)
7.5.2005 5:21pm
Mispelling "Interet" was a willful action caused by the New World Order, Vince Foster's Ghost, and Skull and Bones society.

I may be too young to know what "crank" means, so I thought I'd toss the above to see if that's what you mean by that.
7.5.2005 5:28pm
ed in texas (mail):
No need to be so reasonable about it!
The problem here is a lot of people can't tell the difference between watching FOX and wanting to appear on COPS. But then, in a time where the most heavily promoted TV shows feature contestants chosen for their scheming and back-stabbing abilty, is it really that odd?
7.5.2005 5:32pm
Windypundit (www):
Individual guests who hurl insults, come across like cranks, rant, and generally make a fuss are one of the ways that these comment parties can go wrong, and your policy is a good approach to the problem.

The other way comment threads can go bad is when they are hijacked by visitors. Think of this as having the same bunch of people show up at every single one of your parties. They all know each other from previous parties, and they love to continue conversations, themes, and even arguments from the previous parties. When you first started throwing these parties, it was great that all these people showed up. But after a while, it's not really your party any more. You've seen some interesting new guests visit, but they don't come back.

Did I push that metaphor too far?
7.5.2005 5:44pm
Nathan Whitehead (www):
But I don't know what comments I have missed or how the discretion is used.

I agree with Challenge, this is a key point. The Volokh Conspiracy is the highest quality blog I've ever read, and the comments are nice (but of course the entries themselves are more interesting). It makes me slightly uneasy to think that comments might be deleted or users banned without me having any inkling that anything happened. I'm not sure what the ideal solution is, since inane vitriolic comments can quickly ruin the atmosphere of any discussion.
7.5.2005 5:46pm
CharleyCarp (mail):
I think the comments policy is the best of a bad situation, and agree with WindyPundit on the inevitable arc a comment friendly blog will take. When the regulars start to take over the party, you either have to move, try to make some new friends, or live with the consequences.

This set of parties has a long way to go, though, before it gets to such a state.
7.5.2005 6:12pm
Wince and Nod (mail) (www):

Did I push that metaphor too far?

No. I suspect my own mono-manias have led me into doing that very thing, and I know I've seen it in others. For a while it seemed that every thread on Dean Esmay's site "turned gay". This is on no longer true, but it was odd while it lased.

7.5.2005 6:27pm
lucia (mail) (www):
I think a comments policy is 100% up to the blogger. There are many reasons why a blogger might not wish to permit comments, or permit them but periodically delete individual comments or ban someone. The reasons vary from blogger to blogger; I don't really believe any blogger needs to justify themselves. Period.

If someone feels they have been censored then tough. First, no one owes then a venue to publish. If I wrote an uninteresting letter to the Wall Street Journal, likely, my letter would not be published. I could decide I was "censored" but that's ridiculous. In anycase, any "censored" person who wishes to comment may always start their own blog, and publish their view in that venue. If they wish, they can trackback this blog and their post will be publicized in the trackback area VC conveniently links to.

This system sets an appropriate balance.
7.5.2005 6:27pm
PLM (mail):
Your policy and the reasons for it are 100% correct.
7.5.2005 6:38pm
jallgor (mail):
If anything I wish the policy was enforced a little more stringently. I would be willing to risk having my posts deleted once in a while if I didn't have to read anymore posts by "Supremacy Clause" about how terrible lawyers are and whether or not Eugene has read his blog provider's hold harmless clause.
7.5.2005 6:43pm
J.Maestro (www):
It's a fair cop.

If broadcast news hosts placed such restrictions on their guests and commentators... their shows might be watchable. And the world wouldn't need blogs as badly as it does.

"I will hyperbolize no more forever."
7.5.2005 8:56pm
Boris A.Kupershmidt (mail):
I think the previous policy of soliciting
comments _only_ when there was some question/problem in need
of readers' input was more efficient and agreeable: there is not enough time in a day to meander through good blogs
themselves much less the comments on various topics.
In the language of parties, the latter get
devalued when thrown indiscriminately and/or too often.
More practically, the comments themselves are a drain
on the bloggers' limited time.
7.5.2005 11:31pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Your policy on comments has been a favor to me as an occassional poster on your blog. It has caused me to consider my language carefully before posting and has undoubtedly improved the image I present to any who might read my posts. I find the Volokh Conspiracy to be one of the most interesting and informative (and least likely to diseminate dis-information) blogs on the internet. Most of the posts I've read on your blog are in line with this, but there's a lot to be said for a "zoning policy" that protects the value of your blog. Thanks again for the policy.
7.6.2005 12:54pm
Strophyx (mail):
I suspect that those objecting to a policy asking (not demanding) for civility would also be likely to scream about 1st Amendment rights and censorship when a privately owned business declines to allow the use of their premises for solicitation or advocacy, in other words the type who have only the most tenuous grasp of the concept of "private property." If someone doesn't like the policy, they're always free to start their own blog. It reminds me of a conference I helped organize about 10-15 years ago at a large university. At one of the sessions demonstrating the power of the then new WWW, one member of the audience became highly indignant at some of the sites we had used as illustrations, because of what she perceived as their exploitative, capitalistic (and maybe sexist and homophobic and anti-Islamic) slant. One of the presenters handled this totally unexpected rant beautifully, pointing out that the reason we were doing the session was to show people how anybody with a PC, an internet connection and a few hours of study/practice could create their own site containing any message they were motivated to share. Rather than accept the offering of resources and power, the "offended" party simple walked out in a huff. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
7.6.2005 1:56pm
Josh_Jasper (mail):
What? No beer? Horrible!
7.6.2005 8:28pm