Please Read The Comments

I find the Don’t Read The Comments movement kind of sad.

Comments sections are frequently misogynistic, homophobic, racist, and very often POORLY WRITTEN. Why bother reading them?

— Don’t Read Comments (@AvoidComments) March 8, 2014

In 2006 I said that a blog without comments is not a blog and I stand behind that statement. There have been brief periods where my own blog has been temporarily without comments, but they will always come back as long as I’m in charge here.

I’m a fan of comments, warts and all. They’re noisy, sure, but in my experience they reliably produce crowdsourced knowledge in aggregate. I understand being pressed for time, but if you want the complete picture, in the same way that you should follow all those little citation links in Wikipedia articles, you should read the comments.

I empathize with the complaint, believe me:

I used to believe that as an online writer, I had an obligation to read the comments. I thought that it was important from a fact-checking perspective, that it somehow would help me grow as a writer. What I’ve learned is that if there’s something wrong or important or even, sometimes, good about a story, someone will let you know. I’ve over the years amassed an amazing community of Salon readers who engage via email, who challenge me, who inspire new stories, who are decent people and treat me like one in return. What I was getting in the comments was a lot of anonymous “You suck, bitch.”

I admit it’s depressing for one who’s invested almost her entire career in online community to throw in the towel on it in this way. I want it to be better. But it’s just not. As a colleague once observed, “I just can’t take another letter from Angry Bad Divorce Guy.”

But that’s so many pesky words, isn’t it? TL;DR. Allow me to illustrate with a graph that your brain can absorb in milliseconds:

comments and esteem for humanity

What is wrong with people, amirite?

I humbly submit that this is asking the wrong question.

What is wrong with us?

I agree with Anil Dash. If your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault.

As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the Internet.

If you run a website, you need to follow these steps. if you don’t, you’re making the web, and the world, a worse place. And it’s your fault. Put another way, take some goddamn responsibility for what you unleash on the world.

In other words, if you are unwilling to moderate your online community, you don’t deserve to have an online community. There’s no end of websites recreating the glorious “no stupid rules” libertarian paradise documented in the Lord of the Flies in their comment sections, from scratch, each and every day. This ends exactly as you would expect it to.

Libertarians make bad lifeguards

However, demanding that every online community, every comment section, have active moderation is a tough sell:

  • Skilled moderators are difficult to find. A bad moderator is often worse than no moderator.
  • Do you have the budget to pay full time moderators?
  • Are your moderators around 24/7?
  • If you have a single moderator making unilateral decisions, who appeals their decisions? If you have multiple moderators, how do they resolve disagreements?
  • What happens when your moderators inevitably burn out or move on?

One of the reasons I launched the Discourse project was due to the utter lack of understanding of how you build software to help online discussion communities moderate themselves. Their survival depends on it.

What I learned building Stack Overflow, more than anything else, is this: the only form of moderation that scales with the community is the community itself. We became quite skilled at building systems for self governance of online communities, and one of the things I’m proudest of is that – if we did our jobs well – decades from now Stack Exchange will still be a network of viable, functioning, entirely self-governing communities.

It’s always a people problem. This is absolutely true. But it’s also true that software can profoundly affect people’s behavior, and provide tools for encouraging positive behaviors while modifying and mitigating negative behaviors. All that stuff Anil Dash described as your responsibility? Discourse handles it automatically, even if the owner installs and then walks away forever.

These are the principles of civilized discourse that Discourse is founded on, that our discussion software is designed around. Civilization begins with software that actively works to help you create safe environments for having reasonable conversations with other human beings. On the Internet, even!

discourse

This is all a very long winded way of saying that effective immediately, Coding Horror is using Discourse to power its discussions.

You may have questions, so I will attempt to answer them:

  • This blog is now hosted on Ghost, which doesn’t natively support comments. All previous TypePad comments were converted into Discourse. To the best of our ability, nothing was lost.

  • Discourse is still beta, but late beta. Expect changes and improvements as we make our way to 1.0.

  • Discourse is a companion area to this blog, a clubhouse for the community. You can visit there directly at discourse.codinghorror.com

  • Every new blog post here results in a corresponding topic being automatically created in the Discourse discussion area.

  • I do not, and will not, offer in-page commenting here. If you want to reply with a comment, you go next door to the community clubhouse. There’s a fairly strong, but permeable, membrane between the editorial area here and the community area there. This is intentional.

  • At the bottom of each blog entry here you will find read only versions of all replies to the Discourse topic associated with this blog entry. I might eventually switch that to a “best of” algorithm so readers see the best comments without having to wade through dozens or hundreds of replies.

If you like what you see, Discourse is 100% free open source software, so you can easily set up the same system for your own blog. We even have a WordPress plugin to assist.

Now who’s ready for some dogfooding?

[advertisement] Stack Overflow Careers matches the best developers (you!) with the best employers. You can search our job listings or create a profile and even let employers find you.

I find the Don't Read The Comments movement kind of sad.

In 2006 I said that a blog without comments is not a blog and I stand behind that statement. There have been brief periods where my own blog has been temporarily without comments, but they will always come back as long as I'm in charge here.

I'm a fan of comments, warts and all. They're noisy, sure, but in my experience they reliably produce crowdsourced knowledge in aggregate. I understand being pressed for time, but if you want the complete picture, in the same way that you should follow all those little citation links in Wikipedia articles, you should read the comments.

I empathize with the complaint, believe me:

I used to believe that as an online writer, I had an obligation to read the comments. I thought that it was important from a fact-checking perspective, that it somehow would help me grow as a writer. What I’ve learned is that if there’s something wrong or important or even, sometimes, good about a story, someone will let you know. I’ve over the years amassed an amazing community of Salon readers who engage via email, who challenge me, who inspire new stories, who are decent people and treat me like one in return. What I was getting in the comments was a lot of anonymous “You suck, bitch.”

I admit it’s depressing for one who’s invested almost her entire career in online community to throw in the towel on it in this way. I want it to be better. But it’s just not. As a colleague once observed, “I just can’t take another letter from Angry Bad Divorce Guy.”

But that's so many pesky words, isn't it? TL;DR. Allow me to illustrate with a graph that your brain can absorb in milliseconds:

comments and esteem for humanity

What is wrong with people, amirite?

I humbly submit that this is asking the wrong question.

What is wrong with us?

I agree with Anil Dash. If your website is full of assholes, it's your fault.

As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we've developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the Internet.

If you run a website, you need to follow these steps. if you don't, you're making the web, and the world, a worse place. And it's your fault. Put another way, take some goddamn responsibility for what you unleash on the world.

In other words, if you are unwilling to moderate your online community, you don't deserve to have an online community. There's no end of websites recreating the glorious "no stupid rules" libertarian paradise documented in the Lord of the Flies in their comment sections, from scratch, each and every day. This ends exactly as you would expect it to.

Libertarians make bad lifeguards

However, demanding that every online community, every comment section, have active moderation is a tough sell:

  • Skilled moderators are difficult to find. A bad moderator is often worse than no moderator.
  • Do you have the budget to pay full time moderators?
  • Are your moderators around 24/7?
  • If you have a single moderator making unilateral decisions, who appeals their decisions? If you have multiple moderators, how do they resolve disagreements?
  • What happens when your moderators inevitably burn out or move on?

One of the reasons I launched the Discourse project was due to the utter lack of understanding of how you build software to help online discussion communities moderate themselves. Their survival depends on it.

What I learned building Stack Overflow, more than anything else, is this: the only form of moderation that scales with the community is the community itself. We became quite skilled at building systems for self governance of online communities, and one of the things I'm proudest of is that – if we did our jobs well – decades from now Stack Exchange will still be a network of viable, functioning, entirely self-governing communities.

It's always a people problem. This is absolutely true. But it's also true that software can profoundly affect people's behavior, and provide tools for encouraging positive behaviors while modifying and mitigating negative behaviors. All that stuff Anil Dash described as your responsibility? Discourse handles it automatically, even if the owner installs and then walks away forever.

These are the principles of civilized discourse that Discourse is founded on, that our discussion software is designed around. Civilization begins with software that actively works to help you create safe environments for having reasonable conversations with other human beings. On the Internet, even!

discourse

This is all a very long winded way of saying that effective immediately, Coding Horror is using Discourse to power its discussions.

You may have questions, so I will attempt to answer them:

  • This blog is now hosted on Ghost, which doesn't natively support comments. All previous TypePad comments were converted into Discourse. To the best of our ability, nothing was lost.

  • Discourse is still beta, but late beta. Expect changes and improvements as we make our way to 1.0.

  • Discourse is a companion area to this blog, a clubhouse for the community. You can visit there directly at discourse.codinghorror.com

  • Every new blog post here results in a corresponding topic being automatically created in the Discourse discussion area.

  • I do not, and will not, offer in-page commenting here. If you want to reply with a comment, you go next door to the community clubhouse. There's a fairly strong, but permeable, membrane between the editorial area here and the community area there. This is intentional.

  • At the bottom of each blog entry here you will find read only versions of all replies to the Discourse topic associated with this blog entry. I might eventually switch that to a "best of" algorithm so readers see the best comments without having to wade through dozens or hundreds of replies.

If you like what you see, Discourse is 100% free open source software, so you can easily set up the same system for your own blog. We even have a WordPress plugin to assist.

Now who's ready for some dogfooding?

[advertisement] Stack Overflow Careers matches the best developers (you!) with the best employers. You can search our job listings or create a profile and even let employers find you.

The Trap You Set For Yourself

The Dan Ariely books Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality profoundly influenced the way I design my massively multiplayer typing games. These books offer science in the small about human behavior, and stark insights into user behavior — and by that I mean our own behavior.

The Long Goodbye

All detectives are by definition students of human nature. As the famous fictional detective Philip Marlowe is fond of noting:

There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

We’re born pretty darn great at lying to ourselves, and we get progressively better and better at it the older we become. In software development terms, every user lies.

We become experts at lying to ourselves to avoid being functionally crippled on a daily basis by the ongoing fears that:

  • your work does not matter.

  • your life does not matter.

  • nobody cares about you.

  • you aren’t good enough.

  • you aren’t smart enough.

  • gosh darn it, people don’t like you.

Thus, lying to yourself is part of the human condition. Otherwise nobody would be able to get out of bed in the morning.

However, if you have daily internal struggles with self doubt and indecision, you are almost certainly not going to achieve your mission, whatever it may be. I have found that, to a disturbing degree in this world, you have to believe your own hype to succeed.

Unfortunately, this is something that men are better than women at.

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

So how exactly do you suppress your self doubt without eventually becoming an overbearing, axe-grinding … male … zealot? Or, even worse, a character from The Wolf of Wall Street?

One of the odder asides in The Upside of Irrationality is about the 1995 movie First Knight. Which is quite frankly terrible. Don’t see it. I’m not even going to link to it. But you should watch the first few minutes of this particular swordfight scene that Ariely highlights:

Mark: How did you do that? How did he do that? Was that a trick?

Lancelot: No. No trick. It’s the way I fight.

Mark: Could I do it? Tell me. I can learn.

Lancelot: You have to study your opponent, how he moves, so you know what he’s going to do before he does it.

Mark: I can do that.

Lancelot: You have to know that one moment in one fight, when you win or lose. And you have to know how to wait for it.

Mark: I can do that.

Lancelot: And you have to not care whether you live or die.

Mark: (stunned silence)

The way Lancelot motivates himself to get past self-doubt in combat is not to care whether he lives or dies.

I don’t mean this in the glib way of saying you should stop caring what anyone else thinks. Obviously we care what other people think. Not caring what other people think of us and what we do is the path of the narcissist, the sociopath, and the insane. That’s giving up.

As Ariely says:

Lancelot fights better than anyone else because he found a way to bring the stress of the situation to zero. If he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, nothing rides on his performance. He doesn’t worry about living past the end of the fight, so nothing clouds his mind and affects his abilities — he is pure concentration and skill.

The opinions of other people matter, but they are the traps we set for ourselves. To get past our collective prison of self doubt – am I doing the right thing? Do I even know what the right thing is any more? – concentrate on the daily routine of doing what you enjoy, what you believe in, what you find intrinsically satisfying.

This is what your life is: whatever it is you get up to do every single day. Stop stressing out about the long term stuff and focus on improving that, and you too might eventually find you don’t want to live forever.

[advertisement] Hiring developers? Post your open positions with Stack Overflow Careers and reach over 20MM awesome devs already on Stack Overflow. Create your satisfaction-guaranteed job listing today!

The Dan Ariely books Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality profoundly influenced the way I design my massively multiplayer typing games. These books offer science in the small about human behavior, and stark insights into user behavior — and by that I mean our own behavior.

The Long Goodbye

All detectives are by definition students of human nature. As the famous fictional detective Philip Marlowe is fond of noting:

There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

We're born pretty darn great at lying to ourselves, and we get progressively better and better at it the older we become. In software development terms, every user lies.

We become experts at lying to ourselves to avoid being functionally crippled on a daily basis by the ongoing fears that:

  • your work does not matter.

  • your life does not matter.

  • nobody cares about you.

  • you aren't good enough.

  • you aren't smart enough.

  • gosh darn it, people don't like you.

Thus, lying to yourself is part of the human condition. Otherwise nobody would be able to get out of bed in the morning.

However, if you have daily internal struggles with self doubt and indecision, you are almost certainly not going to achieve your mission, whatever it may be. I have found that, to a disturbing degree in this world, you have to believe your own hype to succeed.

Unfortunately, this is something that men are better than women at.

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

So how exactly do you suppress your self doubt without eventually becoming an overbearing, axe-grinding … male … zealot? Or, even worse, a character from The Wolf of Wall Street?

One of the odder asides in The Upside of Irrationality is about the 1995 movie First Knight. Which is quite frankly terrible. Don't see it. I'm not even going to link to it. But you should watch the first few minutes of this particular swordfight scene that Ariely highlights:

Mark: How did you do that? How did he do that? Was that a trick?

Lancelot: No. No trick. It's the way I fight.

Mark: Could I do it? Tell me. I can learn.

Lancelot: You have to study your opponent, how he moves, so you know what he's going to do before he does it.

Mark: I can do that.

Lancelot: You have to know that one moment in one fight, when you win or lose. And you have to know how to wait for it.

Mark: I can do that.

Lancelot: And you have to not care whether you live or die.

Mark: (stunned silence)

The way Lancelot motivates himself to get past self-doubt in combat is not to care whether he lives or dies.

I don't mean this in the glib way of saying you should stop caring what anyone else thinks. Obviously we care what other people think. Not caring what other people think of us and what we do is the path of the narcissist, the sociopath, and the insane. That's giving up.

As Ariely says:

Lancelot fights better than anyone else because he found a way to bring the stress of the situation to zero. If he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, nothing rides on his performance. He doesn’t worry about living past the end of the fight, so nothing clouds his mind and affects his abilities — he is pure concentration and skill.

The opinions of other people matter, but they are the traps we set for ourselves. To get past our collective prison of self doubt – am I doing the right thing? Do I even know what the right thing is any more? – concentrate on the daily routine of doing what you enjoy, what you believe in, what you find intrinsically satisfying.

This is what your life is: whatever it is you get up to do every single day. Stop stressing out about the long term stuff and focus on improving that, and you too might eventually find you don't want to live forever.

[advertisement] Hiring developers? Post your open positions with Stack Overflow Careers and reach over 20MM awesome devs already on Stack Overflow. Create your satisfaction-guaranteed job listing today!