One thing I like about blogging is the chance to have good arguments. Getting pushback from smart, informed people who disagree with you is one of the best (and for me, most fun) ways to learn. Watching smart, informed people push back against each other is another good way to learn.
But that seems to be happening less often than it used to around here. Our comment threads aren’t getting shorter. But it does seem like they’ve gotten more agreeable over the last year or two, so that we’re having fewer arguments in the comments than we used to. And the ones that we do have aren’t always good.
I recognize that this is very much a “First World problem”. We’re blessed to have great commenters and comment threads. But still, it’d be even better if we could get back to having more good arguments. So here’s a navel-gazing post with some hypotheses about why we might be having fewer good arguments than we used to, and some ideas of what to do about it. Please comment, because I could use some feedback.
Hypotheses (most of which aren’t mutually exclusive):
- We’re not actually having good arguments any less often. It only seems that way because I only remember past threads featuring good arguments, like this one and this one.
- It’s a fluke, not a trend. The reaction of readers to any given post is always somewhat unpredictable. Who knows when a post will push someone’s buttons to the point where they feel moved to write a comment disagreeing with it? For instance, I’ll bet Meg never imagined that this post would prompt me to start an argument in the comments. And the sample sizes are pretty small; posts with good arguments in the comments have always been in the minority. So maybe the recent lack of good arguments in the comments is just a blip.
- We’re writing less provocative posts. I’ve consciously dialed back my own snarkiness and rhetoric over the past couple of years. Possibly, I’ve gone too far and become a bit bland and unopinionated? But on the other hand, even our most provocative posts seem to have agreeable comment threads these days. Brian didn’t get much in the way of pushback against his valuing biodiversity post, and he was expecting fireworks. Greg Dwyer deliberately picked a provocative title for his recent guest post and went out of his way not to hedge his views in the post itself, and still only got a bit of good pushback.
- We’re repeating ourselves more. An attraction to blogging as a form is that you can revisit topics and revise your views. But perhaps readers get bored when we return to topics we’ve covered previously? I’m sure that’s happened in a few cases, as when some folks understandably complained that this post was just rehashing old arguments about microcosms in ecology (in my own defense, I didn’t start this argument). But I doubt this is the biggest issue. For instance, Brian’s recent post on valuing biodiversity concerns a topic we haven’t discussed before. And a couple of times recently I’ve just reposted old posts without noting until the end that they were old posts. They drew as much traffic and as many comments as you’d expect a brand-new post to draw. Indeed, this repost is one of the few posts I’ve done lately that got a good argument going in the comments.
- As our audience has grown, our readers have become more hesitant to disagree with us. This could be because our views are increasingly well-known because we’ve been blogging for so long. So that to an increasing extent, the only people who read us are those who agree with us. Or maybe it’s that, to an increasing extent, people who disagree with us don’t bother to comment, thinking that the resulting conversation will just be boring or pointless (“I know what Jeremy’s going to say, and he’s not going to change his mind, so why bother?”) And as our audience grows, maybe it gets increasingly scary to disagree with us, so that readers who disagree with us are afraid to comment. Against that, in reader surveys, there’s little or no evidence that readers hesitate to comment because of the size of our audience, the way we treat commenters, or because our views are well-known.
- As our audience has grown, it’s become increasingly comprised of people who look to us for advice and instruction, not debate. Not sure about this. We know from reader surveys that the mix of grad students/postdocs/faculty in our readership hasn’t changed. Our readership is becoming less male-biased, which I guess might matter? Then again, I’d have thought that the amount of debate that goes on in the comments would depend more on the absolute number of readers who would want to debate any given topic. Even if the composition of our readership has changed, I doubt that the absolute number of readers who want to engage in debate (either on specific topics, or in general) has declined.
- We’re increasingly right about everything, so there’s no longer scope for reasonable disagreement with us. Ok, I’m mostly kidding about this one. But not totally kidding. I increasingly see blogs as a source of reasonableness and nuance on the internet (qualities that Twitter infamously does not reward). But insofar as you want to have reasonable, nuanced discussions, you’re mostly not going to have arguments.
- It’s not us that’s changing, it’s the internet. Perhaps good arguments on the internet are either moving off of blog comment threads, or else just vanishing entirely. I kind of doubt this–I don’t think broader trends online have much effect on us.
- Jim Bouldin doesn’t comment here any more. Longtime readers will recall Jim Bouldin, who was the most active commenter back when I was at Oikos Blog, and in the early days of Dynamic Ecology. Jim liked a good argument, often disagreed with the posts, and often engaged in extended back-and-forth in the comments. Nowadays, our most active commenters are Stephen Heard, Jeff Ollerton, and Margaret Kosmala—all of whom agree with us for the most part (not always). So maybe we need to start trolling Stephen, Jeff, and Margaret.* 🙂
Ideas on what to do about it:
- Nothing. Our readership and commentariat self-selects, and we already do as much as we can to encourage debate. So if our commenters don’t want to argue with us, we just have to live with it.
- Write deliberately-provocative posts. I’m planning to let 2011 me off the leash a bit more. We’ll see if I can manage to upset an optimal fraction of readers. 🙂
- Write “devil’s advocate” posts. I might try arguing with myself more. Trying to imagine the strongest counter-arguments to one’s own views is very good mental exercise. I’ve done this once already in the comments, where I tried to imagine the strongest blanket objection to microcosm studies in ecology. I may turn that comment into a post, and try to do the same thing with other ideas of mine. “Why the IDH is neither a ghost nor a zombie” would be a fun post to try to write. Indeed, I wrote a version of it years ago, but it wasn’t a good version. It spent too much time on weak counterarguments to my own views, rather than focusing on the strongest ones.
- Invite more guest posts disagreeing with our posts, or expressing provocative points of view. Well, we just did this with Greg Dwyer’s guest post and didn’t draw much pushback. Plus, we’ve found it hard to get people to agree to write guest posts on anything. People often agree to do it, but then don’t follow through. It’s easiest to get our friends to do guest posts–but of course, our friends mostly agree with us.
- Have a “safe space” post. This is an off-the-wall idea I had, on which I’d welcome feedback. A while back, Crooked Timber (a very popular humanities/social science/lefty politics blog) did a “safe space” post in which they invited their mostly-feminist readers to voice unpopular opinions on “feminism and leftism” that they were afraid to air online. You’d think this would’ve been a disaster of a thread, but it turned out great. So I’m toying with the idea of doing something like that here. Maybe Meg, Brian, and I could get the ball rolling by voicing some of our own unpopular opinions. I suspect it wouldn’t work—I think we’d get basically no comments. Unless maybe we made the topic really broad, like “unpopular opinions on academia”. Thoughts?
Looking forward to your feedback as always. And if you totally disagree with anything I said, by all means say so! 🙂
*Just kidding, Stephen, Jeff, and Margaret.**