How diverse are Dynamic Ecology commenters?

This came up in a recent comment thread, and I decided it was interesting enough to post on. What’s the demographic profile of our commenters? How diverse are they, compared to our readership? And do the demographics of people who comment about our posts on Twitter differ from the demographics of the people who comment here? If so, is there any sign that that’s because some groups of people (students? women? people who disagree with our posts?) are more comfortable commenting on Twitter than in our comment threads?

Attention conservation notice: navel-gazing post, probably of greatest interest to other bloggers.

Last month, I went back through the most recent 200 non-trackback comments by someone other than Meghan, Brian, or me, and compiled the following data: commenter gender (m/f; evaluated by name, and photo if available; a gender binary is not ideal but the best I can do), employment (grad student, postdoc, prof, other; ID’d by googling), country (ID’d by geolocating IP addresses), and total number of comments ever made (all time, not just within the most recent 200 comments). Then, because those 200 comments didn’t cover any posts by Meghan, or any posts on gender and equity issues, I also went back and compiled the same data for all the commenters on Meghan’s 10 most recent posts, and for 5 recent-ish posts on gender and equity issues. Two of those 5 were by Meghan and were among her 10 recent posts; 2 were by me and 1 was by guest poster Gina Baucom. Finally, earlier this month, I went through our Twitter notifications and did some searches (to look for subtweets), and compiled data on the gender and employment of the most recent 51 people to discuss our posts on Twitter. I didn’t count anyone who merely rephrased the post title or main conclusion along with tweeting a link to the post, but I did count all other comments even if they were quite brief (brief for tweets, I mean). Those 51 people’s tweets about our posts were made from Dec. 8, 2017 – Jan. 9, 2018, so overlapped a lot in time with the most recent 200 comment data.

For reference, here’s a demographic profile of our regular readers, from a reader survey we did last year that got almost 400 responses:

  • 32% grad students, 26% postdocs, 26% faculty, 16% other.
  • 58% men, 42% women, <1% non-binary or not disclosed.
  • 50% from the US, 10% Canada, 7% UK, rest from elsewhere. That matches where our pageviews come from, so our survey respondents were geographically representative of all readers.

Demographics of the commenters who made 200 recent comments:

  • 54 commenters
  • 67% of those 54 were men, 26% women, remainder unknown gender
  • 17% grad students, 13% postdocs, 37% profs (the majority of them senior profs), 19% other or unknown. Aside: from context, I suspect several of the unknowns are grad students.
  • 44% US, 15% Canada, 9% UK, remainder from elsewhere
  • Most of these 54 commenters have only ever commented once. The 7 all-time most active commenters among these 54 are all men, 6/7 are profs, and 2/7 have their own blogs.

Demographics of the commenters on 10 recent posts by Meghan:

  • 47 commenters, most of whom commented on only 1 of the 10 posts
  • 57% men, 32% women, 11% unknown
  • 11% grad students, 13% postdocs, 42% profs, the remainder other or unidentified
  • 60% US, 15% Canada, remainder from elsewhere

Demographics of the commenters on 5 recent posts on gender and equity issues:

  • 60 commenters
  • 45% women, 42% men, remainder unknown
  • 12% grad students, 8% postdocs, 23% profs, remainder unidentified or other
  • 72% US, 8% Australia, 7% Canada, remainder from elsewhere

Demographics of people who’ve recently discussed our posts on Twitter:

  • 51 people or organizations
  • 61% men, 35% women, 4% organizations
  • 9% grad students, 27% postdocs, 45% profs, 14% other or unknown employment, 4% organizations

Summary and comments:

  • The overall picture is that the demography of our commenters skews a bit more male than our readership (which itself skews a bit male), and substantially more senior than our readership.
  • Commenter demography changes when there’s a strong correlation between interest in the post topic and some dimension of commenter demography. Posts on gender and equity issues draw a more gender-balanced and US-skewed mix of commenters compared to posts on other topics (not mostly women, though, contrary to some speculation in the comment thread linked to at the beginning of this post). As another (anecdotal) example, it looks like our recent series of guest posts on doing ecology in developing countries had an unusually high proportion of commenters from developing countries.
  • That posts on gender and equity issues draw a very US-skewed commentariat is the  only surprise in this dataset for me. Curious to hear thoughts on this, especially from non-US readers, and from folks who participate in or follow online discussions of gender and equity issues in other venues.
  • The identity of the post author doesn’t affect the demographic mix of our commenters. It’s post topic that matters, not who wrote the post. This lines up with our anecdotal experience and survey data. Meghan, Brian, and I all have had the experience of being complimented for a post someone else wrote; some readers don’t notice who writes which post. And from survey data, we know that very few of our readers have favorite post authors, as opposed to favorite topics.
  • Most commenters only ever comment once or twice. If you weighted commenters by the number of comments they leave, you’d increase the skew towards male profs a bit, because our most active repeat commenters are mostly male profs. But this additional skew wouldn’t be huge, because no one commenter makes more than a few percent of all our comments.
  • Twitter commenters are not more diverse on the dimensions considered than people who comment here, contrary to a (plausible!) hypothesis proposed by some commenters in that old comment thread linked to at the start of the post. Indeed, if anything it looks like Twitter commenters might skew even a bit more senior than commenters here. I didn’t quantify geographic diversity of our Twitter commenters, but offhand it looked roughly similar to that of our commenters here.
  • I didn’t quantify this, but just anecdotally the vast majority of Twitter comments about our posts were positive–expressing agreement with the post, and/or adding additional thoughts. The majority of the small number of people disagreeing with our posts on Twitter were male profs. This is a very small sample of disagreement, obviously, so I wouldn’t make much of it. But for what little it’s worth, I don’t see any hint that Twitter commenters are more likely than our commenters to disagree with our posts (which as an aside is slightly contrary to what I’d have expected). And I don’t see any hint that Twitter commenters who disagree with our posts differ demographically from all Twitter commenters on our posts, or from our commenters here.
  • I have no idea about the demography of people who share and/or discuss our posts on Facebook.
  • The demographics of people who retweet and/or like us on Twitter, without commenting, might well differ from those of our Twitter commenters. Or not; I don’t know.
  • The data on our Twitter commenters didn’t cover a time period in which we posted about gender and equity issues. I suspect that if it had, we’d have found less male skew, or maybe even gender balance or a skew towards women.
  • The sample sizes here are modest, so keep that in mind. But I don’t see any reason to think that these samples are massively unrepresentative.
  • We love our commenters, they’re fantastic, we enjoy their comments and learn a lot from them. We wish we had even more and more diverse commenters, but I’m not sure there’s much we can do to encourage that beyond what we already do (moderating comments, treating commenters respectfully, blocking the IP address of anyone who makes really inappropriate comments, etc.). There’s no evidence that we’d increase the diversity of our commenters by switching all discussion of our posts to Twitter (and no one’s suggested we should). Further, we know from reader surveys, and from anecdotal evidence, that people’s reasons for not commenting are mostly beyond our control. Many readers don’t feel they have anything to add. Many have a policy never to write anything on the internet. Some find it a pain to type on their phones. Some prefer Twitter to blog comment threads, for various reasons. Etc. Probably the only thing we could do to attract a different mix of commenters is post on a different mix of topics. But we’re not perfect, and so we welcome suggestions on how we can encourage a large and diverse commentariat.
  • The demographic mix of our blog commenters, and the very similar demographic mix of people who comment on our posts on Twitter, might well not match the demographic mix of people with whom any particular Twitter user exchanges tweets most often. “People who comment on Dynamic Ecology posts on Twitter” probably comprise a non-random subset of all Twitter users, and of all Twitter users with whom any given Twitter user exchanges tweets regularly.
  • I don’t know if these results generalize to other blogs.
  • Let me conclude by thanking the many folks who participated in the excellent comment thread linked to at the start of this post for raising some important and interesting questions and inspiring me to compile some data addressing them.


13 thoughts on “How diverse are Dynamic Ecology commenters?

  1. One thing that struck me in compiling these data (though maybe it shouldn’t have) was that I could ID every Twitter commenter, but a non-trivial minority of our commenters are anonymous or use pseudonyms. Not that you *can’t* be anonymous or pseudonymous on Twitter, of course, but people who tweet about our posts all seem to do so under their real names. Which is just another small illustration of different strokes for different folks, I think.

    • Yes, I was going to highlight this. One reason I prefer blog comments to Twitter is my ability to stay anonymous. I very carefully curate what I say on Twitter and largely stay away from opinion tweets- and most of my responses to blog posts are opinions!

      I suspect I am not alone in liking to remain anonymous and that could explain your skew towards seniority on Twitter relative to blog.

      My own aside to your aside: “Aside: from context, I suspect several of the unknowns are grad students.” I am an unknown but not a graduate student- anonymous early career faculty member here!

      • Thank you J. And yes, didn’t mean to imply that I think that *all* our anonymous commenters are grad students. From context, I think some of them are, but I’m sure not all of them are.

      • I’m a postdoc who sometimes posts on the blog under my name, and sometimes posts anonymously when I worry about something I say affecting my job prospects. (I am probably overly-vigilant, but when “fit” is such a big part of the US hiring process and one’s name is unique, I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry.)

  2. Ok getting up the diversity by commenting from another country (Germany) :-).
    I can only speak for Germany and myself but from what I have gathered in the past year or so by having uncountable discussions about sexism, feminism and gender equality with my family and friends from the US, issues are at a different level for us with different issues. We still have gender bias here and things still need to improve but even so I, for example, never felt that at my university someone (professor, supervisor, colleague) thought I could not do my job or was less qualified because I was a women. Whereas multiple friends from the US and UK have told me about experiencing that sort of bias. Same with our chancellor Angela Merkel: lots of people I know disagree with her politics but no-one I know ever blamed anything she did on her gender. Actually people are more likely to talk about her being a physicist and that affecting her.
    So I think we just have different issues when it comes to gender bias also due to our different systems when it comes to maternity leave etc., which might lead to less comments there.
    Sorry, for the long ramble but this has been a huge topic for me lately with my best friends being from the US and some in jobs that are extremely bias towards women.

  3. I didn’t tally the final numbers, but it struck me that all or almost all of the comments on Brian’s recent posts related to statistical machismo were by men.

    • Yes. In general, commenter demography can vary a lot from post to post. I haven’t checked whether posts on statistical topics, or on statistical machismo in particular, tend to draw comments mostly from men. Could be.

      There’s also the issue that at some point, calculating the gender balance of a sufficiently small number of people ceases to be illuminating. On some posts, the comment thread turns into a long back-and-forth conversation among a very few people. Personally, I’m not concerned if the few people on one comment thread happen to be of the same gender, or from the same country, or they’re all profs, or etc. I’m more concerned if commenter demography is consistently skewed across many posts.

  4. I am from a developing country where two women were elected PM for about 3 decades, and this is likely to continue for at least two more terms (both are in their 70s and expressed desire to retire). The PM, the leader of the opposition and the speaker of the house are all women at this moment. Three out of four major political parties are chaired by women. This is amazing, considering that it is a conservative country. There have been many ups and downs, politically and economically, but one will rarely hear people attributing those to their gender. And I don’t think people give much attention to this either (may be some in local politics, but never got any traction).

    Throughout my years in schools and colleges I don’t recall hearing any of my male friends/peers making sexist remarks about female students’ talent, capabilities, intelligence. I took several courses by female profs during undergrad. We liked some classes and some we did not, but can’t recall anyone making sexist remarks (e.g. this *woman* cann’t teach). Domestic violence, eve teasing, gender inequality especially in rural areas are still a big problem, but gender bias and sexism in the workplace – not much (I don’t have any statistics though).

    All this is to say that whatever I read, hear about gender bias in the US (in workplace/politics) is quite a surprise for me! Equally surprising is that in a country where free speech is protected by constitution, people are still afraid of expressing opinion. Even as revealed in this post, some people do not feel comfortable to express their opinion in a popular professional network. Is it because of the fear of retaliation? How this community is addressing the problem if this is really the case?

    And specific to this post – I really do not understand why diversity of people’s gender/nationality in commentary is important? I’d rather be interested in whether those who refrain from commenting is doing so because this will not be entertained in this blog because their opinion is different from most people in this group? [but I admit answering the latter question requires some understanding of their identity, but this shouldn’t be the end in and of itself]

    P.S. I was going to comment with my name, then chose to remain anonymous because of the last paragraph I wrote 🙂

    • Cheers for this.

      Re: why care about gender and nationality of commenters: gender and nationality might tend to be correlated with people’s experiences, points of view, and so on. So if you want a conversation to include a wide range of points of view etc., that’s probably going to be correlated with diversity of gender, nationality, etc.

  5. Excellent piece of navel gazing – I always enjoy your internal data posts, because as a fellow blogger I love to read about comparative data. That said I find the majority of posts of some interest. Regarding diversity and gender as an old(ish) white male Professor I am horrified by what I read about our female colleagues’ experiences both here and on Twitter, but just don’t feel qualified to comment or for that matter the right. I think a lot of us were and perhaps still are, institutionally blind to some of what is and has been going on.

  6. Nice stats. I don’t comment on DE as much as I would like to, mostly because of the timezone difference here in Australia. I often don’t get to read the post until long (in internet time) after it was published and what I would have said has already been discussed by the local regulars.

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