Communicating with the public is a part of the academic job (increasingly, a formal part, which our managers describe with the delightfully vulgar word “impact”). And from time to time I flatter myself that I might have something original to contribute or say — although if you look at my rate of posting, months go by at a time without that happening.
Probably most people would agree that a part of communication is dialogue. But what do we mean by dialogue? I tend to think it involves some way of taking a topic that is introduced and moving it forward, by raising questions, offering a different perspective, adding information to what has already been presented. That was at least the sort of thing I imagined might be promoted when I decided that this web site would be open to comments, but that the comments would be moderated and the moderation subject to explicit guidelines, which I wrote up as a “comments policy” (it is still around here on the site if you look). And why moderation? Well, mostly because the comments that you find on most free-for-all sites (I think YouTube is a popularly used example) are genuinely not worth reading, and also because in a previous incarnation of the blog I had a lot of unwanted experience with stalkers and the like.
You might say that it was foolish to imagine that idealised type of dialogue could appear anywhere in the online world. For the most part it did not appear here. And it was probably not reasonable to expect that it would, given that the topics covered at this site are frequent objects of controversy, close to the hearts of people who are poorly informed and righteously certain.
I am leaving up the comments that were received and approved when the site was taking comments. If you look through, you will find some sincere and interesting contributions and questions, and some moments of dialogue. But you will also find a lot of not especially interesting statements saying basically “I agree,” “I disagree” or “here is my pet theme that I will introduce into discussions on every topic from kittens to the proper rising temperature for yeast bread.” There’s some good reading in there, but mostly not reading worth putting time into.
Now, the comments you see are the ones that were approved because I looked at them and decided that they did not violate any of the standards that I put into the comments policy. But there are a lot more that you have not seen, because I deleted them. Here is what happens when you write something public about a controversial question: a whole lot of people who have previously standing passionate convictions on the question decide that they need to contribute something. But what they contribute is more often than not of a declarative character; the most frequent declaration is “fuck you.” What do you do when you get fifty “fuck yous”? Well, one approach might be simply to publish them on the ground that they are blessed with a certain representative quality. This is a fine option if you want the comments section to look like the Rosie Perez / Giancarlo Esposito scene in the film Night on Earth. It might also be possible to reply to them, but there is not really any variant of that sort of writing that appeals to me much. Or it is possible to delete them, which is what I generally did, figuring that they do not offer a meaningful and substantive contribution to dialogue and they are not material that many people care to read.
But here’s the thing: even deleting takes time, and I have a lot of other uses for my time. And there’s more: the low standard embodied by the “fuck yous” tends to lower the standard for everything surrounding them, so that some really pointless bits of text get through simply because I said, “Is it more eloquent than the person everyone avoids at bars? Check. Is it relatively of free of stomach turning racism/sexism/whatever? Check.” So some quantity of effort goes in, with a rate of return not even the IMF would envy.
There is probably also some reason to think a little bit about context. If the comments do not provide a wonderful reading experience, what happens if they are not there? In truth, probably nothing. The internet is enormous, and brimming with spots where people can agree, disagree, indulge their ideological or pottymouth instincts, you name it. So go for it. And as for dialogue, the people who have something to say generally know where to find me.