Trolls in the Philosophical Blogosphere (Ought Experiment)

Trolls in the Philosophical Blogosphere (Ought Experiment)


Welcome back to Ought Experiment! We had ourselves quite the weekend, didn’t we? Well hang on to your armchairs, folks, because apparently it’s time for a Very Special Episode. After the heated conversation about professional cliques, a certain blog editor wrote in with a question about the role and consequences of anonymity in online philosophical discussion:

Dear Louie,

I run a philosophy blog. Usually I think it’s worth it—it’s good to have a public space to share news, hash out issues, have some fun, etc.,—but sometimes, Louie, sometimes….

Provocative topics are good blog material. People like to read and discuss them. But they are also bad blog material, in that they pull in a lot of commenters who like to spout off in intemperate, uninformed, and insulting ways. When discussion threads are dominated by these commenters, it turns off some others from participating. I think what would improve matters is more people posting under their own names. It makes contributors accountable for what they say. And I think that as more people participate under their real names, that will encourage others to do so, and the general tenor of discourse at the blog will improve.

I understand that people sometimes have good reasons for posting anonymously. I also understand that some people are worried that if they post under their own names, they risk others responding harshly to them. I moderate comments at my site, so I can protect participants from pointless insults and needless hostility there. But there is the rest of the internet, and the risk of being insulted, teased, or slandered elsewhere discourages some people from posting. The result of this worry is that a large number of thoughtful people with interesting and valuable things to say refrain from taking part in the public conversation. And that is pretty bad.

So, Louie, my question is: given that there will continue to be anonymous commenting at my blog (and elsewhere), what can I do to raise the quality of discussion threads?

Best,

Just Uncomplicatedly Solve The Internet, Nerd

Dear J.U.S.T.I.N.,

I was incredibly tempted to spend the entire column saying “I told you so,” but you rejected that draft. Along with the anonymizing handle ‘Terrible Boss’. So instead I’m just going to disagree with you a bunch. Partly because we do genuinely disagree on some important points. But mainly to confuse the folks convinced that I’m your sockpuppet.

Not all those who wander are lost, and not all those who bluster are anonymous. Still, the idea that anonymity emboldens the worst instincts and individuals is a compelling one. Would there be less vitriol if we signed our opinions? Would there be fewer accusations, punitive rumors, thinly-veiled swipes, and vague conspiracy theories about the misandrist oligarchy that apparently rules the discipline*?

The thing is, I don’t think that anonymity is actually the problem. Like almost any tool, anonymity can be used for good or for ill. The problem is us. A lot of us need to change why we use these blogs, and how we interact with each other on them.

My suspicion is that a norm in favor of posting with our real names would only serve to further segment the readership and community of sites like Daily N – errr, whichever blog it is that you run. Those comfortable enough to use their own names would primarily talk to each other there, and might pay anonymous comments less attention or assign them less credibility. Those worried about expressing themselves due to their vulnerability or the unpopularity of their concerns would increasingly talk to each other elsewhere. And those excluded by the institutional security that protects the first group and the moderation policies that protect the second group would take their suppression as further evidence of conspiracy, and talk to each other still elsewhere. All else being equal, I think that representative discussions are better than signed discussions.

Nor do I think the answer is further increasing the stringency of moderation in an attempt to prevent all offensive, marginalizing, and chilling speech from getting through. Moderators are embodied, socially situated individuals, and can’t have a perfect sense of what’s problematic. When they think they do, they can inadvertently grant legitimacy to a terrible statement by letting it slip through. Even if moderators could do a perfect job of protecting commentators while single-handedly determining which comments are worthwhile, it seems a little demanding to suggest that the responsibility rests with folks like you to block bad speech, rather than resting with folks like us to reconsider our speech. Besides, as we both agree, even ideally moderated blogs can’t protect commentators from being harassed elsewhere. And that’s where the real chilling effect comes into play.

So let’s talk about the unmoderated corners of the philosophical blogosphere. I suppose one could think that there’s a very narrow sense in which the existence of such sites improves the conversation everywhere else: people with a taste for the unbridled and the unsubstantiated gravitate toward a community where anything goes, freeing the rest of us to ignore their particular brand of anarcho-vileness. If someone there attacks us, we can either enjoy the bliss of failing to notice, or dismiss the rancor that finds its way back to us as the low-credence, ultimately harmless trolling that it is. But of course, this response is horribly mistaken.

First, it ignores what creates these spaces in the first place, and how even substantively appropriate, well-meaning suppression can reinforce and intensify opinion. There’s a productive intervention point somewhere between growing grievance and the inflexible contempt of self-diagnosed victimhood, a point where direct engagement could potentially help. To be clear, I would never advise someone to feed the trolls, for the favorite dish of the troll is earnest intervention with a side of good intentions. But trolls probably begin their lifecycle as reasonable people (probably), so carefully airing some of the issues they purport to care about could prevent the merely confused, uncertain, and distraught of today from growing up to be the trolls of tomorrow**.

Second, the ‘self-selecting quarantine’ response drastically underestimates how far outside these spaces their fully-festered harm can extend. This stuff leaks out. Rumors and ‘common knowledge’ can be absorbed unreflectively or second hand, leading to damaged reputations and disastrous misinformation. A culture of hair-trigger resentment and disaffected aggression can become the norm in other philosophical settings. Raising controversial questions can end up doing little more than letting slip the dogs of flame war. Valuable conversations can get drowned out, or moved to private spaces where others are unable to benefit or contribute. And just as you worry, J.U.S.T.I.N., people with worthwhile things to say can decide that it’s not worth taking part at all. Which is to say nothing of the potential for serious threats and in-person abuse.

So if not signed comments, increased moderation, or exiling the trolls to their wretched hives of scum and villainy… what do I think could work? Working on ourselves.

As cloyingly naive as it sounds, when we’re engaging with the philosophical blogosphere, we need to remember that these are real people that we’re talking about and interacting with. When you create a rumor for the lulz, or mock a sincerely raised question, or indict the motivations of a group you’ve never met because your own situation is insecure, or crank up the volume in an echo chamber to reassure yourself that someone else is the problem, or take easy potshots from the comfort of untraceable perches, you’re not being subversive, and you’re not speaking truth to power. You’re just bullying someone to make yourself feel better or to briefly impress someone whose bitterness rivals your own. Being reflexively contrary doesn’t make you wise, issuing accusations that are equal parts loud and vague doesn’t make you a radical, and scoring points doesn’t mean that you’re winning. Somewhere along the way, the necessary aim of challenging prevailing norms and conventions gave way to pointing at a computer screen and crowing “Heh, look at what I said! That showed ‘em.” Somewhere along the way, we let go of our online empathy and concern because they were getting in the way of yelling to address our own needs to soothe our own egos. We sometimes lack basic consideration, and we too often consider that normal.

So part of my advice is aimed at those trolls that can still be reached: while taking part in a sincere conversation is a lot harder than issuing snarky and self-congratulatory jabs from the sidelines, it alone has a chance of changing things. Ask yourself what you care about more: fixing the problems you see in the profession, or becoming a fully self-actualized troll? By opting for the latter, you not only liquidate whatever righteousness you might have had, but you tarnish your cause by our own association with it. Nice job. (And if asking you to engage productively is too much, then at the very least follow this much easier guideline: don’t attack people in lieu of ideas. Employing ad hominems makes you an unmitigated poopstrudel.)

That said, hardened bullies already appreciate that their targets are real people with feelings. That’s why they’re doing it. So what about J.U.S.T.I.N.’s central question: how can we encourage people with worthwhile things to say to join a space where bullies lurk? I could hit you with platitudes: the more individuals help to improve the conversation instead of ceding the floor to trolls, the closer we’ll come to a positive tipping point. But I don’t actually believe that a genuinely open forum and a genuine safe space can coexist. I could try to rally you by appealing to your philosophical natures: philosophy is all about braving the fallout of our considered judgments. But that confuses withstanding critical feedback with enduring pointless hate. I could try appealing to pride: can you really live with being silenced? But philosophers already have many offline venues where they can speak. I could try to gloss over the dilemma with a disarming quip: no internet troll could ever say anything crueler or more misguided than what we already face in the average referee report. But I have no desire to minimize the risks of engaging online.

The answer, I think, goes back to why we even have online discussions in the first place. Because not everyone can read our articles, or attend our presentations, or enroll in our lectures. Because the internet is still the best way we have to reach out to one another, to exchange ideas with people we otherwise wouldn’t encounter, and to draw new voices into the mix. And because, quite simply, someone out there might need to hear what you have to say. You know how we often remark that a class was worth teaching if at least one student walked away changed? The words we say online can go anywhere, and linger forever. Think of the difference we can make.

We should have discussions on blogs because they’re valuable. I believe that value is worth the risk.

— Louie Generis

* Remember, next meeting this Thursday!
** Dibs on the band name Trolls of Tomorrow.

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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Mark van Roojen
5 years ago

Hmm. I don’t like individualistic answers (work on yourselves) to what seem to be problems generated by group dynamics and incentive structures. Or maybe what I should say is not that they’re bad ideas, but that they won’t be sufficient given that the problems are interaction effects and that they distract from thinking about more systematic solutions.

But that’s really a side note. I was wondering if a period of solely non-anonymous commenting, followed by moderated but mixed commenting might improve some discussions. My thought is that if anonymity causes some of the problems, and if threads are easily derailed, it might be good to let a thread get up a head of steam before anonymous comments are posted. This is an empirical matter and it would be easy enough to try it on a few threads where you foresee problems and see if they wind up more productive.

FWIW . . .Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
5 years ago

Thanks so much for this post! Regarding this: “I could hit you with platitudes: the more individuals help to improve the conversation instead of ceding the floor to trolls, the closer we’ll come to a positive tipping point. But I don’t actually believe that a genuinely open forum and a genuine safe space can coexist,” I just wanted to say two things — first, regarding the conflict of safe spaces and open forums, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘safe space’ but when I think of what it means for a discussion space to be safe it isn’t that one is safe there from offense or from what could be in other contexts harassing speech, but rather that the discussion proceeds with mutual respect, or that one who is subject to offending speech has sufficient support (in whatever form) so that the discussion does not thereby become hostile for them. In other words, I’m not sure that ‘safe spaces’ is so much about restricting content as it is about shaping the way we interact with and exchange content.

Second, regarding positive tipping points, I think this piece from TEDs social media manager on what happened when Monica Lewinsky’s talk on shame was posted is really interesting, well worth reading, and provides some reason to think that individuals who are willing to positively contribute to discussion can make a real difference in changing its tone: http://ideas.ted.com/want-to-help-prevent-online-bullying-comment-on-facebook/Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
5 years ago

I suppose my first reaction is that I’m not at all convinced that anonymity isn’t the problem, and that not approving most anonymous comments won’t help. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that there is a small handful of anonymous people who generally use the same handle with each post, and that sometimes they engage in trolling. I think requiring those folks to identify themselves would do everyone here a service. The entire premise of this blog is that you’re supposed to behave as if you have a beverage and your fellow commentators are sitting at the table with you. I usually don’t sit at the table with people who have bags over their heads.Report

Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

There are plenty of examples of well run, productive comments sections on the web. I’ve never seen one that has a large portion of truly anonymous comments, though plenty have high numbers of pseudonymous comments.

This post links to a lot of Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s work on how to run a good comments section. She’s the best I know of at doing this, though I’m sure there are many of good proponents I don’t know about. And the comments are (as you’d hope in a thread about how to run a good comments section) rather useful:

http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/013672.htmlReport

Monica
Monica
5 years ago

Sadly, I confess I stopped reading the comment threads on DN (and in the very few other online blogs I used to check). My reason has to do with the fact that I found out that I do not have the patience, time, and energy required to read carefully what each person says (not even the most “liked” comments). And if I did not read them carefully and patiently, it was also harder to have empathy. I am sad because I am aware that I will probably miss important information and occasions to help people or to stop bullies or impatient writers in their tracks.

What is the purpose of this personal confession? (1) To express my doubts that what happens online is properly described as a conversation. I do not believe it is, mainly because people don’t attempt to look each other in the eye when they reply; nor do they attempt to forge a friendship or mentorship relation with their respondents;
(2) We are very impatient and we really want to write that reply RIGHT NOW. How many of us would think for more than a few hours and post the next day whatever we think it is worth saying? Where’s the fire? I also fear that some people consider that the world benefits a great deal from their wisdom and they cannot be stopped from sharing that wisdom on every occasion they have. Like right now. ;
(3) To thank you for all your efforts, Justin, in moderating discussions. I do not know who you are or how you are doing it, but I think I would go crazy if I were to assume that dedication. (I wrote my comment without much thought and no editing because I am pretty sure that tomorrow I would have thought it’s not worth other people’s time or attention. Except for the thanks 🙂 )Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Getting rid of anonymity might reduce trolling, though plenty of philosophers will be rude, hostile, or go for ad hominem under their own names. Having said that, anonymity gives us the freedom to post without worrying about repercussions if people don’t like our opinions. Ideally, philosophers shouldn’t have to worry about this, but our situation is not ideal, and it isn’t news to anyone that politics might be held against somebody. Perhaps the best we can do is try to remind ourselves to be polite, respectful and charitable in disagreement. I also think that it is also a good idea to have conversations like this, just to affirm our commitment to treating each other kindly.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I think all the comments so far have been incredibly helpful and productive (really – I’m having to resist the urge to reply to each one!), but I just wanted to say how much I liked your idea of taking the time every now and again to reaffirm our commitments. It’s so easy to slide into patterns without really noticing, but sometimes it just takes an honest moment with ourselves, when we ask if this is how we really want to be with one another.Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
5 years ago

Last week I installed rescuetime. One thing it will do is allow you to block specific websites while still allowing you to browse the web. Highly recommended as a way to deal with this issue. I really highly doubt that any useful information one could get from a philosophy blog (especially one mainly not about philosophical content, but rather about “news” in the profession) outweighs the negatives: time suck, emotional energy, outrage, despair, etc.

I also agree with Mark van Roojen’s comment, but I think the more systematic solution is to abolish philosophy blogs that aren’t solely focused on philosophical content.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

Well, I’m not sure if people here consider me a troll, but I admit that I do enjoy stirring the pot from time to time.

I wouldn’t post under my name, because of Personal Reasons (basically, I prefer to publish only that which is well thought out and polished; my comments are quickly typed by my clumsy fingers on my phone and may not represent my considered views on the topic). But I also think that much would be lost if everyone posted under their names.

I take seriously the idea that philosophers should be gadflies. While respectful, reasoned, non-anonymous debate sounds lovely, I’m skeptical that it will get us closer to truth. Most people have too much invested in their status and privileges. “Respectful” or “polite” speech is, in my view, code for “speech that is sanctioned by the socially powerful.” Critical speech that you simply don’t like is far too easily labeled as “disrespectful.”

Just as I’m sure people are annoyed by my comments, I’m sometimes annoyed by others’ comments, and it is distressing to think of my fellow philosophers holding such backward and wrongheaded views (I actually find it worse when these views are articulated by people who comment under their actual names because then it is clear that they really hold unreasonable views and aren’t simply playing a game). However, I think annoyance is a small price to pay for the goods of open debate.

I don’t know if it would work (and I’m sure I would find it frustrating), but I suppose you could limit the number of comments each person could make per thread. At least then no one could dominate the discussion.Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

“Well, I’m not sure if people here consider me a troll, but I admit that I do enjoy stirring the pot from time to time.”

Stirring the pot is perhaps what you tell yourself you are doing, but reading your comment, it comes across like this: “I get personal enjoyment from making comments I know will hurt other people, so I can entertain myself watching their distress. Oh, and I like to think other people out there find it entertaining too, so I don’t feel like a jerk.”

I, like pretty much everyone else, also like to only publish considered views on topics. Comment threads can involve considered responses, even though we often fall short of that bar. If you really think your comments here are so unconsidered that you want them distanced from your name, those are the things you should decide to just not post. It’s not the phone’s fault.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  HK Andersen
5 years ago

I don’t generally aim to hurt anyone, and I wouldn’t consider most of my activity on this site as stirring the pot (for example, I would publicly endorse everything I wrote on the cliques thread, but I would use much harsher and more colorful language in making some of my points).

Nor do I post things that I don’t believe simply to get a rise out of people. But I do think piercing pretensions and going after sacred cows is important. And stirring the pot, say by using humor or provocative language, is not something I’m ashamed of.

Philosophers are supposed to question doxa, yet far too often they defend the status quo and pat themselves on the back for being “respectful” or “civil” and I think it is important to call BS on that. People like to pretend that in insisting on “respectful dialog” isn’t imposing restrictions on content but simply requiring a certain manner of expression. This claim is false. Sometimes, the only way of making the point worth making is to use uncivil language. I will remind everyone that those who fired Salita appealed to this same doctrine of mutual respect in making their case. I think anyone who cares about the value of academic freedom should be troubled by appeals to civility whether these appeals come from university presidents or people who run philosophy blogs.

Yes, it can be uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of this kind of speech, but I don’t think anyone invested in finding the truth should be particularly concerned with peoples feelings of comfort.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

Since I said above that I don’t think creating ‘safe spaces’ is synonymous with placing restrictions on content, let me just be clear in case there’s a possibility of misunderstanding that neither do I think it is a matter of requiring certain modes of expression. I don’t think engaging in respectful dialogue is the same thing as using polite language. I think engaging in genuinely respectful conversation with each other can, and sometimes must, involve saying things that make one another uncomfortable — if we are being particularly obtuse, we might require that someone use especially strong language to convey a point to us, or, someone might need to use such language in order to adequately express themselves. If we are particularly sensitive about a matter even merely factually descriptive language could strike us as impolite. But there is, I think, a very large difference between engaging in conversation that is superficially uncivil to be hurtful, to score points, or just because we like the sound of our own voices or dislike the sound of someone else’s and engaging in that same kind of superficially uncivil exchange because we are genuinely willing to listen to what someone else has to say but our conversation partner has such different starting assumptions it’s impossible for that discussion to not be uncomfortable, or because we believe them to be capable of something better, etc. I think if I say something racist, for example, and a friend were to tell me I should not have said it, I would certainly be uncomfortable, but genuine friendship sometimes requires making one another uncomfortable in this way.Report

BLS Nelson
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
5 years ago

I think Kathryn Pogin’s comment here is both apt and well said.Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  HK Andersen
5 years ago

I’ve very often (mostly, I think) disagreed with Professor Plum’s comments, and on this issue I’m more convinced by Professor Pogin, but I’ve never got the impression that Prof. Plum was saying things for the reason that they were hurtful, or merely to get a rise out of other commenters. I think some people are much too quick to decide someone is a troll.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
5 years ago

How about not approving anonymous comments that are an instance of this activity: “commenters who like to spout off in intemperate, uninformed, and insulting ways”?Report

Lynne Tirrell
Lynne Tirrell
5 years ago

Wonderful post, Justin, very clever and well thought out. I loved this line: “the favorite dish of the troll is earnest intervention with a side of good intentions.” Oh jeez, yes. I still think signed posts with real names is the best, because we should each stand by whatever we say. Even if we say it off the cuff, and if we are too glib or otherwise err, then we should apologize. And, finally, I don’t know all these other sites where I might be being maligned because of what I say here. Life is too short to worry so much about all the people who might want to stab one in the back, verbally or otherwise. Let them get closer and then I will worry. In the meantime, I will sign my name, promote civility, urge us to support each other even as we may disagree, and keep the conversation going. Thanks for a post worth thinking through carefully.Report

Sophie Ban
Sophie Ban
5 years ago

Okay Mark van Roojen, let’s try this and see what happens.

I commented under my real name at Leiter once during my first semester in grad school, back in 2009. I don’t know if I upset any of the other grad students in my department with what I said there, but I can say that my first two years were really difficult socially. I mean, to this day, I can’t think about those years without literally crying- even as I write this now.

Until a few months ago (when I asked my S.O to change my password) I was an avid Facebooker, with a ton of Facebook friends in philosophy (about 1/3 of a list of 900 Facebook friends, were philosophers). I still don’t know what to say about Facebook. It became very overwhelming for me in so many ways, and I don’t see how going back to it now would be any different.

At the moment, I engage anonymously here, FP, and at various anonymous and unmoderated philosophy forums. I guess I like talking to philosophers without the burden of knowing who they are, and without the risk of gaining any sort of reputation (positive or negative) for myself.

It’s true that many people like to use the anonymous and unmoderated forums to say really mean things about others by name. And sometimes it even seems as if people try to start outrageous rumors about specific people. That’s really discouraging to see. Sometimes I intervene. Sometimes I ignore it.

But it is a really nice feeling to get responses based on the content of what you’ve said rather than who you are. And commenting anonymously is the only way to be sure to get that.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Sophie Ban
5 years ago

Based on the content of what you’ve said, I’m very, very glad that you’re part of the DN community.Report

Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Sophie Ban
5 years ago

Sophie, As you point out there would be a loss of valuable input from eliminating anonymous postings. So I don’t think I’m in favor of eliminating such posting entirely. With costs on both sides I’m not sure the present balance is the right one, and I think it is worth thinking about ways it might be different.Report

Sophie Ban
Sophie Ban
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
5 years ago

Ha. Yeah. After this thread, I don’t think I’ll use my name again any time soon.

Similar to Facebook, issues-in-the-profession discussions can get WAY too exciting.

But it was interesting to compare the phenomenology of signing my name with that of remaining anonymous I guess.

The moral of the story: avoid posting comments that inspire (even a shred of a possibility of) speculation about other people.

“Duh,” I say to myself (and no one else).Report

Plouffe
Plouffe
5 years ago

Thought experiment: would Louie Generis’s posts be taken as seriously if everyone knew who he was? Perhaps a good argument for anonymous posting (or something near enough).Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
5 years ago

I have found the thumbs-up button on this blog extremely useful. Seeing other peoples’ well-crafted answers to inaccurate assumptions or unkind remarks get lots of thumbs-up makes me feel better about the overall reasonableness of people in our field.Report

MrMister
MrMister
5 years ago

I worry that the response from Louie Generis runs together ‘acting like a jerk’ and ‘trolling.’ As far as I see, Justin only brings up the first, but the response runs seamlessly into the second. But these are importantly distinct. Trolling is characterized by negative social emotions; I have seen at least one study being bandied about that suggests it is an online extension of the same personality traits that lead to everyday sadism. Rude people, by contrast, are often merely insensitive, clueless, angry, or whatever; they are not necessarily trolls, and vice versa.

This distinction is relevant when we consider anonymous commenting. To wit: if a ‘non-anonymous’ system merely requires a human name and a valid e-mail address, it would still be easy to fabricate an alternate identity. Would it be restricted to people with verifiable institutional affiliations? That might be more effective, but is also more severe (would it be possible, then, for undergraduates to post? etc.) This connects to the distinction between trolls and merely rude people insofar as an identifying system that was easily gamed would do little to deter actual trolls, who have no qualms about lying (bad faith is a defining characteristic), though perhaps it would serve to harness the shame instinct of people who are unwilling to lie. So, which class of people it is whose behavior we’re looking to control is going to wind up being extremely relevant to the systems we might consider.

In any case, though, it doesn’t appear to me that Daily Nous has anything like a troll problem (from what I’ve read at least). But then again, it doesn’t really seem to me to have a rudeness problem either. Relative to other sites of which I am aware, the conversation here is downright civilized.

Finally, I would add: I’m a graduate student, and would not be comfortable posting under my own name. I do not want to be represented by less than my most polished work. And I also fear for drawing negative reactions from my substantive ethical/political/social etc. views. These fears are not entirely distinct, insofar as the pressure to be polished is especially high when it comes to charged social topics.

When this topic has come up before, I recall established figures assuring people in my situation not to sweat it: being recognized is typically good, not bad, and probably won’t play much of a role regardless. I am not sure, though, that I believe it. For one thing, the people saying it have an obvious motive to self-deceive, insofar as admitting the contrary would involve looking petty (which is not to impugn the good natures of people who have put forward this claim, just to note that we are all fallible with respect to self-report about the causal structure of our behavior). And it also seem to go against everything we know of hiring, where subconscious biases consistently select for similarity–we want to hire people who look like us, dress like us, talk like us, share our interests… why wouldn’t we want to hire people who played for ‘our team’ in online banter? I am not paranoid enough to think that this would be likely to be a controlling factor in hiring; of course, the writing sample will matter more than anything anyone ever posted on Daily Nous. But with things being as they are out there on the market, no one wants to accumulate even one strike against themselves.

I do not think it would be the end of the world if I and others in my situation stopped commenting; I am not so vain that I think this song is about me. But it is, I think, something to keep in mind with respect to anonymous commenting.Report

Anonymuse
Anonymuse
5 years ago

Thanks Justin, and thanks above all Louie: I don’t fully agree with what you said (see Mark’s first comment above for one reason why I am hesitant to agree fully with you), but I think there is a lot of truth in it, and also you write *so well*. It’s a real pleasure to read your stuff. (I’m pretty sure Louie is a she, by the way, Plouffe, although that may be wishful thinking, and I am pretty sure she would be taken seriously even if she posted under her own name.) I think this thread shows that this kind of appeal and encouragement to renewed collective commitment (so it’s not quite an individualistic solution, after all, Mark) has its place. I found it inspiring, and I was surprised to see someone like Professor Plum write the way s/he wrote (yes, I did think you were somewhat trollish, Plum).Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Anonymuse
5 years ago

OK, since apparently multiple people think my comments are trollish, I would love to hear a *specific example* of how I how I behaved trollishly in the cliques thread. Without specific examples to think through, these criticisms strike me as examples of “We don’t like the content of your speech so we will label it as trollish or uncivil or disrespectful to silence you”.Report

Lynne Tirrell
Lynne Tirrell
5 years ago

Sophie Ban’s comment made me think of a favorite fact about Kierkegaard: that he wrote in so many pseudonyms. There’s a nice brief on that here, if you skip to B1 you get the idea that he was in control of the many different authorial identities he constructed. http://sorenkierkegaard.org/kierkegaard-authorial-method.htmlReport

Anoni
Anoni
5 years ago

For purposes of clarification before I post my full comment, could a person still be a “troll” if they post under their real name (and happen to run a Philosophy program ranking service)? Say, for instance, that they consistently threatened their colleagues/enemies with unwarranted legal actions; would that person be a troll?Report

Matthew
Matthew
5 years ago

You could example some troll posts to make everyone understand what you don’t like and why you don’t like it. Especially if it has happened recently (as seems to be the case). You do know of course, that if people have things to say, which they aren’t comfortable saying to a perceived cabal of older whiter gentlemen, they will go elsewhere on the internet to express themselves.Report

noetika
noetika
5 years ago

I don’t know that this could generalize to all of the problems that concern J.U.S.T.I.N., but I remember last December after philodaria posted in defense of respecting pseudonyms at Feminist Philosophers ( https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2014/12/25/pseudonyms/ ), elsewhere online there was speculation as to philodaria’s identity. In response, multiple people began claiming on facebook that they were philodaria. I thought this constructive community reaction was a lovely way of responding to one instance of this kind of issue.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

While I am no expert in psychology, my understanding is that the research shows that our chances of changing someone’s mind generally become much lower when we start using inflammatory language or make them feel that we are being rude or disrespectful to them. If so, it is rudeness rather than politeness that is generally the impediment to changing minds. Naturally, “politeness” can be used as a bad excuse to silence dissent, but any virtue can be used as a bad excuse.Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
5 years ago

Professor Plum: To be clear, my reply above was not accusing you of being trollish. It was to highlight a kind of self-serving justificatory stance towards your own comments, where stirring the pot is taken to be something funny but innocuous (rather than bhaving genuinely negative effects on readers or commenters on this blog), or where going after “sacred cows” is somehow evidence that you care more about truth than the rest of us (rather than all of us caring about truth, and you considering the possibility that the weight of opinion being against you on a point is evidence that you got it wrong rather than evidence of your own daring in fighting some kind of perceived establishment). It’s the epistemic equivalent of saying, your post has a big piece of spinach in its teeth that I don’t think you realize is there.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  HK Andersen
5 years ago

Um, well maybe you didn’t call me a troll, but you did imply (or more precisely, you stated) that I “get personal enjoyment from making comments I know will hurt other people so that I can entertain myself watching their distress…”

I’m sure there is a fine line, but I’m not sure how that is so different from calling me a troll.Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

Actually, I did not state such a thing. I remarked on how your comment comes across. I specifically avoided making the claim about you personally. When you claim to enjoy stirring the pot with provocative comments on this blog, in the context of a discussion of how to keep threads productive and non-trollish, it comes across a certain way. It is not about you personally, especially since you choose to post anonymous. It is about the comment.Report

JCM
JCM
5 years ago

It’s with regard to this sort of thing I especially miss LiveJournal, which had an extraordinarily active philosophy community (philosophy.livejournal.com) before the days of Facebook, and which was peopled by professional philosophers as well as high school students. (The other thing I really miss about LJ is nested comments, but that’s another issue. (Please make nested comments?))

LJ’s communities worked this way: one member of the community would post to the community, and then other members would see it in their RSS feeds and respond. Anyone in the community could post posts or comments (though there was often (wildly variable levels of) moderation by whoever set up the community (or his descendants)), but no-one not in the community could do so. This meant that a certain amount of labour and dedication was required in order to contribute: one had to open an LJ account, find the philosophy community, follow it, etc. But this labour had the upside of creating very stable and strong pseudonyms, and indeed not just names but also profile pictures. Over time, this meant that you could get a good sense of who was who in the community (and the userpics added to this (they were expressive of personality, never lifelike portraits)), and so the communities has large amounts of responsibility and cohesion and so on, without anyone’s non-LJ life or career ever being put in any danger. There’s been a bit of this on sites such as this – I always use the handle JCM, for instance – but it is terribly easy for me to change my handle, or for someone else to pretend to be me, and I don’t immediately stand out as being who I am because I can’t have any memorable or immediately recognisable userpic; and so there has only ever been just a bit of this stability.

It is a shame that we don’t have more stable and reliable pseudonyms on blogs such as this! However, I can’t think of any way to introduce them. Perhaps there is nothing to be done. It is worth being mindful of how good it could be, though.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

In this post-Salaita age, I’m dumbfounded that so many philosophers fail to acknowledge the deep problems with invoking norms of civility and politeness. Sure, polite speech is more palatable ( i.e., easier for those in power to take), but this is precisely why we should, on occasion, speak impolitely and uncivilly. This isn’t some crazy new idea I pulled out of my hat, philosophers and political scientists have been making this point for *decades*. Yet philosophers on this thread write as though the invocation of politeness or civility are not at all freighted in terms of power.

This is not an isolated case. It seems like each thread begins in another age with no attention paid to the extensive work done in the topic by previous philosophers or other theorists. And whenever I try to challenge a popular truism, things get real personal, real quick.

I know when my efforts are wasted, and I’m not interested in playing these reindeer games any longer.

No, my feelings aren’t hurt, but it is exhausting and all I get for my troubles is having malicious intentions attributed to me.

While the open defense of misogyny on almost every thread is annoying, the uncritical acceptance of the status quo, predictable patterns of “liberal” groupthink, and cheap shots in the name of civility is much worse. In fact, it is intolerable. Philosophers should be better than this.

So, I hereby resign my position as resident provocateur. Sadly, I don’t know anyone with the dedication to fill my shoes, so I expect the comment sections will be a bit more placid for a little while.

Please note: anyone using the Professor Plum handle going forward is an impostor! And I will not post under another name.

Good night, and good luck!Report

Michael Smith
Michael Smith
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

You won’t be surprised to hear that I disagree with a lot of what you say too, Professor Plum. But looking at the number of ‘likes’ your comments got on the ‘cliques’ thread, my sense is that a lot of people agree with what you say and like the way you say it. I hope you reconsider your decision not to post in the future.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
5 years ago

Ok, I don’t really mind if anyone resigns a position as resident provocateur, but I do think it would be too bad if you feel like it’s not worth engaging in discussion here anymore — particularly if it’s because you think others are widely attributing malicious intentions to you that you don’t have. If Prof. Plum is retired might you consider an alternative handle? Say, “In the Billiards Room”?Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

It’s ironic that Prof Plum’s post which starts by noting that there are problems with invoking civility then instantiates the very reasons why people invoke the notion in the first place. It is annoying when things get personal, and it is exhausting to deal with, and it does cause people who make worthwhile contributions to leave discussions, which is exactly what people who think that civility is important are trying to fight against.Report

Sophie Ban
Sophie Ban
5 years ago

One more thing:

When I posted here under my own name yesterday, I just posted what I would have written anonymously, but signed my full name without giving it any more thought than that.

But I regret some of that first part about having a rough time in grad school. I’m really not trying to throw shade in any particular direction.

It’s not exactly a secret that grad school can be emotionally the-worst, and that’s just the nature of the beast sometimes, right?

Anyway, hopefully this little addendum is totally unnecessary for anyone but me.

Also: Kierkegaard invented sockpuppets!?!?Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

But that might be a reason why anonymous posting might actually be rather useful. There might come a point where you realise you are wrong and, as an anonymous poster, there is no need to ‘save face’ in the same way there might be if everyone knew who you were.Report

babygirl
babygirl
5 years ago

I, for one, think Prof. Plum is not trollish in the slightest. Indeed, I went back and read some posts and can’t find anywhere where she is even, I would say, “uncivil”. I took slight offense at something she said in another thread, indicated as much, she explained herself a little more, and I was able to laugh it off. I don’t know if this was a productive exchange (perhaps it would have just been better for me to laugh it off originally), but I also wouldn’t ever want to say that it’s better that she not contribute, she’s different enough from the status quo around here to offer a fresh perspective. I think *I* was silly for getting pissed at something relatively minor. As a philosopher, I would be better off if I were able to calmly respond to slights, whether real or perceived.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
5 years ago

I enjoy reading this blog sometimes to stay in touch with what’s happening outside my small sphere, and when I read comments I don’t much care whether they are anonymous or not. Sometimes people have good reasons to be anonymous, sometimes they use it as a mask to say something they would rightfully be ashamed to say in public. In the latter case, I find it sufficient that other people offer a critique of anything off-base. If an anonymous person offered up an unkind rumor it might be helpful if people objected publicly under their own names, which for me carries more weight than anonymous rumor-mongering. I barely use Facebook and then to keep in touch with distant relatives or friends, so I think I must be missing out on what’s happening there related to philosophy. Maybe that’s a relief!
My concern is that some people feel compelled to remain anonymous because they are worried about how their publicly expressed views might affect them professionally. Even when people have tenure, some of the recent cases in the news may raise concern that a misplaced comment, offending the wrong people or generating negative publicity, could be damaging. That’s why I don’t mind anonymous comments but also wish more people felt comfortable saying what they think. For my own part, I’m sure I don’t agree with my colleagues about everything, but since I respect and like them and know that they’re good thinkers, the fact that they differ from me is often a sign I may have missed something and should reconsider an opinion, rather than thinking something must be wrong with the person who said it!
I often feel like philosophy as an academic discipline is under siege from greater destructive forces beyond (not sure if Marco Rubio counts here yet, but more broadly one sees this misunderstanding of and hostility toward philosophy too often). I wish we could band together more, with greater mutual respect as philosophers even when we disagree, and then perhaps people would feel more secure in speaking publicly. Isn’t part of what makes our discipline so fun the permission to disagree on things, and take arguments apart without the stakes being too high or too personal? Even that person who may seem like a jerk is still on your team, so to speak, in the larger profession.Report

Sophie Ban
Sophie Ban
5 years ago

In response to Laura, and anyone else who’s wondering:

Two good and related things about having a lot of philosophers as Facebook friends is that you can almost always get instant (i) pertinent advice about specific problems related to academia, and (ii) high quality (well, relevant, even if short) feedback on a half-(or barely)-baked thought. Both of those things are really helpful- especially to grad students like myself, who don’t know anything about anything, and freak out about it all the time.

But the problem with posting content that that might get you (i) and (ii) is that it also *might* rub some people the wrong way, or some of the responses, or the fact that some particular person responded, *might* rub some people the wrong way.

I’ve found that I can get something like (i) and (ii) by commenting here, as well as other places in the philosophy blogosphere, without the burden of fretting about who might be upset, or upset with me, why, and what might happen as a consequence.

Is the worry as silly as a premise for a Wes Anderson movie? Definitely. But is the worry real? Maybe. But either way, worrying really does suck even if there’s nothing really out there to worry about.Report

Marcus
Marcus
5 years ago

Hey Louie,

Long time listener, first time caller.
Really Really loved your first column but I’m a bit disappointed by this week’s ought experiment.

Is not the point of an advice column to give advice to the writer about what ought to be done?
And is not one great ancillary benefit of the ought experiment that a focuss on this kind second personal interaction/exchange is far too often overlooked in favor of some sort of “objective stance?”

I would thane thought the answer to both questions would be yes, but perhaps that’s just my misguided intuition.
Of course, in all cases we need to consider what ought to be done, full stop, and not merely what X ought to do, but those are different questions and our nearly universal focus on the former can (or at least the belief that we have to answer the first before we can consider the second) can, at times, be detrimental to considering the latter appropriately.

FWIW, I would advise J.U.S.T.I.N. that one huge things that he is *unique* position to do to influence the types of comments he gets on his blog is to focus on how the issues are framed there. A contrast here with Justin, who is the moderator at Daily Nous, might be helpful for J.U.S.T.I.N. on this score. One of the things I generally love about Daily Nous and what often makes the comments here *worth* reading is the moderator generally does a great job, even on very controversial topics of framing the issue to something very particular. The “Philosopher’s on” series is a great example of that, as are the vast majority of issues in the profession. A thoughtful prompt on something very specific, or a series of prompts on related topics, generally accompanied with an array of possible responses or at the vary least a call for such consideration of the possibility space. We can contrast that general approach at DN with a recent discussion on cliques at DN. There there were so many issues involved, journals, books, and conferences as well as so many different types of diversity in question, diversity in sexual identification, race, even school affiliation. That framing may not have called out for the modern internet equivalent of a polemic, but it certainly made them more likely. Perhaps some advice for J.U.S.T.I.N would be: Don’t avoid risky topics, but be careful in how the discussions are framed. That framing may prove to matter much more than the anonymity or lack thereof of posters at his blog.Report