Or, this is not a democracy, it’s a private residence, get used to it. But we need you, and you apparently need us, so let’s do what we can to get along.
Weblogs and online discussion forums are a type of feedback media, where the published content forms the opening chapter, not the entire story. In feedback media, there are broadly two groups of participants, who I’ll term proprietors and contributors; the former being those who operate the medium and provide its `official’ content, the latter those who participate in the medium by adding their own content. The nature of the relationship between these two groups is critical in determining how the medium functions. This post is a quick examination of how feedback media operate at a theoretical level, a survey of examples, and a rationale for dual-mode gatekeeping, with a view to creating an environment conducive to quality discourse which is largely free of personal feuds and partisan point-scoring.
The Dump Button
Though there are others, the canonical mainstream feedback media are the letters-to-the-editor page and talk radio. In either of those media, a proprietor has the unilateral ability to prevent or limit contributors’ participation – in the case of the newspaper editor, the mechanism is `points noted’; radio hosts have a button with which they can drop a caller between when she starts speaking and when she goes to air – traditionally, this timeframe is seven seconds. Blog proprietors have a range of similar devices at their disposal.
This has important implications when viewed in the light of one of the fundamental pieces of media theory – Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model, which argues that a given text is encoded with meaning by its creator, and that meaning is decoded by the person reading it, who can accept, partially accept or wholly reject the encoder’s frame of reference (not the content; that’s a different matter with which Hall was not largely concerned). In principle, the presence of gatekeeping mechanisms such as those described above means it’s virtually impossible to have a statement published which the proprietor doesn’t want to be there. The logical flipside of this is: if your comment gets published, it’s because the proprietor wants it to be published, and for their own reasons.
Proprietors of feedback media generally have plenty of reasons for wanting to allow content to be published, the primary one of which is the symbiotic relationship they have with contributors. The nature of the content and the nature of the gatekeeping are the two primary factors which determine the tone of a medium; the former largely because of the contributors it attracts and the latter largely because of the contributors it drives away. When Lindsay Perigo took over from John Banks on his Radio Pacific talk show, many regular callers kept calling because the political content Perigo aired was quite similar. Banks was extremely tolerant of callers who took a while to get to the point – he rarely, if ever, cut people off, and he had a great deal of time for listening to peoples’ stories. Perigo was the opposite; he guided the show much more firmly and did not generally tolerate callers chatting about trivial or mundane matters, and that changed his audience and his contributors. Banks’ loyal callers became quite displeased when Perigo, for instance, dedicated an entire hour of his show to the songs of Mario Lanza, of whom they’d never heard, and became irate when he lost his temper with some of the more elderly callers and began to cut them off for not sticking to the programme or saying anything he considered meaningful. Gradually, the old callers stopped calling and were replaced by a new set: younger, less religious, sharper of tongue, etc.
Plenty of different gatekeeping models exist in practice. I’ll focus on four which are fairly archetypal. Each creates a different atmosphere.
1. Slashdot. The lunatic asylum model. Members control almost everything. This results in a community which is extremely tolerant of insults, memes, tomfoolery, and has an incredibly low signal to noise ratio.
2. Kiwiblog. The echo chamber model. Content is published by DPF, commented upon by members, who use a karma system and are subject to a demerit system (operated by DPF) which is more theoretical than anything. This results in a sort of groupthink; not because DPF enforces it, but because he allows his commentariat to do so, creating a recursive loop of abuse which deters dissenters from participating. There is an argument that DPF (who’s a thoroughly decent bloke, quite unlike his comment threads) keeps his blog this way in order to make himself look sensible and reasonable by comparison.
3. No Right Turn. The Holy Sepulchre model. Content is published by Idiot/Savant, and that’s what you get. Idiot/Savant took the opposite line to DPF and turned off comments altogether a good long while ago. The result is almost pure signal, very little noise. I/S is frequently referred to by and comments on other blogs to maintain the feedback aspect of his medium.
4. The Standard. The noisy tavern model. Content is posted and comments are moderated by a group of writers, and Lynn Prentice, who tolerates very little of the sort of abuse for which KB is known. In general this results in a more congenial atmosphere, with a wide range of dissenting voices who are usually treated with at least a modicum of respect. However, it still gets pretty heated because there is no clear delineation between content and conveyance.
The Living Room Model
Anita’s model for Kiwipolitico is of a living room in which robust and complex but civil and reasoned discussions take place. This implies rights and responsibilities, and although I’ve only recently moved in (as it were) I shall presume to list a few as I see them. These apply equally to proprietors and to contributors.
* You have a right to be treated as an honourable contributor and to be free from serious personal attacks, abuse or character assassination.
* You have a right to not have your personal or professional life dragged into a discussion unless you allow it, or it is somehow germane to a legitimate matter of debate.
* You have a responsibility to defend and substantiate your arguments and assertions, not to assume that because people here are civil you can get away with a weak argument or unproven claims.
* You have a responsibility to adhere to and enforce these standards of conduct to the extent you are able.
Sir Karl Popper (and others) argued that if a society is perfectly tolerant of any and all behaviour, it must tolerate behaviour which is destructive of toleration itself, eventually leading to a general absence of toleration. This is pretty clearly evident in the Slashdot and Kiwiblog examples above and to a lesser extent in The Standard example, where because of a greater or lesser lack of discipline, much worthwhile discussion is simply drowned out, and the signal to noise ratio drops. The problem is usually not with the arguments, which can be well-reasoned and supported; it is the attacks and epithets which accompany those arguments which deters dissent. Therefore, in order to privilege argument over attacks, the content to be argued and the means by which it is argued need to be treated separately. The living room model requires that there be little or no gatekeeping of argument itself, coupled with strict gatekeeping of the means by which that argument is conveyed – essentially: make what points you choose, but do so in good faith and in accordance with decent norms of conduct and reasoned debate.
The point and purpose of the model is to separate arguer and argument for the purpose of criticism. You should be vulnerable to critique only on the grounds of your arguments, your ideas, or your conduct. Good ideas and arguments, cleanly made and supported by evidence and logic, will thrive here regardless of their ideological bent, but arguments resorting to personal attacks, abuse, absurd hyperbole, rash generalisation or wilful misinterpretation to make a point will perish whether we agree with their premises or not, because these are the signs of a hollow argument which lacks a valid foundation. While you will be sheltered from personal attacks, don’t expect your argument to be sheltered or defended by the proprietors; indeed, we may take great glee in watching it be torn asunder, as long as the tearing is done in a civil, justified and reasoned fashion. Finally, toleration breeds toleration. If you consistently exhibit good character and careful arguments, occasional minor indiscretions may be overlooked. This is a privilege to be earned, and I hope everyone will earn it.
Well presented post, Lew, that clarifies some important aspects of the blogosphere…. and opens up some areas of debate and contrast.
I like the approach on Kiwipolitico and visit it as much as other aspects of my life allow. I also like other blog forms (The Standard, Tumeke) and The Hand Mirror (the latter probably fairly similar to Kiwipolitico Living Room model). I avoid Kiwiblog because, as a lesbian feminist leftie, I don’t see any value in subjecting myself to the level of bigotted abuse it generates.
However, are there not also implicit biases within KP’s Living Room approach. While this commendably promotes tolerance over abuse and separates arguer from the argument, it also seems to me to be a fairly middleclass approach that favours those of us who are more academicly inclined. Furthermore, doesn’t it also tend to favour a more centrist position? (a bit like publicaddress, which IMO is also a living room style but ultimately re-inforces a centre left position). This is because of the way dominant discourses can be regarded as “reasonable” or “sensible” and often not as in need of justification or provision of supporting arguments/evidence for underlying assumptions, in contrast with more marginalised political positions.
I understand why Idiot Savant turned off the comments to his blog, even though he produces pretty reasoned and insightful analysis. He leans more strongly away from the centre, to a left environmentalist position, and his comment section tended to be inundated by right-wing, abusive comments that seemed to drown out I/S’s reasoned style.
While I don’t agree with everything on The Standard, I appreciate the filtering out of bigoted abuse that would undermine me personally, and think the barroom kind of approach probably has some cross-class appeal. It, like Tumeke, adds an element of impassioned and committed expression that is an important element of political debate IMO, while also being problematic. Nevertheless, it enables the expression and exploration of some ideas that many would regard as too extreme, and/or articulated in acceptable middleclass terms, to be given much of a voice in a more living room style discussion.
Consequently, I like to visit several blogs fairly regularly, that have diverse approaches.
This KP blog is a welcome addition to this diversity, and like most other blogs has its pros and cons IMO.
The net is, in general, biased toward middle class and well educated, and we’re even more so than most.
Hm… I hadn’t thought of it this way, and I would have argued that the absence of abuse and vitriol actually gives me more comfort in expressing a harder left view. I know I’ll have to challenge the dominant discourse to do it, but I’m pretty sure no-one will either shout at me or dismiss me as the lunatic fringe.
That said, my post about rape kind of disproved that. I think my position was, in fact, a relatively moderate one but there was an awful lot of commentary which could be paraphrased as “you’re an extremist separatist feminist!” Meh! :)
I suppose it probably is, and that is probably an important reason why blog-talkback can be so successful in generating varying classes of chatter – ‘democratising it’ even further, if you will – does anyone else think that the blogosphere within the ‘middle class internet’ is actually mostly biased AWAY from ‘middle class, educated’ discussion? Niche for KP there…
It all seems just a little “grown up” to me. Still, so long as you don’t mind me wearing my steel caps and hi-viz in your lounge, and, every now and then, snapping off the wee handles on your lovely tea cups with my great muckle hands, I’m fine with it.
Interesting discussion, Lew. FWIW, I like to think I take the ‘living room’ model on my own blog, NOT PC.
And BTW, you’d be wrong in your assertion that Perigo maintained a practice of cutting off callers. Quite the opposite, in fact. With one exception as I recall, (a mad chap who was the brother of the Herald cartoonist, who was banned from the station) Perigo’s usual practice was to let callers speak themselves out — which in some cases meant they ended up inevitably embarrassing themselves as their ‘arguments’ dried up.
This would be the very opposite of cutting them off, but ironically often achieved the result you described: Banks’s callers weren’t run out of town, they were scared off when their often bigoted views had the light of time and space and disagreement shone upon them.
I didn’t intend to give the impression Perigo was constantly cutting people off (you’re right, he didn’t make a habit of it in the general case), but on rereading I have given that impression. I’ll edit it to clarify the point.
My point is that while Perigo was quite happy to argue, he required people to get to the point in a way Banks didn’t. (I’m not referring to his wider talk career, really only to that situation.) I distinctly recall him getting so fed up with a few of Banksie’s regulars calling up and wittering on at length about matters of great concern to them, but not to him (or probably anyone else). Those callers didn’t often call back, and that’s the sort of cultural change I’m talking about.
Case in point. I avoid it because I don’t have time to get myself into the sorts of arguments into which I would inevitably get myself there :)
Yes, the medium is the message, to a large extent. I certainly wouldn’t claim it’s free of bias; it just has biases which I think are valuable. This is in fact what a lot of people mean when they call something `unbiased’ or `objective’.
This argument accords with that put by Pablo and George Darroch on the thread regarding praxis, I suppose. It’s certainly true that certain `common sense’ dominant positions will just be taken as read, and certain definitions assumed. This has already come up with James, whose arguments tend to be founded on definitions and emphases radically different to mine (and I would venture, those in common usage anywhere). Care is required to frame things in the way you want, and to allow people to employ their own framings. I think the thing I would request is that people be clear about the perspective or paradigm from which their argument emerges.
I agree, one voice among many.
Heh, I remember when I’d read something there – ‘You what? Seriously?! RIGHT, here’s why YOU’RE wrong!’. Much time lost.
SR, I keep meaning to thank DPF for making commenters register on his site. Every time I see the red mist, I think `bah, can’t be arsed remembering ANOTHER password’, and I give it up. If I had an account it just wouldn’t be that easy.
Ah, so how does ‘llew’ remember his password there? I assume that’s you…
You could just let your browser remember your password :-D
SR, I believe llew stands for `Llewellyn’, but it ain’t me, babe ;)
Well whadya know. I go by stephen and StephenR for various reasons, thought you’d done the same.
Or use the same password for everything :)
(that is, everything non-essential which would not be serious to lose…)
I find the “living room” approach stultifying and ultimately devoid of the kind of frisson that is required to generate debate that sharpens ideas…
Perhaps it’s my working class roots but I find middle-class politeness smothers debate and keeps debaters too safe from the failings of their own arguments and provides the ability to argue without dedication… Neither of which are useful conditions for dialectic elevation…
Oh and this politeness lacks the Rabelaisian edge that makes life fun… Subsequently I’d rather comment at KB than I would here. Sorry Lew but what you describe is less a living room than a Victorian drawing room with the exception that the women haven’t been sent off to sew elsewhere…
Ha! Cap is “bopeyed vittles” – now that’s the sort of crazy Faulknerian-sounding **** I like…
I expected you might see it this way. I guess I find that name-calling, mother-insulting and Nazi comparisons tend to hinder, rather than help, the process. But it takes all sorts. Yours is a particularly clear expression of what Carol’s on about, above.
Well, I think I was quite clear that weak arguments wouldn’t be allowed to stand in the name of niceness – in fact, I think requiring people to play the argument rather than the arguer will expose flawed reasoning to much greater scrutiny than the alternative.
Anyhow, if you feel like a virtual cup of tea and a lie down, you know where we are.
I’m going to have to agree with ‘Sod here. I prefer blogs with lots of name calling and rhetorical violence.
I mean blogs like these are good, but they tend to lack the fire, the flame the elan of the no holds barred blogs. Also, I don’t really think anyone should be affected by what some random said to them on the internet…
Well, rationally speaking, nobody should ever be affected by anything anyone says to them – after all, it’s only words. But people are.
Yeah I’d really rather not waste my time reading people’s flame wars…
Well I’m shocked that you missed the Monkey With Typewriters – which is based on a semi-inebriated slightly aging ‘alpha male’ hurling baseless aspersions through the window of a passing cab at 1.00 am model. Is it a class thing? I do detect a whiff of elitism going on here.
Or, if we insist on sticking with posh middle-class only, – The Dim Post which is unashamedly and very, very, obviously satirical.. model.
Heh, if you feel you’re in a different ‘class’ maybe you could come up with your own system. Ooh, then we could compare bias and then ‘ontological roots’ once we’ve warmed up!
Lee, you’re all class ;)
Yes, and part monkey.
Personally I don’t see anything wrong with the sort of commentary that goes on at Kiwiblog and I don’t find it particularly abusive or one-dimensional notwithstanding that most people there echo a conservative theme. Conservatives after all have as much diversity and richness as any other political dimension.
If you get offended, hurt, humiliated or conversationally impaired by anything that someone writes on a blog, I’m not sure why.
All you need to do is be prepared to backup what you say. That’s it, really.
It’s the large audience it attracts, that appeals to me. That and the diversity of perspectives.
reid: for an otherwise smart person you miss the point. This is a place to debate ideas, not exchange insults. Why do you think that the deranged dimwits with their ideological agendas do not go here? We demand an absolute standard of civility, imposed on ourselves even more so than commentators.
If you and the likes of ‘sod think that working class discourse equates to vulgarity and insult, much less “enriching” debate as per some of the inane suggestions proffered above, you need to join Rex W, and go play elsewhere. Working class people can make a reasoned argument without profanity or stupidity,
We have one absolute standard: argument rather than ad honimem.
Reid, it’s not so much that I think Kiwiblog insults would be directed at me personally, but the kind of insults that are used. I wouldn’t support any blog where mysogynistic and/or homophobic isults towards anybody, is fairly routine. Whether such comments are directed at me, another poster, or the (ex)prime minister, the effect is to support and reinforce such biggotry.
In my lifetime there’s been a long struggle against such attitudes, and if they are sanctioned in a public space, indirectly it undermines me. It’as a far wider issue than an insult that poersonally is directed at me only, and far more insidious.
Must I cite examples?
Pablo, I wasn’t suggesting this blog should follow the KB approach, merely that I personally didn’t find that KB’s style stifled debate.
Carol, my approach to abuse directed toward me is this:
Once while Gautam Buddha was teaching a group of people , he found himself on the receiving end of a fierce outburst of abuse from a bystander, who was for some reason very angry .
Buddha listened patiently while the stranger vented his rage, and then the Buddha said to the group and to the stranger , â€œ If someone gives a gift to another person , who then chooses to decline it, tell me , who would then own the gift? The giver or the person who refuses to accept the gift ?â€
â€œThe giver ,â€ said the group after a little thought, â€œ Any fool can see that,â€ added the angry stranger .
â€œThen it follows, does it not ,â€ said the Buddha, â€œ Whenever a person tries to abuse us, or to unload their anger on us, we can each choose to decline or to accept the abuse, whether to make it ours or not. BY our personal response to the abuse from another, we can choose who owns and keeps the bad feelings.
Carol regarding your point that abuse reflects a wider issue, I agree. But you have a choice. Either you engage with people or you don’t. Which of those approaches is more likely to address the wider issue of which you are speaking?
Lew, I wasn’t saying it wasn’t there, merely that I’m not myself bothered by it.
Further to this question, I do think some of KB’s commentators miss the point by analysing every single issue along left-right political dynamics.
This is mostly where the abuse arises.
If you take a stance that coincides with what they perceive to be a leftist position, some of them get very excited indeed.
Personally I find that rather wrong-headed, in that truth is to be had in logic based on factual premises. That has nothing whatsoever to do with political preference.
So for example, some people there seem to think that media bias only arises one way – the media prefers a leftist perspective. Of course this completely ignores blatant counter-examples like Fox News.
The more politically passionate they are, the more obdurate they are with respect to recognising the fallacy in their argument. The interesting thing is that this phenomena also applies to those KB commentators with passionate left perspectives as well.
Pablo explained his objective approach in reply to a comment of mine a few weeks ago on KB. I myself like to think I too share this same dispassionate approach and I really do think it helps. The key is to first recognise in yourself whether or not you have a passion. Only then can you start working on eliminating it.
Well, this is counterfactual. Knowing that they’ll be called the offspring of motherless communist freedom-hating whores, most rational people simply won’t bother entering the KBR echo-chamber – so you never get to even hear what they might have to say.
Might I suggest that this is because you’re usually not the one in the firing line?
I’ve an argument I intend to write up that there is no significant left-right ideological bias in the NZ media taken as a whole, and that such bias as there is is insignificant in comparison to other (non-ideological) distortive factors. I anticipate this will piss off partisans on both sides about equally, which I intend to take as evidence that it’s not too far from the mark :)
Oh but I often am, Lew.
I’d repeat the best comments people have made against me but I fear the readers would take offence at the mere mention of it.
Well as I said above, you can in fact choose whether or not you take offence and if someone is wrong in your view, then by engaging with them you’ve got at least a chance of shifting their perspective, albeit it’s a pretty long shot, in most cases. If you don’t engage then you’ve got no chance at all.
I have found on KB there are people like Ryan Spoull who do make quite an impact using this tactic.
Reid, in my experience, engaging with those kinds of abusive comments doesn’t do anything to move things forward on wider issues. It just provides more oxygen for those who like to post abusive comments amd draws me into a prolonged, fractious exchange that is ultimately depressing, and more importantly IMO, too time comsuming for no real gains.
I find it more productive to promote and encourage a different approach by participating elsewhere.
I’ve seen some cases where you’ve been attacked, and unfairly so. But honestly – you’re a white male conservative posting on a white male conservative blog. You don’t have to put up with anything like the sort of attacks that KB’s resident lefties (and even moderates) do, let alone anyone representing a feminist or non-PÄkehÄ perspective. I might not comment there, but I do read the horrible thing quite frequently. After all, my main research interests are in symbolic politics and identity issues :)
But the issue isn’t whether you’ve got it hard or not, or whether people should just be staunch – the decision has been made that people shouldn’t have to.
Lew and Carol, I respect both your perspectives and I’m not arguing against them in any way, I was just saying there are alternate ways to look at the issue if you happen to be on the receiving end.
I completely agree that ad homina is counter-productive because politics is an intellectual pursuit, not an emotional one and I’m glad to say, it would appear also for you and this blog.
I look forward to many happy hours of informed discussion and debate.