I don’t want to disturb JMTGst’s moment of zen, so I’m starting over.
CAAFlog started out as basically a public version of e-mails that the No Man, the Super Muppet, the Kabul Klipper, and I previously privately exchanged with one another. We have enjoyed expanding the conversation to include CAAFlog’s several readers and we have learned a great deal from you.
But, as you may have noticed, some comments on this blog have been creating hate and discontent lately (as, I’m sure, have some posts on this blog as well). Of course, creating hate and discontent isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How exactly did that Rumsfeld Rule go about if no one’s mad at you, maybe you aren’t doing anything? But I do have the overall sense that many comments on this blog have been causing hate and discontent gratuitously and I also have the general feeling — which I haven’t sought to confirm or reject through a serious historical content analysis — that the percentage of comments that can be fairly termed “useful,” while probably still high by most blogs’ standards, has declined over time.
Of course, hateful and discontenting comments may be related to the ability to comment anonymously and pseudonymously. Some people no doubt post inappropriate anonymous comments that they would not were their names associated with them.
The blogs that I read the most have responded to this problem in very different ways. After one of TNR’s blog contributors was outed for sock puppetting in 2006, Franklin Foer considered whether to require those posting comments to use their real names. TNR ultimately decided against disallowing pseudonymous comments. But while I used to regularly read comments on TNR’s The Plank, now I almost never do. The quality of the comments seems to have diminished markedly over time. And I don’t think that this reflects lack of fresh insights. Rather, the ratio of juvenile attacks to useful comments seems to have greatly increased. It is simply no longer worth the effort to look for the gold in an expanding pile of pyrite. So The Plank retains an open marketplace, but one with fewer customers if my behavior is typical.
SCOTUSblog approached the issue very differently. SCOTUSblog’s commentariat had always been a cut above most other blogs’. But responding to some inappropriate posts, starting in the October Term 2006, it disallowed pseudonymous comments. But even that proved insufficient and starting in April 2008, as explained here, SCOTUSblog stopped allowing comments on most, but not all, of its posts.
One particularly insightful commentary about SCOTUSblog’s change in policy observed that a blog faced with the problem of inappropriate comments has three choices:
(1) let it go uncorrected; (2) police the comments, an expenditure of time that few sponsors wish to make; or (3) turn off the comments, as SCOTUSblog has now done. If the sponsor chooses to let the problem go uncorrected, what typically happens is that thoughtful people stop or greatly reduce commenting, and the insult slingers come to dominate the comments. Choices (1) and (3) lead to the same result, then, that a useful medium is eliminated either de facto or de jure.
This perfectly describes my experience with my favorite blogs: I choose not to read The Plank’s comments while SCOTUSblog no longer has many comments to read.
What are the implications for CAAFlog? Many of the comments posted are extremely valuable. JMTGst made his first appearance on CAAFlog as a commentator rather than contributor and CAAFlog certainly wouldn’t be CAAFlog without JO’C. Some anonymous comments have also been invaluable, such as the one that corrected me when I misidentified NMCCA’s new chief judge. And the substantive give-and-take on jurisprudential issues is often interesting and sometimes enlightening. So following SCOTUSblog’s example by disabling comments would be a horrible idea.
My solution, instead, is to call for self-restraint in two ways. First, before posting an anonymous or pseudonymous comment, please ask yourself why you are hiding your actual identity. I realize that some individuals have legitimate reasons to do so. Heck, two of our contributors write under pseudonyms (or at least used to; I don’t think we’ve heard from Guert lately), and one of this blog’s and CAAFlog.com’s co-founders only recently outed himself. But if there is not some special reason to hide your identity, please don’t. I ask this for two reasons. First, a writer’s identity may provide important information to the reader. It could alert the reader to potential sources of bias or potential ulterior motives. Alternatively, it may enhance the credibility of a message. Second, attaching one’s name to a post may encourage some salutary self-censorship. While SCOTUSblog’s experiment with requiring posters to use their actual names didn’t succeed in eliminating the problem of “silly sniping,” as SCOTUSblog termed it, that problem was certainly seen less on SCOTUSblog than on most other blogs. Remain anonymous if you must, but please do not use anonymity as license to escape the normal bounds of civility.
My second call for self-restraint is in the content of posts themselves. I certainly don’t have standing to object to snarkiness, but please give consideration to whether a comment you’ve drafted will add value to the marketplace of ideas. Judge Cox once wrote, “I know that young judge advocate officers love witty exchanges, practical jokes, and a sense of the macabre in their humor.” United States v. Smith, 27 M.J. 242, 252 (C.M.A. 1988) (Cox, J., concurring). But there is a difference between wit — even biting or macabre wit — and insult slinging, “silly sniping,” and sophomoric asides. I’ll try to be more mindful of that difference and would appreciate it if others joined me in that effort.
Any other ideas to improve the quality of CAAFlog — either posts or comments — are most welcome.