A great discussion over at Nature Network inspired me to initiate a similar conversation here at Action Potential. Corie Lok asked the question “What is fair play in the blogo/commentosphere?” A fair question indeed. The responses have produced some interesting discussion fodder, but got me thinking about my own experiences on several science blogs. Although this conversation is equally applicable to any type of blog, let’s stick with those dedicated to or mainly engaged in conversations about science.
I always post, comment, join sites, etc… under my real name/identity and, for what it’s worth, have decided to absorb both the praise and the grief for the views to which I subscribe as “Noah Gray”. I feel better this way and as with those in the blogosphere who choose anonymity or to adopt a pseudonym, it is a personal choice.
I have often come across individuals who, as was described in Corie’s post, choose vindictiveness and aggression over more measured or calculated conversation. This kind of behavior is abhorred in the world of living, breathing humans and would be considered socially maladaptive. Yet when provided a safe buffer, many feel emboldened to say things or act in a manner in which they would (hopefully) never assume, without the security of distance from their target. This is nothing new. Many scorned individuals write letters to express anger when they feel that, for whatever reason, they cannot face their antagonist. Other forms of third person and more disconnected forms of social interaction have spawned much hatred and vitriol throughout history. However, I feel that somehow, personal interaction on the internet is, well, more personal. So why should some choose to check their manners at the door before logging on?
I respect those who feel the need to adopt an anonymous or pseudonymous identity in public. It makes for a more interesting online community or discussion to include thoughtful individuals who would otherwise be reluctant to provide an unbiased or candid opinion unless protected. However, to use this cyber-identity to simply lose oneself at the expense of other unsuspecting commenters simply looking to join a decent debate (whether pseudonymous or not themselves!!) is just wrong. It should be the responsibility of any community leader attempting to cover science in a meaningful way to maintain a minimal level of order and respect within his/her community, watching out for the antagonistic persona that seems to bounce easily and casually from one science blog to another, continuing their own personal game of mud-slinging. Otherwise, as Henry Gee rightfully predicted in his comment on Corie’s post:
My response is that I shall no longer be visiting sites where the accepted culture is so noxious. I suspect that many others feel the same way, with the result that such blogs [are now or will soon be] populated solely by people swaggering around, just dying to throw a punch at the increasingly few people [that] stray within range.
Too true. There is certainly a place for more militant blogs, even in science, but those who prefer this style should ask themselves what good is debate within a community where everyone thinks the same way (remember “election landslide counties”)? With very little to check and balance the views being reinforced in a positive feedback loop, such polarized communities can become a breeding ground of individuals clinging to extreme beliefs, justified in their stance through the support of other like-minded people around them. I’m not calling for communal singing of Kum Ba Yah during scientific debates, but I am calling for a certain level of restraint and professionalism when dealing with colleagues that one doesn’t even know. Especially when the conversation is taking place in a neutral environment and not at the aggressive commenter’s “home blog”.
We seem to be at a critical juncture concerning the intersection of blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies with science. This is no time to poison the atmosphere and turn away the more “relaxed” or “casual” participants. Polarized communities refusing to tolerate rival positions, or unwilling to engage in a civil debate over any topic, from publication business models to the role of Ca2+-permeable AMPARs in LTP, will shut out many would-be contributors and stunt the growth or slow the adoption of blogs, commenting, and other web-based technologies dedicated to the pursuit of scientific collaboration. If such technologies are ever really going to work for science, it will be because of inclusivity, not exclusivity.