Herding cats, domesticating rats

Georgina Henry, editor of The Guardian’s Comment is Free, has a good followup post about the debate she began about the civility of comment and conversation online. (Her original post here; my excerpting of the debate here.) Georgina writes:

…[W]e are trying, in response to a point made by many of you, to encourage more of our bloggers to come back on to their threads and join the debate they’ve provoked. I hope that will increasingly happen over the weeks and months.

Finally, we’re planning to launch a competition next week – provisionally called Big Blogger – in response to suggestions on my piece last week that we should involve readers more by getting you to recommend posts and / or comments. Several of you pointed out that there were many quality commenters that turn up frequently on posts, who write well, wittily, and have an interesting point of view. Why not turn some of the ams pro? So that will be the aim of the competition: details next week.

And Emily Bell, editor of Guardian Unlimited, chimed in:

…This prompted an avalanche of responses, some of them thoughtful, others rather juvenile, many positively foul-mouthed and, I’m afraid, quite funny. Some posters dissolved into hysterical protestation that we should not be censoring posts because of bad language, but these I think had not actually quite taken in Georgina’s thrust.

It is not so much the heated swearing that develops on a blog when people are passionately moved about a subject that is vexing but the swearing at individuals. I doubt whether even in the most heightened moments of pavement rage, annoyance in the pub or conflict in the workplace that some of our posters would ever actually call someone one of the many F and C variants they throw at each other and writers online….

One of the sharpest and wittiest bloggers, Daniel Davies, weighed in with a very handy four-point guide entitled Abuse: A strategy for coping. With apologies for the rather cackhanded precis, Daniel suggests that, first, as long as you are right then much of the personal abuse can be borne with lofty detachment. If, however, your views ship water, prepare an elegant climbdown. Second, never remain silent, it only encourages the shouters. This is the most valuable point – again, if one imagines the atmosphere on the football terraces or House of Commons, or even at the British Press Awards, where, as part of a mob, it is fine to shout the most disgusting things under a cloak of rowdy anonymity, once the object of your abuse turns up in person, the impulse to abuse and deride turns to a certain social embarrassment and might even resolve itself in an awkward handshake. Third, “operate a graduated response”, says Daniel, a bit more polite than your critic up to a certain point but a bit ruder thereafter. And fourthly, make a mental note of those who have wronged you in the anticipation that you will have a chance to catch them out later. All of this is achievable without resorting to swearing.

While at the end of the week I had some sympathy for the poster who wrote: “This blog shouldn’t be called Comment is Free, it should be called Comment is Comment is Comment”, so navel-gazing had become the nature of the discourse.

But there is a lurking important point about how we conduct discourse, not just on blogs, but everywhere: in politics, in the street, in our homes and in the media. Condescension, bullying, lecturing and abuse are all bad things, and discussion is a good thing. Sometimes, however, we have all spent so much time indulging in the former that we forget how to do the latter.

Here is Davies’ very good post.