Monday, September 13, 2010

Can you improve your blog comments by using esoteric terminology?

Robin Hanson, the blogger of Overcoming Bias, strongly endorses this idea by Eli Dourado about how to keep a high level of quality in your blog's comments section:

On small blogs, people typically comment when they have something to contribute or ask that is relevant to the post. These are frequently of high quality. … On more popular blogs, this positive commenting dynamic is confounded by the presence of eyeballs. Every post is read by many thousands of people. For the self-involved who could never attract such a large audience on their own, this is an irresistible forum for expounding pet hypotheses, axe-grinding, and generally shouting at or expressing meaningless agreement with the celebrity post-authors.

The first step, therefore, to higher quality comments is “be more niche.” Discourage your marginal readers with technical language, obscure references, and lengthy posts. Your marginal readers are not of high value anyway, and driving them away is an excellent way to improve the average comment of your inframarginal readers.
(I'm going to refer to these as Hanson's views, since I have the impression that Hanson is at least as enthusiastic about them as Dourado is. Overcoming Bias is the more popular of the two blogs, so the point is more relevant to Hanson -- and, indeed, he does seem to put this advice into practice.)

People are rarely as explicitly elitist as Hanson is here, though his reasoning is often used -- at least in other contexts.

I empathize with him in wanting to keep out certain commenters from your blog. (As you know if you've ever posted a comment here and read my notice, I've occasionally had to ban commenters.) But it's an open question how to identify which commenters should be excluded. The most obvious way is to judge the comments as they come in and delete them if they're not the kind of contribution you want. This is more aggressive but also more fine-tuned than what Hanson is describing. His approach is passive-aggressive, but that's not the main problem with it.

The problem is that he presupposes that the people whose comments he and his readers would benefit from reading are those who either already have a certain high-level education (which is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status) or have taken the time to absorb his blog's idiolect. Of course, I just used an esoteric term of art -- it's hard to avoid. But we should reach for these terms only when they allow us to express our thoughts more clearly, not as invisible barriers to keep out a poorly defined group of people we imagine are beneath us.


LemmusLemmus said...

I finally understand why Tyler Cowen posts the odd piece that leaves everyone thinking "WTF"?

As for the alternative strategy of deleting comments: For a popular blog that can get time-intensive. Perhaps more importantly, deleting comments is extreme and seems appropriate only in extreme cases (insults, etc.). I guess Hanson is thinking of the large number of potential comments that are not bad enough to delete them but not so good that you'd welcome them - dull stuff mostly.

P.S.: Glad to be of inspiration. Looks like an interesting collection so far.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Using obfuscation to claim intellectual status and erect barricades against out-groups -- hardly a new idea, it's the foundation of most scholarly writing in America today.

Ann Althouse said...

He assumes the blogger will end up with good readers, but I think he'll end up with no readers. He'll just drive everyone away, and rightly so.