Monday, September 25, 2006

Blogs and debate

Recently, in a post on the major issues facing New Zealand, Tony Milne lamented the inability of the blogosphere to seriously discuss them:

When I started my blog these are the kinds of debates that I was hoping to encourage. It's clear to me that such debates can't happen on blogs (maybe the ideas, but not the debate). I do hope that such debates can start to happen through the media (the better part of it), because our country needs debate on matters of substance.

It's a point echoed by Jordan Carter, who asks whether there is any hope for "issue based political discussion". While I am highly cynical about the blogosphere, my answer to that question is still unquestionably a "yes". While most of what we do is the bread and butter of daily spin and commentary on the news, its perfectly possible to expand on or rise above that to talk about the wider issues, engage in serious wonkery, educate people, and encourage public participation. And its perfectly possible to do this while having strong or even nakedly partisan political views.

It is however difficult to do any of this when your comments section is a sewer of partisan shitflinging which precludes any intelligent discussion - or worse, the target of a constant campaign of disruption (and I'm with Span in thinking that the abuse in certain blogs' comments sections is a conscious attempt to bully people into silence). There is of course a simple answer to this: moderate or disable comments. Readers who object can always start their own blogs and respond there.

Which brings me to my second point: the sphere of debate isn't confined to comments, but can be between blogs. I think that both Tony and Jordan are possibly overlooking this aspect, as well as the use of blogs to inform the wider community. Remember, not every reader delves into the comments (particularly where they are known to be a sewer), and its not necessary that they do if the aim is to get them to think about a particular aspect of policy.

Finally, to paraphrase Napoleon, if you want to debate policy, debate policy. The extent to which bloggers set the tone and direction of their blogs also seems to be being forgotten here. As I've said before, if we want the blogosphere to be more than a sewer, we need to lift our game. And nobody else is going to do that for us.


I don't think the recent surge in stupidity and nastiness in the blog comments - and let's be honest, we're talking about kiwiblog here - is due to bullying or conformity. I think it's about tribalism. Most of the commentators aren't interested in policy or debate or changing anyones mind or making a point or learning anything - they're interested in cheering for 'their side' and screaming about their opponents. Replace the words 'National' and 'Labour' with 'Hurricanes' and 'Crusaders' and the current level of debate is indistinguishable from that of a bunch of drunken sports fans.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 02:21:00 PM

danyl mclauchlan,
i think yours is a fiar and accurate description.
i also think it means that people who are interested in intelligent debate are not going to waste their time even reading such mindless drivel, let alone post their own comments.


Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 02:39:00 PM

Kiwblog comments have taken a numbingly repetitive turn lately. Someone (lately Sonic) volunteers to be the annoying lefty and the usual suspects pile in angrily in basically the same fashion regardless of the actual topic. I think it dissuades most people from offering an opinion and it's pointless.

DPF has been fairly inflammatory himself, but I don't think it's necessarily his fault - his blog just happens to be where these people come lately.

I feel really sorry for Jordan Carter. He's no more partisan than DPF, but he gets the same tiresome, abusive trolls every time he posts anything. I wouldn't have put up with it for as long as he has.

And when SH, with great fanfare, announced a while ago they'd be hosting comments on Public Address blogs, I took it in stride - I was sort of interested. But the *very first thread* degenerated into such a horrible, unpleasant, abusive slanging match that I was reminded why we don't have a comments feature. I don't want that sort of muck on my site, and I don't want my friends and family to have to read it.

That said, we'll finally get around to having discussion forums on a new part of Public Address soon, but they'll be fairly tightly moderated, and not all about the politics du jour.


PS: I/S, you deserve a pat on the back for setting the tone hereabouts.

Posted by Russell Brown : 9/25/2006 03:03:00 PM

How do you (mostly) avoid the right-wing morons IS? Do you delete their comments one by one, or have you blocked them all out? Or do they only attack paid up Labour members like Jordan and Tony?

Posted by Rich : 9/25/2006 03:53:00 PM

Rich: the latter; I don't censor or moderate comments, and if it gets to the stage where I have to, I will pull the facility rather than waste my time dealing with trolls.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/25/2006 03:57:00 PM

I agree with the diagnosis and the suggestions for solutions.

Sonic's efforts are brave but I can't help thinking that the best solution to the kiwiblog problem is to simply withdraw and divert attention to another forum. Starved of opposition, kiwiblog will either (hopefully) recalibrate, become an echo chamber or become just another largely irrelevant blog.

Perhaps NRT, as an obvious alternative, will not attract the trolls but only the less immoderate commentators from all sides of the political spectrum?

I feel for Tony and Jordan, but they're such obvious targets given the hold Labour offices.

RB, I'm grateful that you've not given in on comments, I hope PA continues to be a forum for excellent and diverse writing and more structure debate.

Neil, you're right, of course both the left and right can indulge in stupid and mindless argumentation - individual bloggers can be both erudite on one topic and idiotic on another - the current problem is, as RB says, the present "numbingly repetitive" comments.

Posted by backin15 : 9/25/2006 04:00:00 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the septic and vile comments are from the right. Perhaps 90%.
Is this a deliberate effort to shut down sensible debate. It strikes me as far more orchestrated that booing while the other guy is kicking for goal.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 04:53:00 PM

Rich, I think I/S scares the non-savant idiots out of the game. Too much moral authority based on hard research and his clear loyalty to ideals rather than any given party. Hence he earns respect from both left and right, and the atmosphere for trolling does not arise. As opposed to a decade ago on a certain dial up BBS, where trolls were simply cut to shreds by the veterans and forced to feed on their own entrails. A pity some of the local blogosphere denizens clearly missed out on such a learning experience early in life, it might have taught them manners.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 06:44:00 PM

Do you think, I/S, that the quality of discussion and debate would be improved if you insisted that contributors used their own, full, names?

I have often wondered what is your rationale for permitting anonymity.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 06:51:00 PM

The comments section is all too reminiscent of talkback radio - the same attempts at partisan pointscoring from the same tiresome cranks and party hacks.
Canning comments wouldn't adversely affect your blog.
Keep it up I/S, your blood's worth bottling.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 07:19:00 PM

Seth: careful. If you start saying I have authority, then I'll feel I have to rebel against myself.

Gary: I don't use my own name, so I don't think I'm in much of a moral position to insist that others do.

That aside, I allow anonymous comments because it makes it easy for people to comment. The alternative is to require a blogger account, which simply adds a barrier to access while not doing anything necessarily to improve quality.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/25/2006 08:11:00 PM

I'd like to get more involved in the debates on blogs but the poisonous atmosphere that surrounds many of them completely turns me off. It is for similar reasons that I gave up usenet. It's a pity as I enjoy kiwiblog but there are no debates there.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 08:40:00 PM

Long ago I started avoid Sir Humphries, Silent Running and other nasty blogs. Now it is getting to the point where I will have to start avoiding Kiwiblog as well.

One thing to add, it isn't just blogs. Wikipedia is becoming more and more of a battleground for ideologues and idiots.

The internet can be a very nasty place. I'm glad I ended blogging a long time ago, I don't think I could deal with the amount of shit given to Jordan and Tony (two of the nicest people I have met).

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 09:26:00 PM

I can disagree completely with I/S on any number of things but I can respect his integrity and do make a point of trying to make rational rather than emotional comments here. I think public address would find the same on its own site when it gets there.

the noise at dpf reflects the confusion at parliament. Neither party understands what the other one is on about. Labour have no clue they have engaged in corruption.

Is it reasonable to expect bloggers to understand when their elected politicians cannot. It will die down when the tone is raised in parliament. Not any time soon.

The polarisation of our political process is a genuine issue. Muldoon was divisive, Clark is divisive. Would the country be better off without policy being ignored in favour of todays latest headline. Does anybody think the country has been governed with full attention these last few weeks?

Posted by sagenz : 9/25/2006 09:27:00 PM

If you're avoiding Sir Humphreys you're missing out on some of the funniest material on the internets.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 09:40:00 PM

It is worth wondering quite who some of these more rabid bloggers really are. It is only a speculation, but it would be awfully convenient if it turned out that some of them were professionals whose purpose was to create dissension, prevent the formation of a consensus and generally promote such a poisonous atmosphere that no-one sane wants to participate.

After all who stands to loose the most as the internet forums replace the traditional media? And who would have the best professional skills to do it? I'm not imagining that the whole MSM is in on this game for one would only take one or two operating on the quiet.

Which is a shame because there are a handful of quite decent right-wing pundits there...but the rest of the circus act has become intolerable. On the other hand maybe DPF really wants his blog to become the kiwi mirror site for LittleGreenFootballs.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 10:01:00 PM

I agree with sagenz. I think the blogs are reflecting the politicians. Look at Pete Hodgson. He spends days piling into Brash for not distancing himself from the EBs. Tonight Brash distances himself from the EBs. So then Pete Hodgson piles into Brash for that!

Also, remember Marx. This anger stems from alienation. It is the divisive approach of both parties (although I think Labour is worst) that has been feeding this alienation.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/25/2006 10:24:00 PM

I/S for primeminister! or maybe leader of the opposition (depending on your leanings)

Posted by Genius : 9/25/2006 10:48:00 PM

Sage: "Muldoon was divisive, Clark is divisive."

Call me partisan but Clark has tied up cross spectrum support from The Alliance/Anderton, United Future, NZ First and has formed agreements outside of coalition with the Greens. The more Brash slags off Maori, the less likely he is able to come to an arrangement with the 4+ Maori Party MPs in future. The more he says, the less likely he will have coalition partners when the parties come out of the 2008 election, especially if Act & NZ1 are dog food. Now that is divisive.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/26/2006 09:08:00 AM

My question is: who funds Generation XY? That site is too professionally done to be simply bloggers. I would suspect that it comes out of the National Party's Research Unit

Posted by Anonymous : 9/26/2006 10:19:00 AM

pablor - the most divisive thing to happen in this country in a long time wasn't Don Brash and Orewa (which let's be honest, ultimately brought National and Labour together), but Labour and the foreshore and seabed and Helen Clark and the 'haters and wreckers'.

Gen XY has too much anti-National stuff to be funded by the NPRU (i.e. not nearly as much anti-National stuff as anti-Labour stuff, but still a fair amount)

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 9/26/2006 12:21:00 PM

I/S - you make some good points. A number of years ago I used to regularly use Usenet, & often participated in nz.politics.

I stopped, basically because the group became, as you so wonderfully described the contemporary blogging scene, "a sewer of partisan shitflinging" (I love that description).

Now, sadly, I see the blogging scene heading down the same route as nz.politics did. Pure speculation: I wonder if the migration from Usenet to blogs is driving that?

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 9/26/2006 12:25:00 PM

On a related note (divisive politics) - any system of politics that is built upon, or even references, 'class struggle' is guaranteed to be divisive in the long run.

Only a political system that delivers political equality, with equal cost of delivery to all, is likely to avoid that divisiveness.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 9/26/2006 12:35:00 PM

My favourite attack ads were during the New Jersey governor's race last year. Ex-wives were approached for comment and said things like "He let his family down then, and he'll let New Jersey down too."

But the best of all was a hard-out smear of an ad (grainy black and white, with voilins in the background) that concluded of the target in question: "No wonder he's reduced to attack ads."

The New Zealand blogosphere resembles their US peers, but our mainstream politics still have a long way to go to match the expensive mudslinging seen on the other side of the Pacific.

Unfortunately, we're making rapid progress in reducing this dirt deficit.



Posted by Matt : 10/01/2006 10:23:00 AM