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AI: Rage On

I just got home from the Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. And yes, it was totally amazing.

I moderated a panel called, Getting Things Done For Science and Skepticism. I had Surlies on display for 4 whole days. I met some wonderful skeptics, scientists, doctors and all around great people. One of my favorite memories? Having dinner at Don Vito’s at the South Point Casino with four doctors, three of whom write for Science Based Medicine. We drank wine and ate pasta and discussed placebos. It was geek-o-rama-skeptic-awesomeness. And it was tasty. I will file that memory in a folder in my brain called happy.

You know what I didn’t see or experience?

Unbridled rage

or anger

or violence.

All of which were directly threatened towards Rebecca and the other writers here at this blog.

The Skepchicks have had some pretty serious threats lodged at us over the past few weeks. We have been called a lot of inappropriate names too such as frigid, stupid, bitch, cunt, feminazi and manhater. We were threatened with sexual assault to “give us something to complain about”. We were told that grabbing us or raping us would be, “funny”. This is just a tiny example of some of what we have heard since Rebecca basically said, Hey guys, you know what? Don’t do that. Don’t make us feel unnecessarily uncomfortable.

I am however, very happy to report that, at least in person or at least the people who attended TAM were quite lovely and civilized. Many, many mutual hugs and hand shakes were given. People were darn right fabulous and extremely supportive.

It seems the violent, irrational and inflammatory voice in skepticism, while loud, is thankfully a minority and apparently exists primarily in cyber space.

It leaves me with some questions though.

What is the freakin’ deal with people on the interwebs? Is it the same as road rage or is it worse? Do people feel that they can say anything while safely tucked behind their computer screen? And what are your opinions on policing blog comments? Should we allow even the people who violently rage to post disruptive, threatening and expletive laden comments on our blog or should we keep rules in place that encourage a healthy and productive dialog? Is creating a safe comment section akin to censorship or is it necessary?

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I’ve left websites where commenters have been abusive towards me and the mods have been silent. Safe comment section ftw.

    1. (Tch, silly brain.)

      *Also*, sad to hear about horrible abusive emails sent to you & Skepchick; it might be worth reporting them to the relevant ISPs, in case people were too stupid to [do a non-stupid thing].

  2. First time commenting. Oh Amy, it’s because they have some sort of repressed rage stemming from an inferiority complex. Also, the Interwebs are anonymous. They can call you all those foul things and you could never exact retribution on them.

    1. Welcome to the blog! Interestingly, some people are not all that anonymous. Yet in person so much more well behaved.

  3. To answer your question, I think you have simply witnessed firsthand John Gabriel’s G.I.F.T. (warning, link NSFW)

    There is a quick video about “why” this happens here: (which co-incidentally showed up in my G+ stream this morning, courtesy of Nina Paley.)

    The author thinks that because people on the internet are typing into an inanimate object, they treat the people on the receiving end of the email/post as an inanimate object. I’m not sure if he’s right or not, but it does provide food for thought.

    1. I think Karl is right, some people don’t know how to react to an inanimate computer message the same way they would if a human were speaking to them.

      As far as “free speech” goes, this isn’t a public arena. This is private property, paid for by a private entity (or entities), and with restricted membership. You could delete 95% of the comments that come through here and it’d be your prerogative.

  4. Instant asshole, just add internet.


    I can honestly say that in spite of the threats I’ve recieved, not one person has physically assaulted me as a result of my blogging.

    Aggressively hugged me, yes. Assaulted me, no.

    Granted, I’m also kind of a big, scary looking tattooed woman who lifts weights and does heavy bag workouts, all of which I talk about in my blogs, so… I dunno.

      1. I will totally be your bodyguard.

        Just let me know who you want roughed up, Toots.

        (Hee hee hee!!! I crack me up.)

        Seriously, though, the Geek Husband What Rules has said that he really wants me to go to PAX this year, while he wears a shirt with an arrow pointing to (me) saying, “This is GeekGirlsRule, have a problem with her? Want to call her a cunt now? Go for it.”

      2. I could be your long-lost pal.

        (I’ve got a lot of Paul Simon on the brain recently)

  5. Good question. A number of things, depending on the person: As Enkidu417 said, repressed rage and an inferiority complex. I’d add lack of social skills, cowardice, arrogance, mansplaining, and immaturity, or as with one commenter I had on Facebook, mistaking “being a dick” with “being cool.” Glad to hear that TAM went so well and the dickheads stayed home, or at least stayed silent.

    1. Honestly, lack of social skills is kind of a copout. I have a good friend, love him IRL, but on the net, he’s a raging asshole. Person to person, his social skills are great, but the distance of that one remove…?

      1. True. I have no social skills whatsoever (seriously, it’s a medical problem).

        On the internet I’m totally capable of friendship, leadership and a whole host of interactions I’d never be capable of face to face.

        The two realms are very different, and I suspect it takes a very different set of skills to function well in each.

    2. I agree w/ GGR. Social skills IS a cop out. My (anecdotal) experiences suggest that it’s the anonymity factor. Jeebus knows, when I was younger, and the internet was all shinier newer, I was an arsewipe bratty know-it-all. I do find that generally, the older you get, and the more embedded into a community you become (i.e. the anonymity goes away), the more civil you/people become.

  6. Maybe mostly leave the comments alone? Is there a compromise where some comments could be labeled as ugly, unable to be replied to, but available to read by way of handy clickability? Whatever you folks decide, it isn’t “censorship” to not provide a forum for people to make threats and attack other people. Free speech doesn’t provide a right to a podium and a mic.

    Direct threats and such should be moderated away, but just being a nasty piece of work or relying a bit heavily on profanity shouldn’t be banned outright. I’m not really sure how a comment section can be “unsafe.” It can make people uncomfortable, or furious, and in some folks cause anxiety or depression, but on some level that’s people doing it to themselves. Adults generally have the ability to control how they react to the world around them. Again, there are situations and comments that go so far that it is unfair and maybe even cruel to expect people to put up with it and suck it up. Hopefully that’s the exception to the rule, and I don’t see anything wrong with making those comments disappear.

    And on some issues in some ways, it seems like letting people vent their filthy innards all over the place was a real eye-opener for some folks “on the fence” about the real presence of that type of person. Before ElevatorGate, some folks could be excused if they didn’t think there was a problem with sexism in the AtheSkeptiHumanist community. Now there’s no question how wide and deep it goes. Disappearing the problem doesn’t make it go away, no matter how much we’d all like it to.

  7. It’s very easy to sit behind the keyboard and launch nasty comments and forget that there’s a human being on the receiving end.

    As far as the rest of your inquiry, I say it’s quite okay to remove/censor/redact comments which become abusive.

    1. I’m with the people who say if a person can’t disagree politely, moderators should feel free to delete the post. I have noticed, particularly in the Rebecca thread, a lot of really messed up comments. I do think the general lack of social skills in netiquette bleeds into real life. Why not starve the trolls and keep the flames down? Teach people some manners.

  8. “darn right” => downright

    the grammer pedant in me comes out.

    (glad you had a great experience)

    1. Grammer …
      The spelling pedant in me comes out.
      (OK OK, sorry already. I couldn’t resist.)

    2. In any comment correcting the spelling or grammar of a previous comment, there will always be at least one mistake in spelling or grammar.

      This law brought to you by “Science”!

  9. I thought this animation was appropriate to share … it does a good job of illustrating how mean people can be online.

    A Real Person, A Lot Like You by Derek Sivers

    From the blog post of the same title he wrote at

    “When we yell at our car or coffee machine, it’s fine because they’re just mechanical appliances.

    So when we yell at a website or company, using our computer or phone appliance, we forget it’s not an appliance, but a person that’s affected.

    It’s dehumanizing to have thousands of people passing through our computer screens, so we do things we’d never do if they were sitting next to us.

    It’s too overwhelming to remember that at the end of every computer is a real person, a lot like you, whose birthday was last week, who has three best friends but nobody to spoon at night, and is personally affected by what you say.

    Even if you remember it right now, will you remember it next time you’re overwhelmed, or perhaps never forget it again?”

  10. Go ahead and censor. As long as you post some guidelines stating what is or is not acceptable I don’t see the problem. I have no problem with people saying whatever they want but somethings are not appropriate in some situations. This is your playground so you can set the rules.

  11. It should be noted that while TAM was going on, the skepchick bashing continued unabated out there in cyber-space. The people who were at TAM were not part of this conversation because they were too busy being skeptics, being among skeptics or actually learning something related to skepticism.

    Also, many of the most critical voices had no idea who Watson before this debacle. They had never heard of skepchick or even SGU. Most people who are active in skepticism IRL are aware of these, even if they don’t follow them.

    The internet has breed and encouraged a group of self-identified skeptics who use the language of skepticism in order to either forward their own agenda, or because they think that knowing what a fallacy is means that their argument is free of it. These people are so infatuated with their own tone of authority that they don’t really care what the topic is. The pontificating is all.

    tl;dr: Internet-only skepticism is ideal for trolls.

  12. I help moderate a forum and we agreed upon a short Terms of Service that everyone has to claim to have read to get an account. One of these rules is “nothing illegal”. Threats of violence are certainly illegal. For minor infractions we have a three-strikes policy. For major infractions they are just gone. After we got a couple of people weeded out it has been pretty calm.

    1. I have what I jokingly refer to as my “Draconian Moderation Policy” on my blogs.

      No hate speech.
      If you’re argument consists of “Nuh uh!” don’t expect your comment to get through.
      Insults will be graded.

  13. I’m all for deleting abusive, vicious, and especially threatening comments. It drives away civil people when the toxic ones are allowed to freely rampage.

      1. Yeah, I find that toxic personalities are so caught up in their own vitriol, that they’re not actually READING what other people are saying (including their own “side”).

  14. I wouldn’t want to guess at personality traits or blame anonymity—plenty of people have happily put up public blog posts or made public asses of themselves on Facebook, where, presumably, people who know them in real life saw.

    I think one part is a lack of immediate consequences. It’s easy to close a browser tab if things are getting too hot for you online, and equally easy to feed the fire. Even if you end up in the same place in real life at some point with someone who got pissed at what you said, chances are that they’ve cooled down sufficiently to just avoid you. In real life, where there are real, immediate consequences, people are way more likely to keep unpopular, or controversial, opinions to themselves.

    And the other part is Bookitty’s third paragraph.

  15. The internet promotes netroverts due to anonymity and it is worse than road rage. Most people feel completely safe at their computer instead of having to look at you in the eyes. I’m in favor a policing any ad hominim attacks as well as any that promote violence.

    1. The Ad Hominem Fallacy fallacy :
      consists of the belief that a purely personal attack is ad hominem, whereas in fact the ad hominem fallacy only comes into play when the attack is used as a line of argument.

      ‘You suck’ is not ad hominem.
      ‘You suck and you are wrong’ is not ad hominem.
      ‘You suck and therefore you are wrong’ is ad hominem.

  16. Back in the early days of the internet I ran a website that became pretty popular in my community. Our forum was coded from scratch by a friend of mine. My friend believed that we should do absolutely no censoring, but I argued that things were going to get out of hand. And sure enough, within a couple of years, things did get crazy. I thought the scatological photos were the worst, but actually it was when one poster was planning on going over the house of another poster and beating the crap out of him.
    What I learned from that experience is, “anything goes” doesn’t go. You have to establish rules and make everyone abide by them. We never banned anyone, but we would remove posts if they were too outrageous. But the problem is, on a site like this, without open discussion, to me it seems a little pointless. People who don’t agree can’t just be labeled as trolls. So it’s a slippery slope.
    When it comes to something like Elevatorgate (if I might call it that), you have a situation where things got very emotional. But without debate, how do we advance? And let’s remember, concerning the Elevatorgate issue, we really are talking about emotions and opinions, in the sense that this isn’t math. 5 + 5 always equals 10. But with an issue like feminism, there is a wide spectrum of beliefs, from ridiculously extreme beliefs to horribly dismissive ones, and even if you know you’re right in your heart, you can’t prove it with a theorem.
    So I think what it comes down to is: your site, your kingdom, you can do whatever you want. But if it’s possible not to have to censor a discussion, I feel it’s always for the best.
    And here’s the most important secret I learned from my experience: If you feel someone is being an outrageous asshole, don’t respond to them. Ignore them.

    1. The thing is, debate is not accomplished when people are yelling threats and insults at each other. Actual, productive conversations can only take place when all participants remain at least minimally civil.

      I would suggest that any post which is found to be problematic be subjected to one simple test. Does it contain any substantive argument, or new information? If not, I see no valid reason for it to stay.

  17. Last time I checked, they don’t ask if you are mentally ill when you purchase a computer or contract for internet access. I suspect a lot of the really nasty stuff Amy mentioned comes from people with personality disorders of one form or another. Expecting these kinds of people to behave is kind of like expecting your dog to meow instead of bark. There is a certain disordered personality type that thrives on getting other people riled up. The only way to get rid of folks like that is to ignore them (i.e. “never feed a troll”).

  18. Billy Clyde Tuggle: I wish it could be explained by personality disorders because I do so enjoy believing in the basic goodness of the human race. (What? Everyone has a little blind faith somewhere.)

    Also, I fear that is not the case. Too many of these people can be perfectly reasonable when the subject doesn’t given them an opportunity to be an ass. Plus, I’ve known people like this IRL – overly-opinionated jerks who think that a Nietzsche quote proves something. One can just imagine how much worse they would be if they could hide behind a nym.

  19. If my time browsing certain message boards (Rhymes with shmorshman), it’s that anonymity and lack of moderation is a license for people to basically give voice to their darkest impulses. I’m not saying that these posters are all closet monsters, just that we all think fucked up thoughts. Some people will act upon them, others won’t. It’s also getting harder to tell what is pure troll, what is simply a moron with an axe to grind, and what is a mix of both.
    I’m sorry to hear you had to put up with bullshit misogynist threats, and I’m glad to hear that no one followed through with the threats at TAM. Hopefully that says that the senders of those emails were either trolls or cowards.
    I don’t think moderation of comments is a bad thing at all. There are ten million comments feeds and message boards on the internet that are either poorly moderated or not at all. While dissenting opinions should be allowed, threats, straight up insults, and bullshit add nothing to the debate (and in fact take away from it). There were plenty of people who disagreed with Rebecca who were civil about it, and a civil discussion can be had with those people. Trolls and creeps, not so much.

  20. An idea for moderation would be instituting a dungeon system similar to what PZ has over at Pharyngular. That is, if the person writes something knowingly offensive and idiotic, he she gets ban hammered with a listing explanation to that person was banned on a seperate page (ie. the dungeon). But instead and to one up it, then forcing the person to write a 500 word public apology on said page as to why he/she is wrong and a promise never to do that again as an option if they want to get unbanned. Just a thought. :)

  21. I <3 skepchick and read it with my husband all the time. I wish I could say we were shocked about the flack you got for asking to be treated with respect. We had a similar thing happen to us on our blog when we went through our adoption. It's a shame that people act that way behind the veil of a computer screen.

    I stop reading blogs when comments become extreme, extremely awful, trolled, or where people will post for shock value. I get valuing free speech, but don't want to plod through a bunch of comments that aren't productive, worthwhile, or adding anything intelligent to the conversation. I also feel more encouraged to post when it's a little safer to comment. Just my thoughts. Glad the last conference was a positive experience, can't wait to read about it.

  22. What happens with me, sometimes, is I overuse hyperbole and stretch analogies a bit. My intent is to make up for the lack of tone of voice or body language, without an emoticon to text ratio that would inspire murderous rage. Unfortunately, I sometimes go too far. Not as far as most of the people in the current dispute, but I have received some well deserved anger for this.

    I’m not sure how much this explains the current crop of assholes, but it probably explains at least a few of them.

  23. “Is creating a safe comment section akin to censorship or is it necessary?”

    Yes, it is so necessary. In this current internet climate, where the signal to noise ratio is so freakin’ awful at times, in order to have productive dialogue, safe comment sections are well needed. I wish more places on the web did the same thing.

  24. Look, it’s just plain, simple gutlessness. Pseudonyms and instant opinions give people license to write whatever they think without taking responsibility for their words. If everyone on the internet had to reveal their real name, address, and occupation, then you would see a huge toning-down of rhetoric. The safe way, of course, is to just write what you would be comfortable saying to somebody’s face.

    I’m waiting for a news story or “bad dates website” post where someone goes out with a friend they meet on the internet, and then find out that this “friend” is coincidentally none other than the same troll that has been tormenting them for months on their favorite message board. I’m sure it’s already happened…

    1. Haha… Yeah. That happened on a raver message board I used to go to. Not precisely, but somewhat in that direction. There was this woman that was, well, a horrible person. She got herself banned.

      Not long after a really hot blonde signed up and people liked her. I had suspicions after she randomly attacked me over an issue I’d clashed with the other girl over. Yeah, if you want to run a sockpuppet, completely random attacks where the only provocation is agreeing with you in a completely unrelated thread? That’s a good way to weaken your cover. I kept my suspicions to myself, though, since I lacked hard evidence, and the first girls posts were all nuked so I couldn’t compare writing style(another good way to bust a puppeteer).

      A couple months later the new girl arranges for a threesome… her partners get there, and discover the first girl. One of those “social experiments”, she said. Ban evasion because she needed the attention is what I think.

  25. In the last two weeks, I came to wish for some kind of cap on the number of adjectives a poster is allowed per sentence. (And I’m on the more emo end of the emo-logical spectrum.)

  26. I’ve read many newspaper articles where they had to shut down the comments because of stupid people. The Cincinnati Enquirer is my main paper and inevitably the comments would go racist somehow.

    1. Interesting how derogatory terms move around the anatomy. Is there a PhD thesis in there somewhere?

      1. Cock nozzle is new to me. I like the sound of it.
        Same structure as my all time favourite.

  27. “I am however, very happy to report that, at least in person or at least the people who attended TAM were quite lovely and civilized. Many, many mutual hugs and hand shakes were given. People were darn right fabulous and extremely supportive.”


  28. I am in favor of passing out the troll house cookies and swinging the ban hammer on people who find comment threads on the internet to be the only consequence free place to indulge their abusive asshattery.

  29. As skeptics, I think we’d all do well to remember the “don’t be a dick” speech.

    I don’t think things should be moderated so much for the sake of safety (though I do think that’s moderately important) as much as the idea of raising the bar on the level of dialogue that goes on here.

    Immature would-be posters will cry about censorship and invoke all kinds of holy righteousness in trying to justify why they should be allowed to freely wordvomit their asinine bullshit all over the world wide intertubes but to put it bluntly? Fuck them. Play nice or GTFO of the sandbox.

    I’d love to talk about difficult subjects with people who don’t agree or don’t understand and I’m sure others here would agree, but it becomes very difficult to address the people who actually want to have a dialogue or a lively debate between pages upon pages of douchecanoes and their LOL GONA RAEP U comments and people who are obviously not interested in having a real discussion.

  30. It would be cool if there were some kind of rating system, where harassing comments weren’t necessarily censored and removed, but just shifted under useful and constructive comments.

  31. This is your house. You get to decide what happens here. If you got rid of an opinion I would disagree but that’s the case. You’re not censoring opinion, simply disruption.

    As for why people do it I think your road rage analogy fits well. Who hasn’t called someone an asshole from the comfort of the driver’s seat. The difference is that they don’t hear you. I think in our minds sometimes we don’t register the difference between say someone’s an asshole out loud and typing it and pressing send.

    No excuse for the behavior, of course; just what I think.

  32. I was so glad it was basically civil and so nice. What made me angry was that idiot jerks sent emails that made people worried in the first place. I really hope no one was scared (not knowing the content of all the emails) but still…it’s a form of “abuse” to just threaten someone. It’s so wrong online to threaten because the threat is there. You go to an event and go “great some a-hole here wrote this very dangerous and threatening thing to me”…and that shouldn’t happen. Heck, follow through and find out what happens in real life when you try what you have threatened! Not so tough in real life? sigh…

  33. I’d like to address something that bothers me a lot. Please don’t excuse this as ‘lack of social skills’ or some kind of ‘disorder’.
    I see this a lot, and it’s disheartening. People with Autism hear awful, hateful, condescending behavior associated with our disorder all. the. time. It’s not the same thing. I know when I’ve said something nasty and hurtful. My son knows when he’s said something out-of-line. No confusion. We’re not talking about being mush-mouthed, or unable to make eye contact, or not remembering how to respond to the social cue you may or may not have picked up on. Autistic people understand more than others seem to think. We are just as compassionate, empathic, and caring as anyone else. We understand respect and know how our words and attitude affect people. Maybe more than non-autistic people, because we have been made so aware of our ‘deficiencies’, in everything from fictional portrayals of the disorder, to news articles about the disorder.
    Please, please, don’t lump us in with the trolls, and the pompous explainers, and the willful ignorance and disrespect displayed by too many people.
    Don’t excuse them. I don’t. Autism doesn’t make you an asshole.

    1. I suspect the commenters who suggest bad behavior on the net arises from lack of social skills or mental disorder do not lump those people together with people who have autism. The hateful writers on the net evince a kind of mental ugliness that separates them from decent people. Why are they like that? Who knows? Why are some people vandals? thieves? worse?

      Thank you for your thoughtful post. It reminds us to pay attention.

    2. I’m Aspergers myself.
      This makes me wonder what would happen if you made a study of the % of assholes in the population, compared to the % of assholes with some ASD.
      Is there a greater prevalence of assholery ‘on the spectrum’ or, as I would suspect, a lesser?

    3. I completely agree with you.

      I would also like to point out that for those who claim members of the atheist community are somehow automatically going to be devoid of both social skills and the ability to learn social skills…if you’re talking about making the community more attractive to people, that’s a really bad way to go about it.

  34. I have caught myself being an ass on comments on the internet. IRL I’m a nice guy, and I try not to do it. I now make myself reread what I have wrote and often shake my head with chagrin as I press the delete key. It can be pretty refreshing to mouth off, I just don’t post.

    I think for me it is a combination of anonymity (leading to dehumanization) and frustration. If I’m mad at something, or feeling powerless about something, especially if I’m stressed or whatever, it’s easy to fall into the trap of building myself up by slamming someone else, and trying to gain power that way.

    BTW, I wonder if those who left the comments “it’s because they have some sort of repressed rage stemming from an inferiority complex” and “lack of social skills, cowardice, arrogance, mansplaining, and immaturity,” are aware of the AWESOME level of irony you have achieved. Glad to see they were called out quickly.

  35. Open candid discourse is a wonderful thing. We don’t all need to agree. The debate is healthy. However, threats of violence are intolerable in any setting. Ban them, report them to their ISP, report them to the police if warranted.

  36. You needn’t accept insults from anyone, anywhere.
    It’s your blog. Delete anything you don’t like. Don’t bother justifying; you don’t need to.

  37. Amy, in the recent threads, how many censored comments were there that we did not see? I recall daviddavid and later david byron were rightly evicted but beyond that I thought you were pretty tolerant.

    Also, I thought it could have been a lot worse – practically every anti – Rebecca comment was countered effectively.

    There remain a few staunch Dawkins supporters, but they appear to be skeptics in respectful disagreement, not trolls. You surely do not want to shut down that debate?

    Also, there has been the accusation of groupthink, and to be absolutely honest, sometimes that bothers me too.

    Overall, I have always enjoyed Skepchick as it is.

    1. We do try to be very tolerant. There were a few that did not make it through moderation because they were just being blatantly belligerent or making the same “Oh yeah well what if it was a black guy in the elevator and I’m not racist so you are sexist” argument which was already addressed, counterproductive to the conversation and made our collective heads want to explode.

      1. (Wow, a Skepchick talked to me!) Avatar hesitantly extends paw towards Amy’s avatar. Avatar would like to lick the face of Amy’s avatar. Jack tells avatar to sit down and behave.

          1. rrrrrrrrr! rrr! snuffle purrrr croak :)

            She was a dear girl, highly intelligent, gentle and loving. Her name was Jezabel. She was the only dog I’ve ever known who watched TV: David Attenborough was her favorite – particularly snow monkeys!

            Pro tip: a friendly avatar helps in flame wars!

  38. It’s not that I don’t want to be a dick in person. I’m just afraid of getting punched. Usually a computer or an assload of alcohol take care of that for me.

  39. Having applied my usual scattergun commenting to this thread, I now proceed to offer a more substantial opinion.

    Firstly, on the subject of why people become extreme parodies of themselves across the net, I personally suspect that it comes from a confluence of several factors. Anonymity does have something to do with it, not that of the speaker, but of the audience. If you are staring at a monitor alone, your brain is not functioning the same way it would in the presence of other people. None of the usual social circuitry is online, so you get things coming through unfiltered by the usual barriers in commumication. People say what they’re thinking, without thinking about what they’re saying. Politeness itself, I suggest, is a mental device which developed to facilitate face to face interactions. Internet politeness then, requires a conscious expansion of that functionality into the faceless domain.

    Secondly, on the subject of moderation, you really must have at least some limitations. Unlimited freedom to post anything and everything is an untenable proposition. Ideals are wonderful, but they only tend to be useful in an ideal world, which we all know full well this is not. This is your house and in your house, guests fall under your rules. Fundamentally because you have all the power. The question then is, what is the best policy for facilitating discussion? Too little moderation and an entire thread becomes swamped beneath a vitriolic morass, too much and you eliminate outlying opinions and valid arguments. Ultimately the decisions will be subjective based on individual comments, but I would suggest that threats, implicit or explicit, should be immediately removed. Insults might as well be removed unless attached to something more useful, simply because throwing names around achieves nothing constructive.

    If you want to be entirely transparent and as accomodating as possible, it should be possible to simply remove a moderated comment to an electronic wasteland. In fact, I would quite like to see a thread which consist of nothing but a chronological list of all moderated comments. It would be a menagerie of unconnected, snarling, atavistic displays. Quite artistic in fact. It might also be useful to keep track of the number of moderated comments made by each account.

    Oh, and in moderating it seems likely that the golden rule is the old skeptic’s fallback, self knowledge. When removing a comment, a moderator needs to ask ‘Am I removing this because it is without value, or simply because I disagree with this argument?’ Such a task is a study in applied skepticism.

    Apologies for excessive verbosity. Sleep deprivation always renders me loquacious…

      1. “But this is the last you’ll hear from me, sorry to be creepy and annoying. ” ~Sc00ter to me from the Tell me How I Should Feel comment thread. So I will assume THIS is the last time I will hear from you.

          1. What point are you trying to make? And what authorities? Hotel security or the police because they said different things, neither of which are any of your concern. As for reporting harassment online different states have different laws so it depends on which one of us reports it. Still, none of your concern. Unless you plan on harassing one of us I suggest you let it go.

          2. I’ve been, for the most part, overlooking Claus’ nonstop harassment of Amy on various threads for the past month or so, but I’ve had about all I can take when he goes so far as to continually demand to know sensitive information that those of us who have received threats have shared with the authorities, to be used to score some kind of ridiculous point against us. Good bye.

  40. I think part of thing with Rebecca’s particular case was that many people who follow Richard Dawkins (but not Skepchick) jumped over here and started mouthing off.

    Given Dawkins’ very forthright, aggressive atheism he gets similar followers. While I don’t for a moment think he condones it, I know of at least one group of Dawkins’ fans grouped together to make their stance known. (Their stance – that Rebecca was taking feminism several steps back. I tried to talk one of the ringleaders out of it, but didn’t manage. It was quite amusing when I asked his girlfriend to weigh in on the discussion, though…)

    So I believe semi-organised trolling campaigns will have fuelled some of the backlash you’ve seen.

    1. I’ve wondered how many of them weren’t even Dawkins followers, but just trolls and mysoginists who saw a fight and jumped in.

      Pasta knows, if I were Dawkins and I saw these people representing me I’d distance myself from them very quickly.

  41. There is often a great disconnect between how people behave in real life conversation and how they behave in a textual debate. I have noticed this in myself and am acutely aware of it.

    Personally, I exploit the unique opportunities of textual debate to think more about my answers and questions than I could when speaking with someone. Thus, I become far more outspoken and eloquent in text, where in real life I am more of an introvert who tends to stumble on sentences.

    So in a sense, it allows me to bypass some of the social clumsiness I exhibit in real life.

    But then apparently, a number of people use it to bypass any good social skills they may have built in real life, allowing them to just dump the immediate contents of their brain on the keyboard.

    The term “double-edged sword” comes to mind.

  42. I used to write a local political blog. It wasn’t nearly as popular as this one but I had a couple of very aggressive readers who disagreed with everything. Which would have been fine, except for the linguistically violent and threatening way they did it. But these were people I saw every week at least at local meetings and such. I would go up to them when I saw them and say so tell me about X that you think should happen to me. They were always embarrassed. They never stopped. I finally just compiled all the worst comments and published them with the name of each of the men they belonged to. That actually stopped all but one, who years later I ran into and he apologized, his excuse was I reminded him of his ex wife and he was taking out his aggression he felt toward her on me. I told him I could see why she divorced him. He tried to punch me.

    Moderate, call the people out on it. They say it, they are responsible for it. Slap a waiting period on comments to let people think about it. Whatever you need to do to feel safe because not feeling safe is not ok.

  43. Yes, call the people out on it. And name them, too.
    Because, if we are to have a discussion about the actions of people, can we at least know who we are talking about?
    All this “I know of someone who did this…” and “there’s this group who did that….” is only poisoning the well.
    It’s quite an unappealing way to make a point.

      1. Not quite.
        This whole “shitstorm” was not due to Rebecca calling out McGraw by name. It was due to Rebecca’s overall response to the criticism of her experience.
        Let’s not engage in historical revisionism, please.

        1. For me, this is a question of respect: I have enough respect for the person I am criticizing to not make them guess that I am talking about them or guess at what they said that needs to be defended, and I have enough respect for my audience to allow them the opportunity to double check my work. If I hide the person and the exact words that I am criticizing, how does anyone know whether or not I’m creating a strawman? How can the person in question respond?
          Rebecca Watson in On Naming Names at The CFI Student Leadership Conference
          That sounds surprisingly like what you just said.
          That was when the shit really hit the fan within the community; Stef’s supporters decided that Rebecca need to be “punished” for “calling out” a fellow skeptic.
          You may not believe it to be her true motivation and her actions may have angered you but it is what was stated, plain and clear.
          Revisionism indeed.

          1. Please enlighten me, O Speaker of Truth.
            Please show me how a Twitterspat would have erupted into this mess.
            Rebecca called out Stef as an example of parroting of un-feminist thought within the skeptical community; you can doubt her motives (I don’t), you can question whether it was right (I think it was an emotional response that was not well thought out, i.e. a mistake), and you can not like that she did it (I think it was a tad childish) but you can’t deny that Rebecca did not bring this all on herself.
            It became the feminist equivalent of Accomidationist v. Gnu Atheist with all of the emotion and even less of the listening. I’ve even seen Rebecca refered to as an anti-feminist because she dared to ask a man to not do something sexually (or rather pre-sexually as the case may be).
            If RW hadn’t used SMcG as an example we wouldn’t be taliking about this; so where is my timeline of the “chain of events” wrong?
            I’ll be happy to say that I made a mistake if you can show me where, but I suspect it is more about winning a debate than being right. Semantics is the last refuge of the debater in trouble.
            And please note I am asking about the timeline, not motives, or who called who what; things really blew up after CFI and Rebecca stated that her motivation for using Stef’s name was the same one you had stated, where am I wrong?

          2. Not that it matters since you were just bounced but I see nothing in what I said that disagrees with the timeline you gave but I guess I’m not seeing it in the right way.
            Time; how does that fucking work?

  44. In my experience people on the interwebs lose their sense of empathy when they’re arguing with a stream of text. They get so involved with being “right” that they just stop really comprehending the arguments being presented to them as they can just skim the text and then vent more rage.

    As for commenting moderation, I suggest two things:

    1. Don’t be a troll. As soon as it’s clear someone is just antagonizing people, goodbye. They won’t be missed.

    2. Don’t feed the trolls. People who troll bait are the same people who egg on fights in high school. They’re like consultants; they exist to prolong the arguments. I would warn them, ban them temporarily, and then ban forever a la 3 strikes.

    My very first $.02 for you.

  45. Big hugs to everyone at skepchick. It was just a cyber shitstorm but it still has an emotional effect.

  46. Amy,

    Do you know if any of the threats were made by people who you knew would attend TAM, or thought might? Or was it more the fear of the unknown, not knowing who these people are?


    (Good job moderating your panel, BTW)

    1. Yes, I actually verified that two threats came from people attending TAM, one was quite specific but the majority were unidentifiable and frankly, we just got too busy to follow up on all of them.

      Thanks for the compliment on the panel! That was a lot of fun!

      1. I thought the activism sessions were among the most useful and interesting at TAM. The various big-name talks were for the most part the most fun and entertaining, but a lot of the content was things we’ve seen before.
        There were some discrepancies between what some people said on your panel and what was said during the grassroots skepticism workshop on the 1st day. I think this would be a good topic for a blog post and discussion.

        1. Oh, interesting. I missed the grassroots workshop. I’d like to know what the differences were. I may have to wait for the DVD to come out though since I wasn’t in attendance.

          1. The main one that I noticed was about the importance of having measurable goals and criteria, decided in advance, for determining if a campaign had been successful. Also, having “consciousness raising” as a primary goal, which I recall some people on your panel were fine with, but in the workshop, the panel said that was okay as a secondary goal, but since it is very difficult to measure, it should not be a primary goal.
            Due to sleep deprivation and the large quantity of information, I may have gotten what they were saying wrong, though.

          2. Buzz,

            I think “consciousness raising” is a fine goal if it is measurable. If you just say “well, I raised consciousness” and walk away, you don’t know if you’ve done much. But if you have a way to note if your awareness message is making a difference, then you know whether you’ve been successful or not. Some campaigns are purely educational.

            It’s not that I disagree with the workshop, it’s that I think “awareness” is a broad term that can mean a whole lot or nothing at all.

          3. Elyse said (but I think the comment replies are limited in depth, so I can’t respond directly to her):
            “I think “consciousness raising” is a fine goal if it is measurable. If you just say “well, I raised consciousness” and walk away, you don’t know if you’ve done much.”
            I think this is why they emphasized “measurable outcomes” in the workshop. It is better to start out with something measurable, like more hits on a pro-vax web site, or greater awareness of the true nature of homeopathy in a survey, because then you can tell whether or not your activism is actually accomplishing anything.
            The workbook they handed out at the session has a long list of examples of measurable outcomes, and we thought of many more during the discussion period. However, on a quick scan, I couldn’t find the pithy “why this is better” quote someone on the panel made. Does anyone who was present remember the gist of the argument?
            Also, they made a distinction between “objectives” and “outcomes”. Maybe “consciousness raising” is fine as an objective but you should have something measurable as a desired outcome.
            This really seems to be drifting OT, though.

      2. Interesting.

        I was emailed by a Skepchick a week or so before the conference, asking if I would be willing to be an unofficial “bodyguard” and accompany any woman who asked back to their room (which, ironically would have included an elevator ride). I accepted, but was never asked (which, sadly, is the norm). :)

    1. Jennifer Ouellette’s blog used to have a link to mine, and on twitter, I told Jennifer Ouellette that I thought she had interpreted my blog incorrectly. In response, she accused me of making the article all about me, dismissed me out of hand, and then edited the article to remove the link. You’ll note that there is no indication of this post-publication edit in the blog, and I noted, with deepest irony, that only a few hours later, she tweeted a link about how to correctly cite blogs when posting.

      When someone displays such a lack of basic integrity, I’m afraid I can’t take seriously what they have to say about serious issues. Looking for proof – screenshots, etc. at my blog:

  47. Ban-hammering the trolls is good and it’s not censorship because they can go troll somewhere else.

  48. I dunno, censorship is never good in my opinion. If the trolls go, just don’t feed them, and they go away. I play lots of online games, people rage all the time. Usually just to get a rise out of people. If you don’t feed the trolls they will melt away. The sexist dudes that are out there are in the minority, but much like the TeaBaggers, are a loud bunch. SO yeh, keep up the good stuff.

  49. I personally think that every threat of violence, explicit or implied should be sent to the police.
    I’ve got no problem with moderating hateful comments. I’ve never seen an argument yet that required hateful vitriol to make the point.

    1. @thegrumpyskeptic, I also am fiercely anti-censorship but am also for zero tolerance to some particularly hateful crimes so agree fully with Artemesia (I loved your letter, congratulations!)

      The originators of the threats should be seriously worried right now about when the van is going to pull up and take away their computer to see what else is on their hard drive – because creeps like that probably have a history!

      Not only that but the little USB stick, with all the nasty stuff, that they think is hidden taped up under their top drawer will also be found. If innocent, they may get their gear returned one day but probably not. Enjoy the prospect!

  50. Regarding policing one’s comments, i personally draw my strategy from the Broken Windows Theory:

    By deleting any insane and hurtful comments immediately, all you have left is a reasonable discussion, and if all the trolls see is a reasonable discussion then they won’t bother posting. Make it very clear that counterpoints are more than welcome, but delete anything that’s clearly just been written to insult, to build up whoever wrote it at the expense of everyone else. And if nobody can make a counter-argument without being insulting or crazy then guess what, you may just be Right. (and hey, if even richard dawkins looks insane in his counter-arguments then chances are your position is pretty unassailable, which it is, incidentally).

    I really do subscribe to Broken Windows on this one, and i recommend it to anyone else with a blog and a comments section. People take their cues from what they see around them, and if they see broken windows in their neighborhood then they’re more likely to commit vandalism, and if they see vicious, misogynistic comments in your comments section then they’re more likely to pile on. So fix them windows, set the tone (“IQ must be this high to enter”) and be thrilled with the results. It of course can feel a bit Big Brotherish policing comments in such a way, but if we couldn’t trust your judgment then we wouldn’t be here in the first place.

  51. To address your questions in an alternate order,

    Delete that which makes no relevant contribution the the discussion. i.e. vulgar argument, crass but ok. Threats and bully crap, delete, /ban ip. It’s your sandbox.

    For most of the rest, a drunk on a bus once told me that alcohol was “liquid courage”. Many, many people repress themselves and hate the rest of us for “making” them. Here they can let that go w/o fear of serious consequence. And since that’s my amateur psychology for the day I’d also like to point out the book that made aggressive idiots make sense to me.

    The Authoritarians – Bob Altemeyer
    (free online)

    I promote Bob’s book a lot because it is awesome, and really scary and absolutely required reading. Seriously what this says about the right wing nutcase is spooky.

    Also, “Hi” my first post on my 1st day as a member. Next task, get a pic uploaded.

  52. In addition to the internet giving douchebags anonymity to harass people, it also gives a voice to people who – for whatever reason – would be reticent to stand up for themselves IRL.

    Is it possible that some of the dudes losing their shit over this issue are dudes who’ve never had a woman stand up to them before?

    Perhaps the reason so.freaking.many of them got all testerical was that this was a) the first time they’ve witnessed women talking about it unplugged and b) the first time they couldn’t intimidate women into silence.

    1. I hadn’t thought of that, but I could definitely see it being the case.

      I really suspect that most of them are just trolls, hiding behind the computer screen.

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