On commenting, conversations, and epijournals

Earlier this week, I closed the comments on this blog. I was reading this post, by another blogger who shut down the comments at his place, and realized that I had wanted to do the same for some time. I really encourage you to read the entire post. This is not a matter of not keeping with the times (quite the opposite – I’ll get to it shortly), or of not having the right technical fixes for specific trolling problems. It’s about what conversations we want to have, when, where, and with whom – and when we’d rather walk out and do something else that’s more valuable.

In my own blogging experience, the feedback I get by email and in person has long been infinitely more valuable and insightful than most of the public comments I was getting here. There have been exceptions, and I’m grateful to those commenters, but there have also been entries where I deleted more comments than I approved. Instead of an attractive feature, it became a chore. And ultimately, this blog is not a community service that I am obliged to provide. I will not do it if I cannot enjoy it, and so changes had to be made.

The more I think about it, the more I agree with Dan Conover that open commenting for everyone might be on its way out as the default mode on the internet. There are many different ways to have conversations and to manage them, to seek feedback, to engage with different communities depending on how each one works and on one’s relationship to it. There are now technical solutions and templates for doing this. It is no longer necessary to have one-size-fits-all comment sections. Instead, we can tailor our internet presence to our individual goals, expectations and constraints, compartmentalize it, focus on what works best for us. I, for one, will be taking full advantage of that.

This is already being felt in the blogosphere. Some bloggers (Fallows, Sullivan) have no comment sections, instead quoting selected email from readers in follow-up posts. Others are reconsidering, or at least ramping up moderation. Not every piece of writing needs to come with a convenient box for passers-by to tell the author that she’s wrong about this or that, or better yet, that she shouldn’t be speaking in the first place. (See here for an example of what I mean and how depressing it can be to read.)

The best comment sections are those with the most aggressive moderation policies – those where the bloggers make it clear that this is their site and everyone else is there at their pleasure. They delete any comments they don’t like (for whatever reason) and are quick to ban anyone who steps out of line. Moreover, they have no obligation to explain to everyone individually where the line is. Commenting is a privilege, not a right, and if you can’t find your way around their place, you’re free to go elsewhere.

Needless to say, this would not work on any community website where users expect to have the right to participate based on their membership (formal or not) in some group. But this is also why I, personally, don’t usually hang out or comment on such websites.

Just a day or two later, Tim Gowers announced the creation of “epijournals” – in essence, editorial boards that would handle the refereeing and certification of arXiv papers without pretending to “publish” them. I like the idea, always have (it has been around for some time), and I’m glad that someone is actually doing it. The controversial part, for me, is whether each article must have a mandatory comment page. I am very strongly against this, and I said so on Tim’s blog. (There’s follow-up discussion as well.)

I’ve explained my reasons and concerns several times already, for example in this post. I’m not going to spend time repeating myself. But in addition to all that, I would suggest that creators of interactive journals should take into account the different types of interactions and conversations that we have in mathematics.

As we grow professionally, we develop the kind of interactivity that works for us. Some questions are likely to be of wider interest, so we ask them in public, for example at the end of a talk. Others are better asked and answered one on one, not because either party is “afraid of criticism” or some such, but because we can learn more that way. We learn when to continue the conversation and when to take some time to think about the matter before responding. I’m not saying that there’s One Right Way To Communicate For Everyone. But there is one for me, and by now I have a reasonably good idea of what it is.

Comment pages have very little place in it. They demand immediate attention and response just by the virtue of being public, where I prefer to think for a bit before answering a substantive question, or simply might not have the time to get to it right away. They reward speed over depth. They imitate the question period at the end of a talk, but what I value more is the private email I might get some time later from someone who has thought about the subject at some length. They do not discriminate between different types of audiences and require that I speak to all of them at the same time, but I like to be able to get into a technical discussion with someone who I know is an expert without being interrupted by folks I don’t know complaining that they don’t understand.

Speaking of which, there seems to be an undercurrent running through parts of the debate that I find problematic: an expectation that everyone should be able to listen in on every conversation, that every discussion should be open to general public, just because someone else might be interested. Why? I find one on one conversations (whether by email or in person) to be far more efficient and productive. I work hard to make my papers clear and readable, write expository papers for various types of audiences, make every effort to answer questions from readers, revise my papers in response to them if necessary. But I have no obligation to make my private communications public, or to move my discussions with possible prospective collaborators to a comment section.

There’s at least one response to my comment on Tim’s blog where those of us not interested in comment pages are painted as Luddites falling behind the times and compared to filmmakers who are so worried about critical responses that they refuse to have their films circulated. Not true. I post my papers on the arXiv and on my departmental webpage like everyone else does; more recently, I started to advertise them here. But I also want to be able to choose the means of engagement that suit me. Nor do I think that every response has to be officially circulated with the published copy of my paper. A better film-related question might be: if a filmmaker could only enter her film in one competition, should she choose the one where the jurors and everyone in attendance at the screening are also given printouts of all IMDB comments on the film?

I think I’d go elsewhere.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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