Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Combox Cold Shoulder

I had an entirely different blog post planned for today, but I've been pondering something else, and the pondering has reached that point (re: the Mason Cooley quote on my sidebar) where I have to write about it and open it up for discussion here so as to quit it with the pondering already.

Last week, when I wasn't feeling well, I spent a bit more time casually clicking around and reading blogs that I tend to read less often than my "A-list" blogs. Let's just get it clear up front that when I use the term "my 'A-list' blogs" I do not mean that these blogs are somehow intrinsically superior to all other blogs, or anything; it's just that, like most people with limited blog-reading time, I have some blogs I read daily or at least weekly and others that I read at best weekly and at most sporadically. This is nothing but personal taste, and I'm pretty sure that some blogs that would be "B-list" or even "C-list" for me are somebody else's "A-list," and that conversely some of my daily-must reads are on other people's "once in a great while" pile of blogs. It's good that we're all different, with different reading preferences, right?

Anyway, to get back to the point, I noticed something disturbing about the blogs I read less often. Maybe it's also true of the blogs I read more often, but my familiarity with them has kept me from noticing it; or maybe the blogs I like most don't tend to suffer from this problem. The problem can be summed up in one phrase: I call it the Combox Cold Shoulder.

What is it? Well, as any regular reader of blogs knows, comment box dynamics can be weird, strange, unusual things to analyze. Some blogs have truly poisonous comment boxes that are, except for the handful of trolls and their prey, best left alone; other blogs have truly thoughtful and dynamic comment boxes, where people from all points on the spectrum of ideas and from many walks of life exchange viewpoints, interact with each other, and maintain interesting and enlightening conversations. Many blogs will fall somewhere between these extremes, or vary depending on the blog host's mood and choice of topics and the level of passion the issues being discussed inspire among the readers.

But on a few of the blogs I read less often I noticed a quite different dynamic, which played out as follows:
  1. The blogger would write his or her post.
  2. Commenters would begin to comment, perhaps praising the blogger, or sharing their own experiences or ideas, etc.
  3. Some commenters would begin to engage other commenters in conversation. So far, all normal.
  4. Some commenters would post witty or thoughtful or interesting or--let's face it--mundane things, or ask direct questions...and be totally ignored.
  5. The conversing commenters would continue to converse, occasionally welcoming new, clearly "regular" commenters, into the discussion.
  6. The ignored commenters might try again, directly addressing one of the other participants or the blog host/hostess.
  7. The conversing commenters would continue to ignore these commenters, most of whom would give up at this point.
  8. If an "ignored commenter" tried a third time, either a: he or she was still ignored, or b: someone rudely or dismissively told him or her that his or her point had already been addressed, or that it was off-topic (never mind how much of the previous conversation had been) or that his/her question revealed a hidden agenda (which they discerned by some mysterious power) or something similarly quelling. The Comment Box Clique then turned back to their apparently private conversation.

The sad thing to me is that I noticed this particularly occurring in some regions of the Catholic blogosphere, this apparent shunning of the non-elect commenter. It didn't seem to come up much in secular blogs I read, though, as I said, perhaps I simply haven't noticed it before.

Now, I know that not every comment can be responded to, and that especially if someone's merely agreeing with the blogger and/or making a simple statement, the comment may not receive further notice. But this was something different: people who were clearly trying to join a conversation in progress were being treated like interlopers who didn't "belong" and who therefore were being rude to attempt to join in this private clique of wise Catholics who don't have time to be bothered with the less-privileged, average, everyday sort of readers who comment less frequently and thus haven't established their bona fides.

Maybe I just happened to hit a few blogs on a few bad days; maybe the blogs in question are usually more welcoming than they seemed to be. I certainly hope so. Because deciding ahead of time that some readers don't belong in the exclusive little blog-admiration club and rejecting their words, giving them the Combox Cold Shoulder so that they'll feel discouraged and perhaps stop reading or participating at all, isn't really the sort of behavior that makes us Catholics look very Christian.

And if I've ever been guilty of that sort of behavior myself, I heartily apologize. Perhaps I don't always have time to respond to comments, but I can work a bit harder on making time, especially to answer direct questions or comments where the person commenting clearly wishes to engage me in discussion.


Red Cardigan said...

I guess everybody's afraid to comment on this one. :)

David said...

In my experience, Red, you've been great about responding to any questions or comments I've had. I commend you for that, especially since we disagree strongly on several topics.

We all have our busy lives, and I think you have just the right amount of comment flow where you can catch or respond to most of them without obviously alienating a few--or at least I haven't received such treatment that stuck out.

What you observe with the cold shoulder... I wonder that it's common ingroup/outgroup dynamics. Most people don't actually want to be challenged. We like to hear, read, and associate with the things toward which we already agree.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed that too, when my comment seemed invisible. I just recently started commenting, here and there. Sometimes I wish I hadn't.


Deacon Dean said...

I'm more of a "lurker" than a commenter most times, rarely responding for a number of reasons, principle among them is assuming that probably no one really cares what I think anyway. Even as a lurker, I haven't really noticed the "shunning" that you speak of on the blogs I frequent. I'll have to start paying more attention!

Deacon Dean said...

People may be afraid to comment, or they're having as much trouble as I did getting through the captcha!

freddy said...

In spite of the efforts of some bloggers, com-boxes are far more like gradeschool playgrounds than living rooms.

And let's face it; even when having a great discussion in my living room with a bunch of people, some comments are going to be unheard or ignored.

Without knowing specifics, it's hard to know whether there is actual "cliquiness" going on or whether readers are just skimming, misreading, busy, or unsure of the best response to make. It's also hard to know whether the blogger is one of the more "hands-on" type or one who seems rarely even to read his comments.

From a Catholic perspective, blogging and commenting are, first and foremost, an exercise in humility. If you want your ego stroked, get a dog.

Red Cardigan said...

David, you're probably right about the group dynamics thing. And maybe that's the reason I don't notice the "cold shoulder" thing so much on the blogs I like best, because the blogs I like best are full of people who aren't looking for echo chambers but who actually want to engage.

Christine, I feel for you! And your experience is exactly what I'm talking about. Should blogging/commenting be all about the reactions from an ego perspective? No. Does it seem strange or unkind when some commenters *never* get so much as a "Hi, how are things?" response? Yes, it does.

Deacon Dean--sorry about the Blogger thing! And I've seen my own comment on somebody else's site disappear recently, thanks to Blogger's glitchiness, so I know how frustrating it is.

Freddy, I'm sure that if you had a group of women in your living room, you wouldn't let them completely ignore one woman so much that if she did try to talk she was rudely told not to bother because her point had already been made by others in earlier discussions. I'm not talking about mere ego-stroking here; I'm talking about some rather rude behavior I've seen towards commenters like Christine who have just started commenting and don't deserve to be treated like interlopers in a private chat.

freddy said...

As I said; without specifics, it's hard to know the real reasons some comments get ignored.

My experience has been that *most* comments are ignored, including most of mine. Maybe that due to the sorts of blogs (other than this!) that I read, but it seems that commenters leave their 2 cents and move on.

When people are gathered IRL, it's easier to call someone out for rudeness when you can see facial expressions or hear tone of voice. Commenters on blogs may think they are writing polite, succinct replies that can be taken for rude dismissals by other readers.

We have the obligation to think the best of someone rather than the worst. My advice: make your comments as polite as possible, and cultivate as thick a skin as you can!

Anonymous said...

I hear you. I've seen this same thing happen especially at places like NCR. For some of the bigger websites that have bloggers that get paid to blog I suspect they just put some posts out there to reach their minimum number of posts needed for the week or month. While they like the fan clubs they have established they are really not looking for any dialogue on the subject other than someone telling them how great they are. Anyone who may come along and ask a question that may challenge a view point can quickly be labeled a troll and everyone can wipe their hands of it.

Some blogs are more of a community and some are just a random bunch of people commenting. If you place yourself in a room with some comboxes it is quite amusing to see how this would all play out in real life.

Your observation is accurate. I've realized the internet if a bigger place that I thought it was. And we can pick and choose where we want to chat.

Anonymous said...

I know some of mine are held in moderation till when they are posted, it looks odd because 60 other comments may have come thru by that time. I have asked how to get unmoderated, but I get no answer so if there were any "real" dialogue on this one particular blog, it is only for those who are not moderated. I no longer have thing skin. If I want to ask a serious question, I email it. But then again, I have received no answer to those too.

Patrick said...

It could be a matter of not wanting to spend time responding to/engaging with someone whose handle you haven't seen before and whose other comments you've found interesting. Once you've seen a given handle several times in the comments, you know the person is "serious" and worth engaging with (if their comments are well thought out. And there are many commenters on, say, Dreher's site that I wouldn't bother responding to though they've read Dreher for years.)

Perhaps it's not like active shunning then, but rather waiting to see if responding is really a worthwhile use of time. For people who put any thought into their comments, it's always a consideration.

By the way: the idea that Internet commentary is like someone's living room is a ludicrous falsehood and an analogy so bad I'm shocked that smart folks don't see the obvious differences - or perhaps they do but want to insist on such a dumb lie so they can believe the Internet is a substitute for an actual interaction. (For example of how ludicrous this is, I'm currently in my coffee-stained bathrobe and eating a scone as I type. Or am I? I wouldn't wear a bathrobe in your living room, and I wouldn't be able to tell you I was if I wasn't in your living room, either.) And so the reason why you can't get out of comments on the Internet what you might get out of being in someone's living room is because comments on the Internet are completely different than being in someone's living room.