This past week, Deacon Greg Kandra announced that he’s closing down comments on his site for an indefinite period. As his junior colleague at Patheos, I want him to know I understand that move and support it wholeheartedly.
It’s amazing to see the things Greg goes through over at the Deacon’s Bench. In my month and a half of blogging, I’ve tended to choose quirky topics over controversial ones. As a result, I’ve built up a relatively small but invaluable core of regular readers — nearly all of them generous, and better yet, fun-loving. Greg takes a different approach, casting a wide net for news on every imaginable subject, covered from every imaginable angle. For his troubles, he’s gained a readership that, like the Church herself, might fairly be described as “Here comes everybody.” Only in Greg’s case — at least lately — I’d change that to: “Here comes everybody, including a few hardheaded trolls.”
As blogging strategies go, Greg’s ranks among the very bravest. If it pays its dividends in the form of high traffic, it also extracts a price in the form of stress. From those few occasions when I’ve broken form and jumped into a controversy, I’ve come to understand the variables involved well enough that I can explain them to anyone requiring an explanation.
Think of a combox as a bar. Leather-lunged bullies are like bikers or drag queens. Singly or in small groups, they’re easy enough to tolerate. Certainly their patronage is appreciated. When in the minority, they tend to conform, more or less, to house norms of behavior. Diversity enriches the place; ideally, it becomes a kind of Toots Shor’s, where Supreme Court justices drank side-by-side with members of Murder, Inc. (If I may boast, my own joint has shown potential to develop in that direction. My most loyal readers include a sedevacantist and a co-operator in Opus Dei.)
But the pushy types have a way of multiplying until they form a critical mass. When that happens, they scare everyone else off — for the simple reason that fairly few people think of the internet as a verbal gladiator school. Your average reader would sooner hold his tongue than have it torn out by the root. Since being scared into silence is no great inducement, the more pacific types will, eventually, find a friendlier place to play.
Once the 800-lb gorillas have claimed all the seats of honor, they begin to demand the place be changed in accordance with their tastes. Returning to the bar analogy, they’d insist the owner cover the floor with sawdust, or install a disco. They begin, in short, to act like shareholders, rather than ordinary patrons. I’ve seen posters demand that I — or Greg, or Elizabeth — adjust our editorial policies. We mustn’t write on this subject, or in that tone. Or, better, they’ll insist we apologize for posting something that offends their sensibilities. On a particularly rough day, moderating a thread can feel like dealing with so many Abe Foxmans.
In a way, it’s easy to understand where they find such cheek. A regular reader might spend hours on his favorite blog. If a discussion gets on a roll, he could end up writing more words on the subject than the blogger has himself. To a point, he can even become one of the site’s attractions: some readers will show up hoping to deflate him or win his approval. (In fact, the surest sign a thread’s taken off is that respondents have forgotten about slitting the blogger’s throat and abandoned themselves to slitting one another’s.)
But in the end, the relationship between blogger and readers, though intimate to an unprecedented degree, cannot be a relationship of equals. A blog is not a corporation or a limited partnership; it has a sole owner and proprietor, and that person deserves the exclusive right to make decisions. He’s earned it by doing the most important work. Filling a combox with thousands of words of commentary takes skill and intelligence, to be sure. But choosing and framing topics so as to incite that kind of verbal effusion takes skill and intelligence, plus a special kind of informed discretion. Add the fact that the blogger is posting under his own name, usually with his own photograph, and has scattered more than a few key biographical details to the winds, and it becomes clear that blogging also takes a certain amount of guts.
Now here comes the part that’s unfair to readers: this sole owner, proprietor, content-generator and decision-maker is also human. That means he has a limited threshold for badgering. Anyone truly determined to fracture his peace of mind or puncture his ego stands a fair chance of doing either. But that could turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Readers and their right to express themselves deserve a high priority, but the blogger must assign his own autonomy the very highest priority. Push a blogger to the point where something’s got to give, and that thing could be you.
A few weeks ago, I was talking this over with a woman who blogs on Patheos’ pagan forum. She told me, “My blog is my house. I’ll give the bum’s rush to anyone I think deserves it,“ adding that this is a characteristically pagan way of seeing things. Vas heil, and pass the hammer, thinks I. Right away, I squashed a couple of troublemakers, and have eighty-sixed one or two per week ever since. In case anyone’s curious, my traffic has been improving steadily.
Greg’s solution, I think, is much more charitable, and yes, more Christian. Whereas I rely on my intuition to spot an incorrigible turd, he calls everyone to conversion. It’s the best deal in town, folks. I wouldn’t hold out for anything better.
Enjoy your vacation, Deacon. You’ve earned it.