Disengaging from internet conversations

[For the record, my policies may change at any time and for any reason.]

One of the unexpected side-effects of having a blog (though I should have anticipated this) is that it tends to attract a certain type of very vocal audience. I allow for people to comment on my articles not just because I’m narcissistically seeking out ego-stroking affirmations of my personal brilliance (who isn’t?) but because I enjoy hearing the perspectives of those who disagree with me and what I say. I truly do. If you doubt it then you obviously have not read Arguing with Friends as I expound on that quite a bit in those pages.

But such openness to the comments of others is fraught with risks. Another blogger I discussed this with spelled out his standard response to those who sidetrack conversations with their personal agenda. He has obviously faced this many times in order to have such a well-worded response ready to go.

Your comment is interesting and at some point I hope to be able to respond to it. In this context, though, it’s moving away from the discussion I intended to initiate here.

You may think I’m giving up the discussion by not following you there, but you have to recognize the position I’m in. When you comment here you do so freely and under no obligation. My post here does nothing to control the way you employ your time. When I write a blog post, I take on a voluntary obligation to give my time to discussing that topic, but I don’t take on any obligation to discuss other topics. Surely you can see that if I did, I’d be allowing commenters almost total control over the way I employ my time and energy, and that no one can live that way.

I’m not forcing anyone else to comment here on any topic I blog on, and it would be wrong for anyone to think they can require me to comment here on any topic they choose to bring up, unrelated to the topic I started with. So while I acknowledge that you’ve raised an interesting point, and at some point I might like to engage it more fully, for now I’m choosing to stick with the discussion I intended to start.

At this blog I have recently been reminded of the risks of allowing comments, but I draw on many years of experience (often quite unpleasant experiences) of interacting with people on the internet that have formed my opinion on this matter. I thought it wise, given the reality of a certain sub-culture on the internet, to spell out some general policies I hold, personally, and that I will hold “semi officially” with respect to my blog. Further justification of my policies is below.

The policies

  1. People who respond with notes of encouragement and praise for my book or my blog will generally be thanked with a simple reply of gratitude and that’s it.
  2. People who ask legitimate and fair questions will get (to the best of my ability) legitimate and fair answers. I am a big fan of not reinventing the wheel so I will try to point people to other resources on the internet or in print to explore the subject instead of trying to answer it fully myself. This blog is not about me being an expert by any means; I don’t think I’d fool anybody on that point if I tried.
  3. People who respond with legitimate criticisms and challenges will be engaged until we’ve both had a chance to present our respective viewpoints with 1 or 2 rebuttals each. That’s it. I have set up the comboxes to allow comments to go 6 levels deep which gives each of us three shots at presenting our viewpoints. Anybody can put links in the comments to further resources so it’s not as though I am censoring perspective or anything like that, but I see no point in going beyond 1 or 2 rebuttals each. In my experience that is enough of an exchange to allow each of us to present our perspectives, clarify key points, ask clarifying questions of the other, and provide links to resources for any other interested readers who may simply monitor the discussion without adding their two cents. Furthermore, I cannot imagine any situation that would inspire me to continue a conversation at somebody else’s blog / website.
  4. I will tend to ignore comments if the commenter makes it obvious that they are not truly in this for open-minded discussion, but are instead focused on personal glorification or “smacking down those stupid Christians.” There are so many hints that this is the case that I cannot even begin to spell them out; one could write a book on that subject alone. This is not my first rodeo so I have learned to smell those hints a mile down the road. I really do enjoy dialoguing with those who open-mindedly disagree with me, I honestly do, but I have no interest in being a stepping stone for somebody else’s shameless drive for self promotion.
  5. I will also tend to ignore comments if they are rude, completely off topic, utterly devoid of any real content or for whatever other similar reasons I choose. Just because you post a comment (and just because I let it through, which I typically will) does not oblige me to respond to it. See the comments above from the other blogger.
  6. Under incredibly rare circumstances (profanity, personal attacks of the extreme variety, etc) I will delete comments. If I have to delete your comments there is a good chance you will be banned from commenting again (though I am not without grace on this matter). This will be a last resort and will typically be preceded by a warning.

Why have these policies?

As I describe in Arguing with Friends, I am a firm believer that the really important conversations of life ought to take place in person. Internet discussions, email discussions (see here for an example) , twitter debates (what an absurd concept that is!) and so forth should be a very distant second to sitting down and chatting about these issues over a cup of coffee or during a hike or something. This is my primary reason for putting boundaries on my involvement in any discussions that take place on the internet, even in the comments below any of my articles. I want this blog to be an example of the principles in my book, so to engage in lengthy internet discussions would undermine my message and smell a little like hypocrisy. And, to be perfectly frank, the biggest questions of life are probably not going to be solved in comboxes at a blog anyway. Digital communication is profoundly limiting relative to face-to-face discussions (even printed books are vastly superior to online “debates”) and I use the internet only as a means to an end. If the most significant conversations you have in life are online – if your opinion of the virtual world is “this is living” – seriously, you need to get out!

Some might wonder about the role of the internet as a tool to reach others with the truth who may not hear it any other way; are we not limiting ourselves if we choose not to engage another person when they truly want to discuss an issue but wish to do so online? In particular, if I am in Calgary and I am dialoguing with somebody from, say, Chicago, there is no way in the world that I can go for coffee with them! Don’t I have a responsibility to keep the online conversation alive? I don’t think so. While I am here in Calgary concerned about some guy in Chicago there is another person in Chicago desperately concerned about sharing the truth with somebody in Calgary. If we all made a habit of unplugging from online strangers and reconnecting with real-life friends – in person – then I can connect with the other person in Calgary and my Chicago friend can connect with somebody there. This is part of the reason I am involved with a local Apologetics group; we actually meet, face-to-face, once a month. We also try to connect with real flesh-and-blood people, live and in person, as much as possible.

So when I limit my involvement in an online conversation I hope people understand my motives; I want to practice what I preach. Internet “debates” almost never really get to the heart of a discussion in the first place and are fraught with all kinds of other unpleasant side-effects that are far less common in real life. Personalities can get in the way. The drive to “win” can overwhelm people. Name calling and attitudes of condescension become more commonplace. Some people just live for the “victory lap” and will do whatever it takes to get there. The internet is a wonderful place to store and share resources and ideas, but a horrible place to discuss them. Don’t get me wrong, Christians are just as prone to many of these mistakes as people in any group are. This is an equal-opportunity policy, as much to keep me in line as to keep anybody else in line.

I believe my policies strike a reasonable balance between allowing a small amount of elbow-room to explore a concept in the comments, while motivating people to move the discussion somewhere else, like maybe a local cafe where you can wrap your fingers around a coffee mug instead of a computer mouse. Don’t forget to turn your cell phone off.

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