Action Potential

Getting into and out of character

A great discussion over at Nature Network inspired me to initiate a similar conversation here at Action Potential. Corie Lok asked the question “What is fair play in the blogo/commentosphere?” A fair question indeed. The responses have produced some interesting discussion fodder, but got me thinking about my own experiences on several science blogs. Although this conversation is equally applicable to any type of blog, let’s stick with those dedicated to or mainly engaged in conversations about science.

I always post, comment, join sites, etc… under my real name/identity and, for what it’s worth, have decided to absorb both the praise and the grief for the views to which I subscribe as “Noah Gray”. I feel better this way and as with those in the blogosphere who choose anonymity or to adopt a pseudonym, it is a personal choice.

I have often come across individuals who, as was described in Corie’s post, choose vindictiveness and aggression over more measured or calculated conversation. This kind of behavior is abhorred in the world of living, breathing humans and would be considered socially maladaptive. Yet when provided a safe buffer, many feel emboldened to say things or act in a manner in which they would (hopefully) never assume, without the security of distance from their target. This is nothing new. Many scorned individuals write letters to express anger when they feel that, for whatever reason, they cannot face their antagonist. Other forms of third person and more disconnected forms of social interaction have spawned much hatred and vitriol throughout history. However, I feel that somehow, personal interaction on the internet is, well, more personal. So why should some choose to check their manners at the door before logging on?

I respect those who feel the need to adopt an anonymous or pseudonymous identity in public. It makes for a more interesting online community or discussion to include thoughtful individuals who would otherwise be reluctant to provide an unbiased or candid opinion unless protected. However, to use this cyber-identity to simply lose oneself at the expense of other unsuspecting commenters simply looking to join a decent debate (whether pseudonymous or not themselves!!) is just wrong. It should be the responsibility of any community leader attempting to cover science in a meaningful way to maintain a minimal level of order and respect within his/her community, watching out for the antagonistic persona that seems to bounce easily and casually from one science blog to another, continuing their own personal game of mud-slinging. Otherwise, as Henry Gee rightfully predicted in his comment on Corie’s post:

My response is that I shall no longer be visiting sites where the accepted culture is so noxious. I suspect that many others feel the same way, with the result that such blogs [are now or will soon be] populated solely by people swaggering around, just dying to throw a punch at the increasingly few people [that] stray within range.

Too true. There is certainly a place for more militant blogs, even in science, but those who prefer this style should ask themselves what good is debate within a community where everyone thinks the same way (remember “election landslide counties”)? With very little to check and balance the views being reinforced in a positive feedback loop, such polarized communities can become a breeding ground of individuals clinging to extreme beliefs, justified in their stance through the support of other like-minded people around them. I’m not calling for communal singing of Kum Ba Yah during scientific debates, but I am calling for a certain level of restraint and professionalism when dealing with colleagues that one doesn’t even know. Especially when the conversation is taking place in a neutral environment and not at the aggressive commenter’s “home blog”.

We seem to be at a critical juncture concerning the intersection of blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies with science. This is no time to poison the atmosphere and turn away the more “relaxed” or “casual” participants. Polarized communities refusing to tolerate rival positions, or unwilling to engage in a civil debate over any topic, from publication business models to the role of Ca2+-permeable AMPARs in LTP, will shut out many would-be contributors and stunt the growth or slow the adoption of blogs, commenting, and other web-based technologies dedicated to the pursuit of scientific collaboration. If such technologies are ever really going to work for science, it will be because of inclusivity, not exclusivity.


  1. Report this comment

    Mike Taffe said:

    Why is it that I always wonder if the writer has ever been in a faculty meeting, fervent conference session or, heck, your average dorm room bull session when I see something like this? Vitriol is, of course, in the eye of the beholder but all of the handwringing coming from the Nature blogs (sorry, I know you have some distinctions here but I fail to grasp them all) come across as either petulant whining or completely disingenuous attempts to deflect what seem to be the substantive points of critique, vis a vis your attack on PLoS.

    How did you hear the tone of the triggering piece from Butler, Noah?

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    Noah Gray said:

    Although Mr. Butler’s discussion of PLoS did indeed initiate many of these tangential conversations regarding the culture and atmosphere of blog communities, I was attempting to speak more generally above.

    Please see this post or this post for examples of other ways to think about the debate to which you refer.

    Just to clarify, the point I wanted to make with this post (and perhaps it got lost in the ether of my rhetoric) was that I am a strong supporter of using Web 2.0 technology within the research community and believe it can play a significant and important role in the way that scientific communication is handled in the future. An uninviting and poisonous atmosphere is sure to alienate the casual user and significantly reduce both the adoption and embrace of these alternative communication mechanisms.

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    Mike Taffe said:

    An uninviting and poisonous atmosphere is sure to alienate the casual user and significantly reduce both the adoption and embrace of these alternative communication mechanisms.

    Interesting. For those of us watching the halting attempts to generate some version of online discussion of published research articles and contrasting this with the free-wheeling discussion of other online discussions….your premise seems a bit flawed. Perhaps some stultifying ideas for what represents the necessary ‘professionalism’ and ‘restraint’ may be the problem?

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    A Blog Around The Clock said:

    In(s) and Out(s) of Academia

    Bjoern Brembs is on a roll! Check all of these out: Incentivizing open scientific discussion: Apart from the question of whether the perfect scientist is the one who only spends his time writing papers and doing experiments, what incentives can…

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    Bee said:

    Hi Noah,

    I agree with what you say. Online discussions need some social norms and a culture of argumentation, otherwise the Web2.0 will be left to those who like virtual yelling and shouting at other. Mike’s comment above misses the point. I have witnessed much worse behavior online than I’ve ever seen in real life, mostly because (pseudo)anonymity supports boldness, but – also as you say – because by discussing online there is a personal detachment and many channels of communication are missing. Specifically when it comes to expressing that a behavior is inappropriate online discussions work very badly. In addition there is a general lack of patience in that many people don’t even try to understand each other.

    Daniel Goleman has a nice piece on The Edge about this that you might find interesting: