Sunlit Water

October 31, 2007


Filed under: Blogs,Personal — by teofilo @ 3:40 pm

To expand on this and this, after giving it some more thought I think what really bothers me is not so much disagreement (which is, after all, an unavoidable aspect of interacting with other people at all) as the tone that tends to accompany it at Unfogged.  It really does seem like the place is full of people who are determined to be gratuitously mean to each other as often as possible, even over the smallest and least important differences.  I can understand this to an extent in arguments about politics and other contentious areas like religion and gender roles, where many people have strong opinions and are naturally inclined to express them vigorously, and I deal with that mainly by just not reading the political threads.  What I don’t understand, though, is why certain people (okay, usually B, but not just her) feel the need to adopt that same angry, contemptuous tone when arguing about totally trivial matters of personal taste.  The original argument in that thread, about mangoes, is a good example of this.  Though this sort of thing, I now realize, is meant entirely in fun, I just can’t understand how someone could find it fun.  To me it just feels like wildly disproportionate cruelty to anyone who expresses a contrary opinion, no matter how innocuous or mildly phrased, and it creates an atmosphere where people (okay, me, but there are probably others) are afraid to express their opinions on even the most anodyne subjects for fear of being screamed at for hundreds of comments.

This is, I am realizing, really all about tone rather than substance; I’m not uncomfortable with strong differences of opinion being expressed, as long as they are expressed civilly and respectfully without any needlessly inflammatory language.  Since preferences about conversational tone are obviously matters of personal taste that differ wildly from person to person, I don’t want to suggest that people change their tone for the sake of my feelings, and I also realize that there’s a problematic gender angle to complaining about women being “uncongenial” or whatever (although I don’t intend this to be a gendered complaint, it’s nonetheless true that the main person who irritates me this way is a woman).  This is, of course, reminiscent of some very unpleasant arguments about tone and gender at Unfogged in the past, and I don’t want to reopen those wounds.  It’s just that the confrontational tone and attitude that seems to prevail over there most of the time is deeply alienating to me, and it makes commenting there pretty unpleasant much of the time.  Which may not be a big issue for most people, but it’s a problem for me because I do like the group there and I’d like to be able to have calm, respectful discussions about interesting topics with them, and Unfogged seems to be an increasingly poor place to do that.

Some people in that thread suggested that the stuff I was complaining about is actually good for the conflict-averse, because it provides a safe venue in which to become more comfortable with conflict.  There’s a certain amount of sense in that, but as I pointed out in response, it’s not clear to me why Unfogged should have to be used that way even by people who don’t want to toughen up.  I’m not unfamiliar with conflict; I work in a law firm, so I deal with conflict all day, every day (from the perspective of an observer rather than a participant, to be sure, but that’s just analogous to reading a thread rather than commenting on it).  Reading Unfogged is what I do in my free time, and I don’t like having to deal with the same things I tolerate at work when I come over there.

I don’t really have a coherent argument to make here; I’ve just been thinking about this a lot lately and I had more to say than I could really fit into a comment thread at Unfogged.



  1. I know, shug. The conflict-averse among us just want to talk about big concrete. Why must it be so difficult?

    Comment by Megan — October 31, 2007 @ 5:52 pm |Reply

  2. Yeah, exactly.

    Comment by teofilo — October 31, 2007 @ 5:59 pm |Reply

  3. Hmmm. The individuals who irritate me this way are mostly male. Which doesn’t necessarily disprove any theory that there’s a gendered component to the issue — just complicates it.

    I’m glad you posted on this because I wanted to respond when you raised the issue in a few threads over at Unfogged, but I was too slow and felt like I couldn’t frame my thoughts sufficiently for a comment. Still can’t, but I think you said most of what I was thinking already in your post. I wish some of the hostility could be eliminated from what otherwise are often good discussions, but too often people resort to jabs designed to shut other people up rather than to further a dialogue.

    Comment by Di Kotimy — October 31, 2007 @ 7:01 pm |Reply

  4. Oh, teo, I missed the whole discussion. I think you’re right that there’s been a shift in tone; the birth control discussion was okay, but it could have been better.

    I’m losing patience with it for a host of different reasons: I don’t mind conflict, but I mind pointless conflict that turns 600 comments later into ‘when I said we should eat the Irish babies, all I meant was that we should change their diapers, god, why are you disagreeing with me, are you dumb?’

    But anyhow, if you’re feeling sick of it, the little X in the corner can be helpful. You have your own blog so you won’t lose contact with people that you like, and you won’t get a headache, either. Or you can just visit for the cock jokes.

    Comment by Cala — October 31, 2007 @ 7:47 pm |Reply

  5. Yeah, that’s pretty much where I am now. I’ve been reading fewer and fewer threads there, even ones on subjects that interest me, because I just can’t stand the tone.

    Comment by teofilo — October 31, 2007 @ 7:51 pm |Reply

  6. the little X in the corner can be helpful

    Some of us have red circles in the corner. You’re imposing your norms on me! I’m being oppressed!

    Comment by matt w — October 31, 2007 @ 8:05 pm |Reply

  7. That was regrettable PC-centrist of me, wasn’t it. Penance.

    Comment by Cala — October 31, 2007 @ 8:12 pm |Reply

  8. Don’t worry Cala; you were addressing me, and I use a PC.

    Comment by teofilo — October 31, 2007 @ 8:16 pm |Reply

  9. Huh. You know, Teo, I’ve been avoiding The Site myself a bit recently, mostly because I have less free time these days, but also because when I do catch up I generally find the conversations exhausting. I wonder if some of it is what you and Cala have noted. Then again, these things go in cycles, so maybe when both you and Unfogged are in different modes, you’ll enjoy it a bit more.

    Red circles forever!

    Comment by mrh — October 31, 2007 @ 8:22 pm |Reply

  10. Yeah, I actually stopped reading it so much when my dad died and I had basically no free time for a few days, and I never got back up to reading it as thoroughly as I had before. Part of it is that the threads have gotten longer than they used to be, probably because the readership has increased. There didn’t use to be 500-comment threads every day. Now when I come by and there are several really long threads that are new since my last visit, I usually just skip them. Too exhausting, as you say.

    Comment by teofilo — October 31, 2007 @ 8:27 pm |Reply

  11. Hmm. I’ve been uncomfortable with unfogged for a long time, partly because of the reasons you address, but partly for some other reasons I have a hard time articulating even still. (That draft has been sitting in my drafts folder for 9 months.)

    I actually don’t think the faux outrage is such a bad thing when it’s not taken far, and doesn’t last for more than a dozen comments or so. But it seems like that has been an increasing component of the threads over there. The signal to noise ratio has gone down.

    Also, threads seem to be degenerating into pointless trivialities more often than they ever have.

    Also, I’m not witty enough. (And don’t enjoy the humor that much, aside from Sifu and SB (were he around again, *sigh*) and the like.)

    Comment by pdf23ds — October 31, 2007 @ 8:28 pm |Reply

  12. Apparently the red circles grow X’s when you mouse over them. Comity!

    Comment by matt w — October 31, 2007 @ 9:12 pm |Reply

  13. You have your own blog so you won’t lose contact with people that you like,

    This can be more difficult than it looks. Some people only read 1 blog regularly or don’t have blogs of their own.

    On the other hand, I’ve pulled pulled my commenting back almost entirely to links/references to things that might be relevant to discussion (or just interesting in their own right) or jokes. What was that Emerson was saying about “getting used to” and adjusting being a part of life in small towns? Some blogs are small towns.

    Comment by eb — October 31, 2007 @ 9:46 pm |Reply

  14. That should have been “what was it that”.

    Comment by eb — October 31, 2007 @ 9:48 pm |Reply

  15. This can be more difficult than it looks. Some people only read 1 blog regularly or don’t have blogs of their own.

    Right, but teo does.

    Comment by Cala — November 1, 2007 @ 7:08 am |Reply

  16. Part of what’s going on, specifically w/ B but also other people, is that their idea of comfort and happiness includes, even requires, “giving people shit.” She’s said explicitly more than once, that’s it’s something she admires about “men” and wants for herself.

    Did you see what I wrote, partly in reaction to this very feeling on the blog?

    Comment by idontpay — November 1, 2007 @ 9:43 am |Reply

  17. I hadn’t seen that, but it expresses my feelings about this perfectly. Di’s comments on that post are also interesting.

    Comment by teofilo — November 1, 2007 @ 10:37 am |Reply

  18. Huh. I want to put out a thought — not that I expect it to change anyone’s feelings, but I wonder if anyone else sees it this way. Ogged’s been very up-front, for a long time, about being pro-conflict and anti-norms that would exclude conflict, and I think that that’s a big part of the explanation for why we don’t have more troll problems than we do. There are norms of substantive engagement, but no norms of courtesy or kindness, so trolls can be repelled by being as rude and hostile to them as some insiders are to other insiders.

    This is easy for me to say, because I mostly don’t mind the hostility — I like a good argument, if one comes up, and rough play like the mango thing doesn’t feel negative to me at all (not saying that there’s anything wrong with not liking it, just that for me it’s not a negative.) But I do think there’s a real value to the agonistic nature of Unfogged conversation.

    (It has been lower-substance lately, but I think that’s just cyclical.)

    Comment by LizardBreath — November 1, 2007 @ 11:57 am |Reply

  19. That sounds likely, and it’s certainly true that the agonistic nature of the conversation at Unfogged is a major element of the atmosphere there and it’s hard to imagine the site without it.

    I just feel really uncomfortable over there lately, and it’s precisely because of that atmosphere. I do feel kind of bad about bringing it up over there, because it seems to have made some people nervous; comments like this make me wonder just what it is I want from this. Personally I hate having special exceptions made just for me, but the disdain for rules of civility is so palpable there that any attempt to impose some seems very unlikely to work (in addition to perhaps destroying some of the positive qualities of the site, such as the troll thing). And I don’t even really want formal rules, I guess. I just don’t like it when people are mean.

    Comment by teofilo — November 1, 2007 @ 12:13 pm |Reply

  20. Maybe they have to practice on us so they’re ready for trolls.

    Comment by idontpay — November 1, 2007 @ 12:15 pm |Reply

  21. I like a “good argument” as much as the next guy, but I don’t see an excess of hostility as necessary to that. It’s like Cala said above, there’s a real difference between saying “I adamantly disagree with you,” and “What, are you fucking stupid?”

    I suppose the agonistic nature may be good for repelling trolls, but from the comments here it sounds like its also good for repelling some thoughtful people, too. Which seems unfortunate, but then I guess whether it’s online or IRL, we all have to decide where and with whom we’re comfortable hanging out.

    Comment by Di Kotimy — November 1, 2007 @ 12:20 pm |Reply

  22. As rfts pointed out on the linked thread, there are really two issues here: the harsh style of substantive arguments and the teasing. The former is what bothers some people who don’t mind the latter (Di, rfts, Cala), while the latter is a problem for other people who generally don’t like the former either (me, IDP, probably Megan).

    Comment by teofilo — November 1, 2007 @ 12:27 pm |Reply

  23. Eh, not so much me, long as I know it is teasing. I love trashtalking, on both ends. Friendly trashtalking is pure happiness for me. Angry disagreements about substantive stuff makes me cringe and wonder why we all can’t get along.

    That said, I’m surprised that you read the style of substantive arguments at Unfogged as unusually harsh. They’re straight-out, and more direct than I like, but I read most other high-comment blogs as much meaner; with more emphasis on pre-formed cleverness at someone else’s expense. Yglesias, for example, reads much worse to me. But maybe they aren’t also a community of friends.

    Comment by Megan — November 1, 2007 @ 12:54 pm |Reply

  24. Yeah, I think it’s largely a matter of what your frame of reference is. Compared to other political blogs, Unfogged has remarkably mild, substantive, troll-free discussion. I don’t really see it as belonging in that set, though, but more of a community of friends. There are other blogs like that (e.g., Making Light), but I don’t read them so I don’t know how they compare to Unfogged tone-wise.

    This may be the heart of the matter: what we want Unfogged to be. A lot of people seem to want to be a political blog with better-than-average comment threads and a general sense of camaraderie. I’d prefer to see it as a community of generally like-minded people who occasionally talk about politics and other serious things. Coming from that perspective, when I see people being mean to each other I get upset.

    Comment by teofilo — November 1, 2007 @ 1:02 pm |Reply

  25. I suspect, to the extent that things have changed, there’s been a heavy shift towards the political. A lot of people came in when it was a group of people talking about whatever, with occasional reference to politics, but now a lot of people are coming in for politics, with occasional reference to whatever.

    This doesn’t explain the teasing about personal tastes, but I’m not sure that’s so different than before.

    Comment by eb — November 1, 2007 @ 1:12 pm |Reply

  26. That sounds right to me. It seems a lot more political now than it was when I started reading, and the main result for me personally has been that I read it less.

    Comment by teofilo — November 1, 2007 @ 1:15 pm |Reply

  27. Hey, teo, email me.

    Comment by LizardBreath — November 1, 2007 @ 1:20 pm |Reply

  28. Done.

    Comment by teofilo — November 1, 2007 @ 1:27 pm |Reply

  29. My favorite part of Unfogged is when it deteriorates into mindless bantering. (This is probably not shocking news.) I do a lot of lurking-without-commenting on threads where people are taking the thread really seriously. (I don’t have a point, I’m just logging my preference.)

    Comment by heebie-geebie — November 1, 2007 @ 4:23 pm |Reply

  30. Hey, teo: your (and IDP’s linked) post helped me understand better what was bothering you. But I’m a bit unclear on where the teasing crosses the line for you personally. There’s certainly a lot of good-natured shit-giving about your romantic life, and you seem to go along with it, often in a self-deprecating manner. So when does teasing (in general, not just teasing you) go too far?

    Comment by Stanley — November 1, 2007 @ 6:31 pm |Reply

  31. I think, if anything, the teasing has toned down since the days when I first started reading the blog. Back then, it was borderline men’s locker room towel snapping.

    Personally, I don’t mind people arguing, even stridently, as long as there is a real sense that people want to understand the other position, are being charitable towards their interpretations of other people’s arguments, stick to arguing and not attacking the other person, and aren’t trolling. When those lines get breached, I get annoyed and, as you’ve seen, occasionally step in. I try to keep a light hand instead of actively policing, though.

    I do prefer threads to have a point, though. Whether that point involves people discussing an issue, trying to make each other laugh, or learning interesting things about each other’s quirks and preferences, I don’t care. I just prefer to do more than simple chatting.

    Comment by Becks — November 1, 2007 @ 7:05 pm |Reply

  32. I’m a bit unclear on where the teasing crosses the line for you personally. There’s certainly a lot of good-natured shit-giving about your romantic life, and you seem to go along with it, often in a self-deprecating manner. So when does teasing (in general, not just teasing you) go too far?

    I’ve been thinking about this question throughout this whole discussion, and I’m still not sure I can clearly point out where the line is. I guess it’s not so much a matter of the content of the teasing (there aren’t any subjects that I would consider inherently off-limits) as the tone. The key thing about the teasing that I don’t mind is that it’s clearly good-natured and meant in jest, and where it crosses the line into unacceptable is when it’s not clear (to me) that it’s meant that way. I suppose there are just some rhetorical modes that I automatically associate with deliberate and mean-spirited bullying, so when someone starts off that way, even if they mean it as good-natured ribbing, my reaction is hostile.

    Comment by teofilo — November 1, 2007 @ 8:30 pm |Reply

  33. I think there is an assumption of friendly intimacy at Unfogged even where no such intimacy exists. Some of us are IRL friends such that anything but towel-snapping would be sort of inappropriate, and that gets transferred even to those who are new or who don’t have those intimacies. To me, that intimacy that allows for deep-level teasing is exactly what I want from friends, online and otherwise, so perhaps what bothers you is exactly what makes me feel wanted and cared about.

    But I’m kinda fucked-up that way.

    Comment by A White Bear — November 1, 2007 @ 9:46 pm |Reply

  34. I’ve had a few experiences of being willfully misinterpreted (two times by B), and I think that’s one of the main reasons I feel unwelcome there. In fact, some of my central beliefs (about transhumanism) are pretty much despised over there because of their unfortunate and unnecessary association with Glenn Reynolds, among other reasons. I don’t get charity about those subjects.

    Comment by pdf23ds — November 2, 2007 @ 7:54 am |Reply

  35. But then, maybe I just need to tell people to suck it up, that those things are what I believe, and I won’t take needling about them, because I know there’s not really any underlying respect behind the needling about those subjects, and so it’s actually painful instead of being jocular.

    Comment by pdf23ds — November 2, 2007 @ 8:02 am |Reply

  36. I wonder if part of it isn’t a crossed-wires thing between what AWB and pdf23ds are saying? That is, towel-snapping-style “friendly intimacy” is interpreted as hostile because the recipient doesn’t realize that there is an underlying respect? LB was sort of hitting this point above, I think, in her comments about trolls and insiders. Sometimes it’s hard, though, to know if you are being seen as a troll or an insider.

    Comment by Di Kotimy — November 2, 2007 @ 9:18 am |Reply

  37. I mind pointless conflict that turns 600 comments later into ‘when I said we should eat the Irish babies, all I meant was that we should change their diapers, god, why are you disagreeing with me, are you dumb?’

    Boy, I am right there with you.

    Re: the teasing phenomenon, I used to date a guy who had very different feelings about affectionate teasing than I did. That was really disastrous. I was continually doing what I saw as “giving him trouble” or joking around about perfectly non-sensitive subjects in the most obviously, transparently affectionate way possible, and causing him to get really upset. But I really couldn’t completely stop it, because it was so closely tied to my impulse of affection, and he was so completely not down with it that I’d cross his line absolutely miles before I had any idea I was near it. I tried! But I failed, because I couldn’t be both affectionate and entirely not-teasing at the same time. And yet it was never — I swear! — done with any idea of trying to take him down a peg, or anything like that.

    I’m not sure what the point of this story is, other than to talk about me me me. Sorry. I suppose it’s just to say that I really sympathize with both halves of the teasing divide, and maybe just to put in a word for why people would have trouble avoiding it even once they know you don’t like it.

    Also, because apparently I not a lumper but a splitter, I would definitely say that the kind of needling that pdf23ds is talking about comes from a different (less kind) place than the mango thing, even if they both feel the same.

    Comment by redfoxtailshrub — November 2, 2007 @ 9:46 am |Reply

  38. For whatever it’s worth, consider what the five letters before PhD are. Monikers are not accidental; sometimes they’re watnings

    Comment by Doug — November 5, 2007 @ 9:44 am |Reply

  39. Ack, last word should have been “warnings.” Comment window looks funny in my browser.

    Comment by Doug — November 5, 2007 @ 9:48 am |Reply

  40. The phenomenon teo talks about definitely isn’t restricted to one person. So you can’t just use one moniker as a warning.

    Comment by matt w — November 5, 2007 @ 5:00 pm |Reply

  41. Yeah, it really isn’t.

    Comment by teofilo — November 5, 2007 @ 5:05 pm |Reply

  42. Something else I’ve noticed lately is that there’s sometimes a lot going on below the surface, in terms of interpersonal dynamics, and it can sometimes pop up and get ugly really quickly. (Eg, the later stuff in the ‘Earl’ thread).

    Comment by the Other Paul — November 5, 2007 @ 7:18 pm |Reply

  43. And by Earl, I of course mean PSA.

    Comment by the Other Paul — November 5, 2007 @ 7:34 pm |Reply

  44. “okay, usually B, but not just her”

    Had taken that as a cue.

    Comment by Doug — November 6, 2007 @ 10:56 am |Reply

  45. 42: I blame Cthulhu

    Comment by feldspar — November 6, 2007 @ 9:10 pm |Reply

  46. I believe that at one time the collective commentariat valued courtesy more highly. This was not inconsistent with a deal of teasing. But when links take me to older threads I believe I notice plenty of pwnage (or Weiner-pwnage) and sly one-upsmanship, with less outrage.

    But this is only what I believe. I believe what it pleases me to believe. More, I cannot say.

    Comment by slolernr — November 9, 2007 @ 12:10 pm |Reply

  47. I have a similar impression, but sometimes I look back on my own, meant to be friendly, not to be taken personally, teasing comments and think, “that was actually kind of mean” and then cringe.

    Comment by eb — November 9, 2007 @ 1:47 pm |Reply

  48. We are all uncongenial.

    Comment by slolernr — November 9, 2007 @ 4:29 pm |Reply

  49. Hey, if I’d been reading Unfogged as much as I had been, I wouldn’t have been able to write Tetris.

    Comment by pdf23ds — November 9, 2007 @ 7:05 pm |Reply

  50. I’m very late to this thread, but I don’t mind since the pace is a bit slower than on Unfogged.

    Today I was catching up on Unfogged, but I’ve noticed myself being more comfortable with reading less of it. I don’t want to lose it entirely, because I value the online friends a lot. I have a strong suspicion that Cala will never make it to a meetup, so I don’t want her to disappear from cyberspace entirely, since I have no real-life connection to her.

    There are threads that I ignore. I skipped the one about sex where the guy got attacked for saying that he asked how he could best please his partner.

    I sometimes skip over B’s comments, teo. The weird thing is that I think that a comment about papayas could have been made in an outrageous way that wouldn’t be hurtful. There was something qualitatively different about Armsmasher’s comment even though the language was equally absolutist.

    I get ignored often enough, but generally, I find that I’m either teased or treated with a fair amount of kindness. (This may mean that I’m considered too dumb to be taken seriously. I don’t know.)

    Comment by Bostoniangirl — November 15, 2007 @ 12:26 pm |Reply

  51. The weird thing is that I think that a comment about papayas could have been made in an outrageous way that wouldn’t be hurtful.

    I agree, and this is what I mean when I say that what bothers me is tone rather than content. I’m not quite able to put my finger on what it is about the tone certain people take in those threads that bothers me so much, but it does seem to be quite separate from the content of their remarks.

    Comment by teofilo — November 15, 2007 @ 12:30 pm |Reply

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