Making more room for nuanced discussion May 9, 2021 11:13 AM   Subscribe

I love Metafilter, especially the threads where we can come together as a community and share information, learn together, and come up with new ideas. But there’s been a really frustrating trend in some recent threads.

In the thread on vaccine patents and production, for example, it seemed like there wasn’t any room for nuanced discussion and sharing knowledge. In that thread specifically, the conversation was dominated pretty much immediately by people making the same one-note point about Bill Gates’s character flaws over and over again.

Furthermore, there was a staggering amount of misleading information presented uncritically as fact, enough so that it felt like an exercise in futility to push back against it. There were people who didn’t understand the difference between cost and price, for example, dominating the conversation on vaccine pricing.

I’m sure other groups have dealt with similar situations in the past, and I’m really interested in what are the best practices for facilitating nuanced and thoughtful discussions among diverse groups of people. Anyone have any thoughts?
posted by leslietron to Etiquette/Policy at 11:13 AM (42 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

The Overton window doesn’t exist in real life, but it definitely exists on the internet, where whatever the loud/persistent people say becomes the middle of the conversation range.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:44 PM on May 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's good faith interpretation of comments criticizing Bill Gates as some kind of ad hominem. That would be a starting point; when we see comments we disagree with, take care to understand what they're saying (and thinking), and demonstrate that in one's response if one is choosing to respond.

So I always try to draw a distinction between freely criticizing an article, be it the author or public figure, versus how we respond to fellow mefites. The way I would like to be treated is, if a peer is responding to me they would start by having a conversation, not just responding to disagree à la "someone is wrong on the internet and correcting them should make me feel better".
posted by polymodus at 2:29 PM on May 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

I highly recommend, if you want to make an FPP on a topic and have it discussed in nuanced ways, centering it on the topic itself, and not mentioning what celebrities think at all unless their celebrity is because of their expertise on that topic. Someone will probably bring them up even if you don't, but then they aren't the subject.

People do seem to like the framing of "X said Y" and it's easy for reporters to write that, and perhaps unfair to expect FPPs, which aren't paid work, to be more in-depth than the majority of reporting on the topic. The article on this was actually fairly good once you got past the top, but the FPP centered Gates.
posted by Chrysopoeia at 5:01 PM on May 9, 2021 [11 favorites]

I prefer a nuanced conversation, yet also get very upset and passionate. It's tough: much of this is inherent to the medium. One simple rule I TRY to enforce on myself, that I think would be helpful for all to attempt is, if someone else already said it, try not to repeat. If I already said it, also try not to repeat. It's tough to stick to as a political and passionate person. Still, I detest a dog-pile, even when I agree with the ideology of the pilers. So it's a goal.
posted by latkes at 5:14 PM on May 9, 2021 [17 favorites]

As regards that thread, I was a bit stung about openly being called a liar over facts that had been exhaustively confirmed by multiple independent sources, about which had also been confirmed by the manufacturer in question.

I wish the community would stand up against that sort of thing, and not cheer it on, and I was disappointed to see the latter happen — again — so, not the first time, but it is an ongoing problem. Not the way you might want to see it, maybe, but perhaps how others see it.

I've been (re)-reading Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit and On Truth. That first book goes into a lot of detail about bullshit, but not maybe so much how to deal with bullshitters. That thread reminded me that I really wish I knew how to solve that problem. We won't get too far, until people as a whole agree on the importance of a baseline of truth.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 7:42 PM on May 9, 2021 [5 favorites]

I also really value learning in the more technical threads on Metafilter, both from those that are on subjects in which I have expertise, and from those in which I do not. I agree it's frustrating when uninformed commenters derail a thread, but I think it's inevitable if you want to have a mix of experts and non-experts in a discussion. We have meetings and conferences to network with other experts. Metafilter on the other hand can give us a really interesting cross-section, but how a post unfolds can be really unpredictable as a consequence.

I think one thing that can happen, such as in the linked post, is that when a subject is sufficiently complex and heated, people start talking past each other because there's too many topics to discuss. Metafilter has a pretty strong anti-capitalist bent, and so any post which discusses the "titans of industry" is going to involve a fair bit of tear down of those figures, which may drown out a more interesting underlying discussions. I agree it can be frustrating (I mostly find it distracting to try and evaluate the underlying morality of the actors in a given situation), but I'm not sure it can be/should be discouraged.

If there's a solution, I think it would be to sometimes encourage people to post follow up threads which avoid the contentious topics (e.g. Bill Gates) but further specialize on the ones that didn't have room to breathe. This can be a bit of a grey zone on Metafilter, because ongoing discussions are encouraged to stay in one post. Perhaps though it's worth recognizing that sometimes a post contains at least two major discussions, and it's worth separating them off from each other.
posted by Alex404 at 2:33 AM on May 10, 2021 [10 favorites]

The primary best practice that anyone can do is to simply say their piece, and recognize when there's diminishing returns of further engaging.

Of course that's much easier said than done. People in general are terrible at it.

Other easier-saids-than-done: the dusty old serenity prayer. One of the things no one has the power to change is that RTFA tends to be a doomed hope, and that's even before metafilter house standards tending towards a full bookshelf of related links on more complex topics. Aggravating, sure, but the (easier said etc) thing is to keep that aggravation (All These Things Were Right There In The First Paragraph What The Grah) from overriding that recognition of diminishing returns on banging on.

Another aspect of RTFAggravation (focus group is reporting that portmanteau does not test well. moving on!) is recognizing that rhetorical-you are the person not reading it from other perspectives, even when you both have read the thing start to finish. That gets even more true with more complex topics with intersections of facets involved. People live in the same world only tenuously, because people really do inhabit different semantic worlds oftentimes.

And to stop banging on ("finally" implies there's far more structure here than there is!) it helps to keep in mind that more people will be reading what you're putting down than anyone you're replying to or who are replying to you. This can help govern that diminishing-returns But Someone Is Wrong On The Internet reflex.
posted by Drastic at 6:48 AM on May 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

considering the vast realm of differences on the topic of Covid-19 I've encountered beyond Metafilter (to the point of outright madness way too often), I figure we've done comparatively well here. It's a big and, yes, nuanced topic. For instance, right now over on my Facebook, there's a pitched battle being waged in a Van Morrison group in response to his lamebrained latest releases (ie: he's not a fan of Covid related shutdowns). I fear not everyone's going to survive that with their sanity intact.

On the topic of Mr. Gates, we're dealing with a guy who, pretty much the first time I ever even heard his name (the 1980s sometime) it was some angry geek effectively calling him the anti-Christ (nothing to do with vaccines then -- just business practices). Maybe what we need at some point is to do a deep dive into his particular timeline, because it is a weird one.
posted by philip-random at 7:20 AM on May 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments above. To broaden things just a tiny bit, I had a similar reaction/lament in another recent thread about COVID (since what other topic is there?!), where one voice repeatedly argued the same point, even after many others refuted it with ample citations. My question, in instances like that, is what guidelines should mods follow for deciding when to step in and say to that one ardent participant, "OK you've said your piece"?
posted by PhineasGage at 8:25 AM on May 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

where one voice repeatedly argued the same point, even after many others refuted it with ample citations.

Definitely agree, this thread has been dominated in an unfortunate way by one poster who really, really doesn't like the author of the linked piece, taking on all comers and willfully ignoring any responses pointing their misunderstandings. In this case it seems to be part of a revisionist set of beliefs about the history of the pandemic that really leaves a bad taste in my mouth (this isn't the only place I'm seeing things along these lines right now).
posted by advil at 11:33 AM on May 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

I agree that this dynamic exists, and that it’s problematic. Metafilter is one of my main sources for factual information on many issues (including COVID), and it can be difficult to separate the signal from the noise when less informed mefites repeatedly post their opinions as if they are facts.

Once you’ve identified the frequent fliers you can disregard them, but based on favorites counts their sound bites/talking points may be reaching a wider audience than more nuanced posts from the subject matter experts we are fortunate to hear from.

But I don’t have any solutions, and I fear there may not be any.
posted by lumpy at 11:50 AM on May 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I highly recommend, if you want to make an FPP on a topic and have it discussed in nuanced ways, centering it on the topic itself, and not mentioning what celebrities think at all unless their celebrity is because of their expertise on that topic.


I really think the reason that thread in particular went off the rails was largely because of the initial framing. When a post is framed as "Look at this person's terrible opinion" the focus tends to be about the person, while "Look at this terrible issue", while still not as useful as "Look at this complicated issue", at least focuses on a topic rather than a person and that person's various attributes.
posted by gwint at 1:25 PM on May 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

where one voice repeatedly argued the same point, even after many others refuted it with ample citations.

Wow. I hadn’t revisited that thread after my own comment, and having one user post approximately 1,000 axe-grindy, completely wrong comments really pushes it off a cliff. Which is too bad because it was a good post, and the issue is still a significant and ongoing one that impacts both how we prevent people from getting sick and how we can safely enjoy life.
posted by snofoam at 5:23 PM on May 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

This is a really great set of comments. I especially like Alex404's suggestion to make separate follow-up posts for deep dives on specific subtopics. It seems so straightforward in retrospect -- make more space for discussion by literally making additional spaces for discussion.

If any mods are looking at this thread, is that something you all would be on board with?
posted by leslietron at 5:56 PM on May 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would also like to ask the mods if they are comfy sharing how they decide when it's time to ask a persistent commenter to take a break. It seems to have worked nicely in the second thread cited above (by me), where it seems a real conversation is back on track.
posted by PhineasGage at 6:29 PM on May 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

(and I very much appreciated the delicious pun (irony?) of the mod note in a thread about aerosol spread asking for "breathing room")
posted by freethefeet at 7:11 PM on May 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

leslietron: I especially like Alex404's suggestion to make separate follow-up posts for deep dives on specific subtopics. It seems so straightforward in retrospect -- make more space for discussion by literally making additional spaces for discussion.

What I usually find is that immediately after a post goes up, the first burst of comments will be pretty quick and reactive, sometimes from people who haven't even looked at the links. But as time goes on and the noise level dies down, the comments become more thoughtful and substantive. So if you're willing to wait a couple days, the bottom of the thread is a pretty good place for a deeper dive into the subject, for the benefit of future readers. (MetaFilter is unusual among websites in that posts and comments basically live forever.)

Reading through the vaccine thread now, I thought the links posted by lalochezia - describing the mRNA vaccine production process in detail - were awesome.
posted by russilwvong at 8:01 PM on May 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

These threads and others like them have prompted me to take a few months' break. Reading Metafilter threads now fill me with some amount of dread, and I don't like the effect participating in them is having on me.
posted by benzenedream at 12:37 AM on May 12, 2021 [7 favorites]

> If any mods are looking at this thread, is that something you all would be on board with?

This is usually an option, **but** a) it needs to be different / directed enough that it doesn't just produce an additional space to repeat all the same arguments (or set of comments), and b) it would probably be helpful to maybe drop us a line saying something like "I'm thinking of making a post about aspect X of earlier thread Y, which didn't really get much attention there," so we are aware that it's not double-y, and also that there was an earlier problem with that topic area maybe getting derailed or whatever, so we should look out for that. (if anyone worries about contacting us to discuss this sort of thing — don't; we're 100% happy, always, to talk about this sort of stuff. You're not disturbing us.)

I'll also say that sometimes the goal of having a serious discussion is hampered by the goal of getting attention for a post, and someone may post in a clickbaity way (not like spammy clickbait, just trying to snag interest) and feel like, okay! now that I have you here, let's have a smart discussion about [topic] ... aaand it usually just gets stuck on the clickbaity bit, especially by People Who Have Big Opinions on the bait, and are more interested in immediately airing those opinions than reading the article(s), hearing what others have to say, or delving deeper into the topic.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:25 AM on May 12, 2021 [5 favorites]

I think part of the problem is that while Gates is a famous figure with a history of vaccine related philanthropy, he's also not an expert in that area and carries quite a bit of baggage related both to his philanthropy model and his past actions as Microsoft CEO. I read expert commentaries on the subject both for and against opening the patents, and from I can tell much of that commentary eventually made it into the thread, but the framing of the post kind of centered Gates and his views, or at least one could read it that way, which inevitably led to issues related to him occupying large parts of the discussion.
posted by eagles123 at 8:27 AM on May 12, 2021

Turns out that this doesn't even limit itself to contentious topics; see the John Mulaney thread. Lots of nuance to be discussed, a lot of comments that amount to "Well, I don't find him funny, and you shouldn't either."
posted by sagc at 2:00 PM on May 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

That Mulaney thread is one of the more embarrassing threads I've seen on Metafilter.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 2:33 PM on May 12, 2021 [7 favorites]

I’m not sure if there’s been any deleted comments in that Mulaney thread, but there’s nearly 100 comments right now. 2 are clearly negative (with explanation why), while another 2ish say he’s not their thing but they’re sympathetic to what he’s been going through.

I’m not sure if that’s really lots? There’s a lot of love for him there, and the general consensus is that’s a rough and revealing road for a performer whose work connects so intimately to his personal life.
posted by mochapickle at 3:58 PM on May 12, 2021 [6 favorites]

It's a series of pretty bad derails about whether it's funny to play songs on a jukebox, and has now devolved into people telling their own jukebox stories 😕
posted by sagc at 4:00 PM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Ah, I see what you mean. :)

To be entirely fair, I’m not sure where else the discussion on this one realistically might have gone, at least until we can hear him in his own words and see how his shows and appearances may change over time. I’m interpreting the jukebox derail as a celebration of his previous work.
posted by mochapickle at 4:24 PM on May 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Reminds me of rough and tumble threads, readable but yupper to jukebox...:/
might be gousch to pull it in here but I found this gem.

Unreal levels of hall monitor nerd energy happening here Jesus christ.

"Hall monitor nerd energy is Metafilter's brand"
posted by betweenthebars
[55 favorites +] You already made this a favorite.
posted by clavdivs at 7:20 PM on May 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

It’s not unusual to be mad about a thread
It’s not unusual to be sad about a thread
But you can even watch a thread change over time
It’s not unusual to find out it turns out okay
No matter what we say
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:32 PM on May 12, 2021 [9 favorites]

I think the general user/activity decline is playing a big role here. I’ve noticed overall comment quality receding toward the mean as the number of participants in a conversation diminishes. A greater preponderance of voices whose contributions had the effect of raising the level of discourse and precluding further lazy, off-the-cuff, less thoughtful, more boilerplate responses from proliferating was one of the main things responsible for the quality of past MetaFilter discussions at their best. I don’t really see a way to restore that standard of conversation at present participation levels.
posted by Miko at 7:10 AM on May 13, 2021 [18 favorites]

I think the elephant in the room is that some people didn't want a nuanced discussion about the topic. There was a split between people who thought there was something to discuss and people who thought the only thing needed was condemnation.

There are lots of threads where that's the site norm (harassment, racism, fascism, etc.) and one reason I'm here is because I can count on that. But it makes threads where we don't agree if there even should be a discussion go really badly a lot of the time.

Saying something once and moving on is probably the best advice to avoid this, but even then if I'm offended by your "civil" discussion I have no incentive to adhere to that.
posted by mark k at 7:34 PM on May 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

Part of the decline in quality might also be an increased tolerance for quick "gotcha" comments, like asking for citations, being given them, and then not following up in good faith. Jump on someone for quick favorites from the community and then leaving — that sort of thing. I don't see a way to remove those kinds of incentives, without removing or minimizing favorites or other site features that encourage that stuff.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:10 PM on May 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

To reply and add onto what mark k has to say, I think this is an instance of the-medium-is-the-message and no amount of moderation will fix it. We've kind of hit the limit of what un-nested comment sections + a chronologically linear story line can do, and we kinda need to be committed to sit in it. I suspect there is no chance of moving to nested threads to permit more in-depth discussion, but I believe the benefits outweigh the downsides.

I still love Metafilter, but more and more I'm seeing no point to the comment section.
posted by Dmenet at 1:50 PM on May 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Hmm. I really don't think nested comments would help; I imagine the main result would be people really digging into their arguments. I don't know; I've never struggled with the whole tracking-arguments-across-comments problem that nested comments are aimed at solving.
posted by sagc at 4:21 PM on May 14, 2021 [10 favorites]

We didn't have nested comments X number of years ago (that is, ever), and yet we had demonstrably more nuanced and wide-ranging conversation at points we can specifically call up. The idea that comment formatting would fix this issue appears unsupported by evidence.
posted by Miko at 9:18 PM on May 14, 2021 [10 favorites]

My experience looking at older threads is old metafilter was meaner, more offensive, less nuanced, less moderated than now.

It's a bummer that the whole internet has changed, a couple social media empires dominate, and people mostly engage from their phones which makes longer conversation harder, but I don't think there's more dog piles or less nuanced conversation than there used to be here.

Still love the convos on metafilter even while I still hate some of the online discussion traps we fall onto.
posted by latkes at 7:21 AM on May 15, 2021 [10 favorites]

I want to second what latkes wrote, and also just emphasize that most people in the Anglosphere, which includes most people on Metafilter, are on the tail end of a very dark past few years. I was pretty disengaged from Metafilter for the past four years because I was busy starting a family, and I seem to have passed over what has been an extremely difficult few years for Metafilter as a community. I've recently been engaging a lot more though, and from where I stand I'm finding the discussions to be better than I remember.
posted by Alex404 at 1:12 PM on May 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think that latest thread on the CDC guidelines shows how hard this can be. For questions like anthropogenic climate change, the validity of evolution versus creationism, and the supposed link between vaccines and autism, the line between expert consensus and cranks or people operating in bad faith is pretty clear. Most issues aren't that clear cut. Experts often disagree. Many disagreements are difficult if not impossible to resolve experimentally. Even if the expert consensus is clear, the impact of decisions by professional organizations falls differently on different people depending upon their circumstances. Those differences lead to a range of opinions and feelings, particularly if the range of impacts is large and the impacts on some are severe. Attempts at nuanced discussions can be traumatic for some in those cases.
posted by eagles123 at 9:29 PM on May 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Part of this is the general asymmetry between on the one hand how easy it is to post something reflexive, uncritical, and righteous-sounding, and on the other the amount of time it requires to write something accurate rebutting that comment or explaining why it’s not that simple. In areas I know really well, I seldom have the patience to contribute anymore because it is just so time-consuming. A single comment has sometimes taken me over an hour to write, which is just not sustainable, especially since my free time is not what it used to be and honestly I am trying to spend less of it in unrewarding high-conflict interactions on social media.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:59 AM on May 19, 2021 [11 favorites]

I'd like to echo and reinforce what en forme de poire says. There have been many times I've looked at something, considered how much time and effort it would take to pull together sources and write up a thoughtful response, and given up. Sigh, close the tab, move on.
posted by Lexica at 3:07 PM on May 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

Same. Especially when we’ve been over it countless times before but it’s not been integrated or retained as shared culture. You just can’t keep pouring energy into it.
posted by Miko at 9:31 PM on May 20, 2021

At the very least, I really hope we learn some way to acknowledge passive-aggressive demands for community pressure to coerce silence of unwanted discussion.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:13 PM on May 21, 2021

At this point, I think we need a moratorium on CDC/masking/US-centred COVID threads. I think we've all had the same argument 3-4 times at this point, with the same things being cited and corrected repeatedly.

Some people think mask mandates are being relaxed too early, others want to be able to follow the guidance of the CDC without being told they're open-carrying guns around with them (?!?).
posted by sagc at 2:09 PM on May 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have relied on Metafilter for solid factual info throughout the pandemic, but the current COVID threads have gone to shit.

Posters trying to discuss transitioning into the post-pandemic era and/or investigating the cause of the pandemic are just getting slammed and even moderated.

Seems crazy that last year we rightly said people should wear masks based on recs from experts like Fauci and CDC but now your selfish if you don’t ignore the CDC guidelines.

I guess politics trumps all but it’s disappointing to see good faith posters shouted down for not towing the party line

Ah well it’s still worth skimming all the rhetoric to find useful information from knowledgeable posters.

Hope they all don’t discouraged like Miko, whose thoughtful contributions are always appreciated
posted by lumpy at 12:08 PM on May 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

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