Accountability: are comments backchannels?

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

In the last post I introduced the topic of accountability and freedom of expression and tied Creative Commons in with backchannels and comments, and we could even extend this association to the ethics of weblog editing.

I find it ironic that some of the people who support backchannels at conferences, also support editing and deleting of comments in their weblogs, and have actually done so with comments associated with their backchannel postings (though the comments were restored with Sam Ruby’s post).

Can we not say that if presenters are accountable to those who attend their presentations, weblog writers are also accountable to their readers? And if this is so, if backchannels are a viable means of getting the most of our a presentation, particularly a controversial or dull one, can we not equate the same with comments?

Where does freedom of expression end, and accountability begin?

I find the thought of editing comments to be abhorrent, and dislike deleting comments, even those, especially those that disagree with me – but I also find the concept of unauthorized backchannels to be abhorrent. Why my own dissonance on these two seemingly different but quite similar topics?

Past experience and empathy, to some extent.

Being a past speaker accounts for my dislike of backchannels. I am empathize with the consternation someone might experience when they’ve carefully prepared a presentation, and then the attendees either blow it off, or only listen with half their attention because they’re distracted by multiple backchannels.

Negative comments, on the other hand, though not pleasant at times, don’t impact on what I’ve said, though they may impact on the interpretation over time. It is the equivalent of me giving my presentation and then there follows a hearty and perhaps even acrimonious hallway exchange afterwards.

Backchannels, in effect, edit the presentation no matter how carefully the participants seek to keep their counter activities from disturbing others. Comments, on the other hand, don’t edit the initial offering.

This ties back to the concept of Creative Commons and a person’s freedom to innovate as compared to their accountability to the original artist. A backchannel can be seen as innovation on a prepared talk, occuring in real time. But unlike innovation with music or photography or writing, the original is lost in the process of innovating. In fact, this is always the danger of innovation: that the artist’s original intent is lost, like Emily Dickinson’s original poetic presentation was almost lost and not recovered until almost 70 years after publication. (Thankfully the original writings were not destroyed.)

Netwoman posted a writing on both of these issues, and reflected on negativity in general:

Liz then started a back-back private channel for some critical and reflective discussion – not for public consumption that could be construed as rude or distructive. Liz blogs about negative comments that can surface in these backchannels. Negativity surfaces in backchannels, it happens. While it easy to say that these comments are not personally directed at the presenter, it can and does happen. These kinds of comments are going to happen regardless. Unfortunately, it’s what people do. But to think that this only happens in the backchannels is incorrect. Try gathering around the coffee machine after a session and listen to the chats. There’s negativity everywhere. F2F and CMC it’s all the same.

There’s negativity everywhere. Is there negativity everywhere? Or are there a lot of controversial weblog postings and people are responding accordingly? After all, aren’t webloggers, like the presenters, accountable for their own writing? If we express ourselves in a controversial or even heated manner, where’s the fair play when others respond in kind, but their responses are dismissed as so much emotional flotsam, deleted or disregarded?

Negative comments aren’t the same as personal attacks, and criticism is a healthy aspect of our online lives, unless we want to pretend that we’re all one big happy, happy family. It is true, personal attacks usually don’t add to the quality of a discussion, but how do we determine what’s a personal attack?

Sam Ruby restored my comments on his Backchannel posting, and you can see for yourself whether my comment violated his comment policy, but then I couldn’t find a printing of Sam’s comment policy. Was my comment a personal attack? It’s all in how you interpret it.

Back when Jonathon Delacour returned to weblogging after a long hiatus, one of his first posts was on comment policy. It resembles most others:

* Wildly off-topic comments will be removed.
* Spam (i.e. comments containing irrelevant links to commercial sites) will be removed.
* Abusive comments will be removed.

Abusive comments will be removed. The problem with policies such as these is that ‘abusive’ is a relative term. For instance, as long you don’t call Jonathon or another commenter in his threads a fart faced fat headed moron with the brains of an amoeba, he usually won’t delete what you write. But then others will count criticism as an ‘attack’ and act accordingly; and still others will count any comment from certain people as an ‘attack’ and act accordingly.

That latter should be causing the hairs at the back of your neck to prickle, because that way, there be dragons.

As for my own comment policy, such as it is: I will delete comment spam, of course, and wildly offtopic comments, but I haven’t had much problem with this. However, I won’t delete even abusive comments if a person is willing to put their name to the comment (unless they ask for it to be deleted). I figured then they’re holding themselves accountable for the comment, so I’m giving them the freedom to express themselves. And if the comment truly is abusive, it ends up reflecting on them more than me.

(Do I find that abusive comments cause the thread to degenerate? Not really. I’ve usually found it was the posting itself that causes threads to go up in smoke and then stay burning. But that’s me, and others mileage may vary.)

Ultimately a lot of this breaks down to respect, and how each of us perceives what respect is. What is it Google says is the company policy? Do no harm? I like that. To me respect equates to do no harm.

If a presenter has put themselves on the line to give their presentation, not to mention their time in creating it, doesn’t respect for the person dictate that we listen? No matter how much we say we can multi-channel, split attention is split attention. If the presentation raises a lot of questions, then the opportunity has been created for some good conversations following the presentations, or discussions in our weblogs later that day, or maybe even presentations of our own. But no speaker is so caught up in what they’re doing that they don’t notice when the energy of the room has been split.

Not participating in a backchannel does no harm to ourselves – we need only wait out the talk and have our say later. But participating in an unauthorized backchannel can do harm to the speaker.

The issue of comments is more subtle. Can disagreement harm?

I’ve seen writing that has nothing from which one can infer a personal attack, but the intent of the writing is deliberately to cause harm. I’ve also seen, and received, highly acerbic criticism that can give the one being criticized a chance to recover from a foolish or weak or ill-thought statement.

And the most subtle weapon we have in our dealings with each other is silence.

Do no harm is less a matter of words then it is a matter of intent; not deliberately harming another is more a matter of how much you respect yourself, than them.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email