Had a pretty interesting experience over at boingboing's bulletin board a couple of weeks ago. Full disclosure, the experience ends with me getting banned, but so it goes sometimes.
What I found interesting was the norms of the conversation. I am a longtimer on the Internets. I first tooled around on the Internet about the same time as the world wide web came into being. I distinctly remember the www as pretty much a text-based (not graphics-based) realm. I was there when Mosaic first came out. I saw the usenet rise and fall under a blizzard of spam.
Long before that I did a wee bit of coding (BASIC and Pascal, which, bizarrely, I still get to use) and floated around on the periphery of real hacker circles. But anyhow, I've been around the virtual block a time or two.
The Internet I am used to, and the one I thought boingboing was built up from, had free expression as a more-or-less central tenet. It was a dearly held belief that being able to say what you thought was, ultimately, a good thing for the conversation and a good thing for everyone involved, even if what you thought was wrong or misguided or looked down upon.
Now I know all about the controversies that have swirled around the notions of civility and anonymity and abuse on the internet. There have been and usually are some pretty bad abuses of free expression on the Internet. But those have not outweighed the upside of having freewheeling discussions where people are willing to argue for unpopular points of view.
Boingboing's bulletin board has taken a decided swing away from these values. The board is moderated with a pretty heavy hand, with many sorts of expression, such as insults, racism, sexism and "being annoying" being at least supposedly banned. Effectively this gives the moderators a great deal of latitude to pretty much ban anyone they don't like. And they exercise this power pretty freely.
In an ideal world this would lead to a more civil and more enlightening discussion. But at boingboing this is not the case.
For instance, compare any conversation on the boingboing bulletin board with, say, a controversial topic on scienceblogs. On scienceblogs commenters have a great deal more latitude. Does that make for a less enlightening and interesting discussion?
The answer is pretty clear--take a look at a pretty contentious conversation at scienceblogs versus the struggle to articulate an alternative to the consensus at boingboing. Granted, the race issue brings out people who really just want to express aggression and not think, but there is a complete failure on the part of the moderators to see that that tendency toward aggression exists on both the contrarian and the consensus sides.
In those boingboing comments, anyone who questions the merit of the cartoon that is the subject of the post, or who questions the terminology used is either outright called a racist or faces statements that are more or less "I'm not calling you a racist, but anyone who would say what you just said must be a racist."
Such statements are blithely ignored by the moderator. As are stock PC putdowns like "manslaining." But if you (redundantly) call the person who says these things a self-righteous jackass you pretty much immediately get banned.
Oddly, many of these folks seem to have completely forgotten where they first heard about things like "white privilege" and "manslaining." When I brought up the academic origins of these terms there were howls of denial . . . perhaps folks don't realize that many of these terms were coined & first propagated in academic papers, but I really find it difficult to believe that even people who have completely assimilated such notions don't remember that they first heard them and used them at school.
But what is most surprising is how boingboing, which I'd always thought of as as strong defender of the benefits of free expression, has embraced the tightly controlled model of classroom speech and has grown intolerant of anything like give-and-take on sensitive issues like this one. I don't think it benefits anyone. Not those who now don't have to be offended by someone who dares to disagree with what passes for consensus in their circles. Not those unprivileged who are supposedly being protected. Not those who might want to actually think about the issues surrounding race and how they might best be articualted. Not boingboing.