A practical guide to civil debate

Moderating a group blog like Troppo, where both contributors and commenters possess a more diverse range of views than seems to be the norm in the blogosphere, is a challenging task. Sometimes (like now) it gets so tiresome I feel like walking away and leaving the zealots to their own devices. The blogging experience confirms, if any confirmation were needed, that we humans are tribal creatures who too readily retreat into mental foxholes and regard anyone outside them as fools or enemies or both.

I remain bemused about why Sophie’s anarchism posts generated such acrimony. After all, her basic hypothesis/intuition didn’t even depend on whether the assorted terrorists of the late 19th and early 20th century were motivated by anarchist objectives or marxist ones or whether they were just nutters with ill-defined grudges against established authority. Moreover, to the extent terrorists were marxists rather than anarchists, they presumably did ultimately aim at a non-coercive, stateless workers’ paradise after an interregnum of proletarian dictatorship. Sophie’s point was that the atmosphere of chaos, violence and uncertainty that widespread terrorist violence created (whatever the precise underlying ideology if any of individual terrorists) may have contributed to the mindset that led to World War I and then seemingly inexorably to the Russian Revolution, World War II and so on. I don’t think she was ever suggesting that anarchist/socialist violence was the sole or even dominant cause, however, although that’s how most of her interlocutors seem to have chosen to interpret her.

I don’t think there’s a useful purpose in trying to analyse the reasons why a discussion on an innocuous and mildly interesting post about fairly distant historical events turned into such an unpleasant and sometimes bullying argument. Instead I thought I might reproduce some discussion hints from a document my partner jen brought home from a Catholic teachers’ conference she’s been attending this week. The hints deal with face-to-face discussion, but most of the points are equally applicable to the sort of “asynchronous” written debates we have in the blogosphere:

Listen to understand

Key point: Many of us simply listen to speak i.e. we wait to ‘get our bit in’. People often need the chance to talk their way to understanding. When we ‘listen, to think, to learn’ we honour the person’s need and we are able to listen for the meaning they are attempting to share. Mutual understanding is more likely to be achieved.

Suspend judgment

Key point: Judgment or criticism of others’ ideas as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and verbal put-downs are likely to discourage ideas being offered. They can generate ill-feeling, escalating defensiveness and alienation. In short, they offer nothing toward genuine dialogue. They actively work against it.

Remain open

Key point: Remaining open to, and in fact, welcoming feedback, discussion, probing questions or critique can be challenging, but is an important move in generating substantive dialogue.

It helps when we model openness in our language, for example, rather than saying ‘The only solution is …’, to say ‘One solution might be …’. Oppenness is also a sign of personal growth and maturity: ‘take it professionally, not personally’.

Validate the contribution

Key point: As teachers, we need acknowledgment, to know we have been heard. This may simply be ‘thank-you’ or a thoughtful nod, it may be a question, or a comment that paraphrases what has been said.

The important thing is that the person has been genuinely heard, rather than ‘dismissed’ with blank silence, superficial comments such as ‘Fantastic’ or ‘Thanks, and now to the next item on the agenda …’

Furthermore, a response of ‘Yes, but …’ (or ‘Yes, however …’) automatically labels what the person has said as invaild. Use ‘Yes, and …’ instead. This validates and extends the contribution.

Promote and support substantive dialogue

Key point: In addition to those already mentioned, paraphrasing, asking clarifying and probing questions, offering and testing ideas for feedback and conversation, comparing, connecting, building on and integrating ideas are essentil skills in constructing shared and deepened understandings.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2024 years ago

Excellent post, Ken, although I’m not sure about –

“I don’t think there’s a useful purpose in trying to analyse the reasons why a discussion on an innocuous and mildly interesting post about fairly distant historical events turned into such an unpleasant and sometimes bullying argument.”

If I’m not pushing the envelope I’d like to return to this question when I’ve had the chance to get some sleep.

In the meantime I’d say we should (almost) always respect the eye of the artist over the ear of the pedant, any old day of the week. There’ve been plenty of pedants on display at Troppo over the past couple of days.

2024 years ago

Ken, when I complained about the lack of civility on the thread I was told (by you among others I think) that it was generally good natured and I was being a wuss. What’s now made you change your mind and characterise it as involving bullying?

2024 years ago

I feel compelled to add that as in the Troppo culture wars on sexuality and schools, it seems to me that when those opposing the right wing position are winning the argument, that you become concerned Ken. Maybe that’s just my perception and if I’m right then maybe it’s not conscious, but that seems to me to be a fair call.

2024 years ago

Ken, just to illustrate my point that you’re being a touch onesided. You wrote:

“I don’t think she was ever suggesting that anarchist/socialist violence was the sole or even dominant cause, however, although that’s how most of her interlocutors seem to have chosen to interpret her.”

Sophie wrote in her post:

“And the more I read, the more I wondered–was it the anarchists who really spawned the violent and terrifying twentieth century, and the convulsions which tore it apart? In many countries, their terrorist outrages, assassinations and bombings paved the way for the bloodthirsty ideological tyrannies of the century–Communism, Fascism, Nazism–which of course reinforced the power of the State to a pitch never before seen; and also precipitated the First World War. The instability which the anarchists so gleefully and naively fostered–which was used and manipulated by the tyrants waiting in the wings as well as the fearful earlier autocrats–was supposed to open the way for a happy, humane society freed of constraints and external power–free of State, Church and capitalism–but instead inflicted barbarity and hideous misery on millions, not to speak of vast, corrupt and crushing bureaucracies. ”

She asks the question – did anarchism lead to the horrors of the twentieth century – and then answers that anarchists “inflicted barbarity and hideous misery on millions, not to speak of vast, corrupt and crushing bureaucracies”.

The logic is that anarchists created instability which led to the rise of fascism and communism which then led to the consequences Sophie talks about. The last sentence in particular suggests that while the actions of anarchists were not the proximate cause of tyranny, it was their intention to bring it about and they succeeded.

I just can’t see how you can read what Sophie actually wrote any other way and I think that’s what people were responding to on the thread.

My apologies if I’m flogging a dead horse, here, but you raised not just the tone of the thread but also your reading of Sophie’s argument so it seems to me legitimate to comment on it.

2024 years ago

What Mark said.

I don’t believe Sophie’s opponents (me included) misinterpreted her argument.

2024 years ago

Yes, Fyodor’s right – Sophie and those defending her retreated to a position where it was claimed that she was just “wondering” – whereas I think I’ve shown it’s clear from what she wrote at the outset that she posed a question then answered it in the affirmative.

I don’t want to revisit the substantive issues but I do feel, with respect, Ken, you need to address the issue of why you’re being selectively concerned about such debates. I’ll go away now, but first I want to raise this question again –

You wrote this in comments:

“My own view is that, amidst all the (frequently tiresome) left-right labelling, you actually get continuously challenged here in a way that seldom occurs on a blog where you surround yourself with like-minded admirers. The latter provides a comfort zone that’s lacking here, but the lack is quite deliberate.

I think most readers would conclude (and you’ve in part conceded) that Rob and Sophie responded cogently to your challenge, and in the process you’ve jointly created a thread that has been significantly more interesting to read than its initial somewhat “shoot from the hip” nature portended. And that’s the whole point of maintaining a dialectic tension: you frequently give each other the shits but produce enlightenment and entertainment in the process.”

That’s very different in tone from what you now characterise as “unpleasant and bullying” – what changed your mind?

2024 years ago

Your choice of the word ‘opponent’ to describe yourself is interesting, Fyodor. Why do you use it? Not ‘critic’, not ‘interlocutor’? Just asking.

2024 years ago

I disagree with everything you say.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2024 years ago

“In the meantime I’d say we should (almost) always respect the eye of the artist over the ear of the pedant, any old day of the week.”

Sorry Rob, the ‘it’s the vibes’ argument didn’t work for the hapless lawyer in The Castle and it won’t work for me

2024 years ago

Oh, for Christ’s sake, Mark, where do you think you get off in all this?

Sophie puts up a perfectly reasonable post about a personal and impressionistic view of anarchism and you start frothing at the mouth because it collides with your favourite fantasies. At least she get out there in the real market place of ideas and gets her books bought and read instead of self-valorising on the subject of an doctoral thesis that will reach an total audience of around three. Do you have a problem with that?

You bollock on about Kevin Donnelly – who actually does know what he’s talking about, even if he gets some of it wrong – being bigoted yet yourself are not prepared to give house room to an idea you don’t agree with. Your constant alibi is ‘sources, sources, sources’ which you in fact select for yourself to suit your own purposes with a lack of embarrassment that would make an undergraduate blush. Negri being a case in point.

Sorry to break your post, Ken, which was going so well until the love birds appeared. Just I thought I’d try a little harry-esque bullying of my own :(

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago


If you read the comments on Sophie’s second post (rather than the first one where I responded to your expressed unhappiness) I don’t think you could fail to detect bullying and unpleasantness.

I don’t accept that I display the sort of bias you suggest in refereeing unpleasantness.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago


I’m glad you realise that you WERE bullying (like harry).

BTW and more generally. I had hoped that this post might be received rather more constructively than has so far been the case. Instead people have completely ignored the topic of the post and just carried on with the usual petty partisan squabbling. It’s pathetic and depressing.


I suppose your response to Rob is fair enough. My own take on the artistic sensibility point is on Sophie’s post from yesterday at http://troppoarmadillo.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/008840.html#044039 Do you disagree?

2024 years ago

I think Rob’s frothing at the mouth now, Ken! I made it clear in Sophie’s first thread that I was annoyed at cybrludite and I don’t think that I was at all uncivil to Sophie.

I’m perfectly happy to be challenged, as you know if you’d reflect, and Sophie referred to research she’d done so I don’t see the problem in asking her what her references were.

I also refer to my comment on that thread about accepted conventions in the ‘sphere.

In the second thread, I hardly participated except to discuss John Gray’s book after a comment of Sophie’s.

Take a chill pill, Rob :)

I agree that Harry went OTT but I think, Ken, you could have made it clear that’s what you were referring to. The way you wrote your post referred to everyone on the first thread by implication and that’s how we seem to have read it.

Ok – got stuff to do this arvo.

2024 years ago

“It’s pathetic and depressing.”

I agree, retract (somewhat) and retreat. Furthermore, I will go to bed. Apologies to any I may have offended.

2024 years ago

“At least she get out there in the real market place of ideas and gets her books bought and read instead of self-valorising on the subject of an doctoral thesis that will reach an total audience of around three. Do you have a problem with that?”

And that’s rude, Rob.

Sophie writes fiction and I don’t know that her ideas about politics are in her books – sure she writes for Quadrant and the op/ed pages as well. I’d like to write for a more general audience and I’m working on some plans in that regard. And I think I perform some useful function in writing in the blogosphere. I would hope that you’d agree that the work that academics do isn’t valueless, and like Ken, Tim, Chris and John Q, I’m out here in a public forum willing to subject my ideas to debate and criticism.

Really gotta go, though, have an appointment soon.

2024 years ago

And as has happened before, Mark, you slide away without responding to the questions dropped into your lap by the more unaccommodating of your interlocutors (note: not opponents).

Sorry again, Ken. I don’t know that we can do this tolerance thing (except of course that I am inexorably and unalteringly convinced that I can, and people who say I can’t are simply wrong [see footnotes]). Oh golly.

2024 years ago

Rob, I’ve just had a shower and I have an appointment and I have to leave for it now. I don’t know that instant response is called for in any case. I thought it courteous to point out that I wouldn’t be able to respond for a while. There is life outside the blogosphere!

I take it from your comment that your apology doesn’t include me – I found your comments uncalled for and quite rude.

2024 years ago

Ironically, Ken, here’s your chance to demonstrate evenhandedness and chastise Rob for incivility to Mark.

It is a pity that this thread has turned into another bunfight. I think it is or should be possible to disagree without acrimony. I think people on both sides of the fence have, and others on both sides haven’t.

Maybe it would have been better not to rake over the embers of the anarchism thread and just deliver a general homily on civility? You could always do what JQ does periodically and say “civilised and polite discussion, please” and indicate your displeasure without perhaps revisiting the specific discussions.

2024 years ago

Mark, I posted my apology before I saw your comment, so it does include you.

How’s this: you go off to your appointment and I’ll sleeep off my 12 hours in the chair and then we can talk rationally (me anyway) – possibly in about 32 hours when Francesca wakes me -:)

2024 years ago

No probs, Rob – apology accepted. Regards to Francesca :) See ya!

2024 years ago

There you go, Kim. Civility reigns.

2024 years ago

Francesca’s my cat, by the way, FTWDK. She’s very civil. A beautiful Somali (long-haired Abyssinian). Doesn’t take to Alice as much I have have (although you can never tell, of course, with cats).

Tom Davies
Tom Davies
2024 years ago

Mark, when you write
“The logic is that anarchists created instability which led to the rise of fascism and communism which then led to the consequences Sophie talks about. The last sentence in particular suggests that while the actions of anarchists were not the proximate cause of tyranny, it was their intention to bring it about and they succeeded.”,
does the final ‘it’ refer to instability, or tyranny?

I didn’t read Sophie as arguing that anarchists intended to bring about tyranny.

2024 years ago


To answer your question, I used the word “opponent” to describe an interlocutor with an opposing view to mine, and those of others. What did you read into it?

2024 years ago

Well I’m glad that’s sorted. I thought someone was going to get beaten up for a moment.

2024 years ago

Pretty much what Rex thought. Glad I was wrong.

2024 years ago

If you assumed that I was going to “beat up” Sophie, I am grossly offended.

2024 years ago

I have a had a walk in the cooling air but without razor blades or deep sea.

To answer Ken’s musings as to where the acrimony came from it was from Sophie’s behaviour. My explosive outburst at her wasn’t even about what she said but about how she behaved when challenged. I find her behaviour completely incompatible with this blog.

I undertand Ken’s patience has been tried so I will resist posting the enormous post I have prepared. I can email it to anyone who wants it if you are so inclined – the email address is harryka@bigpond.net.au
In deference to Ken I will not discuss it on this blog.

2024 years ago

Thank you, Ken, for this intervention.
Mark, you talk a lot about civility, but I don’t think you have had responses like what I had yesterday from Harry. Though I’m well-used by now to having my every word analysed through a distorting lens, as so many people seem determined on misinterpreting me at every word I write, Harry’s ‘contribution’ was like a fist in the face. There never is any excuse for that kind of behaviour, no matter how strongly people disagree. I’m sure you, the sympathiser with non-violent anarchists, would agree, no?
For the last time, I never said anarchists were responsible as such for the tyrannies of the 20th century, but for creating an atmosphere of fear, repression and volatile violence that helped to open the way both to the repressions of governments, both autocratic and democratic, and to the tyrannical cataclysms that engulfed Europe. People have said I’ve used the term loosely, but I have not, in that context–the context of the 1890’s–1910’s. I do wish some of my critics, like Fyodor, had perhaps checked first on the reality of anarchist violence in that time, and what the interested parties said then, before ‘setting me straight’ on everything. Anarchists may well be different now(they’ve learnt their lesson from that time, perhaps); and I do agree that my bracketing Al Qaeda with anarchists, however tentatively I advanced that, was indeed a loose use of the word. (But that was also why I was interested to see that counter-terrorism experts like Prof Coolsaet also doing it). By the way, if we’re talking about using the term ‘anarchist’ loosely, I’d suggest that more than one person on this blog did that, in their definitions of what it was and wasn’t. Seems it can mean all things to all men, and women. Fair enough now. But perhaps people might note I was using it in relation to the anarchists of a particular period–who were very firm about what they were–not any other variation.
I do not resile from what I said, even though I am sorry, in a way, that I advanced the idea at all. Perhaps people prefer an ossified view of our recent history, in which World War One was like, in a sense, Year Zero.
If you think I enjoy being belittled, jeered at, pounced on and patronised by people who assume they must know much better than me, and then to be vilely abused, well, you must think I’m a machine–or perhaps a RWDB, itching for an ideological fight. Well, I have news for you–I am neither. I am curious about the world, intrigued by people and ideas, and I constantly ask myself, ‘What if?’ That’s my only real and abiding ‘ideology’, if you can call it that.
I’ve enjoyed blogging on Troppo, and am always happy to disagree with people, provided it’s at least civil. In fact that was one of the reasons I was pleased Ken invited me–because I knew that my notions were bound to be challenged. I know some of my ideas proceed from intuition, but I also do take the trouble to read the historical and documentary background, even if it’s not the theorists some of you seem to prefer. I am not going to be cowed into silence but I do hope that some of the things Ken posted about–and the discussion points from Jen’s document– might stick with people. I wish you all a good weekend.

2024 years ago

Wow, I’m hooked. I’ve never participated in a blog before and I am amazed at how heated people get over an article on being polite to each other! This is great. I can see Ken ducking for cover even now.

Rob – if you mean Alice as in Springs, Francesca will grow to enjoy the heat, my three puss cats now sleep in the sun all day.

David Tiley
2024 years ago

Here’s a rule for all of us:

Is my post likely to change anyone’s mind?

Now, there’s a lot of other reasons to post, but at times when Ken’s “distorting lens” is operating, I suggest the question might help to encourage your actual communication.

I must say, though, that I have enjoyed this extended discussion. To use the cliche for I hope the only time in my entire life, “I don’t have a dog in this fight” (eeeyuk) so I am not really emotionally involved. I didn’t think the violence got too extreme.

Crooked Timber, to take an example, can be much snarkier, although I have to say more elegant in the handling of the stiletto. And that site is a fair benchmark for me.

Mind you, Harry did bring a blunderbuss to the party, and probably blew the cake up when he pulled the trigger.

BTW – as a card carrying intuitionist, however humble, I don’t accept that the position brings any privileges.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2024 years ago

Sophie, I’ve said that I don’t think Harry’s comment was at all civil and I’m of the opinion you’re entitled to an apology.

As you’d know from my own experience when I felt some threads had been hostile to me, the judgement of the person who feels that way and others is not always the same. With the exception of Harry’s comment, I don’t think people were trying to belittle you but rather trying genuinely to engage with your ideas. Part of such engagement is a willingness to have your argument challenged.

I do think that the tone of disagreement on Troppo over the last little while has become much less civil and much more acrimonious. And that’s a real pity. But I tend to agree with Kim’s comment above and think that it would be much better to leave these debates in the past and resist the desire to ascribe blame, and to move on with a resolution that we all be more civil to each other.

It might be helpful in this regard if Ken were to supply some guidelines – for blogs – on what he thinks the limits are. I trust and hope that such guidelines would include the right to disagree with the argument of the post. There’s little point in commenting otherwise.

But I do think it would help the state of play if Ken set out what he thinks the rules of the game should be.

In response to Tom Davies’ question, I don’t think it prudent to answer as I think it’s in everyone’s best interests that we not stir up further the substantive and logical issues which seem to have provoked so much heat. I think they were fully canvassed on the initial post and I doubt that we’ll get any further.

Nic White
2024 years ago

To get back on topic:

“Furthermore, a response of ‘Yes, but …’ (or ‘Yes, however …’) automatically labels what the person has said as invaild.”

I dont agree. If you say “yes but”, you are not invalidating what the other person has said, you are just denoting that you disagree and are about to explain why. If someone said that to me I would not be the slightest bit offended.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2024 years ago

Mark, I haven’t commented on the substantive part of this issue yet, although I have thought about it and may yet do so. To do so right now would breach my own standards for commenting, so we’ll see.

Your idea of setting out the rules of the game is interesting. I recently read through a long comment thread of a post by Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings on the Schiavo business. The post was at:


Of relevance here was a strand that arose when a commenter called Freder Frederson accused the Republicans of behaving like Nazis. He was accused of infringing the “rules of posting”. He defended himself, citing numerous instances of behaviour where the Republicans had, in fact, behaved like Nazis.

The discussion continued for some time as a subtheme before Hilzoy took it up, saying that she felt that Freder had infringed on the grounds that the instances of Nazi behaviour he cited were minor compared with their major crimes against humanity which were instituting the Holocaust and invading the rest of the world for Lebensraum. The Republicans had done nothing like that.

Also he’d infringed by bundling ALL Republicans together, which was clearly untrue and unfair to any who had not fully subscibed to the actions he described, or had even opposed them. Presumably this could have been fixed by some modifier, such as ‘some’, ‘many’ or ‘leading’ Republicans.

Hilzoy’s points seemed fair enough, but I found it a bit hard to see how Freder had actually infringed the “Posting Rules” which you can find at:


I’m not sure whether the civility that seems to prevail at Obsidian Wings is due to the rules, but it may be worth thinking about.

2024 years ago

Yes, it’s Alice as in Springs, Mindy.

2024 years ago

I don’t have a dog in this fight either. And my cat’s dead.

Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago

Here’s a comment I’ve just put on the previous thread – and thought afterwards that perhaps I should put it here.

Jeez what a hullabaloo.

I think Sophie’s original idea was an excellent one – put forward in an appropriately tentative way. Now I think Sophie wrote the post with a certain animus towards ‘anarchists’ which is entirely fine and she was happy to defend herself with that animus largely in tact. At that stage we got lots of agro about definitions of anarchism, by those reacting to Sophie’s animus.

But the basic idea is independent of and much more interesting than what spin gets put on the word ‘anarchist’. As I read it, I thought it definitely cast the strange and swift change in the mood of our own times in an interesting new light. Because terrorists have murdered less than 4,000 people, countries have been invaded, people have been shipped off to third countries for torture, people disappear in the United States. And we have a bunch of people running the US who their recently departed Secretary of State described as ‘crazies’.

This moment feels to me like one in which things could easily spiral out of control as they did from apparently relatively benign circumstances in 1914.

The MOOD has changed mightily.

How to explain this? Well I’ll be buggered if I know. Will we find out from a bunch of social theorists? Do they tell us more about how Hitler did what he did than Sebastian Haffner tells us in “Defying Hitler” a contemporaneously written explanation of what it was like to live in the Third Reich? I could never quite understand how it was done till I read that book.

I hope I hold debate in as high regard as most people here. But what Sophie is saying is highly speculative – as by implication is any disagreement with her. In that circumstance, the idea that the truth or falsity of Sophie’s musing being ‘tested’ and so reduced to its essence to yield its ultimate worth

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2024 years ago

Yes, Nicholas, but you can run it back the other way. If you don’t attend to manners you hurt other people’s feelings and the opportunities for dialogue and the learning are lost.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2024 years ago


Tried to email these comments to you, but the email bounced. Here then are my notes on the lifecycle of virtual communities for general consumption.

Obviously a first draft, based on my experiences with usenet, mailing lists, IRC channels, Slashdot, Kuro5hin, and second-generation blogs like Troppo.

I see that Troppo is going through some growing pains.
I’d like to offer some remarks on the lifecycle of
virtual communities. As you know I’ve been a web bug since
about 95-96, so I’ve seen some from their earliest days.

Though I cringe at the cheesy analogy, there are such
things as “virtual villages”. Over time they form and
disperse. They often follow very similar trajectories.
They’ve formed in Usenet newsgroups, email lists,
IRC channels, first-generation web logs, and now
second-generation “blogs”. Some prosper, some
stabilise, some enter long periods of senescence, and
many crash and burn spectacularly. Some become
decadent or highly introspective.

They all move through particular phases, however:

1. Establishment

At this stage, a handful of enthusiastic and energetic
members first come into contact. In the initial blush,
members will be few and quickly well-known to each
other. Generally like will attract like, and strife
will be essentially nil.

This will later be remembered as a kind of Golden Age.

2. Rapid Growth

Those young communities which attract the most
interesting or insightful members, or which are first
in their field of interest, will reach a kind of
exponential phase of growth. The number of members
will shoot up very suddenly.

This will lead to the introduction of two new elements
to the social equation. The first is natural opponents.
Given any group X of sufficient size, members A and B
will find themselves to be implacably opposed on issues
alpha and beta. They will on many occasions return to
those same arguments. These people can quickly turn
the atmosphere of a community sour.

The second problem is spammers, trolls and crapflooders.
In mature communities (see below) this behaviour can develop into
a sophisticated, organised activity; an art form in the
sense of intricate designs by spray paint vandals.

3. Early Maturity

Around this stage, those in the community with authority
will usually begin to try and steer things back towards
the atmosphere of the Establishment phase. This can
come through a variety of measures.

This is a critical point: if efforts to reign in conflict
and sourness do not succeed, the community will quickly
become decrepit and collapse to a shadow of its former

Experience demonstrates that the anarchic nature of
virtual communities respond only to a clear, simple and
enforced code of conduct. Deletion of offending posts,
warnings, suspensions and bans are important steps in
the process. As the Romans observed: there is no law
without punishment. This is true of websites.

4. Maturity

Generally by this stage, communities have either collapsed,
or they have stabilised. In the case of stabilised
communities, a balance will be established between
the accepted code of conduct (written or unwritten) by
which the site operates, and the steady stream of
newcomers who upset that code from time to time. This is
also a stage marked by an unending parade of introspection.
While introspective comment begins immediately
post-Establishment (as in “Gee, wasn’t it better last
year?”), by Maturity this introspection reaches a systematic
and sophisticated level (“If we increase moderation points
to 5, and require an email login for story submission,
then we can reduce incentives for trolling …”).

Successful communities can remain in this phase for many
years. During this period the population will divide into
a highly active “elite”, who will contribute probably more
than half of all content and discussion, and a much larger
body of more casual members who may comment from time to
time, but otherwise remain uninvolved. As I noted above,
the steady trickle of newcomers will present a problem
of integration, but since population growth will tend to
level out, this problem is greatly diminished compared
to the Rapid Growth phase.

5. Post-Maturity: Senescence, Decadence, Institutionalism

Once maturity is well established, most communities will
take on different emphases of the three descriptions above.
Some will fall into senescence, and slowly but surely wither
to nothing, or a shadow of themselves. Some will enter
a phase of decadence, with a vast and sprawling community
that spends as much time in self-criticism and introspection
as actual content-led discussion. Finally, some will become
so large, so widely read and referred to, that they will
be institutions unto themselves. For those groups which
head onto institutionalism and decadence, they will tend
form into something very much like modern society: a vast,
shifting patchwork of forming and reforming groups and
commentaries. They become a microcosm of the internet and
the world, and depending on the format, they will form
new sub-communities which will follow the same lifecycle
in miniature.

There you have it. My potted life cycle of online communities.
Feel free to use it as a rough and ready guide.


Cameron Riley
2024 years ago

Jacque, I agree with your life-cycle. There is also the internet rule of thumb; “If you argue on the internet, even when you win, you are still a retard”.

Not that I necessarily agree with it, but.

2024 years ago

Ken, I’m working on a post on the politics of civility – which will not mention the Troppo anarchist wars – but the idea just occurred to me that since Troppo has a longrunning interest in this topic, could I cross post it over here?

2024 years ago

And this is very good:
“Some things I know about moderating conversations in virtual space”


2024 years ago

Me thinks some of you are tooooo touchy.With the exception of bloggers like EvilPundit,I do beleive that you are not out there to offend,but sometimes just disagree heavily with each other. So get over it.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2024 years ago

boynton – that was an excellent leak. It’s pretty clear that the Internet old guard (of which I am not a member) have “been there, done that” in respect of online communities.

One comment I thought interesting is that single-poster blogs are easier to police because it’s clearly a private space first, and a community second. Compare with “nobody owns it” areas of Usenet.

Maybe those libertarians were right :)

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2024 years ago

By “leak” I mean “link”, of course! :D

2024 years ago

“With the exception of bloggers like EvilPundit,I do beleive that you are not out there to offend,but sometimes just disagree heavily with each other.”

EP’s not touchy – he’s just legitimately worried about women touching him in case sperm theft results…

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2024 years ago

I think we all enjoy a bit of robust debate and Australians are good at taking the piss. There is a fine line, though, between playful cuffs and blows that hurt. This makes it devilishly hard to moderate.

Maybe we should all take a bit more responsibility for reining people in when we become discomforted by the nature of the interaction. I know this happens already, but sometimes we do it in a way that actually inflames the situation.

Ken, this is put forward entirely in the spirit of helpfulness, with full recognition that the role of moderator is difficult and one that I would personally not relish.

I think sometimes you say too much in pouring oil on troubled waters and sometimes it tends to have the reverse effect. For example in you first intervention on Sophie’s first post you ended with:

“It would be nice if those who are convinced (rightly or otherwise) that they possess superior erudition could learn real wisdom as well and avoid being painfully patronising while displaying their enormous knowledge.”

This clearly could not refer to Bill Posters’ comment, the ostensible target of your comment, and in context could only have referred to Mark. That was the way I read it, and he did too.

He reacted in a reasonable way, and I don’t honestly think he can fairly be described as “being painfully patronising while displaying [his] enormous knowledge.” A bit abrupt perhaps.

Also your own remarks sounded to my ear a bit paternalistic or school-masterish.

Similarly while reining in Aidan I thought you indulged yourself a bit by saying:

“Are you just naturally pompous and patronising, or have you been practising?”

In this case, it had no adverse effects, but perhaps the rule ‘The language of the moderator should above all be moderate’ is worth consideration.

Please don’t think I am blaming you for the escalation. It was more about how the interactions played out between Sophie and Mark, Fyodor and harry (mainly), with Rob slipping in a few that didn’t help. It is just that your remarks didn’t have the calming effect intended, surprised me a bit and it’s one to reflect on for the future.

The source boynton referred to was quite interesting, I thought. To recap it’s at:


Inter alia, the writer deals with the issue of deleting offending remarks. I know we are reluctant to censure, but perhaps some remarks should be deleted on first offence with a request to resubmit in a more civil manner. Two that on reflection could have received this treatment were Bill Posters’ comment and definitely harry’s first comment in Sophie’s second post.

Part of the problem, I think, is Sophie’s style. When she is blogging on such subjects she really can’t claim the licence given to creative writers. If you are talking about anarchists and the causes of the troubles of the 20th century you are inevitably entering, IMHO, the domain of analytical discourse used by academics and scholars.

So, Sophie, when you are talking about anarchists believing and doing this or that without any qualification, just a bald, blanket statement, it seems to me that the picture being painted of homogeneity and coherence on the part of anarchists was always going to struggle for credibility.

Then the question “…was it the anarchists who really spawned the violent and terrifying twentieth century, and the convulsions which tore it apart?” which seemed to be answered in the affirmative. It’s a huge call and people like Mark, harry and Fyodor who typically wander by are faced with the problem of commenting lest their silence be taken as assent.

My own reaction to your question was, If you discovered what social conditions and grievances gave rise to the phenomenon of anarchism you may be well on the way to finding out what caused the tumults of the 20th century.

For me the best answer was given by Fyodor at 11.16am on 31 March when he wrote:

“IMO, the anarchist acts that you describe were symptomatic of crises of legitimacy (e.g. disenfranchisement of the working class, of ethnic minorities) for many of the Old World powers, but did not cause WWI. The underlying problems of legitimacy faced by many European countries, however, did emerge with a vengeance in the aftermath of WWI, aiding the “regime change” in most of these countries.”

Fyodor’s point about the some anarchists themselves falsely seeing themselves as anarchists, and others also falsely labelling them that way is important for historical accuracy.

I’m not sure of the true nature of the project for which you are conducting your research. But if you are immersing yourself in the times as a setting for a novel it seems quite legitimate to pick up the ways those people saw themselves and were seen by others in the time. Nevertheless my Oxford Australian Dictionary (1998) includes the comment:

“Contrary to popular belief, political anarchism does not imply a state of violent disorder; anarchists believe that after the abolition of the state an anarchist society could be organised on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion.”

This of course leaves aside the small issue of how the state is to be abolished without violence. As Mark said, democratic states often have violent beginnings. Andrew Heywood in his book “Political Ideologies” outlines briefly the focus on violence by such groups as the Alliance for Social Democracy in France and Italy, the Malatesta in Italy, the Russian populists and Zapata’s revolutionaries in Mexico. There were also acts of violence by isolated anarchists working alone.

Heywood says they failed because such attempts were “based on a belief in spontaneous revolt rather than careful organistion.” Consequently “by the end of nineteenth century, many anarchists had turned their attention to the revolutionary potential of the syndicalist movement….” Direct action included, I gather, mass strikes and the sabotage of facilities rather than violence against people.

So it is important, I think, that you don’t in the end support or add to the false popular beliefs that the Oxford dictionary was complaining about.

This is the point that David Tiley was making, if I understand him right. Now here’s a man who understands history as a discipline, is familiar with the discourse and knowledge structures of science, familiar too with the ‘languages’ of a variety of media, is able to work creatively in many of them, but still has the analytical skills to think critically about them and to write clearly and with erudition in the analytical mode. What a man! Mark his comments well!

OTOH I am not a creative writer, so far be it from me to suggest narrative or other devices to overcome the dilemma of being within the Zeitgeist and not distorting a proper understanding of anarchism at the same time.

Finally, Ken, I appreciate what you are trying to do on this blog. Striking a centrist position does seem to me to have the inherent difficulties of a man with a foot each side of the barbed wire fence on sinking sand. And it is not inherently superior to a space where like-minded people meet, just different. There is value in and room for both. I would encourage you to persist and wish both you and Sophie nothing but the best.

Sorry to unload at such length, but it has been building up for a while and needed the space afforded by a day off to address properly.

2024 years ago

Brian, I don’t make any apology for my responses to harry whom I found intellectually crude and personally abusive in his comments on Sophie’s interesting and adventurous posts.

Beside, if I may say so, I think your comments on Sophie’s approach to this and other issues is quite incomplete. I mean no disrespect in saying that. Your argument, if I’ve understood you correctly, that an understanding of the nature of anarchists and anarchism must be left to scholars and academics is at best misleading.

Everyone who has gone through university knows the academy is subject to intellectual fashion, especially in the soft sciences. They come and go with the regularity of clockwork, in accordance, perhaps, with Thomas Kuhn’s Theory of Scientific Revolutions. Any number of explanative paradigms embraced as ‘truths’ (however we understand that word) have been discarded and lie in the waste basket of intellectual history.

What super-endures is art, the vision and articulation of the creative. It has an immediacy and impact that only the very best of scholars come close to emulating. Art is necessarily impressionistic and intuitive. That’s its enduring value. If you want to know what the Weimar republic was really like, for example, throw away the textbooks and read Christopher Isherwood and Berlin Alexanderplatz. Do you want to understand the great painter Oscar Kokoschka? Chuck the critics and read his autobiography instead (and go and see his paintings too, of course).

Sophie is quite entitled to bring her artist’s palette and sketchbook to a period of European history quite possibly unrivalled in its intensity and colour. I would prefer an artist to untangle the skeins of light and dark, emotion and philsophy rather than a dry academic. Picasso’s art said more about the Spanish Civil War than than several battalions of academics are ever likely to do.

And personally I lost all (well, most) of my former interest in post-modern theories of language when I realised that writers like Borges and Calvino and Rushdie and Blake and Eliot and Carter and Austen and Dickens and Homer and Shakespeare and thousands of others had forgotten far more about language than these sad poseurs would learn in a lifetime of Sundays.

The explanative values embodied in academic discourse are of course valuable to us, but only as a pathway to the past. Very, very seldom do they get to the heart of what it was really like to live in the past and how it felt to be there. Perhaps only Steven Ozment, in my own experience of hsitorical study, came close. Time and again the reader in search of expriential values is impelled to forget the latterday commentaries, and read the primary texts. Sophie has explained this is what she has been doing – and she may find a whole raft of meanings not visible to aspiring PhD’s, but no less cogent for all that – and probably, almost by definition, more so.

Art explores and articulates experiential values that are visible to the creative, but not always and certainly not necessarily to the simply erudite. For that reason I look forward far more to the outcome of Sophie’s current project than to yet another dissertation – haven’t we had enough of them, for heaven’s sake? – on the theory of anarchism.

I apologise for the length of this post as well.. And I’ve hardly started on the subject of civility.

2024 years ago

I think Brian’s comment is eminently sensible and balanced. I agree thoroughly – it’s close in spirit to what I suggested to Ken earlier in this thread.

Rob, I don’t see that being a creative artist means that you can’t argue logically. I (among other things) am a professional photographer and I have studied film at graduate level as well. I’ve had exhibitions and have many friends and colleagues who are also creative artists of one discipline or another. I don’t know that any of them have a strikingly different way of thinking when they turn their mind to social and political issues. They think and reason logically.

Brian’s point is worth underlining. If you’re writing a historical novel, then you need an imaginative leap to get yourself into the mind of the characters and their world (and many of the anarchists were characters worthy of Dostoyevsky).

But if you’re posting an argument about politics, history, ideas and their consequences, then you need to argue your case.

The issue of civility is in principle separable from the issue of the sort of thinking that’s appropriate to different types of writing.

2024 years ago

I didn’t see anything illogical in Sophie’s reasoning. But I saw an awful lot of venom in the responses to it. It was very obvious. I should think that’s why Don bannered his post with that very remarkable reconstructed image from Goya.