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AiP Stands With Context and Variation

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My SciAm colleague and friend Kate Clancy of Context and Variation has been the target of disturbing trollish behavior recently. She is experiencing what many female bloggers do at some point while writing for an online audience and she’s rallying her community by speaking candidly about her experiences:

Even when the threats aren’t physical, the antagonism towards women has been nasty. I have been called a sexist, someone who plays victim, told I should be fired, and worse, personal things that I will not relay here. I have had my writing challenged by brash claims regarding my character or intent without any attempt to build a case with evidence.

And even though I can look at the evidence and my writing, at what I do and what I stand for, and know these claims are ridiculous, each one of these attacks shatters me.

Back at my old blog, these attacks would have had little effect on me. At my old blog my posse would have crowded them out, shrugged their way past them until the attackers were shouting uselessly at the periphery. My old blog was a warm, inviting space where I could take risks because people were willing to take them with me.

I could blame the loss of my posse on the commenting system or the more heavily-male readership here at Scientific American and throw up my hands. But I also know I have not been modeling the appropriate behavior to encourage you to get comfortable in my new place. I have left almost all attack comments up rather than delete them because I worried that getting rid of them would open me up to more attacks, or make it look as though I was silencing my opposition. And so I left them, and waited, hoping someone would come and back me up. Sometimes someone would.

Supporting a female blogger under attack in a comment thread is a very risky endeavor. If you are a male ally, you may be afraid of making things worse. If you are a woman, you may be afraid of drawing some of the attack on to you. The attack may also just feel like it’s not your business. It takes a very brave person who doesn’t mind sticking their nose in to put together a reasoned response and handle the blowback.

By letting the oppressive and rude behavior in my comment threads get out of control, I have put my posse in an impossible position. I have silenced potential commenters, and lost the most valuable part of my blogging.

AiP has also received its share of trollish comments and emails that also left me feeling raw and exposed. It is amazing what people will ask you—especially if you’re female. My response was to delete comments and emails and not respond. But sometimes it feels as though that’s the only response out there, and that can be disheartening. Kate is right: It will only stop when we—that’s you and me—take a hand in making it stop.

It has not been an entirely easy transition from the independent home of Anthropology in Practice to the Scientific American network. There, like Kate, I knew I had a steady group of readers who knew the tone and style of the space and could and would step in to help monitor and maintain the community. A few of you have followed me here, and I thank you for that. It delights me to see your names in the comment box. I also understand why the community has overall been slow to grow here—having to register can be prohibitive to commenting—but I am confident we will get there again, Readers. (We are working on changing the registration requirements, but that will take time. In truth, registration is a bit of a joke. You can register as a pseud or under your name and only I see your email address—whatever email address you choose to enter. Edit: I will always honor the displayed registration name in public communications.)

Kate has issued a new commenting policy for Context and Variation which goes a long way toward re/creating a constructive, supportive community where debate and discussion can occur intelligently and respectfully. I support her stand for her space, and in that spirit want to ask you, Readers, to rally with us: register, and let us know you’re there.

AiP’s commenting policy has always been an open one. In short, it read: “Readers are invited to leave a comment and join the discussion about breaking news, research ventures, and most importantly, everyday events. However, spam and abusive commentary will be deleted promptly.” But in this venue, in this space, it’s clear that this will not suffice. Here is AiP’s commenting policy—with summary by Dr. Seuss:

  • “Not here not there not anywhere!” Be respectful: no personal attacks, no condescension, no snide insinuations. These comment(s) will be deleted promptly. Talk to me about the points of the post, alternative research, and your experiences—let’s have a discussion instead.
  • “Everything stinks till it’s finished.” Finish the post. If something I’ve written bothers you or seems wrong, finish reading before you fire off that angry email. If there are comments, take a second and peruse them. Perhaps someone has said something similar and I’ve addressed those concerns. Perhaps something was said that might change your perception.
  • “I do not like green eggs and ham.” That’s fine. You don’t have to like green eggs and ham—you also don’t have to agree with me or each other. But try to hear the argument out—be open to the discussion and willing to engage in dialogue. If you post a comment, chances are you’ll get a response—at the very least from me even if it might not be immediate. Trust me: I’m listening. Let’s try to understand each other.
  • “Oh the thinks you can think up if only you try!” Think your response through—add something to the discussion that others can respond to. Use evidence instead of rocks to make your point. I’ll say it again: I’m listening.

I’ve tried to approach this with some lightness, but it is serious. AiP is my home on the web, but I’d like to share it with you. There’s an entire world out there to explore and examine through the ethnographic lens. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a posse I have to go join.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. kclancy 12:08 am 01/25/2012

    Krystal, I am so touched. Thank you so much for this. And I think you have a brilliantly articulated comment policy. Well done!

    The bat signal is in production…

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  2. 2. mbernardo 2:31 pm 01/25/2012

    Great post! While most folks are prone to believe in equality (a core value in the U.S. if ever there was one), you point to a yet another place where both sex and gender matter. They certainly influence who is viewed as having the authority to speak and in what domains. Unfortunately, the anonymity of the interwebs seems to bring out the worst in some people. Your and Dr. Clancy’s readers / supporters are out here. We should speak up more often!

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  3. 3. Patrick Clarkin 4:23 pm 01/25/2012

    Hi Krystal,

    Those are good policies. The purpose is to exchange ideas, and you deserve better than dealing with trolls whose motive is something other than that. It IS a serious topic, and it feels like there’s a cultural shift going on that should help foster courtesy and respect in online comments, regardless of the gender of the author. Let’s hope so.

    And will you succeed?
    Yes! You will, indeed!
    (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

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  4. 4. gregdowney 6:29 pm 01/25/2012

    As always, Krystal, not just great idea, but delivered with humour and deft touch. I’ll makes sure to think my thinks.

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  5. 5. Michelle 10:06 pm 01/25/2012

    I think the commenting registration has really kept people away. I was going to comment a couple times and didn’t want to hassle with the registration. I finally gave in and registered. Who wants to get yet another password just to leave comments?

    Michelle (of Contagions)

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  6. 6. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 10:28 pm 01/25/2012

    Thank you all for joining us and letting me know that you’re out there! I am absolutely thrilled to be writing for SciAm, but I can’t deny that it has not been at times an extraordinarily lonely experience. I’m glad to hear from you—to know for sure I’m not spewing into the void.

    Michelle, I completely understand. And I really see how this is prohibitive. I hope that change will be swift because the entire network will benefit, but in the meantime, thanks for taking the plunge.

    Patrick and Greg, I figured that Dr. Seuss was the one to teach us important life lessons as children and that he would be applicable here. I’m glad to see it’s been well received.

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  7. 7. clearlycriticalthinking 10:41 am 01/26/2012

    Great post and comment policy! Some of the negative and counterproductive reactions to female science communicators seem to originate from an “either-or” perspective in that female competence and perceived friendliness are erroneously believed to be mutually exclusive attributes. It is evident that this is an illusion related to unconscious bias. This is manifested in the reactions of men and some women to female science communicators, sadly.

    Case in point: yesterday a woman was defriended by several people on a social network for posting her Klout score and LinkedIn profile. She had to obtain proof of employment documents to back up her LinkedIn information as well as a cease and desist letter from a lawyer to get online accusations for having “fake” background information to stop.

    She now feels confident to resume blogging, which she had stopped for a year because she did not want the backlash to spread to those publishing her articles. Actions by men are often judged as neutral, yet the identical actions are judged as excessively self-promotional if done by females. When these misunderstandings were addressed, the woman was accused of having “delusions of grandeur” due to thinking others are jealous of her. In reality jealousy is not the motive. The motive is simply the “permission” to be online at all. The motivation to survive professionally is not a victim mentality.
    Gender Bias Learning Project

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  8. 8. Sue W 8:24 pm 01/26/2012

    You’re doing an excellent job. Frankly, I read your blog postings using an aggregator and often don’t read the comments.
    I was a follower of Kathy Sierra’s blog when she was driven from it by online harassment, and that stuff is just vile. I shall pay more attention in future.
    Thanks again for contributing your thoughts and experience to my life!

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  9. 9. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:45 am 01/27/2012

    Thanks Sue. It’s good to have you around!

    clearlycriticalthinking, I don’t know necessarily that its an unconscious bias. I’ve seen some of the comments Kate has gotten, and they reflect a very conscious misogynist stream couched in crudeness, but I do agree that women tend to face more demands to prove their credibility. And when they “fail” to do so, the taunts and challenges take on a sinister form of harassment, as in the example you have given.

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  10. 10. wendyxc 1:44 pm 02/1/2012

    Love the Dr. Seuss–very effective.

    As my sweet brother-in-law often says, “What is men’s problem?!”

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  11. 11. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:47 am 02/2/2012

    Thanks Wendy.

    Gender isn’t always clear online, and the truth is some of my nastiest critics have turned out to be female (though initially, many read their words as male, which is interesting, and perhaps worthy of a post.), which is not to say that I have not experienced my share of mansplaining.

    However, if we all abide by Seuss Law I’m sure we can make this a welcoming space.

    Link to this

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