When I see Doug (one of our PhD students) tomorrow I am almost certain he will make fun of me for my internet habits. He will remind me: "Do not feed the trolls." Adam (a former student, now researcher at NYU) told me that I think everyday of his graduate career, usually followed by a laugh. In fact, Adam orchestrated the posting on my door of a cartoon that has a man sitting up late at night typing in a fever-pitch informing his wife that he could not come to bed because someone on the internet was making an error.
These students, as well as some of my colleagues, often laugh at me at my discomfort with the blogosphere. I want the blog to be an extension of the classroom and research seminar, on the one hand, and an economizing way to communicate information such as announcements, on the other. But blogs are a form of entertainment for many, not a vehicle for education. They provide information, but not necessarily knowledge.
I am not the only person that is uncomfortable with the blog culture. Greg Mankiw has turned off the comments, as has Division of Labor and Economic Principals. Perhaps the most accomplished economic blogger out there, Tyler Cowen, told me early on that the secret was to not engage in the comment section, but limit your interactions with commentators to your blog posts. Tyler follows his own advice, I don't. Because I view the blog as an extension of the classroom, I view the commentators as raising their hand in the classroom and thus I am responding. But rarely do I find the experience on the blog as rewarding as I do in the classroom.
This disjoint leads me to wonder why. I try to identify the differences in the environments that could produce the different experiences. My conjecture is that it comes down to the low cost to reputation faced by most commentators for deviating from true inquiry, and the enormous benefits some people get from being abrasive and annoying. The blogosphere is strange by construction --- in most situations the posts are made by individuals the are fully exposed reputationally, while the comments are made by individuals who choose to stay anonymous, or adopt an alias, thus bearing no reputational burden. The costs of being abrasive and annoying are low when nobody knows who you are, and no reputational capital is really at stake, so of course more abrasive and annoying behavior than optimal takes place.
Now I understand Adam and Doug's advice to me to "don't feed the trolls" because the benefits of being annoying and abrasive fall considerably if nobody responds. But how does one know whether the commentator is seeking a genuine dialogue, or just hoping to suck the poster into a waste of his/her time and energies? In a specialized blog like this one --- focusing on Austrian economics as an subfield within the academic economic discourse --- the presumption is that dialogue on fine points of econoimc theory, methodology, or application is what is sought. However, this makes the site even more vulnerable to exploitation by pranksters, neurotics, and those who are delussional about their abilities. [one dialogue I saw recently at another site devoted to Austrian economics actually had a commentator "admit" that he was a relatively well-read 17 year old in economic theory so he was comfortably attacking Horwitz, White, Selgin, and he even threw in an obligatory insult at Tyler Cowen; on that same site in a discussion on the fine points of monetary theory one commentator used the name of "Lord Buzungulus, Bringer of the Purple Light" and a debate raged with others taking the comments made by the Lord as serious!]. How is intellectual progress going to take place under such absurd conditions of dialogue?
On a recent post on this blog, the comments went to over 100, but one of the commentators used 3 different names (something we know because the posts were all from the same IP address). At one point, the 3 sustained the discussion by having a conversation with one another!
On several other posts, we continue to have anonymous and alias posters even though I have repeatedly requested the use of full names to try to keep the dialogue more face-to-face and analogous to the classroom setting or seminar table.
However, I should admit that there are also several individuals here who willingly give their name and post comments that border on annoying and abrassive. So some individuals are willing to put their reputation on the line. I respect those individuals much more than the anonymous and allias posters even when I think their positions are highly questionable. On this site, we have a certain percentage of visitors who are convinced that the academic world is aligned against them, and that publishing in the refereed journals is all rigged against them. There is a certain pride taken in bucking the academic establishment -- not just as an out of sync professional economist, but also as an excuse to eschew PhD work in general. Self-study substitutes for structured study, and blog posting and internet publishing substitutes for thesis writing and engaging the disciplinary profession.
These individuals are unpublished geniuses, who can publish their work online simply by posting, but cannot get a journal editor or referees to see the point of their "articles". The work tends to be underdeveloped argumentatively, based on either uncharitable or incoherent readings, and tend to be written in a disjointed and unprofessional manner. When this is pointed out to them, it just reinforces their sense of injustice. They are so sure they are right, and everyone else is wrong. In other words, there is a self-reinforcing conspiratorial attitude evident in the unpublished genius mindset. This also fascinates me.
I actually don't believe there are unpublished geniuses, just as I don't really believe their are low productivity major contributors to our science. No -- look at the work habits of James Buchanan and Vernon Smith, compare that to Andrei Shleifer or John List. What you will find is that major contributions come from extremely productive economists. I keep urging the young readers on this site to visit EconLit, and just get a sense of this. If someone in a 30+ years, only gets 30 or less hits, they haven't done much to advance our science; just as if someone teaches for 30+ years and doesn't have a bevy of students who have become economists due to exposure to that persons teaching, then that person isn't much of a teacher. These are my working hypothesis when it comes to measuring impact. You research, you write, and you teach to excite young minds to do economics for a living. Progress in scientific life is all about creativity within discipline, not undisciplined flights of imagination. Science is not science fiction.
Finally, I wonder whether Austrian economics disproportionally attracts the low productivity and conspiratorial sort of individual to its ranks. In other words, is there an adverse selection problem in Austrian economics, which helps explain why the Austrian school of economics has a difficult time making much headway in the profession? The answer to this question really fascinates me.
Let me be clear, I respect the alternative media as an ideological challenger to the dominant statist culture. But I don't think scholarly blogs should devolve to the Drudge Report let alone the Onion. How do you balance the easy access and potential wide-distribution to academics and non-academics that the internet provides with the demands of civil discourse that represents an invitation to inquiry that aspires to make progress in academic discourse among graduate students and professional economists?
It doesn't make sense if this is your goal to turn off the comments, just as to me it doesn't make sense to not engage in the comments if your goal is to engage in a community of inquiry. So what would it take to make a blog serve these dialogical goals without becoming vulnerable to abuse by trolls? I think insisting on the use of names that link to a web-page so we have background, might provide the right incentives.
But efforts to insist on that have failed. And I don't have the time to monitor all comments and only except those through the day that meet the criteria so established. Where do we go from here? I don't know, but perhaps the advice of Adam and Doug is the place to start --- "Don't feed the trolls." But perhaps I need some help determining who the inquisative minds who want to know are versus the trolls that just want to disrupt and derail. Help me out.