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Although I’ve been overwhelmingly preoccupied with software-related issues over the last couple of weeks, I’m been pleased to note that our small webzine has attracted a bit of notice from the mainstream public policy community, with an article in The American Interest on the conservative intellectual world of California characterizing The Review as “a Trump-friendly, highbrow online journal with a devoted following.”
Founded in 2005 as a print and web publication by Francis Fukuyama, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and several other prominent conservative-oriented policy intellectuals, TAI is a distinguished and influential publication, with a neoconservative-leaning group of contributors, and it’s quite heartening to know that although they might often disagree with our own writers on a wide range of issues, they seem aware of us and apparently do take our views seriously.
Furthermore, the tone of their description seemed quite accurate, since although our highly-eclectic collection of columnists and contributors has certainly written some strong criticisms of Donald Trump, on balance, our pieces have been much more supportive than not, and have certainly exhibited nothing remotely like the strident and near-100% hostility found in mainstream media publications, whether traditional or online. Furthermore, our highly active and opinionated commentariat is overwhelmingly pro-Trump, and the millions of words they spew forth each month usually far dwarf in volume the articles and columns to which they are supposedly responding.
Indeed, one important aspect of our own publication has been the absolute centrality of our aggregate commenting, now comfortably past 93 million words in total accumulation. With some exceptions by individual bloggers, we generally moderate our comments with an unusually light hand, partly necessitated by our shoestring operation, thus causing us to naturally draw a huge volume of outrageous and insulting commentary by deranged or fanatic individuals who would surely be banned or blocked almost everywhere else. But this same situation also simultaneously attracts discussants of remarkable knowledge and erudition.
For example, a couple of months ago I published a long column suggesting that the Kennedy Administration had been seriously considering a nuclear first strike against the USSR, with my piece relying upon eminently respectable sources from a decade or two ago, including an article in The American Prospect and supporting material from a cover-story in The Atlantic. The heated resulting discussion ran over 40,000 words, taking all sides of the question, but one commenter in particular—styling himself “academic gossip”—published several comments totaling 5,000 words that extensively drew on more recently declassified documents to largely persuade me that my analysis was probably incorrect, and the alleged first-strike plans were likely based upon an honest misinterpretation of the evidence, later superseded by subsequent disclosures. To the extent that our commenting policies attract participants of such quality, the surrounding chaff of petty remarks and short insults is hardly too high a price to pay.
In order to allow such thoughtful and substantial comments to be more widely distributed, I’ve now added an “Email Comment” option to the Agree/Disagree popup window, that allows a particular comment to be emailed out just like an article itself.
One important aspect of our commenting technology is the ability of individual readers to place commenters on a permanent “Ignore” list, which muzzles their remarks, and allows the sort of personalized “banning” that reduces the need for any official website action along similar lines. However, this process obviously requires that commenters retain a single handle, and for the last year or two I’ve been increasingly complaining about the number of troublesome commenters who ignore this important rule, changing their identifying handle at will or whim, sometimes even pretending to be several different individuals on a single comment thread. Even leaving aside the Ignore process, forcing commenters to retain a single continuous identifier may cause them to more carefully weigh the tone and content of their words, since individuals who make ridiculous or extreme remarks on some matters may permanently damage their credibility on all others.
A reasonable objection is that established commenters might occasionally wish to raise particularly controversial points under a stronger cloak of anonymity than when using their usual name-handle, but they are always free to use “Anonymous” or “Anon” in such circumstances, though such an identification may cause their arguments to be taken less seriously. What is totally unacceptable is “drive-by” commenting, in which a commenter temporarily pretends to be a different named individual in order to raise a few points, then retreats back into the security of his usual assumed identity, thereby providing no “return address” for his critics.
I have repeatedly emphasized these simple restrictions and certainly the vast majority of our commenters have followed them, but a relatively small number of individuals have chosen to disregard these rules and the endless warnings, assuming that they could change their handles whenever they liked, and avoid any consequences for their misbehavior. As I’d previously indicated, perhaps the most appropriate punishment for such misbehaving commenters is to reveal their multiple identities to the world, consolidating all their comments upon the their most widely used or recent handle, while perhaps also sometimes indicating the previous or temporary identity they had improperly assumed.
Anyway, the day of reckoning finally arrived, and I took a little time to go through the million-plus comment archives, and merge these different commenter handles. Just as I suspected, the vast majority of our regular commenters had behaved properly and used a single handle (or Anonymous/Anon) during almost their entire history, but I did locate a significant number of violators who had egregiously used multiple handles, sometimes even a dozen or more. So if any of you happen to notice that the handle of one or more commenters in an old discussion-thread seems to have changed, that may indeed be the case. For purposes of clarification, or especially egregious violation, the modified comment handles may list an “AKA” with the old handle also displayed.
In a few cases, well-behaved commenters had changed their handles once or twice over the years, picking new ones very similar to the old, perhaps because they’d forgotten the identifying fake email they’d used, and therefore couldn’t use their old, taken names: their comment archives have now been consolidated as a convenience. Leaving aside those special cases, only one commenter in the top fifty—the notorious “Priss Factor”—was discovered to be a widespread shape-shifter, most of whose comment handles needed to be changed and consolidated, and even the top 100 included only another example or two of this sort of misbehavior.
Overall, fewer than 2% of our comments needed their handles changed to remove this sort of improper name-changing, with nearly one-third of that total due to the aforementioned “Priss Factor.” I may eventually track down and consolidate additional multi-handle commenters, but I think I’ve already found and dealt with most of the more frequent cases. I’ve also added various automatic checks, making it slightly more difficult for regular commenters to use different names.
As a future deterrent to drive-by commenting, I think I’ll add a temporary indicator for a first-time commenter, so as to warn readers he may simply be someone attempting to air his views under a fake name and perhaps a temporary IP. Also, since using a name implies a possibly unwarranted degree of authority, one-time names may eventually be transformed to “Anonymous” since the individual either declined to join our ongoing community of opinion or was even just a temporary assumed identity.
Anyway, future work along these lines is still ongoing, but I think the bulk of the processing have been made, and I’d welcome any suggestions or complaints about these changes. Please also use this opportunity to report any mistakes that you think may have been made.