Tone and Trolling 2.0

So first off, this blog has gotten some new readers from repostings of my Six Things Not to Say about Religion post.  Thanks to Ian, Skeptic Griggsy, Levantium and Cristian for reposting!  And welcome to you newbies!  My name is Jessica, and I enjoy long walks on the beach, excessive amounts of caffeine, and discussing Theodore of Mopsuestia when drunk.  So you can imagine how much fun I am at parties!

Also, in news that has nothing to do with this blog but which is about history and makes me really, really happy, the body of Richard III has been discovered under a parking lot:  Congrats to the team at the University of Leicester!  Also, my favorite reaction so far:

Guys, if the groundhog saw his shadow and Richard III was discovered a few days later, does that mean that the winter of our discontent has officially been made glorious summer by the son of York? (via schmergo on tumblr)

You, good sir, win at the internet.

So as for actual content… Based on some of the comments I’ve been getting recently and some of the comments on the reposts of my Six Things post, I want to revisit the issue of tone and trolling.  Firstly, though, as a disclaimer, let me just say – yes, I understand how the internet works and have no intention of feeding the trolls.  Especially when my stuff gets reposted other places, I feel no need to run in and defend it at every turn – if people have questions, I’ll try to answer them (and hopefully they’ll have the common sense to leave those questions on my blog if they want me to answer), but otherwise, people can say what they like, and if it’s not my space to regulate, I’m not going to try to do so.

But the fact is, tone and trolling are not issues that only affect the internet.  Instead, they’re massively big problems for loads of different kinds of interactions, academia included.  They’re probably bigger problems on the internet, due in no small part of John Gabriel’s “Greater Internet F***wad Theory” (NSFW for language, as the name should imply), but at least in my experience of academia, academics and smart people in general are often incredibly bad about recognizing their own tone.

As it happens, I’ve come across a couple of really great examples of this in completely non-religion-related areas.  And in my experience in teaching, I’ve often found it useful to use unrelated examples, because it’s sometimes easier to extrapolate from an example where you’re not getting bogged down in the details of the source itself.

So first up – what could be less readable than the NIH blog!  Seriously, the National Institutes of Health run blogs, like most government agencies do these days, and post of things like funding results.  And I think the comments on this page on the funding results for 2012 give some interesting examples on tone and trolling.  In particular, these two comments:

Considering the discrepancy in positivism between the article writer and the posters it appears that a happy administrator does not necessarily translate into happy workers. (from HF)


Dr. Rocky and her NIH administrative colleagues may have “made it”, but many of my colleagues have not. I’d like to hear about some innovative, creative ways to fix our basic research budget crisis rather than what seem to be fairly meaningless statistics. I’ve talked to several mid-career colleagues recently who are ready to throw in the towel and look to do something else if their latest RO1 resubmission doesn’t get funded. What is the NIH planning to do to keep the US competitive, and not lose a generation of mid-career scientists? I’d like to hear more discussions about these topics…forget about the statistics. (from Karen Duss)

First, it’s worth pointing out that the two comments say largely the same thing – that the positive focus on the blog post is being used to mask larger issues regarding the rates of academic funding during the current recession.  But how they say them is very different.  The comment from HF is vague, giving no details and no points to which the author could respond.  Moreover, the tone is patronising and condescending, implying that the NIH and the blog’s author are acting as bad bosses for their scientist “workers,” as opposed to the scientists being independent actors who are getting funding from the NIH, who should know that funding (unlike salaries) is not a guarantee.

However, in both cases, I think the real heart of the problem in tone is the emotion left on the page.  Both commenters are obviously very passionate about the issue at stake, and are commenting for that reason.  That’s fair enough – funding is a big part of scholarship, and it’s a scary one, and the current losses in funding are terrifying for everyone.  But the thing is, that’s not the NIH’s fault.  The NIH are in the process of divvying up what little funding they have in as sane and rational a way as possible, but no matter what they do, a lot of good science is going to go unfunded.  That sucks, but again, directing that ire at the NIH is both pointless and a little insulting – the NIH can’t change it, and as most people in the NIH are themselves scientists, they’re probably just as pissed off about it as the researchers applying for funding.

So yeah, tone matters – go yell at the NIH on their blog if you like, but it’s not really going to accomplish anything.  But what I particularly like about this example is that these people are presumably actual research scientists, who really should know better!  Problems with tone are problems everyone has.

My second example comes from buzzfeed (I did mention my addiction to it, yes?  Also, please can I have some pallets and chalkboard paint?!) – a recent article on a the twitter flame war over race in Silicon Valley.  I had seen bits of it on twitter (I don’t follow any of those people on twitter, b/c twitter is clearly for bad puns and jokes about Superb Owls), but seeing the whole exchange in one line makes it easier to pinpoint one of the most common flaws in trying to debate about privilege.  After repeated stating that he didn’t know why minorities were less successful in IT startups, Jason Calacanis was given an answer by Anil Dash, that privilege, including white privilege, is still a problem, and that Silicon Valley is not the pure meritocracy it claims to be:

@Jason @samfbiddle @mpaul @jbouie here’s the thing – a person of color is telling you what they experienced. You’re saying “No you didn’t”.

And Calacanis not only rejects Dash’s explanation, but chastises Xeni Jardin for getting into the debate:

@xeni @anildash @jbouie @rafat xeni please don’t let fact that i gave women & people of color their 1st shot cloud the argument I’m racist

Look at the difference in tone between Dash’s comment and Calacanis’.  Again, the words “patronising” and “condescending” come to mind.  Calacanis is also derailing in a very backhanded way – in his comment, he casually asserts that he personally has supported women and people of color (possibly also women of color? I’m unclear if Calacanis understands that those categories overlap), but he ends the comment by casually dropping “racist” – something that none of the other participants in this debate had used in reference to him or anyone else.

But again, I think the clearest thing about the tone of Calacanis’ comment is the emotion – he was obviously hurt by Dash’s comments, and lashed out in response, massively misrepresenting what Dash had said and dropping the “racist” bomb to end the argument, either consciously or unconsciously.

But the other thing I want to point out about these comments is I don’t think any of them are trolling, at least not in the classical sense[1].  The people making them all feel genuinely engaged with the discussion.

A million and five people have pointed out that tone is incredibly difficult to impart and interpret in writing because so much of how we communicate is nonverbal.  Take away inflection and body language, and things like sarcasm, humor, insult and hurt all but disappear.  For the same reason, it’s incredibly difficult to know when you’ve wounded someone if you’re only talking to them online.  But the reality is that this is a big part of how we communicate, and as I think both of these examples demonstrate, is not something that just matters if you want to be on wordpress or tumblr.  It’s become a part of everything we do, and so we kind of need to keep talking about it.

[1] Is there already a classical sense of trolling?  Can I cite wikipedia for this?

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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1 Response to Tone and Trolling 2.0

  1. Pingback: CAIR protesting teacher’s use of Godwin’s Law | askanislamicist

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