the orgtheory psychological contract
At orgtheory we’ve tried to develop a loose environment for scholarly discussion. By loose, I mean a place where people can feel comfortable talking about serious ideas in a fun way, without the formality of a colloquium and more open and inclusive than most professional settings. For the most part we’ve been successful I think at facilitating that sort of feeling among contributors. Over the years we’ve had great conversations that have not been constrained by status, rank, or other forms of exclusivity. A community has formed around orgtheory that, while including a lot of sociologists, is fairly interdisciplinary and broad. Personally, that’s why I keep coming back and, even if I’ll go weeks without posting anything, I place a lot of value on this blog and the people who come here to speak their mind.
Our discussions frequently veer from their intended targets and most of the time that is totally okay and within the norms of orgtheory. This place would be boring if people were required to stay on point all the time. It’s consistent with the loose, collegial atmosphere we’ve tried to create. But occasionally (and I mean very infrequently) discussions turn in a sour direction. This wasn’t a problem for the first few years of the blog, perhaps because in those early years we knew almost everyone who came online to connect with us. We had a small community and it was easy to enforce norms with each other. But in the past couple of years, we’ve had a few posts where commenters have become a little snippy with each other. We’ve talked internally about how best to handle those outbursts. As I see it two ideals compete with each other. On the one hand, we value inclusiveness and believe that the best way to encourage real discussion and debate is not to censor. We want people to feel that their input is valued, regardless of status, rank, expertise, etc. On the other hand, we value civility and believe that if people treat each other according to the “golden rule” a greater variety of people will be more likely to participate. And it does seem to be true that when discussions get especially rancorous, many people drop out of the debate and the more impassioned voices surge to the front line. The rules of discussion that Fabio posted a few months ago were a response to the rising tide of incivility that we observed on the blog.
And this leads me to the incident lurking behind this post. As many of you know, last Friday I invoked rule #6 and deleted a comment. I subsequently shut down the comments section over the weekend. We very rarely delete comments that are not spam. In this case, I felt that it was justified because the comment was posted anonymously and because it was overly-sarcastic and seemed intended to merely criticize a person rather than engage the person. I shut down comments because I saw the potential for a complete derailment of the discussion that would have led to a tone of negativity and hijacked the main stream. Up until that point, I felt like it was a very intelligent, well reasoned debate, and I had no issues with how people conducted themselves or what they said. I don’t regret deleting the comment. I may have shut down the comments section hastily though, and I regret if anyone feels that I censored them. I can only think of one or two times before when we’ve shut down comments. We’ve been wary of doing it because it cuts against our ideal of inclusiveness.
Yesterday, Andrew Gelman, as many of you know, wrote a blog post about this kerfuffle and made this statement:
The idea that a claim, just because it’s published in a top journal, should go unquestioned, or that critics are “trolls,” or that anonymous commenters can’t be trusted (in comparison to anonymous journal reviewers, who are trusted even though their reports are forever hidden): that really bothers me. It seems contrary to the goals and practices of science and scholarship, and indeed contrary to the goals of publication itself.
I want to make clear: this blog does not take the position that critics or anonymous commenters are trolls. We only delete comments when someone, usually an anonymous person, makes a comment that seems intended only to denigrate someone else’s character and criticize the person, not their stance. Any comment that I left on the comment thread undeleted is not trollish in my view. I perceived that the tone of the comment thread, however, was shifting and (based on my experience with past threads) it was quickly going to deteriorate into troll-heaven. The last few comments were moving away from the main discussion – in that sense, I felt like the thread was being hijacked. I wanted to avoid that.
Here at orgtheory we feel that we have a psychological contract with our contributors/commenters/readers/bloggers. Almost everything is fair game for discussion. If you keep away from making personal attacks or going after someone’s character or criticizing in a needlessly sarcastic tone or hijacking a thread so that you can grind your own ax, then you can say what you want to say and criticize and debate and question to your heart’s delight. If you want to question why I wrote something or why I’m posting about something that you think is irrelevant, do it. If you think the blog sucks, tell us. If you don’t agree with the merits of an argument, make your case. If you dislike an article that everyone else seems to love, explain why. Just abide by the basic rules and you have enormous latitude. That’s been my position, and I want to reiterate that it is my position going forward.
I truly appreciate the number of people who have been commenters on this blog over the years. Without your contribution, orgtheory wouldn’t be what it is. I also appreciate the people, like Jerry Davis, who are willing to go out on a line and be provocative and write ideas and arguments that make us think and debate. We need more people like Jerry Davis in academia. I also appreciate everyone who rushes in to tell Jerry why they think he’s wrong. I’ve done it myself. I’m glad that Jerry and I can still be friends even when we disagree on certain points (such as whether organizations are in decline as social actors/organizing units). The same can be said of many of our participants who return again and again.
I hope all of you keep contributing. Our end of the psychological contract is that we give the space and sometimes the fodder for discussion, and we occasionally moderate. Your end of the contract is simply that you avoid crossing that line into the arena of personal attack. It’s really for the good of everyone that we do that. The more personal attack there is, the fewer valuable contributors there will be in the future. I hope we can continue to foster that loose, fun, interesting, and compelling place for discussion for many years to come.