For Better Commenting, Take an Oath of Reply.

post by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-05-31T06:01:13.722Z · LW · GW · 17 comments
Thus spoke Maedhros and Maglor and Celegorm, Curufin and Caranthir, Amrod and Amras, princes of the Noldor; and many quailed to hear the dread words. For so sworn, good or evil, an oath may not be broken, and it shall pursue oathkeeper and oathbreaker to the world's end. - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

If our blogging is to be more than shouting into the void, we have to write good comments. But that's hard to do. [LW · GW] If commenters have a low prior that they'll receive a response, they might not bother to write a comment in the first place, producing a negative feedback loop.

One simple solution is an Oath of Reply.

At the end of your post or comment, make a realistic promise stating when and how much you will respond to those who reply to you. You can make one Oath of Reply to your general audience, and separate oaths to specific commenters. You can also update  and increase the specificity of your oaths as you go along. Keeping them accurate is even more important than keeping them.

For example, you might make vows like these:

I’m interested in spending at least X hours, with an option for more, having a longer conversation with you on this. Let me know if you're interested.

You have good ideas, and I can promise to participate in at least a few more back-and-forths on this if you're still engaged.

I will probably respond once if you comment, but I'm unlikely to respond more than once unless it's exceptionally intriguing.

Oaths of Reply are entirely voluntary. You do not need to make one. You don't have to make a big one. If you don't make an Oath of Reply, nobody can pressure you to do so, or complain if you don't respond. This is opt-in, not opt-out.

Oaths of Reply also come with an assumption of good faith and self-care. Rudeness and the intervening of life circumstances are grounds to modify or break the oath. Furthermore, it's very hard to predict the future beyond a few months. So an Oath of Reply lasts for no more than three months unless it is explicitly refreshed. This should be a universal understanding if somebody makes an Oath of Reply.

However, it is obligatory to state explicitly that you are modifying your oath. After all, the function of the Oath of Reply is to set accurate prior expectations about the likelihood of receiving a reply. If you honestly can't uphold it, then the best thing you can do to preserve the sanctity and power of the oath is to say so explicitly. That way, the other person can interpret your modification as altering their prior expectations about you, rather than their priors about the oath.

When you break your Oath of Reply without an explicit statement, only then have you truly become an oathbreaker.

For this post, my Oath of Reply is to respond to top-level comments at least once through August 2021. I will likely pursue longer-form discussions. If commenters provide especially helpful feedback, I'll note it here along with an acknowledgement.

Thanks to Adam Zerner, who motivated me [LW · GW] to write these ideas down.

17 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2021-05-31T09:49:41.699Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Should be consideration/reflection, not reply. Without something interesting/necessary to say, replying is noise.

Replies from: gjm, AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by gjm · 2021-05-31T10:46:25.390Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My interpretation is that an "Oath of Reply" is only meant to create an obligation to reply if the thing being replied to expects a reply. (Some comments don't.)

There may be comments that expect a reply but to which actually replying is not helpful (e.g., because they're some sort of taunting trollery, or because the writer unfortunately makes it clear that they haven't understood something basic and probably never will). In those cases, though, there is still some value in replying -- it lets the other person know that you have paid attention to what they wrote. I would expect someone with an "Oath of Reply" in force to reply to these saying something like "Thanks for your feedback. I don't expect to be engaging further with this line of argument, because unfortunately I think you have misunderstood my intent so fundamentally that it wouldn't be helpful." or "This is the reply I promised, but I think you are trolling and won't reply to any more of your comments unless something changes my mind on that." Maybe that's noise in the sense that it doesn't add extra information to the main discussion, but I think it's productive noise in the same sort of way as "please" and "thank you" and other conversational pleasantries are in casual discourse.

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-05-31T13:34:53.875Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for that great response, very in line with my own thinking!

Replies from: philh
comment by philh · 2021-06-03T14:21:45.569Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, this seems like a fine policy. But calling it an "oath of reply" feels like it waters down the word "oath" in a way I dislike. (cf. the people who've taken the GWWC pledge, and said that if in future they think it's not a good idea, they'll just stop doing it.) Especially when the stuff you've said should be a universal understanding (around self care, rudeness, circumstances changing) is left implicit. That stuff won't be universally understood.

As a simple change that I personally would consider an improvement, I'd call it a "reply policy". A few words making it clear that this not absolute might be good too. Perhaps, for the one you left on this post:

For this post, my reply policy is to respond to top-level comments at least once, absent a specific reason not to, through August 2021. I will likely pursue longer-form discussions. If commenters provide especially helpful feedback, I’ll note it here along with an acknowledgement.

(Possible downside: readers might take that to be weaker than you consider it.)

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-06-03T14:57:39.443Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a good point. I picked the word "oath" intuitively, and I can try to articulate why.

First, "policy" feels more detached and state-ish than I wanted. I wanted a word that conveyed some emotional depth and a spark of human connection.

Also, "policy" has the implication of being explicit in its details, like a law. By contrast, an oath is about building credibility without being specific about what actions to take. Here's a sample from the Hippocratic Oath:

  • "I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant: I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow."

Policies can also have statements like that occasionally, but they are also often extremely detailed and voluminous:

  • "Employees accrue 2.15 hours of emergency personal time per pay period. On an annual basis, this is the equivalent of 56 hours. Employees may use emergency personal time up to 56 hours."

But if you want to call yours a policy, more power to you!

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-05-31T13:34:24.627Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

gjm expresses it well! I think you’re right that some comments are in a special category of clearly not needing a reply. Maybe there’s a way to briefly acknowledge that the comment has been seen and considered, however.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-05-31T20:13:12.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe there’s a way to briefly acknowledge that the comment has been seen and considered, however.

Emoji replies come to mind. Although 1) I feel like there's something refreshing about them not being a thing on LessWrong and 2) I think it can be assumed that comments have been seen and considered.

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-06-01T05:57:53.812Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are ways to do a “message received, thanks” in a few short words. Emojis are annoying in formal settings and convey much less than even just a single short sentence.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2021-05-31T22:01:21.528Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

General advice on dealing with difficult commitments: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/tAzdgzTtCG5vHwTt6/reneging-prosocially-by-duncan-sabien [LW · GW

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-06-01T06:23:39.404Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for linking this in to the conversation.

comment by gilch · 2021-05-31T21:08:38.408Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Committing to reply to any comment seems like bait for trolls. Replying too much can be a bad thing. I worry about being off-putting by seeming needy or desperate. I also want to give my commenters a chance to talk to each other without me interrupting.

Replies from: Pattern, Gunnar_Zarncke, AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by Pattern · 2021-06-02T01:39:02.391Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Committing to reply to any comment seems like [a bad idea].

Then don't. It could be 'at least one', or 'First', or something. There could also be something like 'if no one posts any comments on this, then (after a week) I will'.

There's also the option of including a 'unless I think you're a troll' clause.

I also want to give my commenters a chance to talk to each other without me interrupting.

The oath could be conditional on being invoked?

Like, 'I will respond to the first 5 questions

a) about this piece

b) directed at me*'


*(It's easier to do this if there's a way to be specifically notified, like an @ option).

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2021-05-31T22:06:22.323Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That depends on the expected number of trolls and I would assume some implicit disclaimers like '... this is intended to be understood charitably and not to the letter of it." One might want to make that explicit though and then refer to e.g. The Standard LW Oath of reply." Something like

My Oath of Reply is to respond to top-level comments at least once while there is an ongoing discussion [details to be defined]. I will likely pursue longer-form discussions. If commenters provide especially helpful feedback, I'll note it here along with an acknowledgement.

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-06-01T06:05:18.503Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like the idea of a standard LW OoR, and maybe there could be several. Optimally it would be as convenient as possible to include one.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2021-06-01T06:04:17.866Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The oath of reply is meant as a prior-increaser for receiving a reply specifically for an audience aiming for good faith dialog. So any assumptions or modifications needed to specify the sort of conversation you’re looking to have are appropriate. Much of this needs to be implicit, as we’re all busy people and don’t need 10 pages of legal boilerplate for this stuff.

comment by Pattern · 2021-06-02T01:35:23.954Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
For this post, my Oath of Reply is to respond to top-level comments at least once through August 2021.

Top level comments on what? This post?

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast