When you publish a post, you might get comments. Some of them might be pointing you to additional resources or expressing gratitude for the post, while some might give constructive feedback and point out disagreements or errors. It can be nice to engage in a conversation to get to the bottom of the disagreement but, crucially: you don’t have to respond to every comment.
Epistemic status (how much you should trust me): Engaging with the Forum is my job, and I ran this by a few people, who all agreed with the argument. One person was surprised that this was an issue. So I’m more confident than usual.
Let’s say you’ve written a Forum post and finally gotten up the courage to publish it. You click the ‘Publish’ button, then anxiously avoid the Forum — but you occasionally check back in to glance at the karma count on your post.
And then suddenly someone leaves a comment. Maybe they say:
You write [...], but I don’t think this accounts for [...]. I think this means [...].
We encourage collective truth-seeking on the Forum, and sometimes that involves disagreements and criticism or pointing out errors. The commenter — as long as they’re civil — is providing a service by disagreeing or giving you feedback.
As a result, it can sometimes feel like you’re obliged to respond to long or substantive comments. You might feel that since the commenter has put lots of effort into their comment, it’s rude not to respond. Or, especially if the comment is critical, it can feel like you’ve been publicly challenged, and if you don’t respond, you’ve ‘lost’. Or you might worry that if you don’t reply, you’ll look like a coward who can’t acknowledge their errors.
These feelings are misguided. While it’s often helpful to engage in a conversation on the Forum and incorporate feedback into your posts, it’s not always the best course of action, and this should not be an obligation or even a strong norm.
Some reasons you may not want to respond to comments
- You find it emotionally draining or stressful to engage in the conversation
- Responding takes valuable time that you could be spending on something else
- Keeping up with the conversation would distract you and harm your productivity
- You just don’t want to
Relatedly, there are some specific harms that arise from having a norm that people should always respond to comments:
- People respond to comments too much and are unhappy, waste their time, or misuse their energy as a result
- People don’t post in the first place because they don’t want to have to respond to all the comments
None of this means that Forum readers shouldn’t comment on posts! I think commenting is great. Just don’t be upset if the original poster does not respond.
And of course, there are many reasons for responding to comments — you just shouldn’t feel like you have to.
Conclusion & message
If you ever needed someone with some semblance of authority to tell you that it’s ok to leave comments unanswered — consider this your message of permission. Someone I know even struck a bargain with their partner, agreeing that they will pay a fine if they respond to any comment on their forum post within the first week. That doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
If you don’t want to engage with comments but feel awkward saying nothing, you can also share a link to this post and leave a comment response that just reads:
Thank you for your comment. I appreciate it, but will not engage further.
Thanks to those who prompted this post and gave feedback on it!
Beware over-identification with karma! Karma can be determined by tons of random things — from the time you posted to what else is going on or what’s in vogue on the Forum that week — and doesn’t track true impact very well. Plus, this all can feed into impostor syndrome.
Also, as a reminder: you can change how you get karma notifications (or even disable them entirely). Go to your account settings (hover over your username, find “Account Settings”), and then find the “Notifications” section and change “Vote Notifications” appropriately. I’ve left mine at the default — notifications once per day, and no notifications for negative karma.
If you get rude comments, please feel free to report them.
The classic example is Hauke Hillebrandt’s [updated] Global development interventions are generally more effective than climate change interventions, which was initially titled “Climate change interventions are generally more effective than global development interventions” and was significantly updated after a discussion in the comments. I think it’s great.
Another great (and more recent example): I was looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
I think this post is literally correct -- I don't think there should be a strong norm of responding to every comment.
But ... I kind of think there should be a norm of trying to respond to substantive comments (where it's OK not to do it, but that's an "OK not to always meet the norm when it's not convenient", not "there isn't even a norm here"). I don't think post authors are just in the same position of "it's nice to respond to things" as everyone else. I guess I think of it as analogous to giving a talk and not taking questions ... sure, sometimes it's the right call (and I'm supportive if someone really isn't up for taking questions), but it's really nice to try to clear some space for it if you can. And I worry that it's easy to read this post as having the implicature of "just don't bother responding if you don't feel like it".
This matters to me because I think we're collectively into truth-seeking about important topics, and I think that often some of the best content comes in back-and-forths where people are arguing about detailed points. I worry that a culture where people are encouraged to not respond to comments and go write their next post instead leads to more talking past each other, less accountability, and ultimately less grounding of our culture and our knowledge.
e.g. say I make a post arguing X, and someone else asks a pointed question in the comments. If I don't respond and this is fully socially endorsed it might be easy for readers to think "oh I'm sure Owen was just busy but he has a good response". But then if I don't have a good answer to the point it may be hard for the pointed question to get the social impact that it deserves, unless someone takes the time/effort to write up enough context that it can be a top-level post and rise to prominence itself.
(I don't think responses to substantive comments always need to be substantive to be helpful. I think it's great to just share "good point", or "hmm, yeah, I want to think more about that", or "I've never found this kind of argument compelling although I can't put my finger on exactly why" if that's where you're at.)
It's really nice when people engage with comments, especially with useful comments, but I worry by making it into a norm we're losing more than we gain as a community. Will MacAskill for example has mentioned a couple of times that he finds posting on the Forum really uncomfortable because of the comments, and in his last post explicitly said that he wouldn't respond to any comments. In other situations, people might have to decide between writing a second post about a different topic and responding to the comments on their first post.
I agree with you that responding to comments can be really valuable - even just responding to the one or two best comments! - but I can see a lot of situations where it doesn't end up being the best use of someone's time or mental health.
I totally agree that there are some times when it's correct for people not to respond. But overall I think it's pretty clearly good to have some norm for the reasons above. Because I think that a lot of good things come out of getting to the bottom of stuff, I'd typically prefer that people posted half as many things if it meant they'd engage properly with comments on those things. I really worry that with no norm here we might lose something important about EA culture.
I think the ideal equilibrium should incur both some pain from less-response-than-we-might-hope and some pain from people-feeling-obliged-to-respond. I think maybe we're actually doing about right at that at the moment, on average? But I think it would better if everyone felt a bit of obligation to respond and nobody felt an overwhelming obligation to respond (and I guess right now it's more like some people feel it as overwhelming and some don't feel it at all).
I think it's plausible that the norm is overall a bit too strong or a bit too weak at the moment. I feel pretty bad about "no norm" though.
What? How do you know? Are you following me?
I applaud the intention in this, and would like to encourage everyone on the forum to either explain jargon like this, or drop it altogether and leave just the clear-English part.
Edit: I specifically suggest "how much I'm sure of this:".
But 'epistemic status' and 'trustworthiness' are not the same thing! A well written investigation into a very speculative area that adequately explained its uncertainty could have weak epistemic status but be very trustworthy; an dogmatic piece of rhetoric could be written by a zealot whose epistemic status was one of complete confidence, but for whom third parties should not trust at all.
In a shallow search, I haven't managed to find a definition for "epistemic status". Could you define it?
The impression I've gotten over my time on the forum is that authors use it to indicate to the readers how much thought, research etc. has gone into the post, in order to inform their credibility assesments of its contents.
I am shocked that the first good definition I found is on Urban Dictionary: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Epistemic%20Status
This seems like "how much I'm sure of this" then, isn't it?
Yes, I agree that's very close
Agreed. The trend of writing "Epistemic status" as one of the first things in a post without a definition or explanation (kudos to Lizka for including one) has bothered me for some time. It immediately and unnecessarily alienates readers by making them feel like they need to be familiar with the esoteric word "epistemic", which usually has nothing to do with the rest of the post.
Would be happy to see this frequent jargon replaced with something like "How much you should trust me", "Author confidence" or "Post status" (maybe there's a better phrase, just some examples that come to mind).
Strong upvoted, I think this is an important norm to promote and was really clearly written. Thanks for posting!
You can also add a similar note to the end of a post, e.g. "Note: I may not respond to all comments but at least intend to read them all."
I like this suggestion. It seems a bit less pointed than responding non-responsively.
Agree, thanks for writing this up!
I wonder if gentle nudges or reminders like this could be linked in the comment field default text (the one that says "Write here. Select text for formatting ... ").
If you feel like there's not enough space to add that and you have to prioritise - I personally would find gentle nudges or reminders like this one more useful than knowing whether or not you support LaTeX. The commenting guidelines also seem like a good place, but they're only shown when writing an original comment and not when writing replies to other comments, so for this specific reminder, they wouldn't work.
I saw this headline in the Digest and clicked over. The sincere question I have is: Is this forum many people's lives? That is fine -- why not -- but it does seem like quite a few people live here, commenting and then re-commenting.