Every technology that solves problems creates new ones, most of which can't be solved by purely technological means. Online discussions (including Twitter, mailing lists, and comment threads on blogs) are a prime example. As Megan O'Donnell points out in these posts on the Scholarly Communication list [1]:

...a few voices...are so loud and frequent that this mailing list feels like a soapbox far more often than a discussion forum.


Consider the following: I'm a new librarian about to hit my 3rd work-anniversary. I've written one research paper so far. I am in the stage of my career where I still deal with imposter syndrome, sometimes daily. This means that posting on a public, international mailing list can be hard. It is harder when the list's most active posters have decades more experience, a national reputation, and post so often that I see their names and opinions daily. If you cannot relate to this that's fine – but it is a reality for many and should not be dismissed. Ignoring the options and feelings of those you disagree with is not a solution. Waiting for things to blow over is also not a solution as it simply isolates those that disagree.

She also said:

Some of my suggestions for making this a more inclusive and welcoming environment:

  • Don't feel like you need to respond to every post, you don't.
  • Wait at least 5-10 minutes before responding.
  • Consider if your message would be better as sent off-list.
  • Tone down the language – this is business, not personal.

This, and my analysis of gender balance in the Software Carpentry community, has prompted me to re-think this Mailman feature request that Barry Warsaw filed on my behalf last year:

It would be very useful to add list options to limit the number of posts each subscriber can make per hour, day, week, or arbitrary time frame. Many lists have rules limiting subscribers to 2, 3, 5, or 10 post per day, but depend the honor system or on moderators to enforce the rule.

A comment on the feature request says that GroupServer already has this feature. As per the opening of this post, I realize that featuring up a piece of software is unlikely to solve a social problem, but I'd be grateful for feedback from people who've used this, or something like it, on how well it works. Does throttling contributions from more verbose contributors actually encourage others to start saying their piece? How about enforcing a delay (the second of Megan's points): if the system bounced any replies posted in less than 10 minutes, would that enforced cooling off lead to more reasonable, and more participatory, discussion? Somebody must have tried this in real life—pointers would be very welcome.

[1] To view these, I had to click a button to say I'm not a robot, then paste the original URLs back into the browser to get to the posts I wanted to read.

In the wake of posts about Shopify's support for white nationalists and DataCamp's attempts to cover up sexual harassment
I have had to disable comments on this blog. Please email me if you'd like to get in touch.