Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


SEPTEMBER 18, 2010 7:38PM

The Cornfield Explained

Rate: 13 Flag

Civil, well-focused, and on-topic discussion is sometimes difficult to achieve in a community forum like Open Salon. There aren't a lot of tools to work with, so one has to make do with what one has.

If one deletes another's comments, one is open to criticism that censorship has occurred. And yet, the fact remains that under ordinary societal convention, people routinely accept that there is a proper time and place for making certain remarks, and that it's socially unacceptable to exceed such bounds. Even the Supreme Court has said that time and manner restrictions are appropriate to apply without running afoul of the First Amendment.

About the First Amendment

Of course, the First Amendment is a right of an individual that may be applied against the government, not against other citizens. That is, the government can't shut down speech it doesn't like, but, strictly speaking, individuals can shut each other down, at least without implicating the First Amendment. There may be other legal protections they have to watch out for, of course, but basically ordinary people need not concern themselves with the question of violating another's First Amendment rights unless those ordinary people are acting in a governmental capacity, abusing the power of the government to control speech.

Frankly, I'll even admit there are days where I think the First Amendment is not strong enough, because some non-governmental organizations, particularly media monopolies (or near-monopolies), have such broad power to stifle speech on a systematic basis in a non-appealable way that they can impede what I see as the supervening moral right to the First Amendment, the Freedom to Hear. So I don't really mind seeing a robust dialog under the heading of First Amendment rights when talking about media empires, even though I think it's often not the right way of framing the discussion.

But I'm not a government nor a media monopoly. Not even close. So my calling for some orderliness in my blog, even at the risk that my rationales may be subjective at times, is not at risk of violating anyone's ability to speak. But to keep my hands unambiguously clean on the question of suppressing speach, I've devised a mechanism to make it unambiguous that my goal is not to suppress speech, merely to control its placement.

The Cornfield

For a while now, I've wondered what I would do if someone took over one of my threads or started to use so much airtime that I thought it would be distracting to the topic I had opened the thread to discuss. This is my answer: The Cornfield.

I've based the idea loosely based on a Twilight Zone episode called “It's a Good Life.” In it, six-year-old Anthony Freemont, played by then child actor Billy Mumy, was an out-of-control kid with a special power to make people and things he didn't like simply vanish to a vaguely described place he calls “The Cornfield.”

So I'm going to have something like that, too—a place to move text I don't think belongs without deleting it, just to get it out of the way.

If you carry the metaphor fully through, that makes me the capricious child whose parents won't tell him no. Well, all metaphors have a breaking point. Metaphors are not identities. This is a pet peeve of mine in the analysis people frequently offer. They are offered for the purpose of showing structural similarity, and often have legitimate reasons for not matching on a point-by-point basis. Still, I'm comfortable if someone feels an uncontrollable urge to view me this way. I think the facts will speak for themselves. I just thought I'd steal their thunder by saying I did think of this and I use the metaphor advisedly.

To me, the critical thing is that The Cornfield described in the Twilight Zone episode is not supposed to be about people dying. It is simply about movement to “elsewhere.” And that's what I'm doing. He does it because he can. And I am doing it because I can. I'm tired of being powerless.

Incidentally, several decades later there was a sequel made to this episode, It's Still a Good Life. It stars Billy Mumy and Cloris Leachman, reprising their roles. Many people missed it. It's worth seeing.

How it Works

As noted, if I think you've posted something that's out of place, I'm going to put it in a Cornfield of my own. I've already posted a blog post titled “The Cornfield.” It's not my most recent blog. I'll keep adding to that one, not making new ones. So it won't get promoted. My goal, after all, is not to feature what goes there. It's just to have a place to dump stuff.

Sometimes I feel like people who are pushy in conversations are just daring me to delete their stuff, so I can be accused of censorship. It should be obvious to anyone that since I'm only moving text to another location, I've not deleted it. So the term censorship will definitely not apply.

Moreover, this is a victory for transparency. You can easily see what I've done and complain to me if you think I've done it unfairly. I am, if you'll pardon the momentary corniness, all ears. But just please do your complaining in private mail, or in a blog post of your own. Meta discussion about my cornfield policy is off-topic on any thread not designated specifically for the purpose. It's fine to discuss generic policy here, for example, but not to later complain about specific incidents. Violaters may find themselves in The Cornfield along with those they sought to defend.

In doing this, I have accommodated my view about the Freedom to Hear of my readers. Readers interested in text that moves to The Cornfield can still find it. All I've done is assure that someone else's freedom to speak on my blog doesn't outweigh my own right to speak.

If you want something better than what I'm offering, go write it in a blog post of your own.

The Cornfield is now open for business.

If you got value from this post, please "rate" it.

Please, if you mention me in some public criticism, I'd ask that you spell my name correctly. The extra “t” you're tempted to put inappropriately in my last name goes at the end of my first name, where you're probably tempted to forget it. If you're going to criticize me, you'll want people searching to be able to find it. Thanks!

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I will take 12 dozen ears to freeze for the winter!
(As I recall, those folks who were removed to the cornfield, screamed. How I loved that series. Quality stuff.)
Do I earn a spot?
(Do see your reasoning and really applaud your going to this extent to explain your future actions. I do think it is a good solution.)
O'Steph, heh... I hope not to use it much but that will depend on circumstance, I guess. I just wanted to show that there are always options. I'm glad you agree it's a good solution.

As for the TV show, I don't know whether they screamed. I guess I should go rewatch it. I'd hate to spoil the sequel for you, though summaries are available at IMDB and Wikipedia.
do you have a disclaimer to insert along the lines of 'this comment has been relegated to The Cornfield, which may be located at http:// blahblahblah? You are about the most tolerant and evenhanded soul here Kent. I bet you don't even step on ants, do you?
Abby, I'm not as patient with ants, I fear. But I appreciate the vote of confidence.

In the only post where I've removed something, I've cross-referenced the item with a hypertext link to The Cornfield. Yes, I plan to do that.
Fortunately, Bonnie, since you offered two comments, there's an intervening comment and so I can't be accused of responding after every comment. (In fact, I think I'll let the intervening comment go without a response.)

I'm not trying to say there's no right to delete comments just directly. I'm just trying to demonstrate that even people who feel uncomfortable deleting comments have options. I wouldn't mind deleting outright swears. I delete spam routinely without ceremony. But things that convey information that someone could construe as useful, even if I think it off-topic, are in a middle ground, so I wanted a solution that made me feel better.
Perhaps we should all start our own cornfield. ;-) This is a very innovative concept.
I think this is a pretty cool idea that maybe even open salon could adopt as a software mechanism without too much trouble such that deleted comments get wiped away from posts but go to a trash bag type area that ppl can see if they want. it would be very revealing about what people dont want in their blogs, and if they have large trash bags, you could figure they're narcissists who cant stand a contrary opinion. just like that new so-full-of-herself bloggger karrine whats-her-name..... hi karrine!! =)

but god forbid Ive been on here 1.5 years and dont have the slightest idea who is writing the code or where to make a suggestion along the lines.
vzn, I don't think you'd want to have every delete go to such a place. Almost all of my deletions are spam messages, and the next biggest set involves typos that get deleted by request of the commenter and then replaced by a corrected version. It's probably moot anyway because I'm sure the implementors are presently buried under with problems related to spam.
Seems like a creative approach to me. Hope it will help.
Hey, I like it!

Also, I like your treatment of two other issues that often seem to be misunderstood, at least in discussions online. The First Amendment

Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...

doesn't apply to deleted OS comments. (Unless you're Congress :-)

You further make a nice point about metaphor. I've always liked the phrase "The map is not the territory," despite its having been coined by Alfred Korzybski. All metaphors break down; they're not the real thing.

So, I'm off the cornfield. To read, I mean. Don't send me there.
Anna, thanks. We'll see. It's an experiment.

Rob, I appreciate the support and your noticing and calling out the other buried aspects of this post. I'm glad you agree they are important—I've almost made whole blogs out of some of them. But I have so little time and so many pending blog topics (many hundreds) that sometimes I just slip and idea piggy backing on another just to get it some time in the air.
By the way, I want to clarify that I didn't just change my mind about what replies are appropriate. This is not an announcement of some new Draconian editorial policy. It's just a new technique for dealing with people who don't take a hint.

The particular defensive tactic on my part may have been a surprise, but surely the fact that I was upset was not. In a thread on a previous post, the inaugural recipient of this treatment heard me say to him, “Why don't you instead of criticizing my posts, offer your own? Seriously. It feels like you have something to say, so say it. But on your own space. It doesn't help to do what you do. That consumes discussion space instead of creating discussion space. That ruins conversational momentum instead of creating it. Surely you can see that.”

Then, in a later comment on the same thread, he heard me say, “I'm putting you on notice: Any technical point you needed to make was long ago made and you are well into mere filibustering.”

In fact, I've tried to be very generous about what is counted as on-topic, being someone who frequently goes at right angles in conversations himself. I often love the interesting thing that comes when someone has a tangential idea and shares it, and would like not to stifle that. That's why I've gone to such extremes to keep this process transparent, so that whatever else, we're not at risk of losing something so precious as a single human thought.

I just need a deterrent against someone picking out my thread as a place he's going to set up camp to wage a political campaign every time he perceives a certain issue is anywhere near being in play.

I often break down big topics into bite-sized chunks exactly so I don't have to revisit every aspect of every issue in every thread. And I even try to be sensitive when a new face shows up who might not have seen my other threads and might not realize this, and give them extra latitude. But if a familiar face shows up who knows what I'm doing, or should, and answers every thread as if it were every other, I don't need that kind of repetition. It's tedious and it won't make my readers want to slug through the comments.

At the end of the day, often quite literally, I need to exercise time management that works for me. I have a more-than-full-time day job and it's really hard for me to find time to blog at all. My time here is precious and I have a lot of issues to cover.
This is diabolically fabulous. I don't have the problems you do, since - heh, not posting solves many things, but there are a whole lot of people I'd love to send to the cornfield anyway! I wish I'd thought of this.
Mumbletypeg, we'll see if it works, but I didn't patent it, so you could try it too, if it does.

Tears, I guess it's possible it'll get a cult. Ironically, the remarks moved here might get better visibility than where they came from. That's OK. As I said, I'm not trying to suppress them, just move them out of where they distract. As for the “sci-fi” solution, well... A lot of science fiction is just politics dressed in neutral clothing—shiny, but neutral. And some of it is about allegory and symbolism. But it's always got an entertainment aspect, too. I guess I'm willing to own all of those things. :)
I didn't realize until now but OS really is the Twilight Zone.
Hatchetface, it's an interesting conjecture. I'll keep my eyes open for signposts up ahead. :)
Thank you, Kent. I've just discovered my own need for The Cornfield. I don't believe in censorship, but I'm not crazy about people shitting in my living room, either.
The cornfield is from the online video game, Second Life, no?
Didn't see this the first time around. Loved the Twilight Zone episode and think it is applicable in many areas... ~r