Is it really “us and them”? – Time to debate!   34 comments

The Internet has popularised cryptic crosswords in a way that could never have happened before. More people are solving and commenting, and setters are seeing almost instant feedback on their work. It all sounds great, but does it come at a price?

There’s a simple arithmetical fact; the higher the number of contributors to a blogged puzzle, the wider the potential band of good/bad comments. For setters, good and bad go with the territory, and it’s inevitable. Each solver is an individual for whom certain clue types hit the spot. Some hate cryptic definitions, others relish them. Some want short, snappy clues, while others enjoy the challenge of unravelling long and complex wordplay constructions. Everyone has different tastes and it’s impossible to address them all – certainly within the confines of a single puzzle.

Inevitable as this is, it can be taken too far, and some editors and setters are becoming concerned by the viciousness of some commenters. It’s more than my life’s worth to name names, but there are cases of editors and setters who have vowed to stay away from blogs to which they previously added comments. Instead of furthering the “brotherhood” of this joyous activity we call cryptic crosswords, divisions are being created which turn the myth of the wall between solvers and setters into reality.

All of which leads to a question; is it the case that commenters must somehow censor themselves before posting? If that is so, it raises concerns about the freedom of speech we all take for granted. None of the most popular blogs is officially affiliated to the newspapers whose crosswords they review, so they have no duty to kowtow. If a solver doesn’t like a crossword they are free to say so.

To be honest I don’t know what the answer is, which is why I invite you to debate the question of how we can use the blogs to unite rather than divide.

Over to you.


Posted August 26, 2010 by Anax in Newsification

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34 responses to “Is it really “us and them”? – Time to debate!

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  1. A very pertinent topic, limited not only to crosswords.

    On the internet, people tend to be more vicious with criticism than they would be in person. Crossword blogs are at the more civilised end of the spectrum!

    With time, every blog builds a culture and commenters understand what kind of comments they can make there. Is that really true, about editors and setters who stopped visiting blogs? That is sad.

    I must mention that on my blog, I do not publish comments that I feel cross the line. I have had heated email exchanges with some whose comments did not get published. I have been told that my site seems to favour some individuals over others and is “a bit of a closed affair”.

    Well, I’d rather take that feedback than publish nasty comments in the name of openness.

    There is no reason why freedom of speech and courtesy should not go together.

  2. “There is no reason why freedom of speech and courtesy should not go together”.

    Beautifully put.

  3. I would agree with Shuchi’s comments regarding blogs and forums on the wider T’Internet – you get trolls everywhere. The fact that Crossword sites tend to attract thinkers might mean that people tend to be less vituperative but as has been seen there are still comments posted that I find disgraceful, both for the tone and the lack of justification (and sometimes the sheer damned ignorance!).
    It is clear that the anonymity adds to the problem – you wouldn’t walk up to a setter (or anybody else) and make a similar comment to their face.
    There is a good case for using some of the moderating functions on ‘blogs/forums but all this requires additional work from the site owners and associates. which is not always possible.
    No answers from me either except to say that I always try and self-moderate.

  4. As if by magic:
    See comment #9.
    I think it illustrates gnomey’s “lack of justification” comment rather well.

  5. I had just logged in and nearly posted it here! What does it add to any discussion?

  6. Do you think the ‘shouty’ people who comment on puzzles are those newer to the art of the cryptic. If you started well before the invention of the internet, perhaps you got all that out of your system years ago when you had no wider forum but just muttered a lot on the train. Having said that, however, I would hope that I haven’t ever blamed the setter – I always assumed, and still do, that its just my brain not being on the right wavelength or having an off day.

  7. The shouty people seem to be at both ends of the solving spectrum. It’s as often the case that easy puzzles are derided by very experienced solvers as hard ones being so treated by novices.
    Those two bands of solvers seem to be the most vociferous and the least considered in their remarks.

  8. The worst comments I’ve seen are on the Guardian’s own ‘comments’ section, possibly because there’s a long tradition of blanket moaning on CiF! I think most if not all of the regular bloggers are aware that their comments may well be read by setters, and try to be polite even if they didn’t enjoy a puzzle. Personally, I see nothing wrong with sites choosing not to publish comments that are offensive to setters or anyone else – individuals no automatic right to publish on a site that’s administrated by someone else. The point made above that moderation takes time which isn’t always available to site administrators is well made, and I suppose that’s the crux of the problem. Perhaps some form of group moderation, where a certain number of ‘dislikes’ would suspend a comment, is a possibility?

    • An interesting idea although not always possible. On some Yahoo newsgroups a certain number of “thumbs-down” clicks hides a response (“This comment has been hidden due to its low rating”) and – if I remember correctly – the Google Groups fora allow each comment to be rated, but blogs such as this, and others of a similar type, don’t have those options.

      The only outlet for rebuttal of unreasonable comments is for others to highlight them as such, and not many people are happy to put themselves into such a potentially confrontational position.

  9. I am saddened that setter-solver interactions sometimes divide. Was it Edison who had the comment on genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration – I think it can be generalised for other walks of life as well. There are nuggets out there (for example, comment # 20, or other penny-drop-moment comments on Mr. Keith Vas (z)), but they are also mixed with the din of the “shoutys”..

    What are my motivations as a solver to solve cryptics and blog/post comments? I think crossword setters are wizards who tease and titillate solvers with their exploitation of thenuances that make the English language beautiful. I visit blogs and post because the people I count as blog friends in the xwd world brighten my day immeasurably and I cannot thank setters enough who take time to interact with the appreciators of their art. By the same token, I hvae ceased to visit blogs / sites/ groups where the dialogue does tend to get a bit too sharp for my likiing – I am clearly there for my enjoyment and learning but not to take sarcasm and snide remarks. A somewhat thick skin is almost a prereq in today’s social networking / online world. Very true though, that setters likely need thicker skins if they are to dive into this world because as a group, they are not anonymous and stand for something bigger than just an anonymous poster on a blog.

    What are the motivations of the setters of puzzles? I would imagine (based on what I have read of setters’ writings) that they are: 1) the sheer art and joy of manipulating words and letters in an ingenious way, 2) the setter’s joy in seeing this art being appreciated by others around, 3) the cachet around being published (of course, enables 2 above) and 4) the money (a very distant last I believe). Blogs are very potent in getting more people entranced in this art and setters’ participation in the blogs are immensely valued by solvers – there are “shoutys” amongst us but that should not deter setter – solver interacations. For every blog that gets too vituperative, I am sure others will spring in its place that will try to bring decorum – I think the value of the setter-solver interaction ensures that there will always be a setter or a solver reaching out to create a decorous forum when existing fora do not fill that need.

    So, in summary, I think it is not us vs. them, but rather finding joy in those exchanges that motivate the setter and solver to keep coming back and perhaps politely (for our part) ignoring those that do not fuel our passions as much as it fuels the passion of the “shoutys”. Unavoidably, wheat and chaff do have a way of being in the same place at the same time – can I just suggest that one of our responsibilities is to ignore the chaff and enjoy the wheat? Ubiquitous connectivity is more and more a fact of life and it may be increasingly impossible to run away from it.

    A long comment and my apologies if unduly so.

    • Long comments most welcome Veer!

      “Ignoring the chaff” is of course the ideal, but the sad fact is that the chaff is driving some editors/setters away, so it’s a problem that needs sorting out somehow.

      As for motiviations, you have everything in the correct order and, for me, number 1 probably takes up about 80% of the whole. No job is worth doing if it isn’t fun, and writing clues is tremendous fun – very often, those PDMs described by solvers were also PDMs when their setters discovered them.

      There is another motivation, by the way, which is quite closely linked to your number 3. For me the cachet is not the newspaper itself – instead, it’s the knowledge that I can be working alongside the truly great setters, the ones who have always been my heroes; Roger Squires, Don Manley, Brian Greer. And also to be alongside the young innovators; John Henderson, John Halpern, Richard Rogan.

      In fact sometimes it makes me feel like something between impostor and fraud!

  10. Well as today ‘s blogger AT 15 squared I was a bit suprised by comment #9 but didn’t feel like deleting it, if people want to appear rude or obnoxious then let them. I also felt it was more proper to let Gaufrid the site administrator delete comments or not.

  11. I haven’t been here before but have been following this discussion all day, having a keen interest, as a blogger on 15². in keeping the good relations we have always enjoyed with setters.

    I have noticed that the number of visits from setters has fallen recently and. like Shuchi, I think that’s very sad.

    I concur with all the above and would urge you to continue to make your valuable contributions to our site – there is only the one adverse comment today and Gaufrid is ever ready to put his foot down when it comes to downright off-topic or offensive remarks. Many thanks, again, for a most entertaining puzzle today.

    • “…and would urge you to continue to make your valuable contributions to our site.”

      And there, Eileen, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Editors/setters don’t necessarily withdraw from blogs because they themselves have come under attack. In the case of setters especially, if they make regular contributions to a forum which has a reputation for attacking other setters, they can become tarnished with that reputation – effectively they have no choice but to withdraw and thus keep themselves “clean”. It’s sad but true.

      • I’m very sorry to hear that that is the case. While the comments on 15² that are rude about particular puzzles or setters make me quite furious, overall it is still a very courteous forum compared to the vast majority of online communities. To interact with a community mostly made up of fans is hardly to endorse the impolite minority. In the cases where comments on one of the crosswords I’m blogging look as if they’re tending towards rudeness, I sometimes post something to remind people that setters read the site, although sadly I’m not sure that this really has any effect.

        The tone of comments on such sites is not only a problem because of possibly causing offence to the setters (real heroes to many of us!) but also because it makes the atmosphere less welcoming and friendly for people who’ve just discovered the site and are trying to improve their solving. I worry that the number of people asking about how aspects of clues work on fifteensquared has gone down, and a few recent comments have mentioned that people felt intimidated by things that were said by others.

  12. My view is that you should accept all comments that are relevant to the puzzle, good or bad. If you start deleting them you have to decide where to draw the line. I would, however, delete, or censor, any that used bad language or were obviously spam.

    One setter who gets bad comments from a particular person on my site usually responds – a much healthier approach.

    • I would agree that it is a healthier approach to respond to these things, and in the case you have mentioned it would be very easy to swat the fly, but the risk is that the setter would constantly be trying to answer (often misguided) criticism and by definition is in the minority.
      I like the idea of other bloggers keeping people in line and to an extent that certainly happens on your site but it can, if unchecked, lead to the sort of flame wars that have no place on a civilised blog.

      Other (professional) forums that I frequent have some very good moderators who shut this sort of thing down quite quickly but it breeds underlying resentment and results in the lines being drawn between factions – something that colours the whole site.

      • I get very nervous about the idea of moderators having too much input; it’s that which tends to create the factionalisation.

        Gnomey’s suggestion is what I hope will happen as blogs/fora evolve. More “reasonable” commenters will encourage the more belligerent to justify themselves and, in extreme cases, will make it clear that such people are unwelcome.

        I think part of the current problem is that there’s a body of solvers who regard setters as being among some sort of pantheon of crossword gods; to some, the “bigger” the target the more satisfying it is to knock ’em down. Of course the truth is that crossword setters are just normal people who have trained themselves to offer a form of playful entertainment via crosswords; they have simply manufactured a sort of consumer product. In reality a setter is no more a god than the factory worker who assembled the bits that became your all-singing-all-dancing toaster.

        • True and agreed, my example of the HVAC forum was just that – moderators have their own cranks and foibles and I have seen the lines drawn quite quickly on the site and it is all the poorer for it.
          Now what about a muffin?

        • It’s interesting that you raise the idea of “crossword gods”. There are certainly some solvers who refer to certain setters in a way that may elevate them to this status. That sort of reverential, “can do no wrong” attitude is probably divisive and certainly no more helpful than some of the most negative comments.

        • I was delighted recently when a negative comment on BD’s site was shot down in flames by a number of his less experienced solving followers, as I was sitting on my hands to prevent typing what I really wanted to say! I hope that the comments of true cryptic fans, who understand that its really not the setter’s ‘fault’ that they can’t finish the puzzle, will always prevail

  13. My first time on this site too, having been directed here by the comment on 225. Apart from 225, I don’t do blogs of any description, crossword or otherwise; but I can imagine that there’s some pretty vindictive stuff out there.

    Personally I’m always delighted when a setter drops by on 225, even if it’s just to say thanks for the comments, or with a quick explanation of a clue that we struggled with. I don’t think I’d want a setter to become embroiled in a long discussion about the puzzle, on the other hand. If it gets a bit too intimate, then next time battle recommences, it might feel a bit different.

    I guess you’ll always get people in cyberspace who post negative or occasionally offensive things. As someone who once referred to Virgilius as ‘a stream of bat’s p**s’, I should know, ‘cos it was Anax who rescued me from potential embarrassment.

    I don’t have a real answer for setters either, other than ignore the obviously offensive stuff, take on board the usually overwhelmingly positive comments, and get back to that desk and create some more entertainment for us, please!

  14. It seems that there generally is a request/sentiment from the setters / editors community that Anax is articulating: Can something be done to tamp down on invective / comments not backed by valid arguments / analysis on the more popular blogs where solvers and setters interact?

    On the one hand, one solution is to ignore or to atleast recommend that we ignore such blase commentary. On the other hand, other more active suggestions seem to be self moderation, web site moderation, community policing etc. If something must be done (honestly, I second Shuchi and others’ view that XWD blog comments are way on the more civilized end of the spectrum based on comments that I see on some other sites), is it possible to use the contributor model that BD / T4tT / 15sqd etc. use? That is, volunteer pools to generate one moderator for each day / puzzle that checks in say, once in 6 hours that day (making for a max of 4 times) and removes inappropriate comments in their judgement. Following that, is it possible that once the next day’s solutions go up, turn off new comments on the previous day’s puzzles automatically which will be picked by a different moderator. Thus, in addition to a contributor pool, there will be a moderator pool of volunteers chosen as well. Of course, this might work for the major blog sites (BD44, 15sqd and the like) – where likely 80% of the passer-by potential chaff traffic come in. The vast majority of other sites do not attract as much of the chaff and probably volumes are low enough that it is best ignored / community policed etc.

    • Unless there is a significant change in the comments on my site, I have no intention of introducing moderators. Initial comments are automatically submitted for moderation, but once accepted that person is free to comment on all future occasions.

  15. I wasn’t aware that there was any rudeness on crossword sites – I thought we cruciverbalists were the most civilised of people ! As a regular Times solver and follower of the Timesforthetimes site I enjoy the civilised debate.

    It helps that The Times, even when difficult, is scrupulously fair so that on the rare occasions when one doesn’t get it one kicks oneself rather than the compiler.

  16. As the organiser of one of the UK cryptic blogs and a contibutor to a couple of others, I’m well aware of this issue. On the Times blog we have a slightly different situation as most of the puzzles we cover are both anonymous and edited more actively to achieve the current Times crossword editor’s idea of “house style”.

    We don’t have anyone officially moderating comments but I keep an eye on things and have deleted the very worst comments on a tiny number of occasions, such as one from a commenter who was often very critical but this time was both very critical and obviously just back from a big session at the pub. And if I see comments that are just unhelpfully abusive like #9 on Anax’s India/Indie puzzle yesterday, I normally ask them to be more specific. I’m also rather tougher with anonymous commenters than those prepared to identify themselves.

    Polite and specific comment can make a difference, as most setters and editors are humble enough to recognise their own fallibility. But comments based on preconceptions about individual setters (or which seem to just follow a “we don’t like so-and-so round here” or “so-and-so is/isn’t Ximenean” trend) will not persuade setters or editors that they should do anything different.

    • Yes, the fact the Times has a house style adhered to by anonymous setters makes a huge difference, and Colin Blackburn’s equally relevant comment about some setters being given almost god-like status ties in with this.

      Named setters will inevitably attract devoted bands of followers and that in itself can be divisive – or, at any rate, it can lead to the sort of “banter” you might hear between supporters of different soccer teams. In soccer, though, you expect stupidity. We like to believe the cryptic crossword is an endeavour enjoyed by those of healthy intelligence, and where banter appears it should be reasoned banter.

      Just thinking about the intelligence thing, there have been several distasteful comments about recently published puzzles by setters who have passed away. It doesn’t take a huge amout of intelligence to work out that those puzzles have appeared without going through the usual process of setter/editor interaction to clear up errors and questionables. I have no idea whether or not the editors concerned have made significant changes to these puzzles where the late setter cannot, but solvers should realise that these crosswords are unlikely to be what they would be with the setters’ continued input.

  17. Another thought: part of what winds up the setters and editors is probably the slamming of a setter or puzzle for the very human crime of making the odd mistake, unaccompanied by any evidence that the critic realises he (or just occasionally she) is equally fallible.

    Turning some comment I received from one setter into a version of a familiar phrase, “a bit of self-confessed ignorance a day keeps the setter/editor grumbles away”.

  18. I am the administrator at Fifteensquared, the site that covers the widest range of cryptic puzzles and therefore probably the greatest number of setters and crossword editors. I too have become concerned about the reduction in contributions to blogs by setters but can fully understand the reasons for it. Setter involvement is greatly appreciated by most, if not all, blog participants and probably also by 1000+ daily readers of Fifteensquared who don’t add comments.

    Unfortunately, human nature dictates that people are far more likely to comment on a blog, crossword related or otherwise, when they feel that they have something to moan about or criticise (albeit rightly or wrongly) than if they have something they could praise. This then skews the comment mix towards the critical and readers can come away with the wrong impression of a puzzle. One solution to this would be if more people who enjoyed a puzzle joined in and said so.

    It has been suggested above that moderation should be introduced on blogging sites. I would like to address the practicalities of this. If comments are checked and moderated after they have been posted on the site then it is too late to do much about them other than to prevent further viewings. Some people will have already read, and possibly responded to, the comment and it will already have been sent to those who subscribe to the RSS feed. Deleting a comment that has been responded to will put the responses out of context so the dialogue can become confused.

    Moderating all comments before they are made public is not practical. 24 hour coverage would be required and even then the delay between the submission and appearance of a comment would disrupt discussion.

    Then comes the question of what is permitted and what is removed. Of course we would like all comments to be polite and constructive, with an explanation as to why a puzzle/clue was good/bad, liked/disliked etc. So should a one word comment “Horrible” (hardly polite) be removed? What about “I didn’t like this one”? There’s nothing constructive in either of these comments but they do reflect how the solver feels about the puzzle. If these are to be removed then so should “This puzzle was great” and “I really enjoyed this one”, surely something setters would like to read (and have others read).

    My preferred approach is to contact persistent offenders privately to point out that the tone and/or content of their comments is unacceptable on Fifteensquared and that if they continue in the same vein they will be put under moderation or, as a last resort, barred. This usually results in a change of attitude and a more positive contribution to the site in subsequent comments.

    Finally, if setters and editors have become so concerned about the nature of some comments why have they not contacted the administrator of the relevant blog site to express their concerns and to see if any action can be taken to minimise the problem? Equally, if a setter takes objection to a comment about one of his/her puzzles but doesn’t want to respond to it in public s/he can always contact the administrator to say so and then a closer watch can be kept on future comments by the offending person. This might also help in determining the guidelines for what should and should not be removed by any moderation process.

    • Hi Gaufrid

      All of your concerns about admin-side moderation are spot on, and it would be grossly unfair to expect a blog owner to police contributor comments; it would be exhausting, impractical and morally questionable. What we really need to see (more often), I suppose, is other contributors challenging comments which are obviously groundless or vindictive.

      As for editors and setters not making contact to express their concerns, it’s impossible for me to answer that. At a rough guess I’d suggest editors probably have enough on their plates anyway, and setters may feel they’d be opening themselves up to accusations of “Funny how you never grumble if someone writes unqualified ‘I really enjoyed this’ comments”.

      For my part… well, I’m just a bit shy.

    • At Times for the Times I can recall receiving one private e-mail of complaint from a setter of puzzles that we cover, though not about comments on their own work. After careful thought I agreed with one of his two complaints but not the other, and had a quiet and successful word with the person concerned.

      I’d love to see a bit of setter self-defence from time to time, but can see that it’s unlikely – once you reply a few times, people will expect you to reply every time. And it might be better for all concened if your time was spent writing more stuff for people to moan about.

  19. I have read through these comments with interest and would like to make two points:
    1. There is something about making comments on the Internet that some people find liberates them from the normal courtesies. It is akin to road rage.. the most unlikely people seem prepared on occasion to say things they would never dream of saying face to face. It is a fact of modern life and will never disappear, so however difficult, I fear that setters must try to “take an average” when looking at blog comments and not take offence at individual ones. I read all the comments to the crossword that sparked the “horrible” comment, and on balance I want to find it and solve it now..
    2. I moderate several sites (pertaining to the Toyota Prius) and I can tell you that moderation is no easy panacea. Apart from potentially being quite time consuming, if all comments are to be moderated (do we really want to make Peter B review 50-60 comments a day, coming at any time around the clock? Surely not) another word for the practice would be “censorship.” My own approach is to leave all members free to post, but to remove anything that I define as personal abuse and leave it at that. Life is too short to do much more.
    In summary: people are imperfect, often negative, and say things they don’t really mean or haven’t thought through; it is the way things are.
    Anax, I think you are handsome, intelligent and one of Britain’s very best crossword compilers.. cut out that statement, stick it over your screen and use it to cancel out the “horribles” of this world. 🙂

  20. Phew! I’m just catching up on a very interesting set of exchanges.

    My view, for what it is worth: the comments people leave invariably tell you more about the character of the person leaving them than the capabilities of the setter.

    As has been said, there is an inbuilt bias towards negative comments, sadly, and after reading these comments I have resolved to leave a few posts with encouraging words myself, rather than staying among the many that read the blog but don’t write to say thanks.

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