On Comment Moderation

by Michael in ,

After reading my recent post on enabling comments a friend wrote me to ask about my thoughts on comment moderation mentioning that some have had success improving drastically the quality of discussion on a given site while acknowledging a high level of effort involved.

Moderation can be a pretty touchy subject, largely because people feel the right to free speech entitles them to say whatever they want to say whenever and wherever they want.

My favorite discussion of moderation came up on Ars Technica (which seems to come up frequently to me as close to the very model of how to conduct a civil online community) this past September. If you're interested in specifics, read Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher's announcement post.

The gist is that Ars had an ever increasing flow of low-quality, immature, and asinine commenting over the course of the previous years or so (still in my opinion much higher quality than any other major site that covers similar subjects) and wanted to fix the problem. They annonuced a few hard line rules to give offenders ("trolls"--which they defined) a 24 timeout without warning on first infringements with automatic deletions of infringing posts if especially egregious or made by a brand new account (meaning chances are high the comment was made by a person joining for the sake of irritating others). The discussion they invited members to join in on was huge, hitting 929 comments on the story (I participated heavily and the discussion got me to finally become a paid member of the site), and let the staff gauge whether this was something the community wanted or not. The end result has been an Ars where I feel all the intelligent conversation has been left intact, including plenty of heated dissent, while spam posts and ad hominem attacks have been effectively reduced to nothing.

With all that in mind, my view is that good moderation is absolutely essential if you're going to foster civil discussion. Remove normal internet "FIRST" posts. Remove posts that attack a person instead of their argument. Remove negative comments that add nothing except negativity, but do not ever remove critical posts that justify their criticism. That last point is the most difficult one. It's the line that, when crossed, means you've gone from keeping things civil to quieting criticism. The point here is that a website which wants to become a community in and of itself has the responsibility to foster that community. At Ars that has been a major point of the website since it began. If you believe your own site is one that should be a community, you must make sure the comments on your site encourage quality discussion--and quality discussion generally includes quality criticism.

Moderation of a site's comments is essential when the comments are in any substantial volume unless you want to devolve into the types of worthless or offensive nonsense you get on YouTube (reading comments on 5 or 6 popular YouTube videos is an experiment you only need to try once--you'll never forget it). If you want your site to BE a community rather than to just take part in one, though, you have to tread carefully and make sure you're not crippling the quality of that community by discouraging those with founded dissent, even if it's a bit heated, from staying.

Why I Don't Enable Comments

by Michael in ,

People who don't read the same circles of the so-called "blogosphere" I do probably have no idea there's been a raging debate of late between bloggers who enable comments on their sites and those who don't. I'm a bit late to the subject, but it's still not dead and heck--this is my website--I can write about what I want to write.

If you want a thorough run-down from a few days ago you should read Matt Gemmell's "Comments Commentary". He's the blogger who, as far as I can tell, started the whole debate in these circles and I think does a pretty fair job of representing the internet-wide conversation.

Before I get to my own additions, here are what it looks to me have been the primary arguments so far (there are more--I recommend Gemmel's post if you want to be thorough):

Pro Comments

  1. Promote discussion on your post's merits or deficiencies--many of your readers have thoughtful things to say on the subjects you post about.
  2. Not allowing comments is akin to restricting others' speech--if you don't allow them you're just standing on a soap box. Responding in their own channels doesn't give their voice a fair shake at reaching the numbers of people your post did.
  3. Some topics simply don't engender much negative commentary.
  4. Comments enable a community to arise around your blog.

Anti Comments

  1. Far too many comments don't add much. They quickly agree or vehemently disagree without much thoughtfulness or contribution to the conversation. People don't feel responsibility for things said anonymously and often end up venomous, poorly thought-out, or posted with a sense of self-righteous fury that would be calmed if the comment were to be attached to them. Even if you do, most people don't scroll down to read comments, so the conversation isn't even seen by most readers (who are your blog's customer aftter all) after the fact.
  2. You have a right to free speech, but it's not a blogger's responsibility to give you a podium on their property from which to exercise that right. As Marco Arment and Dan Benjamin put it on the latest episode of Marco's podcast (Build and Analyze #59: Premium Products), you have a right to free speech--not to an audience. Earn your audience. If you have things to say, starting your own blog is easy (I have two!) and can be done for free. Most bloggers also allow you to e-mail them or @ reply to them on twitter with your own feedback or links to your replies on your blog. Many of them will even link to thought-out responses on your own blog if they like it (but they haven't wronged you in any way if they don't).
  3. It's true that some topics don't inspire great negative emotion. If inflammatory comments aren't an issue with your topic you don't have to deal with a huge negative issue people disable comments for. For topics that engender strong opinions though--technology, computers, industries with entrenched competitiors, politics, etc. (essentially anything where people pick sides)--this is a very serious issue.
  4. If you engage people on twitter, via e-mail, and by posting to other people's blogs and adding your own comments, you're already part of a community.

There is also another "Anti" argument I've heard from John Gruber about his site, Daring Fireball: he wants to own every pixel of his site.

If I've missed anything, feel free to let me know via @Auhim on twitter, via my Contact page, or via Facebook if you know me personally. As you can easily tell from glancing at the bottom of this post, my blog is on the side of not having comments. I do completely understand that unless (let's be optimistic and say until) my blog has a large following I won't have the issue of large quantities of inane and negative comments, so that argument isn't all that significant to my site yet. Otherwise, I'm easy to get a hold of on twitter. Pretty simple.

Gemmell's post addresses most of the issue quite thoroughly. The discussion about community is where I feel I actually have something to add to this discussion. It's certainly true that community can be built at your site and your site can be better for it. That said, you can't have a community on every blog--or even most of them--on the internet. The logistics just don't work.If you bear with me for a bit, I'll explain why. I'm going to start by stating an assumption that, if false (or rather if you disagree), invalidates my entire logic train: I believe an ideal discussion community is one that encourages discussion made up of thought out arguments and responses as well as continued conversation on a subject. If you disagree on that point, you almost certainly won't believe my conclusions to be valid.

Assuming you hold stock in my aforementioned assumption, let's see where that takes us. If you feel I've made an unfair logical leap, please let me know, but I feel each step in this thought process is safe and reasonable:

  • Thoughtful discussion generally comes from those people who are interested in providing it, not from people who just want to say something for the sake of doing so.
  • Most people who want to provide thoughtful discussion want to get feedback on their own thoughts and continue the conversation.
  • Many people who are especially interested in a subject check multiple (possibly even a multitude of) blogs and websites discussing the topic.
  • For someone who takes a subject seriously and follows many different sources of discussion on that subject, putting a thorough and thoughtful post up on every, most of, or even a significant portion of the sites is discouragingly time-consuming and impractical.
  • For that person to then follow up on every thread of conversation to which he or she has contributed is even more time-consuming and impractical--even impossible in most cases.
  • When a person realizes this, consciously or unconsciously, he or she will do one of a few things:
    1. Not post comments anywhere. In this case the voice is not getting heard and is not contributing to the discussion at all.
    2. Post on several of the sites in a scattershot manner by either putting up impulse posts or copying the same argument to multiple locations without ever doing any real followup--thereby not really contributing anything meaningful to the conversation.
    3. Post on one site's (or possibly two sites') comments and participate actively there, enjoying a thorough and detailed conversation. This is the best possible outcome of these three but leads to a situation where, if you have enough blogs and sites of similar content pushing for equivalent levels of discussion, everyone who could contribute to one another's conversation is effectively segregated by site of choice--whether there is a distinct reason (personality of website and membership, for example) or not. This still limits the audience and breadth of serious discussion to discussion pools or silos.
    4. Some other behavior that is a variation of one of the three and still doesn't really contribute to the internet-wide discussion of a topic.

This can be easily illustrated by my own example of internet habits which I'm sure are similar to many others':

  • I have numerous orphaned accounts on websites for commenting (probably upwards of 50 or more over the course of the last decade and a half) which have been used only a handful of times.
  • Most of the comments I've historically made on most of the sites I have accounts on have never been followed up on by me, so I don't know if someone made a fair argument against me (or supporting me) or not. I've gotten no more educated on the matter than if I had simply read the comments I did before I threw in my own two cents.
  • A few years ago I decided to focus exclusively on commenting on Ars Technica for the things that get posted both there and elsewhere. As a result I've ended up a part of many long and thorough conversations there and frequently check the "My Threads" link in their forum to see if any thread I've commented on has been discussed further since the last time I visited.
  • I decided to choose Ars Technica as the community as my primary online community due to the personality of the coverage and the general civility of the commenters on the website: a community Ars has fostered since 90s and is a major feature of the site.
  • My feedback on Ars Technica posts is only ever read by people interested in feedback on Ars Technica posts.
  • My involvement at Ars means I don't contribute (and can't usefully) on posts on the same subjects at other sites.
  • Everything people contribute in comments on the same topics at other sites is lost to me, even if I read the other sites' articles--and even if I do read comments elsewhere and have a reasonable comment in response I'm not going to spread myself thin by having the same discussion in the comments of 3 or 4 separate articles. That would diminish my ability to give my arguments and those of others the thought they require.

While in my case I chose Ars to discuss things at, I don't discuss every subject that is posted there (though I read very nearly every article). I comment if I think I can truly contribute something to the conversation or, if the article itself merits it, I can post something lighthearted. Still, I post at Ars mostly because I enjoy the community there and can only do so as long as it is the primary internet community I participate in. My contribution would be diminished if I were to start attempting the same elsewhere. Each of these individual bloggers in the blogosphere (what a ridiculous term) probably has substantially fewer dedicated readers than a large catch-all site like Ars Technica.

If Marco Arment and John Gruber, who I assume have quite a few overlapping readers, both had comments enabled and wanted to engage community on their respective blogs--and then posted on the same subject (or even on each other's posts, which happens)--readers would participate in one or the other and many of the arguments would never bubble out of those communities. Because there would be "discussion" on each site, there would then be little reason for either blogger to then address comments in another post on the site. There are many other blogs which overlap with both of them and the argument dispersion issue increases the more blogs are shared by overlapping readers. If, instead, you view The Internet as your community and respond to your blogger of choice via twitter, e-mail, telepathically, or tin cans and string, eventually the most significant arguments float to the top--either because the bloggers to which you are responding find your well-put and well thought out argument worth presenting, because someone else does, or because you get your own sizable audience.

So I conclude: Comments as a source of community can be great if you truly want to turn your website into a place differentiated from other sites such that a sizable number of people go to it as their primary place of discussion on a particular subject (or set of subjects). If your blog or site is just one of many places that people most invested in a subject (and most likely to want to discuss it at length) will read thoughts on that subject your enabling comments doesn't truly promote quality discussion. The internet can't sustain an effectively infinite number of productive thoughtful communities with largely overlapping interests; enabling siloed comment pools on every site and blog on a given subject actually discourages well-thought out discussion and diminishes the quality of the conversation at large.

I started this blog about a week ago. I get that only a handful of people are likely to read this, and that's ok. In time I will hopefully have a sizable readership but until or unless that happens I'm writing things like this here because it's the best way to put my thoughts in one place--and there's nothing stopping me from getting feedback via The Internet.

Stylistic Choices On Post Titles

by Michael in

On this site I have two different types of content: Posts focused around content from external sources and posts primarily focused on my own content. There is some overlap, but everything can be pinned in to one or the other without much difficulty. I was initially only giving my own original content article titles but the way that is handled in RSS is unsatisfactory. Instead, I'm stealing something out of Maro Arment's book. My own primarily original content posts will stay the same with normal article titles. Posts focused mostly on external information with perhaps some editorial commenting, though, will now have this symbol before the article title:

Carry on.

The Starting Point

by Michael in

This is a starting point. Here I intend to post links to, and comments on, news in the realms of technology and media. Occasionally I'll have an article of my own making that could be anything from an in-depth product review to a short and explicit discussion of my opinion on a subject. Here's to a clean and fresh beginning.

A quick rule of thumb for viewing my site whether via RSS or the main page itself: My "articles" will have a separate title before the content, while small posts meant to link you elsewhere will simply start with the link. The link will then be followed by some combination of a quote from the source and a brief (or not so brief) comment from me.

For anyone interested, this site is currently hosted using Squarespace. It was recommended multiple times as a sponsor of many of the podcasts over at 5by5.tv[1] and was a delight to quickly and easily set this site up as I like. While I haven't had the account for long at all, so far the hosting solution is an easy recommendation.

As for monetizing the blog: I'm just a guy putting this site together on his free time, but I hope to possibly some day be able to recoup my costs of hosting via ads. While I'd love to be able to join something like The Deck Ad Network some day, it and its competitors are invite only. As such for now I'll have to make do with less clean ad sources. That said, it's my goal to make this site a pleasant site to visit, so I'll try my best to make any advertising as unobtrusive as possible. My current plan is to have a simple Amazon advertisement box running in the corner of every page with my affiliate ID attached and I'll link to Amazon or other stores with affiliate IDs when I review or recommend products.

Feedback via the Contact link in the navigation bar will always be welcome. You can also discuss the content with me via twitter.


1 I highly recommend Hypercritical and Build & Analyze for the tech savvy among you, while The Incomparable is great for nerds of any kind of media (TV, Movies, Comics, Books). I also listen to and enjoy The Ihnatko Almanac, Back to Work, and The Talk Show.