Thursday, January 31, 2013

On comments: it's your blog, set your policy however you want

So, there have been a couple of interesting discussions about blog comment policies in the past couple of days. Over on his Scientific American blog, Bora Zivkovic wrote a long rant about bad-faith commenters and how he deals with them. Greg Laden wrote a good response post. (As have a number of other people, I'm sure. If you're one of them, leave a link in the comments.) Unrelatedly (I think), Jerry Coyne wrote about his commenting policy, specifically regarding when he will and will not permit pseudonyms.

The thing in common among these posts is the willingness on the part of the bloggers to strongly assert ownership over the comment threads on their own blogs, which seems like part of a broader trend, one that I approve of.

At some level, the whole challenge of designing and implementing a commenting policy is that you want to encourage engagement, but you want to find ways to keep that engagement civil and constructive. Basically, you need to prevent trolling, whether in the form of off-topic comments, disingenuous ones, or bullying ones.

There are things that fight against that, though. In particular, there is the (sometimes disingenuous) complaining by people who think that their free speech is being violated. So many things wrong there, it's hard to know where to start. First, a blogger is not the American Federal Government. Second, deleting a comment is not the same thing as a fine or a prison sentence. Third, deleting a comment from a site does not stop you from posting that comment elsewhere. In fact, if you really really want to make a trolling comment about a specific blog post, you can start your own blog, and write a whole post about it. Or you can probably still register the domain name the.january.31.blog.post.by.jon.wilkins.about.commenting.is.lame.com. (If not, try .info.)

Bora and Greg both cite the metaphor of a blog being like one's living room. This metaphor originates, to the best of my knowledge with Ronin Institute Research Scholar John S. Wilkins (no recent relation), whose blog, Evolving Thoughts, features this comment policy:
This is my living room, so don't piss on the floor. I reserve the right to block users and delete any comments that are uncivil, spam or offensive to all. I have a broad tolerance, but don't test it, please.
Try to remain coherent, polite and put forward positive arguments if engaged in debate. There are plenty of places you can accuse people of being pedophilic communist sexist pigs; don't do it here.
The point is, like your 1950s-Archie-Bunker-stereotype father used to say, "my house, my rules." As a blogger, you have every right to impose any damn commenting policy you want. If you only want to permit sycophantic comments that say things like, "Great post, Jon! You're the best!," go for it. There is nothing "fair" or "unfair" about it. Of course, I don't think that's a good policy. In a good comment thread, people will make corrections and additions, and to engage in an honest, constructive debate that adds real value and builds a community.

Basically, your comment policy should be guided by these two things:

  1. Pragmatics. What sort of policy will encourage the type of conversation you want to have on your blog? If you want constructive conversations, you have to hammer down the trolls as soon as they pop up. If you want a flame war, post on controversial topics, sit back, and watch.
  2. Your comfort zone. If you hate profanity, then ban profanity. If you hate the word "sensual," then ban all comments with the word "sensual." If you like arguing with people, leave the comments up and respond to them. If not, don't.
That's it. You have no obligation to have a "fair" commenting policy, other than to the extent that it serves the goal of encouraging the type of commenters and comments that you want. You certainly have no obligation to develop a commenting policy that seems "fair" to the troll whose comment you just deleted (or modified via disemvowelment or Kittenizing -- links via the Bora post).

Similarly, on the topic of pseudonymy: yes, there are legitimate reasons why someone might want to remain anonymous or pseudonymous. However, if you feel strongly about real names, there is no sense in which it is "not fair" to require commenters to use real names on your blog. What it means is that, in addition to losing the anonymous trolls, you may lose some good commenters who prize their privacy highly. If yours was the only blog on the internet, there might be ways in which this would be unfair, but I suspect that yours is not the only blog on the internet, and the the ambitious pseudonymous commenter can probably find someplace else to go.

The other analogy that came up in the comment thread of Bora's post was this:
Remember; free speech doesn’t extend to having a right to have a say in any place, by any means. You can no more walk into the offices of a newspaper publisher and demand column inches than insist that your comments be published on a blog. One is at best a guest when visiting a blog; and one’s behaviour must be acceptable to the host.
I like the idea of a blog being like a newspaper. Comments are like letters to the editor. The newspaper is under no obligation to publish all of the letters it receives. Similarly, you can choose which comments you allow to be posted.

Anyway, here at Lost in Transcription, the policy is both simple and complicated, as it is based on the subjective judgment of an extremely complex neural network. Specifically, if I think you're a bot or a troll, you'll get deleted. Most of the time, the distinction between those and real comments seems pretty straightforward: most of the comments that are not obviously spam are perfectly constructive. In borderline cases, factors like identity may help to tip the balance, with a leeway ordering of real name > pseudonym > anonymous. I have no plans to take up modifying comments, but if I do, I will note that they are modified.

If your comment gets deleted, think back about what you wrote and think about why it might have come off as trollish or spamish. For example, did you respond angrily to something that was obviously a rhetorical and sarcastic question? Did you write something that sounds like it could have come from a press release? These are things that will get you deleted. However, if you want to try again, you're welcome to do so!

Alright, comment away!

3 comments:

  1. Great post, Jon!

    Seriously - I agree completely.

    Personally, I have a low tolerance for anonymous and pseudonymous commenting. Unless you're saying something that would expose you to serious danger (e.g., the kinds of danger that are the reasons for the federal witness protection program), it seems to me there's rarely any good reason not to state your name. And I've seen the quality of comment threads rise steeply on some sites that used to allow anonymous and pseudonymous comments but finally banned them to cut down on spam and trolling.

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  2. Thanks! This is something I've been sort of coming around to over some time, as I have recovered from my initial delusion that I owed it to everyone just to let them have their say.

    Instinctually, I agree with you about pseudonymy. Obviously, I'm Jon Wilkins, or jonfwilkins, or whatever, pretty much everywhere I exist on the internet. On the other hand, I'm a straight, white male who grew up in an upper-middle-class household with two PhD parents and great schools, etc., etc. So, I've never really had the experience of feeling like I needed to hide anything about my identity. I suspect that, yes, most of the anonymous and pseudonymous types on the internet don't have a good reason for hiding their identities, and are motivated by the opportunity to be jerks without consequences. But I would have a hard time gauging which ones are legitimate, or exactly how many there would be, which makes me reluctant to put any sort of blanket policy in place.

    If this blog ever reaches the point where it is getting many, many comments, maybe I'll have to do something different, but at the moment, manual deletion of spam and trolling based on message content is within my bandwidth.

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