Comment Moderation: Whys and How Tos

I have a panel coming up at SkepchickCon/CONvergence talking about dealing with trolls online. Last week, I asked people to tell me what defines a troll. Commenters were pretty consistent in their baseline views, both among themselves and with the definition I use and have seen elsewhere.

This week, I’m collecting resources on moderation. What follows are a few of my go-to resources. Please add good ones I’ve missed in the comments.

If there is hope, it dies with the trolls
Chris Clarke on why comment moderation is important.

As with so many other externalized evils in this world, the people most likely to be harmed by an act of bad faith are the ones saddled with the task of minimizing the effects of that bad faith act. Who is most likely to be harmed by a comment such as the one I deleted from the spam queue last night? Well, Muslims, for starters, and people whose loves include Muslims, and people longing for justice and a cessation of racism. And there are those who find unpleasant the pissing matches that usually arise from such posts. And those who prefer not to comment when the response might be a nasty slam made in bad faith. And those of us who may not mind the provocateurs, but who would benefit from hearing the points of view of those remaining silent.

Freethought, and freedom to express yourself on someone else’s private property
Jason Thibeault on the idea that moderation stifles dissent.

The funny thing about this is, we also have a lot of disagreement in almost every one of those areas. We have libertarians and woo-peddlers and antifeminists who still call themselves atheists and humanists, and actively confront what they find to be contentious on our blogs. And we have a vested interest in driving discussion about each and every one of these beliefs that each individual blogger happens to have, but in many cases, a point is argued to death by abusive people who derail conversations into unrelated matters, who spam with the same nonsense over and over again, who frequently contribute nothing to the discussion but acrimony, and whose voices must be curtailed lest the signal-to-noise ratio completely bottoms out.

Moderation, community, and rules I’ve added since 2005
Teresa Nielsen Hayden with guidelines for moderators. (Note: I don’t follow all of these because I’m looking for a slightly different kind of community than Making Light has, but they’re all at least worth thinking about.)

1. There can be no ongoing discourse without some degree of moderation, if only to kill off the hardcore trolls. It takes rather more moderation than that to create a complex, nuanced, civil discourse. If you want that to happen, you have to give of yourself. Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting your front yard to automatically turn itself into a garden.

2. Once you have a well-established online conversation space, with enough regulars to explain the local mores to newcomers, they’ll do a lot of the policing themselves.

3. You own the space. You host the conversation. You don’t own the community. Respect their needs.

4. Message persistence rewards people who write good comments.

5. Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system.

6. Civil speech and impassioned speech are not opposed and mutually exclusive sets. Being interesting trumps any amount of conventional politeness.

More posts from Teresa here.

A 5-minute framework for fostering better conversations in comments sections
Matt Thompson presents the secrets to Metafilter’s success in keeping discussions on track.

Don’t blame (or credit) “The Internet.” It’s your community that matters. For some reason, while it’s easy for us to understand the dynamics of different places and people in the offline world, we still talk about the online world as one undifferentiated blob. When referring to the offline world, we talk about “bad neighborhoods” and “angry mobs” and “obnoxious loudmouths.”

But every conversation about bad online discussions seems to ascribe the failure to “the Internet” rather than a specific online space, although the particular dynamics of a place matter online as much as they do offline. NPR.org, like many websites, encompasses many different community spaces; some feel friendly and personal, others feel like a muddle of passing strangers.

So what else should people know about moderation?

Comments

  1. says

    I use a Thoreauian method. Examine everything and discard that which offends one’s soul. Except soul is more of a metaphor for me than it was for him.

  2. eric says

    Let a thousand flowers bloom; a FtB with a variety of moderation policies is just as much a positive as a FtB with a variety of different bloggers.

    What’s better than having the freedom of Pharyngula or the moderation of [x; take your pick] to discuss freethought subjects? Having Pharyngula-space AND [x]-space available to discuss freethought subjects.

  3. says

    I consistently say I’m against moderation- and I have never banned anyone from my blog (this has more to do with the odds of needing to with my dearth of comments)- but I understand that moderation is a necessary evil when you run a blog that gets 1000+ hits a day.
    I have a comment policy in place, mainly because of one particular poster that visited my blog. I haven’t had to enforce it yet, but I’m happy with the direction I went with it. As much as possible, I think people should be able to react to what I write as a common courtesy- but I expect good faith and some reciprocity of that courtesy.

  4. says

    That rainbows and ponies policy is an unusual suggestion, George W., and you perhaps should have explained it a little in your comment. I can imagine it being of little use to larger blogs where there would be too much commentary to ‘ponify’, but as a small-scale solution to incivility it’s an unorthodox and creative response. :)

    Thanks Stephanie for linking Teresa’s thoughts, they are definitely looking towards on-going community building as well as moderation. They may be directed to a slightly different community but they are all good points.

  5. says

    Here’s a comment I made over at Ophelia’s that moderators should keep in mind:

    -sigh- Regressives. They fill up as many places with as much counterfactual noise as they can, scream irrationality obsession hatred and tribalism when the regulars ask them politely to turn it down, bias when the bouncer steps in to ask firmly, and censorship when they get thrown out. And yet, somehow, it’s always us progressives who have the problem.

    Trolls aren’t arguing in good faith. When they appeal to “freedom of speech”, “diversity of ideas”, “balance”, “dogma”, “assumptions” and other such things they’re asking for the same exemption from skepticism as religion: the freedom to spew their ideology without getting slapped down for the falsehoods, even when this ideology involves twisting up strawmen of the other side and slapping them down for falsehoods that don’t exist. They also think, on some level, that they are entitled to this twisted concept of “freedom” on every space they can possibly find.

    And worst of all, amongst the general public, the regressive trolls — the Breitbarts, Hannitys, Drudges, Joneses and Scalias, the anti-choice protesters and terrorists, the concern-trolling media talking heads who ignore the tens of thousands of nonviolent Occupiers and students to clutch at their pearls over a few violent actors, the tone-trolling pundits who decry the liberals for going negative or being unfair when they start calling out the trolls and their trolling — get away with it all the time.

    This is an ideological privilege, one that needs to be checked by anyone who wishes to undertake skepticism correctly. False balance is nothing but a spawning ground for trolls.

  6. davidjanes says

    And worst of all, amongst the general public, the regressive trolls

    I’d be careful here. Your list of examples basically seems to define regressive troll as “everyone who disagrees with me” which I don’t think is the case. In particular, I find it difficult to define a Justice as a “troll” as much as I disagree with Scalia on just about, well, everything.

  7. says

    Xanthë,
    Sure, I should have explained it better. My “Rainbows and Ponies” moderating system could, I think, be kept up if my blog started getting a ton of traffic. I would still likely moderate the trolls and reserve R&P for the odd commenter who has something substantive to say if you remove the aggression.

    As it stands right now, I can use it for trolls for my own amusement and to send the message that they won’t get free reign on my blog. I feel sometimes as though outright banning comments gives them some kind of power over my blog- as though they made me do something I’m not entirely comfortable with. R&P gives me the power back. I get to control the way they interact in my space.

    When you comment on a private forum, you relinquish some rights to the property owner. I have a right to keep my “online livingroom” a comfortable place for my guests- I will not let someone marginalize people who want to have a discussion. I still want to be evenhanded, and I’ve made clear that I will delete their edited comment on their request if it can be shown that a)I gave an unfair interpretation and/or b) the comment being removed won’t make the thread make no sense.

  8. says

    davidjanes #7:

    I’d be careful here. Your list of examples basically seems to define regressive troll as “everyone who disagrees with me” which I don’t think is the case. In particular, I find it difficult to define a Justice as a “troll” as much as I disagree with Scalia on just about, well, everything.

    Yeah, because they’re a Justice and all, which makes it totally impossible for them to engage in the sort of dishonesty that has brought us all kinds of nonsense from “Elevatorgate” to Citizens United. Once you take that oath of office, this just happens. Magically.

    Your concern has been noted and placed in the circular file where it belongs.

  9. davidjanes says

    Your concern has been noted and placed in the circular file where it belongs.

    I understand your anger about Scalia: he makes me see red on regular basis as well, but there are several important differences between him and a mere troll. The first is that trolling is about derailing discussions, and what Scalia does is far, far more than that. The second, and I think this is the more important one, is that a troll is not sincere: he is merely trying to get a rise, cause some emotional pain, and/or derail. There is no sincerity. Scalia is sincere: he really believes the stuff he says.

    So what I was trying to say is that by just calling Scalia a troll you actually minimize what he can and does do. In the end trolls have no real power: true believers who are sitting Justices certainly do.

  10. Yahzi says

    I got banned from Coyote Crossing for suggesting that sitting out the election because Obama wasn’t “pure” enough was a dereliction of civic duty. So, you know, I’m not sure Chris Clarke would be my go-to guy for wise words on comment moderation.

    I think David Janes has the crucial point: a troll, by definition, is not sincere. Now you might have to ban the occasional sincerely disturbed person (or even just a really boring one), but I think that’s a far smaller problem than trolls. The goal of a sincere but insane person is still communication, even if their disability makes it impossible; the goal of a troll is to disrupt communication.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] to define what makes a commenter a troll and give tips for dealing with trolls. I collected some expert advice from around the web on moderating comments. I also wrote one of my most-linked posts earlier in the year on why “Don’t feed the [...]

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