Dam Comments

August 1, 2012 | 34 comments
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I was on a Sunstone panel about the bloggernacle last week and because of that I’ve been thinking about how I should be moderating comments.

When I first started as a guest at T&S, some of the permas made it clear that they did not agree with everything I had to say. That’s fine; I don’t agree with everything I say. But they brought me on board anyway, and I claim that same freedom of not agreeing with every single thing that other people post on the site. I think of it as being akin the 11th Article of Faith, but for blogging. It is a privilege to both post and comment on the site. Because I appreciate that for myself, I don’t want to hinder others in their exercise of that same privilege.

So what should I do about completely off-topic or mean spirited comments? Or comments that appear thoughtless because they ignore the conventions of basic grammar? When I post, I am responsible for moderating my own thread, but I need to respect and enforce the commenting policy of T&S. As a relatively new blogger, I’m still learning to do this. As you know, I have not always been successful.

I would prefer to let the rude, random, or off-topic comments to drop like a rock in a stream, and allow the conversation continue to run past it. Too much attention to those awkward stones just adds to them and makes a dam, and I seriously don’t want to have to bring out the dynamite and blow it away. But a laissez faire attitude could easily allow threads to devolve into an anarchic free-for-all that could actually discourage conversation rather than foster it.

So what advice do you have for me? Is it reasonable to hope we all could ignore damming comments? Or should they be immediately and publicly condemned?

34 Responses to Dam Comments

  1. Andrew S. on August 1, 2012 at 8:32 am

    I like the sentiment of letting rude/off-topic comments drop like [rocks in] a river, but I think it is often difficult for everyone to avoid “feeding the trolls,” as it were. Everyone has to be personally disciplined for this to work, when most folks are not necessarily so.

    This isn’t to say that I think those comments should be immediately and publicly condemned either.

  2. ji on August 1, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Keeping a conversation in a group on course and on topic is difficult. It is even harder in this blogging environment. The question you have to decide is whether you want to keep a particular discussion with a certain focus, or whether you’re willing to let it drag into the dirt and mud. This blogging environment isn’t a Sunday School class, but it still benefits from a little control from the teacher. Otherwise, as you note, a very loud and unkind minority will sometimes discourage or inhibit conversation, exploration, and honest inquiry (often deceitfully in the guise of inquiry).

  3. Dave on August 1, 2012 at 9:26 am

    A helpful principle: “Protect the forum.” if a particular comment or a particular commenter is making the forum unappealing to others (for whatever reason, really) then that comment or commenter is subverting the forum and needs to be dealt with. A comment thread is not a soapbox for the world but a forum for civil conversation on the topic posted.

    Think of the public library. There’s always a person or two there who talks in a loud voice, a person or two who thinks the rules apply to everyone but themselves. Likewise with commenters. Making the rules apply to everyone is part of protecting the forum.

  4. Julie M. Smith on August 1, 2012 at 9:27 am

    There may not be a perfect solution to this.

    I have noticed that some bloggers–and this definitely doesn’t include me–have a gift for presenting very touchy topics in very delicate ways and therefore they end up with much more civil comments.

  5. Kurt on August 1, 2012 at 9:58 am

    I have two thoughts.

    First, a comments policy doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if it isn’t enforced. My vote would be to try to uphold the comments policy or to give some consideration to modifying them. That being said, I’m sure there are unintended consequences doing just that.

    Second, rudeness is a hard quality to measure. I have a pretty tender skin, but what may come across as extremely rude to me may actually be a sign of restraint for the person making the comment and not a big deal to other readers. It can be a mess to try and define where to draw the line of an objectively rude comment. If I were to cast my vote, I’d say to leave the door open for various personalities to express themselves understanding we come from different backgrounds, but would rule out personal attacks.

    I hope that is of some help.

  6. NewlyHousewife on August 1, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I wouldn’t delete a comment due to bad grammar as it alienates those whom English is a second language (or who went to really bad schools, or have dyslexia).

    I do however have those moments where I want to delete a comment and smack the author in the head for being so obnoxious, but sometimes I don’t see the obnoxiousness until the conversation has been derailed. Deleting 10+ comments is rude.

  7. Researcher on August 1, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Yes, a website needs to be moderated. It needs to be moderated for spam, for trolls, for general civility, and for other site-specific goals.

    I participate on the NPR news blog, and they have a strict moderation policy. For example, with the recent shootings in Colorado, I don’t know if they removed every comment critical of the victims, but I think they removed many or most of them. They don’t allow obscenities, personal attacks, trolling, or the feeding of trolls, among other things. Here’s a link to their moderation policy.

    Sometimes the NPR blog community complains about the moderation — I know I have! — but as a result, many of the comments are thoughtful, generally respectful, and of much higher quality than those on other news sites. There are still a wide variety of viewpoints, political and otherwise, so the moderation doesn’t seem to restrict the actual ideas expressed, but it does tend to make the expression of those viewpoints more civil.

  8. Rachel Whipple on August 1, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Thank you all for your insight. It sounds like moderating comments well can lead to a higher quality of discussion, similar to the way that imposing limits may foster creativity. Researcher, NPR gives me hope (which I sorely need after glancing at the comments in my local newpaper).

    NewlyHousewife-you are right that it wouldn’t make sense to delete a ton of comments. That’s part of the problem moderating: what happens when the moderator leaves the computer for a while and craziness has broken out in the meantime? You could go back and delete the first stinker, but then you’d also have to remove the direct references to it that followed.

    Dave and Kurt, I think you’re right that I need to do a better job at being consistent, and therefore fair, in enforcing the T&S commenting policy. It’s more important to protect the forum and other commenters than it is to want to ignore trollishness or avoid offending offenders. And it is possible that an offending comment was inadvertently poorly phrased, and the commenter would appreciate the opportunity to re-present their ideas in a more palatable way.

    ji-I like your Sunday School class analogy. I think that will be a very helpful way for me to look at it as I go forward.

    Julie-presentation is key. I’m trying to learn, but it sometimes feels like a farce of trial and error.

    Andrew S-That is exactly why I don’t have hope for a libertarian future. Sad, huh?

  9. Wilfried on August 1, 2012 at 11:51 am

    A needed post, Rachel. Qui habet aures audiendi audiat…

    I admit I lost much of the pleasure of blogging because of some commenters — off-topic, provocative, unbalanced… Sometimes one works for days or even weeks on a topic, and, once posted, it is ruined in a couple of hours. I have the impression that over time, with the ever expanding internet access, the quality commenters who characterized the earlier years have partly been overtaken by another kind.

    Some people do not realize the difference between comments on a thoughtful blog and a twitter message. We now get “comments” that are just some snarky and inconsistent remarks typed in a hurry, and where the language errors are not due to lack of knowledge but to speed and slovenliness.

    Solutions? Well-written and thoughtful posts inspire better comments. Enforce monitoring and quick moderation. Avoid to feed the trolls and the lousy twitterers. Encourage the best commenters. I cannot express enough gratitude for those commenters who help us raise the blogging bar.

  10. JT on August 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I think Professor Decoo’s comment should be deleted for including gibberish in italics.

  11. christine on August 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    just delete the comment, send the person an email that you deleted their comment because it was off topic

  12. Rob Perkins on August 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    I go back to the moderation panel on the soc.religion.mormon Usenet group, and the example of Peggy Rogers, who was sort of the matron leader. Many of us called her “Bishop Peggy” in that role. She died of cancer a number of years ago, or she’d be right here alongside us and doing Sunstone each year.

    First, remember that no matter what else, you can’t help reading a comment in your own voice, rather than that of the person who wrote it. That can open avenues for the worst kinds of misunderstanding. Recognizing that makes it easy to recognize that when someone is reacting poorly to a post, he’s likely reacting only to himself.

    Then, always reply with civility and an attempt to rephrase, if you choose to reply at all.

    “Haters gonna hate”. Nothing to do about that except endure it, or not pay any attention, much as is possible. Use a committee of people to moderate comments, in case you encounter your own failure modes.

    Peggy did all that as easily as healthy newborns sleep. I miss her.

  13. christine on August 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    jt you can google it… yes sadly I spend years in latin class and now you can google everything

  14. Sarah Familia on August 1, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks for posting this, Rachel. I’m still new enough to not have been reduced to tears yet by a snarky commenter, but I’m sure it will happen sooner or later.

    For what it’s worth, I follow Julie’s (#4) advice. If I feel like there might be anything controversial in the way I’ve said things, I have my husband read my post before it goes live, because he’s good at catching potential firestorm-starters.

    Also, it doesn’t have to be a choice between public censure and letting it go. If the grammar bothers you enough, go ahead and edit the comment to correct it. Both on my personal blog and here, I’ve been known to delete an offensive sentence or phrase, and leave the rest of the comment.

    Er, come to think of it, I guess I don’t actually even know what is procedure for moderating comments. Are we supposed to notify commenters when we delete or edit their comments? Are they entitled to a warning first? Multiple warnings?

  15. Peter LLC on August 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    where the language errors are not due to lack of knowledge but to speed and slovenliness.

    Given ever expanding internet access and, I presume, a growing international audience for Mormon blogs, I wouldn’t be too quick to pin language errors on speed and slovenliness but the welcome fact that non-native speakers are joining the conversation.

    Case in point: Avoid to feed the trolls and the lousy twitterers.

  16. Rachel Whipple on August 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Sarah, we need to both notify the commenter and the backlist. Other permas are great for giving advice, but I did this post because I wanted to get perspective from our commenters as well. I haven’t cried yet either, but I have been frustrated and a couple of times I’ve felt like I was mom dealing with squabbling children rather than a beneficent Sunday School teacher leading an uplifting discussion.

    JT-very funny. I like how that short comment also redirects attention back to Wilfried’s carefully thought out comment.

    Rob-I wish I’d’ve know Peggy. She sounds great. I like the idea of rephrasing, of trying to draw out the best possible meaning from a comment and using that to continue the discussion.

  17. Seth R. on August 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    If you want to not pay attention to a rude, off-topic comment – just quietly delete it without fuss or commentary. Then if they whine about it – delete the whining.

    Simple.

  18. Snyderman on August 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    I think (if I was hypothetically a blog moderator) that I would be pretty lax in the initial comment stages of any post. I would attempt to delete/alter comments that I felt were insulting, wildly off-topic, or illegible (while of course notifying the commenter). In terms of discussions that slowly shift the direction of the initial post but then get worse and worse as time goes on… I’m probably a jerk, but I don’t think I’d have a problem deleting the entire discussion if it got out of hand. I would give 1-2 firmly stated warnings that the discussion was getting out of hand and if those involved continued, I would delete the whole thing.

    I understand your hesitation of thinking about moderation in terms of parenting, but I think it might actually be an apt analogy. The way I see it, the eventual goal is for each commenter to moderate him-/herself to ensure that her/his comment is intelligent and relevant. Like you, however, many people are new to this (myself included) and thus they may not realize that their comments could be more intelligent and relevant. They may not have a very good feel about what is acceptable and what isn’t. (I have yet to be warned/censored in any way, and I’m not sure I have a good feel for it.)

    But going back to the parent analogy, generally speaking I think parents tend to be stricter when their kids are younger, slowly becoming more lax as their kids learn to moderate themselves. Without the stricter foundation, however, it may be difficult for the kid to know how to. Obviously you want this to be more like a Sunday School lesson, but you must remember that almost all Sunday School lessons in the U.S. involve people that have decades (and many times centuries) of Church experience and heritage leading into that lesson. As a missionary in Russia (where the Church is about 20 years old) Sunday School lessons with the adults tend to be more akin to Primary lessons or perhaps lessons with the deacons/beehives than your usual adult Sunday School lesson in the U.S.

    Blogging is a relatively infantile thing, and probably needs fairly strict moderating if it’s going to eventually become more akin to a Sunday School lesson. Just my thoughts, at least.

  19. Adam G. on August 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    Too little moderation, you drive people away.

    Too much moderation, you drive people away.

    No one knows how much is too much, or how little is too little.

  20. Alison Moore Smith on August 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I’ve been running Mormon Momma for almost ten years. In all that time there, here, and at other blogs, I think I’ve modded less than five comments. (I do have a good spam filter and a moderate cursing filter.) I just haven’t had a need.

    If I don’t like a comment, but can’t respond, it’s usually because I need to think more about my position and figure out how to articulate it.

  21. Sam Brunson on August 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Ta-Nehisi Coates, of the Atlantic, spoke his style of moderation. He says that he treats his blog like a dinner party; at his hypothetical dinner party, he wouldn’t allow guests to insult each other. He admits that his moderating style is totalitarian and anti-democratic. But, he says, the internet’s a big place, so people who don’t like his style can go elsewhere.

    One thing that I’ve enjoyed about Mormon blogs is the (generally) high level of discourse. The bloggernacle usually doesn’t get a lot of trolls (though things can change when talking about, e.g., taxes). And I think decent moderation, where necessary, helps preserve the civil and intelligent atmosphere.

    That said, unlike Coates, I have a day job. He admits that his moderation style takes a lot of time, at least as much as he takes writing his posts. I don’t have that time—and it has happened on occasion that I’ll post something and then life gets in the way of my looking at it for the next several days—so I’ll never be able to achieve the totalitarian, anti-democratic comment section (which is supposedly a spectacularly interesting comment section) that he does. Fortunately, even without intense moderation, the comments here tend to be pretty good.

  22. Rachel Whipple on August 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts, Snyderman. I glad to know that commenters like you and Seth R. and christine won’t condemn me if I have to start deleting comments. I’m even more glad that it’s not an issue most of the time, as Alison points out.

    Adam, are you trying to depress me? :)

    Alison, I like how you put the responsibility for understanding and responding appropriately back on the reader and/or moderator. It is exactly those kind of challenging comments that force me to examine my position carefully and try to write more clearly.

  23. jimbob on August 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    In terms of “mean spirited comments,” the tricky thing in terms of enforcement, I would think, is that the worst offenders in this regard are sometimes those who also contribute the most, such as permas. I think it’s easy to moderate a commenter who you’ve never seen before, but when it’s someone who you know to otherwise make lots of good contributions or who is managing the blog with you, that’s a harder call.

    And I say all that with the knowledge that I have a mote/beam problem, having made far too many acerbic comments myself over the years.

  24. christine on August 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Rachel join the club. In the very early on when I started commenting both Wilfried and Kent have already deleted some of my comments for off topic so I am stunned as to how many of my comments have actually been allowed to stand…

    I like this blog because there are usually lots of new comments each time I look so it is way fun.. and if comments are deleted I do not think that there would be less activity.

    Personally, you do not have to give me a reason why you delete my comments, but sometimes the reasons are very entertaining (Wilfried you gave me a reason that surprised me no end) but please do send me an email alert so I can get the general idea that you did not want that.

  25. Dave on August 1, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Christine, a general idea of what we do not want is spelled out in detail in the T&S Comment Policy. You should probably read it yourself and follow it when posting comments rather than learn by trial and error via email from Rachel (or any other T&S contributor).

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/comment-policies/

  26. nate on August 1, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    “Blogging is a relatively infantile thing” says Snyderman.

    Agreed. I’m very pro-censorship. I’m relatively new to T&S, and desperately need someone here to moderate my comments, as I have not yet mastered the art of self-censorship. Moderating will help T&S keep it’s focus on what it does best: serious, faithful, and educated conversation about the gospel. I think Geoff B does a great job at Millennial Star, and as a result, it has managed to forge a strong identity that has withstood the many attempts I and others have made to degenerate the conversation.

    But that means moderators at T&S need to have very clear ideas about exactly what kinds of conversations are appropriate for their mission, and jump in to tell people when they are out of line, and why. And that’s probably quite an overwhelming job. Not one I would ever want to take on, naturally preferring provocation to peace.

    This is a great blog, and it still feels “safe” to me, as far as supporting my commitment to the church. I’d love to see it stay that way.

  27. christine on August 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Nate so you read everything Dave pointed me to? I did other than keeping with LDS norm of which I know very little, I think I can do it and am doing it, as usual correct me if I am wrong. Nate is also doing it (and pushing the envelope with his hilarious comment how Moroni is NOT dressed.)

  28. michelle on August 1, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    ” have very clear ideas about exactly what kinds of conversations are appropriate for their mission, and jump in to tell people when they are out of line, and why.”

    I think this is the key. Good boundaries are about knowing your own comfort level and then following through with maintaining the kind of dynamic that gels with your comfort zone.

    At mormonwoman.org, I used to email people when their comments were moderated, but once some anti sites started to troll/spam my site I gave up on that. I play it by ear.

    I think it’s interesting that Alison says she hardly moderates. But I think she’s more willing to just take readers/commenters on directly on her site, and I think this is the case for other sites as well. Each site, each individual, has a different approach. No One Right Way to do it.

    I think it also takes time to get into a rhythm that works for you.

  29. christine on August 1, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    if I had my own blog or my personal article in a blogsite..i would want the freedom to delete what I do not like. Free speech is for official media. Freedom to delete is for one’s personal blog. Obviously this means I would have to read each comment which could be a bit dreary….I think we are getting to the core problem of why I want to comment but not have my own blog…

  30. Stephanie on August 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    I think Dave in comment #3 said it well – protect the forum. The bloggers of T&S have an idea of what kind of forum it should be. Moderate so that it stay the forum it intends to be.

  31. Frank McIntyre on August 2, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I think what we need is a bad comment tax equal to the negative cost imposed on the reader.

    Pigovian Blogging.

  32. Jon on August 5, 2012 at 12:03 am

    Above all, remember that you are not the only game in town. One can easily find other blogs or start their own.

  33. christine on August 6, 2012 at 1:07 am

    @Jon 32 This is one of the cooler blogs though..
    @ Frank 31 … sure just link up my paypal account and away you go.

  34. SUNNofaB.C.Rich on August 7, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    I’ve always thought Times and Seasons was pretty tame in terms of controversialness. Hence not much need for comment moderation.