Comments and Communities
Posted on March 4, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 30 Comments
A couple of months ago Ron Hogan interviewed me and Teresa Nielsen Hayden about managing the comments on our sites and the communities that have grown around them; that interview is now online, and is some pretty interesting reading, if I do say so myself. Yes, I talk about all y’all in it; don’t worry, I say (mostly) nice things.
I have to say that I find the “disemvowelling” they do over at Making Light and Boing Boing annoying and patronizing. (As a reader…it’s never been done to me.) I much prefer either silent blasting or “(this comment has been deleted)”.
I’ve seen online communities get entirely destroyed by poor moderation. “kuro5hin” was an early slashdot spinoff that saw this happen. It’s still around, if anyone wants to see a very painful example of what happens when moderators take a too lackadaisical approach to moderation. The owner tried to create an automatic system for the “community” to moderate itself, and it basically failed. (Though the software is still used in Daily Kos.) In the end, you need human editors with the wherewithal to delete and ban. The other lesson is that once a community goes entirely toxic, it is very hard to get it back.
I don’t use disemvowelling myself, but I think it’s a legitimate moderation tactic. I don’t use it because it’s not my own style, and also because I’m just too lazy to do it.
I am not saying it’s illegitimate…I’m just saying it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Good stuff John, though I think that a lot of the old media sites, particularly the UK tabloids, want their comment threads to degenerate. They see it as an easy way of returning to the sort of bile they used to publish before the UK had laws about such things.
I think the objection to disemvowelling is that it’s behaviour correction through public humiliation. At best it’s the dunce cap at worst the stocks in the town square or the scarlet letter. It works well on those with dignity and sense of shame that want acceptance but near useless on pure assholes who don’t care what others think of them. Which is what the hammer of loving correction is good for, discipline through aversion response, “Do that again and I break more than you knuckles.”
The disemvoweller gets the crowd laughing at the transgressor and throwing kitchen trash at them while the hammer gets everyone not just the transgressor going “Sir, yes sir!”
Speaking as an editor of Associations Now, John, thank you for taking the time to participate in that interview. I think you, Ron, and Teresa gave our readers a ton of food for thought.
Having been disemvoweled several times over there for politely disagreeing with the politically correct Truth posted there … I think it tends to lead to cheering, rather than discussion. YMMV.
You know, I don’t really want this whole thread to be about disemvowelling.
The truism that unmoderated communities degenerate gets proven over and over and over again, and yet there are still people who think the First Amendment says “Hey, maybe this time, pure, unmoderated discourse will lead to a fruitful exchange of ideas between people of good will!”
That said, I would rather eat glass than ever do comment moderating for a discussion group again. LOTS of glass.
“In my opinion, the old-line media is really still stuck on the idea that it’s asymmetrical and that when people respond, it’s in the old “letters to the editor” sense.”
You are so right. This is the exact problem happening with the two major old school newspaper sites in my country. Their commentary and view section are so unmoderated, it’s rampant with racism, misogyny, classism and ageism. AND they use these views as news in a vicious circle to back up their political standpoints. It’s catering to a very narrow demograph, and makes me realize why it’s so hard for younger people to get involved in a country’s political debate if THIS is their gatekeepers.
It’s gone so far that I’ve received not-so-veiled threats of harm (if they ever tracked me down) from commentators and it took me days to contact the moderators to get them to review it all under their own guidelines.
Thank you for explaining why the comments on my local news sites are so awful. I liken them to the worst AM talk show radio ever. And “old media” isn’t seeing a longer-term value in building a community and so is unwilling to invest in thoughtful moderation.
I’m curious about the idea of building a community around Twitter. I find a bit of community by following hashtags – e.g. the one for my city. But if we wanted to have a Twitter community around say, @scalzi followers how would it work? Maybe I’m too new to this, but I don’t see what people write to you, just what you write back. (I believe it used to work otherwise, but it changed a few months back.) Folks jump in here and help me if I’m just Twitter ignorant!
This was a lot of fun to do — I’m grateful that I had two such solid experts to rely on to make this conversation special.
I think writing and moderating a blog is a very organic thing. In moderation you sometimes need a light touch and sometimes a heavy hand, and a lot depends on your demographic and what you’re posting about – if you post bile expect people to be bilious in return. I find there’s a fine line between being controversial and being boring. When I started my blog I was too far on the controversial side which resulted in comments I really didn’t like. Hey, I only said so-and-so and you punched me in the face! What snapped me out of that was a steady checking of my search keywords. It’s probably the same with you Mr Scalzi. Finding most people coming to my blog were searching with the words ‘Neal Asher’ made me realize I should perhaps concentrate more on what I’m known for and somewhat less on ranting about British politics and political correctness.
They called you aspiring writer! Seems with books in print and with your awards and nominations, you can now be called “writer” and drop the “aspiring”. Sheesh!
Funny thing is I mostly don’t read the comments on blogs. Except here.
I fnd t ntrstng tht mch f th mdrtn tht gs n t BngBng s slly prtty fr. nlss y’r bng rlly vlgr, mdrtr (loves Antinous) wll slly jut gv y sht arss th bw t wrn y.
It’s true that there’s a balance to be struck, and in my case it’s additionally complicated by the fact that the blog existed for eight years before the first novel of mine was published, so the audience for the blog is not necessarily contiguous with the audience for my books — which means there’s an additional balance to be struck between the people who come here for the observations about politics and society, and the ones who come here for writing stuff. Never a dull moment, basically.
I think the “aspiring writer” referred to when I started the blog, not today (although that wasn’t entirely accurate either, as I had been writing professionally for eight years at the time; “aspiring author” would have been correct, however).
The Gray Area:
htom – That’s your version of events, sure. You think you were polite. They disagree. Manners are funny in that something that’s rude in one place isn’t in another.
The last office I worked in contained people who thought sexist jokes were not rude, and I was rude for objecting to them. I’ve seen people think they were being polite while making comparisons between LGBT relationships and pedophilia, bestiality and incest. And then get huffy and claim that people who gave them the boot were being “politically correct”.
“Politically correct” can mean anything you want it to mean. Rush Limbaugh has a definition of “politically correct” too. Is your version better than his? By what right do you claim it could be?
I think where it breaks down is that people must be held accountable for their words. Without accountability speakers have no incentive to spend their words wisely. The perceived anonymity of the Net interferes with that.
A discussion might not be moderated by a central authority, but in that case it needs to be moderated by the community. Either way someone needs to hold the participants accountable.
I liked how the community in Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was moderated. “A society surrounded by vacuum is a polite society.”
Dave H – Actually, in societies where death is common and easy, politeness is not all that common. And an internet where people could be “held accountable” in some manner other than just being booted off a site is not one I’d care to participate in.
Usenet’s alt-groups are mostly unmoderated, and people just used what’re known as killfiles to drop trolls and miscreants into, allowing other people to fight them or not as they might feel inclined. More advanced killfiles could block phrases, posts that mentioned a certain person, etc.
I think a future version of wordpress that allowed us to do things like killfile comments and followups from a certain person would increase civility and functionality without needing moderators to spend time breaking up fights.
By “held accountable” I meant in the way members of a physical community are held accountable – their reputations with the other members are based on their words and actions. The reputations of people who would either support or censure them are also at stake, so everyone is encouraged to measure their words and actions carefully. People are free to say what they like, but they know they may pay a heavy price in lost respect. Trolling is much more difficult because nobody is anonymous (with certain exceptions, of course – Zorro comes to mind).
That works online only so long as participants maintain their identities and their attached reputations. A troll who uses a single identity gets ignored, banned, or killfiled eventually, but it’s easy enough to create a new identity when that happens.
Josh Jasper @ 19
Steve Burnap @ 1
Just a comment in response, based on the multi-year evolution of the community self moderation on the DKos site.
This has become, over the years, a massive site large enough to have a number of sub communities that encompass a lot more than just the political geekery it may have started with. You’ll find sub groups that also involve things like garden blogging, eulogies for Iraq/Afganistan casualties, GUS (giving up smoking), Black Kos, investigative journalism (broke the Gannon/Guckert story for example), LOLcat and pet based posts/comments/etc. as well as subgroups involving many other aspects. As you can guess, self moderation has been a long time and massively evolving issue. As well as the original self policing you mentioned Steve, the inverse usage of the killfiles you mentioned, Josh, have also been incorporated. Instead of blocking the trolls, etc. from annoying the reader, those with an ongoing record of consistent interaction with the fellow users of the site get the ability to “hide rate” a certain number of comments per day. Those comments that have accumulated enough HRs are blanked and if judged harshly enough could generate penalties ranging up to banning. The customs have evolved to the point where the one laying on the HR is expected to state why the origional comment was considered to have violated the rules (frequently involving courtesy and/or truthfulness). There is a lot more to it but, in the main, it keeps the need to involve specific site moderator(s) to a minimum.
I guess you could claim, Steve, that the person at kuro5hin did ultimately succeed, even though it took years of evolving the process and an ongoing series of meta-commenting and questioning to keep things improving. It does require a large percentage of those involved to stay involved and thinking a lot of the time.
Dave @ 20
Sorry, I just saw your comment or I would have added this to my last. Your point about gaining/losing reputation is quite apt. A ‘trusted user’ on DKos not only gets the ability/at times requirement to help self moderate the site but also has the ability to see the comments that have been HRed into invisibility by other TUs. This not only allows the likely troll to not only gain a reputation quicker than you might think but it also gives the rest of the community the chance to point out when the response is a bit trigger heavy or uprate if the “troll” has or can point out where said comment was mistaken, misread or just an oops by a newby that didn’t know better. :)
Nargel@21: I think you’d have to give the guy who made scoop work for DailyKos more credit for that than the original author. Though I know the parties involved personally and am therefore likely biased. Even so, I don’t think the moderation there would work without human moderators willing to do the dirty work. A big reason why kuro5hin failed was a lack of willingness on the part of the owner to bring down the ban hammer, even when the trolls learned to entirely game his system.
Steve Burnap @ 23
I freely admit that you have more and better information than I do on the subject. I was just responding to the “it basically failed” part in comment 1.
Perhaps it would have made more sense to you if I had phrased my response more in the form of “it basically failed until another person, with the aid of the community, developed ways to get it to start working.”
Human moderation is indeed one of the basic keys but being able to spread the lower level workload involved over enough people to require a minimal number/input of high level moderators while not requiring enough to burn out the average community member and getting a semi-uniform level of response to incidents are also key factors, I think.
‘Snot perfect and still a work in progress but given the size and complexity of the community and the speed at which it has grown, “it basically failed” might not be fully accurate any more. Worth a 3 belike. :)
Nargel@24: I don’t disagree that having “the crowd” assist in moderation can help, but Kuro5hin failed because it was thought that the crowd could go it alone. I don’t want to hash out all the sordid details, though, but browsing kuro5hin today shows well what happens to a community when moderation fails.
I don’t want to hash out all the sordid details, though, but browsing kuro5hin today shows well what happens to a community when moderation fails.
I just now took a look at the site, and it’s sorta tragic. And yes, that is exactly what happens to a site when moderation fails. A few toxic members can create digital cancer, and destroy conversation.
“the crowd can go it alone” kind of sounds like “we can sail from San Diego to Hawaii, if we only dismount the rudder.”
Of course, only running on the rails isn’t going to get there either. :)
The toxic melt-down at Richard Dawkin’s site is an excellent demonstration of the fact that good moderation and interesting posts are no guarantee of longevity if the site’s owner no longer wants to host the community.
Even if he doesn’t want to admit it:
Lisa@26: As someone who was a member of that community when it was an actual community where intelligent people joined to have interesting conversations, it is extremely depressing.
@Steve Burnap #29 Kuro5hin and MeFi were communities I joined in 2002, after following them for months. I talked about them at IT in higher ed conferences as models of what could and should do for our students, and used them as examples of how to write on line with students. I’m glad to see that MeFi is still healthy.