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:
- 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.
- 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.
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!