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Enforcing Civility in Blog Comments

CartoonAlan Jacobs: “Nothing could better justify Ross’s decision to start moderating comments on his blog than the comments on the announcement itself.”

For those who don’t click links, Ross Douthat has announced that, “From now on, one of the Atlantic‘s crack interns will be going through the comment threads at the end of every business day, deleting any comments that run afoul of our comments section’s terms of service” and that, furthermore, “I’ve instructed him to err on the side of deletion if he’s uncertain about whether a comment crosses the line.”  Apparently, said intern has quit, misunderstood the instructions, or lives in a different time zone.

Lacking an intern, I’m rather sporadic and inconsistent in enforcement of OTB’s site policies.  I do, however, heartily support the idea of enforcing some modicum of civility in discussion threads.  For popular blogs or highly trafficked posts, however, it’s almost an effort in futility. This diagram, credited to the “New York Times via Ed Philp,” is about right:

Courtesy of the New York Times via Ed Philp, this scientific diagram of the evolution of comment threads on blogs.

This is a subject we’ve discussed before.  Many times.  Oddly, it seems to be a particularly popular topic in July:

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. rodney dill says:

    I always liked Slashdot.org’s model for moderating. I’m not sure how easily it could be utilized by a political blog (or even anything smaller than Slashdots scale) It seems to have a certain amount of overhead associated with it. also the nested thread have some value as you can respond directly to a comment instead of 50 comments later in the serial comment section.

    I noticed the ‘diagram of a blog’ missed any (direct) reference to Godwin’s Law.

    The cartoon at the top is hilarious.

    /deferential comments

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Oddly, it seems to be a particularly popular topic in July

    Slow news?

    I think there are several issues that lead to the problem: 1) lack of mutual respect; 2) for some most of the fun in commenting is in being offensive; 3) unfortunately, lots of people behave differently when they don’t think they’re being watched than when they do (and they don’t think they’re being watched when they comment).

    Some are employing a rhetorical device known as “clearing the field”: using attacks on an opponents rather than reason or evidence so that they’re the last one standing. They think that’s winning.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    Slow news?

    That thought had occurred to me.

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  4. Bithead says:

    (Shrug)
    Here again, I suggest that blogs… and by extension now, their comment areas, are merely a relfection of what’s already out there…

    And frankly, I conisder that given social convention, it’s a somewhat muted version of what’s already out there.

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  5. just me says:

    There are places I like to read what the blogger has to say, but I completely stay away from the comments sections-mostly because they tend to be nasty, uncivil, or too one sided.

    I don’t know that there is an easy answer for moderating comments though. I can’t imagime how time consuming it would have to be to plow through comments for violations of terms, and few bloggers have a staff on hand to do it for them.

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  6. Michael says:

    Since we’re using XKCD comics to illustrate the problem, let’s use one to illustrate the solution.

    That said, I think community moderation (similar to that on Slashdot) provide the best solution with minimal effort.

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  7. rodney dill says:

    That said, I think community moderation (similar to that on Slashdot) provide the best solution with minimal effort.

    I agree ‘cept some modification would be necessary. Slashdot runs into problems when they get posts that are political (or really anytime opinions are polarized). If you make a snarky/witty comment that is right/conservative/republican and the moderator is left/liberal/democrat they will give you a negative moderation, not based on your comment but based on their belief. This is true the other direction too. In a political forum you would need either
    declared right/left moderators or the ability to rate posts toward positive to rightwing thinking and positive to leftwing thinking, but not negative in any direction. There are probably other ways that would work, but if you let leftist moderators trash rightist comments or rightist moderators trash leftist posts you haven’t really solved anything.

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  8. Michael says:

    Slashdot runs into problems when they get posts that are political (or really anytime opinions are polarized). If you make a snarky/witty comment that is right/conservative/republican and the moderator is left/liberal/democrat they will give you a negative moderation, not based on your comment but based on their belief.

    That’s why Slashdot has meta-moderation. If you think someone was moderated unfairly, you give the moderator a negative meta-moderation, which reduces the frequency in which he gets mod points. It’s not perfect, but it is self-governing.

    There’s also the use of moderation tags, so it’s not just “-1”, it’s “-1 Offtopic”, and you can give additional weighting to a moderation depending on the tag. I suppose you can provide a “-1 Wingnut” and “-1 Moonbat” moderations, and just ignore one or the other (or both) depending on your preference.

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  9. rodney dill says:

    When you are asked if you want to Meta-moderate in Slashdot you are given a random selection of comments to meta-moderate on, not ones you might have a specific complaint with.

    I think Slashdot is a good starting point for a blog modeled on community moderation, as a tinkerer I would still make some modifications to the model.

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  10. Wayne says:

    I would say much of it is what someone wants to get out of a blog. Some want to vent and call names which I don’t much care for. People who play devil’s advocate or goes off on a tangent can be frustrating but I find them to be informative at times. There is nothing wrong with someone saying they want to get back on subject. The nice thing about blogs over conventional conversation is it can go in many directions at once and which direction you go is your own choice.

    Personally I like the blogs that are informative and have different perspectives with very limited insults.

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  11. MoeLarryAndJesus says:

    It’s funny how upset some prigs get over a few four-letter words – yet when Ross Douthat lets his white supremacist buddy Steve Sailer and the members of his cult run wild, no one notices. Douthat links to Sailer’s David Duke-Lite site and frequently cites him approvingly. But I guess Sailer’s racist bilge is mainstream thinking on the right, as the tributes to the revolting Jesse Helms have shown.

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