Comments here at “Patrick’s Place” have been in moderation since shortly after I made the move from AOL. Originally, Blogger allowed its users to turn on a feature called “Word Recognition,” which required the commenter to type the letters appearing in a graphic image into a box before the comment would go through. This feature was added to defeat the “autobots” that otherwise could leave spam comments to advertise porn sites or low-cost prescription drugs.
Then Blogger began a new feature: comment moderation. Before a comment left on a blog will actually appear, the blog owner is notified via email, presented with the comment in its entirety, and given the choice to publish or reject it.
(This can be a problem when email notification doesn’t work, as happened recently for many AOL/AIM users who specified that address as their notification preference. Fortunately, there is a backup: a tab within the blog’s control panel that allows you to manually track any comments you weren’t notified about. The only catch here is that you have to make it a point to go there to look.)
But all of this leads to two important questions:
1. Should comments be moderated at all?
2. Is it fair to reject a comment that someone has taken the time to compose?
Some people say no, because to do so is either a form of censorship or that it detracts from the spirit of discussion that they feel is inherent in a weblog.
I don’t buy either argument.
Many of the people who scream about censorship don’t really know what it is. In this case, the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee you the right to comment on someone else’s webspace. But those who do wish to comment on or about a weblog are generally not prohibited from starting one of their own, where they can say pretty much whatever they like, depending on their service’s Terms of Service and their relative fear of retribution.
As for the spirit of discussion, that is a lofty concept. Blogs do offer the chance for real discussions. The problem is, there are plenty of folks out there who don’t want to discuss anything: they’re not looking for intelligent debate, but rather to spread their own bitterness and self-righteousness and belittle those who they convince themselves aren’t on their side.
As my friend Rick recently said so well:
“The problem as I’m seeing it at this point in time is that more people are more concerned with being right than in becoming more right. They’re more concerned with standing on the truth-as-already-figured-out than further discovering truth-as-it-really-is. We shut ourselves off from each other, everyone bringing their opinions and no one open to anyone else’s offering in the conversation. In wanting people to learn what we want to teach, we become unteachable.”
We’re all guilty of it at times, either online or offline, and one doesn’t have to go all the way back to a presidential election to view examples of discussion in which neither side listens to the other.
If deleting a comment was never the right thing to do, I doubt that blogging services would allow their users to delete them or even turn them off completely. But there is no rule, so these options are available for the taking.
In an effort to be fair, some bloggers publish an official policy with regard to their handling of comments. I’ve never had one; the closest I’ve come is the last line right below my title bar:
“Comments — if they’re respectful — are always welcome.”
I’ve run comments that I didn’t feel were particularly respectful, and even a few that I was pretty sure were written specifically to be disrespectful. Since this is my blog, I figure that’s my right. I tend to believe that those who leave disrespectful comments or veiled insults do at least as much damage to their own image as they do to that of the person they’re attacking.
So far, since moving completely to Blogger, I’ve only rejected a handful of comments. One of them came from a reader who made an observation about a third party. While I’m sure that the remarks were completely honest and that the writer was trustworthy, it was still information that I could not independently verify, and the journalist in me led me to err on the side of caution. Another comment that was rejected questioned my apparent decision not to run an earlier comment from the same person. It turned out that I either missed the email when the initial comment came in, or it never arrived. In any case, I found the initial comment through the control panel and published it, so the follow-up comment seemed unnecessary. I’ve also killed a couple of “double clutch” comments. Other than those, I don’t recall having rejected any others.
When I do reject a comment, I don’t generally offer any explanation or make a big deal about it. There’s no blogging rule that requires me to do so. I suspect that most people who would leave a nasty comment would be able to figure out why it got no bandwidth here.
I’ve had people delete my comments before as well. I can think of one particular case in which it bothered me. I had left a comment that I considered to be completely respectful in an AOL journal. The post itself concerned businesses that fostered poor morale by not paying their employees enough money. My response suggested that the employees themselves had a hand in their own misery: by accepting jobs paying an amount of money they weren’t pleased with and staying with those jobs over a period of time, they’re sending a message to that employer that things must not be so bad after all. That’s not verbatim, but that was my general tack. Shortly thereafter, the comment disappeared and I found that I was blocked from leaving any others. The writer then posted a proclamation warning that no one would be allowed to disagree in that journal.
To me, that’s cowardice. If you’re so sure you’re right, you shouldn’t be so bent out of shape by other views that you wouldn’t even read them, and if you truly don’t want to hear what anyone else but you’re “yes men” have to say, then you should make that clear at the very top of your page and save everyone some time.
I do believe that blogs can be a good place to exchange ideas and consider other sides of an issue. That’s why I don’t automatically delete comments who disagree with my position. There are plenty of people who do. And believe it or not, I’ve learned things from those dissenting opinions. But that’s where “respectful” comes in. If I perceive that you’re not being respectful, I’ll likely tune out what you’re saying. Then you’ll probably tune out what I fire back in response, and suddenly no one’s listening to each other: Why bother?
The other day, I found a rather impressive, if overly-comprehensive comments policy. There are a few points with which I agree completely.
If I had to come up with a comments policy of my own, I’d start off with this:
1. Ad hominem attacks, those which include name-calling or that somehow attack the person, subtly or obviously, while ignoring the issue itself, have no place in intelligent discussion. This does not mean that you can only agree, but it does mean that if you can’t disagree intelligently, I’m not likely to listen to you.
2. Stay on topic. Don’t post about one subject when the post in which you’re commenting is talking about something completely different. That’s called common courtesy.
3. Don’t twist your opponent’s arguments into something else. There are lot of folks who like to do this. If I were to suggest that a new hybrid automobile I’d seen was not attractive, that would not mean that I was encouraging people to not care about the environment. If I wrote about my enjoyment of a nice steak dinner, it would be ridiculous to assume that I was condemning vegetarians. You get the idea, I’m sure, but some of you might be surprised how far arguments can get twisted if it serves someone else’s agenda.
Some people have issues with anonymous comments. I’ve gone back and forth on this. Over at AOL, you could not comment without leaving your screen name, but that was a function of the software, which required users to sign in to get to the comments window. Those screen names weren’t required to have profiles at all. Blogger allows users to have profiles without providing much information at all, and does not require people with Blogger profiles to have a blog in their service. For that reason, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask folks to have a profile. If Blogger were a paid service, I would feel very differently.
Others resent the use of IM-speak in comments. I do agree that when leaving a comment, one should take the time to write, rather than use the endless array of annoying abbreviations that are common in text messages and instant messages. But I have yet to reject a comment for this reason. If I got one that was just too annoying to try to decipher, I would reject it. And don’t get me started on posts thAt aRe wRiTteN liKe ThiS.
The funniest comment policy I’ve run across is this one, from the “Ex-Donkey Blog.”
For the rest of us, there should be that standard that if you wouldn’t put it in a Letter to the Editor to be run in a newspaper, you shouldn’t put it in a comment in someone else’s blog. But there are a lot of things people would say in an Op/Ed column that they probably shouldn’t. I tend to prefer this philosophy: if you were standing face to face with the blogger in real life, and they were within striking distance, would you say it the way you’ve written? If not, that might be a good test to encourage commenters to be more civil.
A while back, before AOL went bananas and ran off a lot of its journal users, I suggested that online journals were like people’s homes, where front doors were left open so visitors could come in and look around.
Sometimes I wonder what some people would really allow others to do in their living rooms.