How much oversight do online forums, blog comments need?

    by Mark Glaser
    January 26, 2006

    The online journalism world has been atwitter about comments on blogs, following on the Washington Post website’s decision to stop accepting comments to its Post.Blog. That happened after the Post’s ombudswoman Deborah Howell didn’t come clean on her comment about indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff giving money to Democrats as well as Republicans. Washingtonpost.com even convened an online panel to discuss the issue of “Interactivity Ethics.” I’ll be commenting more fully on the whole affair in a longer post to come, but I’m curious what you think about how blog comments — or any online forum — should be moderated. Should they require someone to read them first (meaning me)? Should they require a valid email address from you? Should they require no oversight at all? Tell me what you think, and I’ll compile the best responses next week in the Your Take Roundup.

    Tagged: blog comments forums moderation
    • There are really two separate issues here, and you must resolve the first before dealing with the second.

      The first issue is control of content. WPNI (the Post website) and the Washington Post (the Dead Tree Post) are two separate corporations — WPNI contracts with the Post for content, but (apparently) that contract gives WPNI absolutely no editorial control over the content.

      So, when Deborah Howell says something extremely ignorant (and that’s being generous), and people complain on the WPNI site, there’s not a damn thing that WPNI can do about it. The problem just sits there and festers — and as Post employees (Willis, Kurtz, Leen) availed themselves of WPNI resources to defend Howell’s falsehoods, things only got worse.

      So, before WPNI (or you) decide on a comments policy, you have to make sure that *you* can respond appropriately when your content provider screws up.

      If you can’t do that, then you might as well forego comments right now, because the time will come when you will be “blogstormed” because of something that PBS did….and you won’t be able to handle it, and (like Jim Brady) you will get all defensive and blame the people who are rightfully, and righteously, angry, rather than blaming yourself for putting yourself in this position.

    • The difference between a blog and an old-school news site is the commentary. If you shut off comments, you are shutting out your visitors, and you are not going to grow a vibrant community around your blog (which is the point of a blog, isn’t it?) One thing you do not want is robots posting SPAM comments, or trolls posting off-topic useless junk. The other thing you do not want is moderators quashing all dissenting opinion and turning your comment section into an echo chamber.

      How you handle comments then really is going to depend on the type of content you post and the type of community you want to build. The more open and inclusive the community, the more tolerant it will have to be of trolls and spams, and more importantly opinions they disagree with. For some sites, moderation may be considered a necessity to control the signal to noise ratio of the comments. For other sites, the noise is half the fun. I find comments work best when there is a self-policing capability. Community members know what belongs and what doesn’t in most cases. But again, you have to be careful to avoid the echo chamber effect.

      So the “right” way to handle comments is whatever way fits best with your online community. My recommendation would be, start with your comments completely open (or as open as you as the publisher can tolerate) and see what happens. If you attract the right type of people, they will often take care of the rest. But if there is too much noise, slowly dial up the restrictions until you get a ratio you can live with.

    • My own experience as a blogger suggests that all comments need to be moderated by a human. Why?

      1) Email spam – “splog” posted by phishers and so on.
      2) Trolls, stalkers, and drive-by abuse

      Civility is a basic requirement, and will weed out the comments that are simply abusive. Even some well-meaning commenters don’t always understand the ground rules of civil discourse.

      The other issue is that the owner of the domain has to be the decision-maker with regard to what can be published on their site. They have every right, and a certain obligation, to maintain an appropriate level of discussion. Sometimes the line is blurry, and rather than censoring someone’s comments, I have tried to use the comments as an entry point to further discussion. There have been a couple of cases where I felt I needed to put an end to an escalation.

      I think that blog commenters should be given more leeway than in the case of a print publication, if only because this is oftentimes a learning ground for this kind of writing. If the blog has an audience, sometimes the other readers will “police” the discussion too.

      The use of actual names and email addresses is almost beside the point, since there is no way of knowing if they are valid. People can add free email accounts under false names any time they want, or just make up an email address.

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