Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Life in the (Comments) Field

Once again, Twitter is to thank for today's post on the care, feeding and maintenance of Blog comments.

Comments are many things to a blogger - they are a measure of engagement, a way to determine the health of your blog, the reach, the coherence, the interactivity.... Comments are the way you know you're not just talking to yourself.

And so, when Social Media star ShellyKramer mentioned the other night on Twitter that she deeply disliked moderated comments on blogs, I thought that would make a stellar topic for discussion.

With thanks (and apologies for not attributing quotes directly) to Melinda Beasi, Daniella Orihuela-Gruber, Johanna Draper Carlson David Welsh and many others I'd like to summarize the Pros and Cons of Moderating Comments:

1) When You Delete, You Are Moderating...and Censoring

We all pretty much agreed with Shelly that anytime we chose to delete a post (aside from spam) we are making a decision to censor. This is not a universally bad thing, because as a blogger it is both our right and responsibility to keep the conversation in the comments relevant and friendly. (See #2.) But it can also lead to needing to have the last word.

Just as you toss out mail that is junk, there is nothing wrong with deleting spam, or shaping the conversation towards an end, but there are powerful pitfalls associated with deletions of posts. You can throw out mail that touts causes you don't believe in at home, and on your blog you *can* get rid of dissent or irrelevancy. It's important to know when you are riding that line.

2) Curating the Comments is Part of Your Job as a Blogger

Another commenter pointed out that, as a reader, there was an expectation on their part that the blog owner *would* curate comments and shape the conversation to keep it friendly, lively and non-toxic.

This will of course, depend on the purpose of your blog. Some are designed to *be* incendiary, some are meant to be educational, informative, conversational. Some blogs encourage dissenting opinions (I like to think mine are among those) and others are meant as a forum for a particular perspective. They way you curate the conversation should be in line with the mission of your blog. Maintain and support that position as consistently as possible, so commenters know what to be able to expect - for instance I now have this statement posted on my other blog:

...any comment that contains the word "objective" or "objectivity" is subject to rejection. This is a review blog - it's all personal opinions, all the time. Mine and yours.

Which was to expressly state that objections to my opinions are welcome, as long as they don't take the position of being in some way "objective," which opinions never are. ^_^

Setting ground rules helps your readers know where they stand.

3) It's Your Blog, You Don't Have to Apologize For Closing The Comments

A number of bloggers and forum moderators said flat out that if someone was misbehaving overtly, they had no compunction about closing that thread. The phrase bandied about was "Is that person being a dick?"

I and a number of other people weighed in with a slightly different perspective - people are allowed to be opinionated, but when they cease to be entertaining/informative/unique, the thread will be closed. In my case I have explicitly stated that "it is time to stop now" or "you have ceased to be entertaining." In both cases this means that the fourth incredibly long, single-spaced rant you have written on why I am wrong is pretty much exactly like the other three that have already been allowed. Nothing new is being said, so I'm going to stop approving posts.

4) Having The Last Word is Overrated

At least one person argued strongly that deleting comments or closing threads is always tantamount to needing to have the last word - and this can absolutely be true.

I frequently allow commenters to continue the topic as long as they want - even if they post serially until, as above, they start repeating themselves or are simply rehashing the same grievances in different form.

I rarely, if ever, require the last word. To be very honest, I prefer to let the craziest, most delusional posts stand for themselves, because I find that more amusing than any attempt I can make to punctuate that person's insanity on my own. (Mean, I know. But that's how I roll.)

5) Know Toxicity When You See It

Overwhelmingly, bloggers felt that when comments became toxic *for the readers* was when it was time to close the thread. No one I spoke to cared much about ad hominem attacks, but several of us felt that when the attacks addressed the readers, or the posts were close to threats against readers, they had to be stopped.

Toxicity goes back to #2. Part of the blogger's job is to make reading the blog enjoyable for the readership. If you run a very controversial blog and invite that kind of commenting, then as long as readers know what to expect, that's fine. But imagine the slap on the face effect when a person is reading a comments thread only to be told that if they disagree or agree, they are /something really insulting and rude/ or /terrible thing should happen to them/.

Serial ranting can also cause a thread to become toxic, just as a serial ranter at work can ruin the team environment.

6) Use an Engagement/Conversation Strategy

I use what I call the "3-comment" rule. I will engage with and respond to commenters up to 3 times on any given thread. Since I have written the original post, I'm willing to clarify or comment but, after 3 comments, I stop. This allows the commenters to comment on each other...and allows the comments thread to start to shift organically to other topics. I don't stop that and I often encourage it with ex-site conversation (for instance, encouraging someone to comment based on something we're discussing elsewhere.)

Other bloggers use questions at the end of a post to encourage responses. Of course some rely on strongly worded opinions (not any of the above bloggers, but it is a fact of blogging that some do) and some folks explicitly request feedback and/or suggestions.

On WordPress, bloggers can set auto-approval, so once a person's comments to a blog have been approved, that person no longer needs to be moderated. This feature is not available on Blogger. I wish it were and have already requested it.

Moderation is especially invidious on online magazine-type blogs. It's unlikely that Mashable, for instance, is getting loads of hate mail to need moderation. But if you have a topic (or a personality) that attracts strongly worded, insulting or plain old crazy responses, it makes sense to have a gentle, firm hand on the comments.

Lively commenting is a good indicator of the well-being of your blog. Encourage comments, don't make moderation a tedious process for your readers, keep both eyes on your mission as you approve those posts and you'll develop a thriving ecosystem in the comments field.
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