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Making commenters work for you: beyond deleting and modding

Abstract image of crowd at concertThe previous articles in this series talked about going beyond a simple anti-spam approach to comment moderation and actually moderating comments so as to shape comment threads into valuable web pages. If you’re convinced you need to do more than eliminate spam and hate speech, read on.

Beyond “spam” and “delete”

If you don’t want to post a comment you see in your moderation queue, you have two obvious choices: delete it if it’s simply undesirable, or put it in your spam folder if it’s spam. But sometimes simply not posting a comment isn’t the best way to handle it. There are a number of other methods at your disposal:

  • Edit the comment. If someone’s left a mostly worthwhile comment with one offensive remark in it, you have the right to edit the remark out of the comment and post it that way. It’s courteous to email them and explain why, but this can cause more trouble than it’s worth, as they may have had no plans ever to visit your site again, and never would have known if their comment posted or not.
  • Email the commenter. Sometimes a commenter seems intelligent and nice enough, but they’re deeply confused about something most of your other commenters know well, and posting their comment will make them look stupid. Sometimes it’s worth an email to explain – with great diplomacy – why their comment could look silly.
  • Troll caps, devowelers, etc. There are plugins that will strip all the vowels out of comments you specify, or put a “dunce cap” graphic or something on their comment. In my experience, this is only really an effective tool when you’ve already allowed a ton of inflammatory comments onto your site and good commenters have responded to the jerks, so you’d have to delete everyone’s comments for the comment thread to make sense and you don’t want to do that to your good commenters. This is a trainwreck, and should be prevented, not addressed after the fact. But if it’s already too late, devowelers and similar devices let your audience know you didn’t approve of those comments.
  • Temporarily closing a comment thread. When things get super-heated, never hesitate to shut down a comment thread temporarily – after leaving a comment explaining why and when you expect to re-open it.
  • Putting certain people on moderation. If you use WordPress or another blog platform which forces you to choose between modding every comment or letting everyone who ever got an approved comment skip the mod queue, don’t hesitate to put new commenters on moderation. As you work with more commenters, you’ll begin to recognize the problem signs that someone might be a troll on good behavior or one of the other types I talked about in the previous article. They’re not all obvious, unfortunately, but you do develop a feel.
  • Deleting comments. If a normally good commenter is not being moderated and unexpectedly leaves a problematic comment, do not hesitate to delete it. People may ask why, since they’re used to thinking so long as they don’t spout hate speech, their comments are fine. This is why you need a comment policy to point them to when this happens.

Explaining your moderation

One of the things that bothered me when I first started modding like this was: what would my good commenters think? Would they think I was against free speech? Deleting every comment that didn’t agree with me?

It turns out only the trolls make these arguments. Ignore them. But yes, occasionally, valued commenters will wonder what you’re doing and why, since, as I said above, they’re used to seeing anything short of hate speech posted. You can email them when they ask or put up a post or page explaining your logic. Always give them the simplest, most concise answer possible. Indicate that your concern is to make the maximum possible number of people comfortable reading and commenting on your site. They’ll appreciate that.

Technical stuff

Another big help with this stuff? Threaded replies. That way, if commenters go off-topic, they’re more likely to contain it all in one portion of the comment thread. You may still want to delete those comments later (they’re probably not adding value to the web page), but at least other commenters will ignore that little dead end and talk about something more on-topic.