Making commenters work for you: the comment policy

Audience in a theaterWe talked the other day about how you don’t have to let your commenters run your site. You have the right to go beyond spam-prevention and moderate so that comment threads become a vital part of your website.

There’s a temptation for webmasters to think of their commenters as their audience. The fallacy is that there are quite a few readers who don’t comment (“lurkers”) to everyone who does comment. A blog with 10k visitors a month may only have ten or twenty active commenters.

That’s only a small segment of your audience – a little group of people who care enough to respond, and have the confidence to do it in front of however many people may be reading. You want to keep them happy, but not at the expense of the other thousands of people who are reading and churning page views for you.

When a website is new, you’re advised to think of what will keep your commenters coming back. But as your traffic grows, this isn’t the way to look at it. You need to start thinking about each article and comment thread on your website as a web page: does it say what your website needs to say for the long haul? If people read these pages ten or twenty years from now, will they have any value?

Surprise: there are commenters you don’t want to keep.

Free speech moderation style, and why it doesn’t work

The worst flaw of WordPress, in my humble opinion, is that it makes it too easy for commenters to “earn” the right to comment. You have two built-in choices (and if there’s a plugin that allows more, please please link me to it!): moderate every damn comment from every damn commenter, or let everyone who’s ever had a single approved comment have free reign to post comments all over your website. The problem with the former: it stalls potentially vibrant conversations. The problem with the latter: it means once someone has left one cautious comment, then you’re at their mercy – which becomes an increasingly big problem as your site grows in traffic. If hundreds of people are on your site every minute, then at least dozens will see any new comment before you’ve had a chance to delete it. They may think you’ve allowed that comment (and stop visiting, if they’re offended enough), or start fighting with that person, compounding the original problem.

WordPress has taught us all to think commenters have more rights on our blogs than we have, or than our lurkers have, but this is bullshit. Disabuse yourself of the idea, and read on.

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Focused moderation and comment policies

Once you accept that it’s your job to foster a certain atmosphere at your site – one in which the largest number of people feel comfortable visiting over and over and telling their friends about it – it’s time to consider how you’ll go about this. Your first weapon of choice is your comment policy.

The minimum a comment policy should state is that you reserve the right to moderate, delete and edit all comments as you see fit. This gives you wiggle room when you run into a comment that’s a problem for some reason you never anticipated. Next, you should explain what you’re looking for in comments, or what you’re not looking for. What this list needs to include depends on your commenters and the problems you’ve run into, and it will probably evolve over time. It doesn’t have to include every type of problem comment imaginable.

Beyond spam, relevance and trolling: what to moderate?

What sort of comments should you feel free to moderate? It depends on your site, but here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • “Didn’t read, commenting anyway.” Some commenters read your title and maybe two sentences before concluding you hold the exact same position they heard from Bill O’Reilly recently, which (in this example, anyway) is not true, and they’d have known that if they read the rest of your article. Then they leave a lengthy comment diatribe arguing against O’Reilly’s position instead of yours. Why should you post that? It doesn’t add anything for you or your readers. It’s just someone who’s so impatient to give their own opinions they can’t wait for someone else’s. Offline, it’s similar to interrupting someone before they can give their opinion, and lecturing them at length about a view they don’t even hold. Ridiculous.
  • The nit-picker. This is the person who reads a 2,000 word article about health care and leaves the comment, “BTW, ‘etc.’ should always be followed by a comma or a period.” Who cares? Is this person a frustrated would-be teacher or something? Delete it – your readers will be grateful.
  • The subtle bigot/hater. Some haters know how to be sneaky. Some are so sneaky they really don’t think they’re hateful at all. But they are. Just because they avoid the obvious words that signal bigotry doesn’t mean they’re not insulting a sizable percentage of your audience.
  • The Respond To Everything Commenter. Some people respond to virtually every post and comment on your site, or close enough. It’s weird. It makes readers feel like an obnoxious jerk is following them around at a party. Even if the comments are good, that doesn’t mean you have to post every single one, so that this person dominates every corner of your blog. Post some but not others. Or, another good trick is: put this person on moderation and let his comments sit in the queue for a day or more before letting them go live. He may cool off on his own.
  • The Know-It-All. This person desperately needs to demonstrate he knows more than anyone. He doesn’t really discuss; he lectures. No one likes this tone. Even if what he says is sometimes worthwhile, it can stall out an entire comment thread.

Next: Beyond Deleting and Modding

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Last Updated:

August 26, 2021

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