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Making commenters work for you: going beyond simple moderation

Microphone against black backgroundMost webmasters – particularly those from the U.S.A. – think about moderating blog comments in terms of only spam prevention and censoring especially ugly language or hate speech. They think it would be censorship to moderate someone’s ideas, even if those ideas are subtly toxic. But as a blog grows, suddenly the webmaster is outnumbered by the commenters, and their voice can take over.

It’s your job to determine what direction your blog will take, not the commenters’. You do not have to err on the side of caution in moderating. You are not stripping them of their right to free speech (they can go say whatever they like somewhere else). You are not being unfair. Think of your blog as a party: if one attendee is making it miserable for everyone else, who do you want to leave? The one attendee, or everyone else? Because if you don’t take steps, everyone else will.

By the way, don’t worry: for every commenter who gets angry at being moderated and leaves, several more worthwhile commenters (probably long-time lurkers) will start talking.

This article is part 1 of a series, and focuses on the problems commenters can create without leaving spam or particularly ugly language or even being off-topic. Part 2 will talk about changing your attitude toward moderation. Part 3 will talk about solutions to dealing with commenters who aren’t working for you.

Examples of comment problems

If you’ve never run a website with much commenting, you may be wondering what the big deal is. Let me give you some examples.

  • Derailed threads. You write an article about why a politician’s latest suggestion is wrong. A commenter argues against something you never said (“She’s a nice person!” when you never said she wasn’t), or complains you’ve got a punctuation error (egads, whatever shall we do??!!11!!), or brings up a tangential topic and talks about it for 2000 words, or leaves comments in response to every single comment on the board. What happens? Other commenters jump in to debate with that commenter or defend you against the commenter, and before you know it, the thread is about the comment (or the commenter), not the article. If these commenters become your regulars, you’ll be lucky if even half your articles develop semi-relevant comment threads.
  • An exodus of quality commenters. Some commenters are just mean, or they’re bigoted and refuse to consider the possibility when the people they’re prejudiced against call them on it. Your commenters see you allowing this, and think you support those views or that way of treating people. Other mean-spirited commenters join in the fun while potential quality commenters feel they’ve entered a cess pit and hit the back button. Once your asshole quotient hits critical mass, you’ll have nothing but assholes on your site, and once they have no victims to punch, they’ll leave you, too.
  • Eclectic commenters. If you get a high quotient of people who talk in some industrial lingo, or sound like professors in a show-off competition, or seem to share a lot of in-stuff with each other (“I think the politician was wrong, too. Hey, other commenter, did you get your cat yet?”), this atmosphere makes new commenters feel like they’ve walked in on Hour 16 of a conversation to which they weren’t invited. They can’t find a way in, so they leave. So much for your chances of attracting a mainstream audience.
  • Change in tone. As you find that a few of your most vocal commenters are dictating who feels comfortable speaking up, you’ll probably find they’re also dictating what you write. Most of us respond without even realizing it to what our commenters say. We think (consciously or unconsciously), “Oh, they liked that bit – I’ll write more about that.” This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but if you’ve got a good idea for a site and a bad set of commenters, it will be.

Next:  The Comment Policy