On Blawg Comments

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Now that this blawg is a little over two months old, we’re starting to get spammed with some frequency in the comments. I take this to be sort of like a toddler learning to crawl. It is chaotic, messy, and time-consuming in the short-term, but signals long-term progress.

However, it got me to thinking about a comment policy. Although we, unlike some, allow comments, we don’t exactly have an easy to find comment (removal) policy. Nor do we have a “diary” system which would permit our visitors to create their own content. With respect to the former non-policy, we’re like ACSBlog, Althouse, Opinio Juris, among others. No blawgs to my knowledge have a diary system.

Before discussing why, it is worth canvassing the field.


1. On one extreme, we’ve got the free-speech loving, but comment-censoring, Conspirators. They promise to prune comments and encourage posters to “avoid rants, invective, and substantial and repeated exaggeration.” [I love this phrasing, by the way.] They state twice that they’ll exercise their power “occasionally” and note that the marketplace of ideas enables the thwarted to comment elsewhere. It isn’t clear to me how often the Conspirators exercise their power, but since commentators at VC were part of the story in the recent UTR disrobing, I suspect they are pretty hands-off. However, what marks the VC policy is a substantive goal for the whole process, posted right above the blank comment space: “Our goal is to provide an interesting and pleasant environment that can help inform readers. To do that, we’ll occasionally have to exercise our editorial discretion. Think of this as an in-person discussion group, where having different voices is critical to a great conversation”

2. Somewhere in the middle, you’ve got folks like the Conglomerate, which promises to “delete any comments we find inappropriate, and based on past experience, that will include all spam and very little else.” In a similar vein, Prawfs states that they will delete anonymous comments, although “[i]f comments are civil and substantive, we may overlook the anonymity of the rebellious commenter. We own our words. You should too.”

3. Then there are folks who prefer to unbind their discretion. Like Prof. Bainbridge, who notes that he “reserve[s] the right to delete comments that are off-topic, uncivil, obscene, racist, sexist, or just because I’m feeling cranky, or ban those who make them.” Similarly, Brian Leiter often will open up comments, but reserves the right to delete freely, while obviously preferring nonanonymous posts.

So what should we do? A community building articulated policy? A toothless gummy standard that we enforce at will? Unbridled discretion?

Perhaps we can take some lessons from the political blogs, which have recently been undergoing a bit of a revolution in comment/diary control. [Warning, the links in that last sentence are NOT work safe.] As far as I can understand the debate, the issue is whether to permit profanity in the vibrant participating communities that make those sites the traffic monsters they are. We’re obviously not nearly at that point, but maybe we should be thinking – as the bigger blawgs have – about the issues involved in comment maintenance. Those seem to be, in order of importance:

1. Time: Tougher rules entail higher enforcement costs, which are hard to share fairly on a group blog. For instance, I have no interest in monitoring Kaimi’s post on nudity and magazine covers. He probably doesn’t want to monitor my similarly exciting posts . . . well, actually, I don’t have any posts which are as good as that.

2. Legal Concerns: If we have a filtered forum, we might be liable for libelous comments if we do not remove them. Having removed them, we establish a potentially bad precedent for future comments that we’d prefer not to remove. This dovetails nicely with Dan’s recent discussion of the perils of going commercial.

3. Civility and Incentives: As all of us are professional academics, we obviously value relationships with other academics more than our commentators might. This creates some obvious tensions. To be concrete, I would feel bad if a friend of mine in academe were slammed in a comment to a post I’d written, and I think that she or he would fairly (at least in the absence of a clear policy) expect me to delete that comment.

4. Community: Tougher rules, on balance, probably discourage traffic and community building. Some would argue that it is much better to let the community regulate itself through either a diary/comment rating system or shaming. Such a rating system, not incidentally, would ultimately allow us to “promote” commentators to the front of the page.

Pretty obviously, most blawgs ignore issue #4 altogether, and focus largely on #1-#3. This is fine, but it won’t help blawgs evolve to the next level. We need to find a way to let go, without losing control.

Am I missing something? Civil, non-profane, attributed, thoughtful, witty comments are welcome. All others can go pound sand.

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2 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    I’m generally with you in spirit. The issues aren’t as cut-and-dried as some on those comment threads from redstate to kos would like us to believe.

    One thing, though, sticks out: point #3. Maybe the game is played differently in the legal wing of the Tower, but I’d say that’s par for the course. Let’s say you’ve posted on my primary area of research and mentioned my viewpoint favorably. A commenter comes on and “slams” me. This is either (a) a harsh assault on my work or (b) a personal attack.

    If (b), then I can either ignore it — trusting my colleagues to recognize and dismiss an ad hominem attack — or I can post a single response indicating that he should find fault with my work rather than myself. If it reaches the level of slander, that becomes another story, but I don’t think anyone would be faulted for removing what amounts to graffiti.

    Otherwise, case (a) is the meat of academics. I can’t put a new idea out and have it stand or fall on who I happen to know or be friends with. Yes, having the right contacts can help spread my thoughts or build my name. But if my work cannot stand on its own or with reasoned responses to assaults from outside, then it’s worthless and deserves to be torn asunder.

    Either way, I would expect you to leave that comment up (excepting of course for slander) for the world to see. In fact, though I understand the impulse to help out a friend I sense a patronizing undercurrent: “You aren’t able to defend yourself against attack by rational response, so I’ll help by removing the enemy.”

  2. I’m not so sure about developing a strict set of rules, whether they be lenient or restrictive in allowing comments. And I’m not sure that all of us here at Concurring Opinions need to concur in precisely how we should each moderate conversations in our posts. My general view is that I don’t see the comments section as a bulletin board for anybody to say whatever they want. I post to solicit a conversation, and as the poster, I’m the moderator of that conversation. If there’s a comment I feel is off-topic, libelous, incoherent, or otherwise detracting from the debate, I will not hesitate in deleting it. I certainly welcome criticism and strong disagreement with my posts or with other commenters. I can take a fair bit of snarkiness. I love a good debate and thoughtful disagreement. But I also want discourse in my posts to be civil and substantive.

    So I don’t see the comment section in my posts to be a free-for-all. If people want to speak, they can get their own blog and write whatever they want about my posts there. If they want to engage in the conversation I’m moderating, then they should participate via the informal norms of that conversation, which thus far have been to be thoughtful and civil.

    That said, I am quite impressed with the comments we receive here. The comments are very much worth reading and are generally civil, thoughtful, and interesting. It makes the comments worth reading; it makes me want to start conversations with the readers of this blog. And that’s why as moderator in my posts, I want to make sure that this continues.

    In other words, I kind of see discussions in posts as similar to a seminar discussion — one that is permissive, that is not moderated in a very heavy-handed way, but one that is nevertheless not obnoxious, rude, or off-topic.