Fallows on "Comments and Community"

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James Fallows explains why he doesn't allow comments on his blog at The Atlantic ("On Comments and Community: A New Plan?", 12/21/2010):

Unless a comment stream is actively moderated, it inevitably is ruined by bullies, hotheads, and trolls. If you feel otherwise, fine. This is what I think.
Corollary: The comment-communities that flourish, notably the Golden Horde of TN Coates, require real-time, frequent intervention by a moderator not afraid to put his stamp on the discussion.


To the list of "bullies, hotheads, and trolls" we need to add a number of other categories, such as "lazy narcissists who think that everyone should have the benefit of their uninformed off-the-cuff reactions", and "annoying obsessives who relate every topic to their fixed idea". And of course there's the problem of dealing with ever-more-resourceful spammers.

In my opinion, blog comments are on balance worthwhile, especially since the WordPress Akismet system is good at catching spam without too many false positives. However, I'm towards the more liberal end of LL contributors on this question — so please be careful out there, and help me with my end of the internal discussion.

It seems to me that there are two very different sorts of reasons why blog comments can go bad. One is that in an open forum, the participants will inevitably include people that you'd never choose to have a real-world conversation with, at least not twice.  But the other problem is that different participants often have inconsistent ideas about what sort of interaction is happening.

In a real-world conversation, for example, it's normal that some of the participants lack crucial background information and therefore ask for basic explanations, or make a contribution whose presuppositions need to be corrected by others. But as the size of the group increases, this becomes less and less appropriate. A request for clarification is perfectly in order in a conversation among two or three people, but is likely to be a strange breach of etiquette if it comes from one of a thousand audience members in large lecture hall.

And in a conversation where all participants are using networked computers, and interactions are spread out over hours or days, how much link-following and independent look-up do we expect people to do before asking questions or expressing opinions? It's clear that blog commenters often assume conversational rules of engagement, where it's appropriate to ask or respond quickly; but authors typically find it annoying that someone asks a question or makes a comment that's dealt with at length in a prominently-featured link (or in a later paragraph of the post).

There are many large-scale web forums where things generally seem to work out positively: metafilter, reddit, the comments sections at unfogged, to name just a few of the many (very different) examples that I encounter from time to time. But what I see in the comments sections of newspapers and magazines tends to lend support to the negative attitudes of James Fallows and some of my Language Log colleagues.

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27 Comments »

  1. FGFM said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    "annoying obsessives who relate every topic to their fixed idea"

    Thomas Friedman?

  2. Thomas Westgard said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    Societies have lots of experience with face-to-face conversations, so it's natural to start writing the rules for online with an analogy to the familiar. I generally expect my conversational partners to be clothed and to look me in the eye – though not necessarily if we're on the telephone. Nudist colonies and phone sex aside, unique technologies require unique sets of social rules.

    When a narcissistic blowhard makes an ignorant comment on the Internet, there's little or no cause to take note, so if a reaction ensues, it's because there was a second fool willing to take the invitation. These "Second Fools" are at least as lacking in accountability for losing track of whatever better substance the conversation might have had. Of course I'm a blowhard – what's the name for the weak and troubled personality who can't ignore a blowhard?

    For those situations where one needs or wants to exclude guests deemed undesirable (PeerAdviceForCardiacSurgeons.Com) there are a variety of technologies that allow it – peer review of commenting, walled gardens, registration requirements, etc.

    I guess the bottom line is that upset over this issue can only occur when people haven't really examined their own assumptions and reactions well, and haven't properly applied the available technology.

    http://xkcd.com/386/

  3. Chris said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    Imho, the quality of comments is related directly to the scope of the original post. Wide scope, generalist posts (like the ones Fallows tends to write) are ripe for the trolls' picking. But the opposite holds true. A good specialist posts often attracts high quality, substantive comments. I can't help but think of the high quality of Language Hat's comments. I've seen some of his posts with 40+ comments, all substantive and interesting. He may be the king of comments.

  4. John Roth said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    @Chris

    Language Hat also moderates them manually. I've looked at his posts early in the morning, and seen quite a bit of spam. It's gone later. I believe he also closes comments after a couple of days.

    This speaks to the point that James Fallows was making: the time required to clean the comment stream, and the timeliness of the posting and moderation.

  5. Elinor said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    This classical music forum (http://www.brightcecilia.com/forum/index.php) keeps an extremely good balance, and I'm very happy to be a member. It's all down to the moderator, who has come up with a good sensible set of rules and is excellent at getting people to stick to them without coming over as heavy-handed. He has the philosophy that if he has to ban anyone (other than the people who just join the forum in order to spam it), it's a failure on his part. As a result of that, he's only ever had to do it twice. There are occasionally some moderately heated arguments, but you just don't get the explosive nastiness there that I've seen on some other forums.

    Good rules and good enforcement are crucial, I think.

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    The comments at Language Log are the best I've come across on any site bar none.

    It's absolutely fantastic for non-specialists and rusty ex-students like me to be able to eavesdrop on discussions often featuring several experts in the field. Sure, we should probably learn to shut up and listen, but then sometimes the questions that set things running aren't the ones asked by the profs. The comments from Indo-Europeanists after Don Ringe's recent series of guest posts were almost as fascinating as the posts themselves, and many of them were in response to a guy who had ill-conceived issues with the comparative method and was arguing the toss.

    Then there are the countless links I'd never have found my way to without the comments, e.g., just in the last few months, Thomas Grano's thesis on co-ordinated pronouns, John Lawler's explanation of the lack of a future tense in English, Ellen Prince on resumptive pronouns, and many more.

    The posts are great but without the comments this would be half the site.

    [Geoff Nunberg: If there's any truth to that, it's partly because there's a core group of commenters who are knowledgeable and civil, and partly because our primus inter pares keeps a ready hand on the spigot.]

  7. Aaron Toivo said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    Have you considered appointing some volunteer moderators from among your long-time commenters? People who would keep an eye out for unwanted crud that you could trust with the access to clean it up themselves?

    Also, while comment policy pages are a fine thing, simple five-word reminders at the bottoms of posts can improve compliance: "on-topic comments only, please" or similar, as appropriate.

  8. Kylopod said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    What I find even more annoying than trolls are thread hijackers, especially those whose entire purpose in being there is apparently to promote some agenda, political or otherwise. This sort of person pops into the discussion and posts a comment that is vaguely related to the subject of your blog post but doesn't address anything you wrote. If the comment contains controversial material, you're unsure whether to respond to it, thus cooperating with the person's attempt to derail the discussion, or ignore it, thus leaving the person's claims unchallenged. This isn't a problem if you're a moderator, in which case you can delete or ban the person, but when you're writing a guest post to someone else's blog, you have little control over this situation.

    I am not someone who's favorably inclined toward censorship, but in my experience the most intelligent and productive Internet discussions are those which are heavily moderated. There are exceptions, relatively unmoderated forums that manage to stay above ground because there are enough dedicated posters who won't allow the trolls to dominate. And heavy moderation comes with a price: it can lead to suppression of legitimate points of view. Some common sense is called for, but there's an element of subjectivity in determining what sorts of views are out of bounds.

  9. Bloix said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    It all depends, I suppose, on why you're blogging. Fallows is a long-time professional journalist with a well-known by-line, and he gets paid to blog. He views blogging as an extension of his print work and he's used to the idea that communication is a one-way street. He hasn't had to care about what his readers think for decades and he's not about to start caring now.

    This blog is a collection of academics who view blogging, as far as I can tell, as an aspect of their pedagogical work. It's like an informal open university where non-specialists can come to learn from the professionals. Some of you are more explicitly professorial than others. Prof. Pullum, for example, will rap knuckles with a ruler when the comments go off-topic, while some others are a little more relaxed when the conversation ebbs and flows. But I would think that, as teachers, you would want to have a feel for whether your self-enrolled pupils are learning anything.

    Another blog I read, Crooked Timber, is also primarily an academic blog, but the working premise there is that the readers are pretty much on the same level as the writers and the comments threads feel more like a conversation among equals than a classroom. Crooked Timber is as much about the comments as it is about the posts.

    This blog, by contrast, is definitely a post-centered operation, which is fine. Still, to my mind, a blog isn't a real blog if it doesn't have comments. I can understand how, from your point of view, the comments can be an irritation but from our point of view the comments are a significant part of the value of the blog. They're both enlightening and a source of pleasure. You may view tending to the comments as a chore but in doing so – as, for example, when you respond to comments within the thread – you are providing as much value to your readers as you would be by writing a new post.

  10. Mark said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    So the list is now: bullies, hotheads, trolls, lazy narcissists, annoying obsessives, and spammers.

    And thanks to @Thomas Westgard you can now add "smug elitists who tell you that 'you are doing it wrong' and then add a comic link to sugar-coat it".

  11. Diane said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    I enjoy Language Log in no small part because of the quality of the comments. No doubt it takes a lot of work behind the scenes, but the end result is comments threads which are generally intelligent and civilized. I would be much disappointed if you ever started closing the comments.

    Whenever you start despairing of the quality of Language Log discussions, take a visit to the celebrity gossip websites comments logs. THAT's malice and stupidity; we're practically saints over here in comparison.

  12. Shangwen said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    I agree the post's topic and scope are relevant, and some comments are indeed amazing, like the prof who hacked the Google n-gram several posts back. But I think the motivation of posters to be civil plays a part, and how intensely they believe their comments to be interesting. Also, Geoffrey Pullum's comments about posters have left me too terrified to speak.

    And ditto what Diane said about other sites.

  13. Barrett D said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

    Someone said once that the IQ of the conversation is inversely related to the number of participants… or something like that.

  14. Garrett Wollman said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    I've always considered blogs a latter-day walled-garden reinvention of Usenet (but without all the tools that make Usenet work tolerably well, like decent threading readers and proper text editors), but LL has long been the exception to the rule: thanks to the quality of the posts, it is more like a general-audience science magazine with an unusually generous letters-to-the-editor column. But when Prof. Pullum works himself into a righteous fury over thread drift — a natural outcome in *any* conversational medium — or people who don't exactly hew to his particular nomenclature for English grammar, it can get to be a bit tiresome. Would you rather have a community (which will always have its share of cranks and idiots) or a passive lecture audience? The tone you set determines where along that spectrum your audience will lie.

  15. Sili said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    I believe he also closes comments after a couple of days.

    To the best of my knowledge he only closes old posts when they get highjacked by spammers.

    "lazy narcissists who think that everyone should have the benefit of their uninformed off-the-cuff reactions"

    Guilty as charged.

  16. empty said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

    I don't believe that LanguageHat ever deletes genuine comments, as opposed to spam in the strict sense. That which is off topic is more than tolerated and that which is hotheaded gets addressed if necessary rather than disappeared.

  17. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 6:16 am

    I think in general people have adapted to the usual kinds of silliness and nastiness that occur in Internet forums. It's quite easy to scroll past the junk and therefore you find quite sensible discussions happening alongside terrible exchanges of ideological venom.

    Heavy moderation is fine if you have a group of people who want to have a very disciplined discussion and will not go away.

    There are few things deader, though, than a blog with only occasional comments. A forum needs is a sense of something going on, and to create that, you need a mixed ecosystem including a few more lowly life forms, such as the uninformed narcissist.

    The LL forums are mostly well-above-averagely to the point and civil.

  18. Alon Lischinsky said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 6:20 am

    @Sili:

    To the best of my knowledge he [Language Hat, AL] only closes old posts when they get highjacked by spammers.

    It's LH's policy to close comments on all posts after a few days. I'm an avid but infrequent reader, and I've often found myself in the position of not being able to comment because the post is a week old.

    @Geoff:

    If there's any truth to that, it's partly because there's a core group of commenters who are knowledgeable and civil

    I, for one, would enjoy LL much less if it weren't for people like LH, John Cowan, Chris-the-lousy-linguist, Aaron Toivo, Kylopod, bulbul, marie-lucie or David Marjanović. Feedback from the knowledgeable-and-civil group is often incorporated by the OP in the main text, which makes me think you guys find it useful as well.

    Narcissists and trolls are as unavoidable online as IRL. I think LL has handled them with grace and balance.

  19. language hat said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    I agree with everything Bloix said above, about Fallows, Crooked Timber (which I should frequent more than I do), and comments in general. There are a number of blogs I stopped visiting when they stopped having comments, and I would not bother maintaining Languagehat if I were just talking to myself — it's the commenters who make it interesting for me.

    Thanks for the kind words about my comment threads; I agree they're exceptional, but I do have to remove a substantial amount of spam (some days just a few comments, sometimes hundreds). It's not quite true that I never delete genuine (non-spam) comments, but I do so so rarely (an average of perhaps once a year) that it might as well be never; I do it only when someone has been derailing a thread with material that is not only off-topic but destructive to the social fabric of the comment section (personal attacks and the like) and they refuse to quit despite entreaties and warnings. In general, my commenters, like those here at the Log (and there is of course a fair amount of overlap), are knowledgeable people with interesting things to say and a lively sense of humor. But I have nothing corresponding to the stern on-topic rule in effect here (being a fan of serendipity), so the culture is quite different.

    It's LH's policy to close comments on all posts after a few days.

    Not exactly; it's my policy to close comments when the labor of deleting incoming spam exceeds the likelihood of new comments from actual readers (and I am always happy to reopen them if someone asks). These days, that tends to happen between one and two weeks after my initial post, but there have been cases where a spammer has popped up on a post that has been up for months or years. If it were up to me, all posts would stay open indefinitely — I love getting comments on old posts — but the cursed spammers won't allow it. (Yes, I could cut down on my labor by instituting capchas or the like, but I prefer to make the commenting process as easy and attractive as possible; I'd rather spend a little extra time deleting spam than run the risk of driving away someone who might have something interesting to say.)

    Needless to say, I would be very distressed if the Log closed off comments.

  20. chris said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    Unless a comment stream is actively moderated, it inevitably is ruined by bullies, hotheads, and trolls.

    I agree in general, but I would have named this blog as an exception, until I found out as part of this thread that it *is* actively moderated.

    I'd rather spend a little extra time deleting spam than run the risk of driving away someone who might have something interesting to say.

    ISTM that this is the entire problem in a nutshell. If you close comments, or don't allow them, then you drive away *everyone* with *anything* to say, interesting or otherwise, relevant or otherwise, polite or otherwise. If they have their own blogs they can respond there and link you, and otherwise there is no conversation at all.

    That's the tradeoff as I see it. I won't presume to tell anyone else which side of it to come down on — it would be too easy for me to volunteer someone else's time — but you either value the outcome of that effort sufficiently to justify the effort itself, or not.

  21. William Ockham said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    Bloix's comments about Fallows ("he's used to the idea that communication is a one-way street. He hasn't had to care about what his readers think for decades and he's not about to start caring now") are so far from my experience that I wonder if he reads Fallows' blog. Fallows posts a lot of reader comments in follow-up posts. Based on my experience, he cares a lot about what his readers think and makes an effort to engage in a dialogue with them.

    Perhaps the difference between my view and Bloix's is simply whether or not a blog has to have comments to be a blog. It is a lot harder to sustain blog without comments, but some folks pull it off. For me, Fallows's blogging is much more valuable than his other writing and his blog is one of the first in my RSS reader.

    I think the subject matter of a blog has a lot to do with it. Political blogs with comments either have moderators or the comment sections become totally useless (with a few exceptions). I've never hung out on celebrity gossip sites, but I imagine the same is true there. One of my most intense personal interests is religion, but I avoid religious blogs (and religious discussions on the 'net generally) almost entirely because every bad aspect of the internet is amplified many times over when religion is involved. But the worse discussions have to be software development discussions. As a class, we (software geeks) are the most obnoxious people on the internet.

  22. Josh Millard said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    But the other problem is that different participants often have inconsistent ideas about what sort of interaction is happening.

    That's certainly part of the problem, yeah. And it's a systemic thing, is my feeling: it's not just that commenters may misinterpret the local context at e.g. Language Log, it's that your default blank-slate commenter considers comment threads to be fungible. Or, maybe better: they don't consider the fact that they aren't fungible. A comment box is a comment box is a comment box: insert cursor, type contents of head, hit submit.

    So any given blog starts at a disadvantage even when everybody is participating in good faith: setting aside bad actors, you're still going to get well-meaning people doing it wrong because they don't know that there's a context-specific right way to do it. Between people that don't know that this isn't the place they want to be commenting and people who want to participate but aren't doing it well (in either case because they're letting general assumptions stand untested that clash with the commenting/moderation culture or intent of the place), there's a lot of room for missteps and confusion and maybe hurt feelings even when everybody's trying to make it work.

    Which is why there's so much value in having (a) a clearly established set of guidelines for participation and (b) a solid group of regulars who understand those guidelines and can help enforce them both by example and through gentle feedback and guidance to folks who are stumbling in good faith.

    Community sites are basically required by the nature of their existence to grapple explicitly with this stuff—certainly it's a big part of how I spend my time in my work at Metafilter—but that's not so obvious to folks running blogs, and so it's not surprising that there's a lot of variation in how attentive one blogger or another is to this sort of thing.

    LL has by my impression been very self-conscious every step of the way about this stuff, which I've found very interesting to follow (and I'm among those who are very happy that comments have become a regular and successful part of this place, even if there's tension among the Loggers about their value and what "successful" means exactly). You have here a willingness to set expectations and a core of thoughtful, engaged readers/commenters willing to help manifest those expectations.

    And previously naive commenters mature and develop a sense of how one commenting opportunity differs from another as they successfully acclimate to individual places. They better understand the local context of the places they participate at regularly, but they also develop a more global sense of the existence of and variations between guidelines and cultural expectations at each new place they encounter. So well-run commenting venues don't only maintain themselves, but improve (however incrementally) the quality of the commenting hordes. A well-run comment section is a machine that produces quality commenters.

    That e.g. the average local news site has given this stuff essentially no attention isn't really shocking given how cargo-cult the implementation of comment threads is: it's just The Thing To Do these days, even if it's more or less orthogonal to the traditional business model and the folks running the site don't have community-building in mind (or in the budget). But it's a given that the quality of comments in such places will be low: there's not meaningful guidelines at the core of the experience, there's no draw for a core, engaged audience to assemble itself, there's hence no core of regulars to help enforce or create guidelines. The folks who do show up to comment have no sense of context and have no opportunity to develop one. The commenter-honing machine isn't in operation in places like that.

  23. Bloix said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    Perhaps I'm wrong about Fallows. I admit that I don't read him regularly and I don't care for the Atlantic, so maybe my prejudices are blinding me to his good points.

    And this is one of the nicest things about the comments here. You can say something that you think is right, and someone will come along and say, you really should rethink that – without first calling you some nasty name involving fire or body parts or something similar. The comments threads that are just impossible to read are the ones where commenters work themselves up into frothing rages about each other.

  24. Thomas Westgard said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    Today's Editor & Publisher sent me this link about one newspaper in Maine that now requires all commenters to use their own name: http://www.sunjournal.com/city/story/956149

  25. Doug said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    "A request for clarification is perfectly in order in a conversation among two or three people, but is likely to be a strange breach of etiquette if it comes from one of a thousand audience members in large lecture hall.
    . . .
    It's clear that blog commenters often assume conversational rules of engagement, where it's appropriate to ask or respond quickly;"

    That may be because the commenters perceive a great difference between a blog and a lecture.

    In a lecture hall, if a twit asks a basic, stupid question, the cost the twit imposes on the lecturer (and the rest of the audience ) is large. If there's a formal Q&A period, it's likely to be short relative to the lecture, and it's likely that good questions will remain unasked because the twit burned a minute or two with a stupid one. The lecturer will have to make some sort of response, if only to tell the twit to shut up & sit down. (And if there's no formal Q&A, the effect of the interruption is probably worse.)

    But on a blog, the cost the original poster and the other commenters endure from having to spend a few seconds to decide to ignore the twit's stupid comment seems extremely small in comparison. No response is necessary.

    Apparently at least some bloggers view stupid comments as much more expensive than the commenters do.

  26. Nijma said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    When a narcissistic blowhard makes an ignorant comment on the Internet, there's little or no cause to take note, so if a reaction ensues, it's because there was a second fool willing to take the invitation.

    The problem with this statement is that it does not take into consideration the content of the comments. Particularly troubling are hate comments–comments that denigrate a particular cultural or ethnic group.

    When the comments of the hater are allowed to stand, but comments of the opposite political persuasion are not allowed, the end result is that hate comments become acceptable. You can bet that blogs like Stormfront and Sweetness and Light delete comments that are deemed "destructive to the social fabric of the comment section." By their comments you will know them.

    Hate comments on ligua blogs can be quite subtle too, sometimes embedded into text that doesn't parse and looks like it was machine generated, sometimes using coined phrases that only those who follow the blog regularly will be able to decode, and sometimes using quotations (slightly modified to defy easy googling) from literary sources from historical eras when bigotry was more open. Would even an attentive moderator follow all the links and be able to tell when this was taking place? Or if one commenter was stalking another, posting, say, vague comments about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or perpetuating negative stereotypes about their identified group whenever a member of that group commented, who is causing a derail, the person who makes the hate comments or the person who objects? Or does a hate comment that is oblique enough become acceptable by wrapping itself around scholarly sounding language?

    BTW, no, I don't comment at LH any more.

  27. Qov said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

    Write a separate post explaining your comments policy. Place a link to it on the front page, or, if the blogging engine permits on the comment form itself, along with an exhortation not to post without reading the comment policy. I've written two successful blogs, been active on the Internet since the late 1980s and read and adhere to comments policies when I find them, but I was wholly ignorant that my voice wasn't wanted here. I'm definitely one of the "lazy narcissists who think that everyone should have the benefit of their uninformed off-the-cuff reactions." I'm trying to write something like "I apologize for my ignorant comments," but I can't find a way to say it that doesn't sound like haughty sarcasm, and I'm not intending that.

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