Thursday, January 29, 2009

Some additional notes on comments and social software


Our new policy on comments follows from some basic features of social software already known to many. I thought I would take this opportunity to suggest the lessons that people have gleaned from over a decades' experience in running online discussions sections, and how these lessons apply to this blog.

1. If you want to have an electronic discussion group that is both interesting and civil, you need to moderate it, especially at the beginning. You must regularly participate in comments threads and regularly sanction people for misbehavior. It is better to do this early before problems have a chance to grow.

Conversely, if you do not have the time to moderate comments threads, the chances increase that over time, the quality and civility of comments will suffer. Put another way, if you treat your comments sections like an untended garden, do not be surprised if weeds eventually grow. If you don't care about the weeds, eventually the weeds will take over the garden. This means that, first of all, the proprietor of a blog must make a decision about how much time he or she wishes to devote to tending their particular comment garden. If they don't have the time, they should strongly consider not having a garden at all.

2. The subject matter of the posts to which comments are attached also matters. If the posts in a blog are controversial or are on controversial subjects (like, say, the war on terror, abortion, and the Supreme Court), this greatly increases the chances that the comments will be uncivil and will attract trolls. If your blog prominently features posts with strong political content, even if expressed civilly, you need to moderate the comments section. Here at Balkinization we pride ourselves on trying to offer a scholarly focus, but there is no doubt that we regularly discuss controversial subjects and many of the posters have strong political views. Moreover, we have regularly (and often fiercely) criticized the Bush Administration and discussed some of the most controversial questions in contemporary constitutional law.

3. It takes two to troll. A comments section can usually get away with one person who acts uncivilly every now and then, because other people can ignore that person, and, over time, the members of the group can learn how to police misbehavior, but once you have two or more such people, they tend to egg each other on and draw other people into their disputes.

Often problems are blamed on individual persons who are called "trolls," but in fact there is more than one way to create troll-like behavior; generally such behavior results from the interaction of different parties. If A is perfectly civil and polite, but says outrageous things in the eyes of other commenters, they may start attacking A, and piling on, leading to flaming and uncivil behavior. By himself, perhaps, A is not a troll, but the conjunction of A with B,C, and D produces predictable incivility. Similarly, A and B can egg each other on, signalling to others that it is permissible to engage in this sort of behavior. I do not mean to suggest that this means nobody is to blame in these interactions; rather my point is that more than one person is often to blame. And of course, there are always a few people who apparently just enjoy disruption.

4. Moderation takes time; it requires participating in comments sections, directing traffic, and on occasion, shutting people up by banning them or deleting their postings. Whether you call this editing, mediating, facilitating, or censorship depends on your perspective. Whatever you call it, if you are willing to invest some time and effort doing these things, you can, over time, develop a healthy and vibrant comments section. There are plenty of examples. Conversely, if you are like me and you don't like doing any of these things, or don't have the time, you are best advised to turn off the comments section or say only non-controversial things in your posts (see No. 2 above).

5. Code matters. Some blogging software platforms make administration and moderation easier than others. Blogger, which we have used here since the blog's inception, is not an especially feature rich platform. And it has other quirks: for example, currently it requires that everyone who moderates comments must have full administrator privileges. Given the wide variety of people who post on this blog, and their relative degrees of inexperience with technical issues, I am loath to make everyone an administrator.

Obviously, one solution is to move the blog to a different platform. But this also takes research, time and effort. If I were committed to the time and effort of moderating comments, I might also be committed to the search for a much better blogging platform. Perhaps some day I will do this, but currently, I have more pressing issues and would rather focus on writing posts than on moderating comments.

6. All of this has led me to conclude that given my lack of interest in either (1) moving to less controversial subjects and treatments or (2) investing in moderating comments and moving to a platform more suitable for these purposes, it is better just to shut comments off as a default rule. At some point, if my time frees up, I may make the necessary investments. In the meantime, however, you may consider this episode a teachable moment in basic features of social software in action.

7. Finally, even as I close down comments for most posts (recall that some authors will still retain them), I would like to thank the well-behaved members of the commenting community who have been civil and have had interesting and insightful things to say. I regret that I lack the time and attention necessary to keep the comments section open for your participation, but hope that you will be able to find another platform suitable for your views.