7.26.2010

Creating your comment moderation policy

Add Your CommentWhen you first start blogging, you'll probably have either zero comments or just your mom chiming in from time to time. But sooner or later, you'll have to figure out what to do about the comments you receive.

When I talk about comment moderation in this post, I don't mean the how of moderating comments, though that's a good idea for another post. For the purposes of this discussion, you might moderate comments by turning them off completely on certain posts or on your blog as a whole, manually approving each comment as it comes through and not allowing certain comments or commenters through your gate, or deleting comments once they're already posted. It doesn't matter for now. Whichever method you choose, you are framing a comment policy, deciding who gets a say and who doesn't.

There are some who protest that a blogger's choice to moderate comments amounts to censorship. This is hogwash. Censorship is when the government or authority prevents the little guy from being heard. Your blog is more like your living room, and you get to choose whom to invite inside. Once someone is there, you also have the choice to kick that person out if things get rowdy. Whether certain commenters or would-be commenters like it or not, you as the blogger are in charge and make the rules.

If you have a private blog, your rules can be entirely of your own making. If you have a more collaborative or public blog, such as the blog of a well-known newspaper, there are probably already rules in place for what does and doesn't get (or stay) published online or in its pages. For instance, newspapers and magazines generally try to present a balanced picture of what readers are saying in response to articles in the letters to the editor section — but they still don't print every letter that comes in, so even there, choices are being made.

So how will you form your comment policy?

There's no single answer, because everyone's blog atmosphere, and every blogger's tolerance level for discord, varies.

The easiest way to deal with comments is to let absolutely everything through. This allows the blogger to avoid any responsibility for policing, and everyone is allowed a voice. Unfortunately, "everyone" will include spammers and trolls, and this sort of atmosphere can be very unwelcoming for the discriminating reader. Don't get me wrong — many very popular sites have this sort of anything-goes comment atmosphere, so it's apparently working for some people and blogs — but you have to ask yourself what kind of atmosphere you're trying to promote. To go back to the living-room analogy, is your blog a party den, where everyone's whooping it up and chugging beer? Then, sure, let the comments be a free-for-all. But, if you're running a blog on, say, poetry writing and you picture your blog "living room" as a sedate conversation between intellectual artist types, I can guarantee you they're going to sidle out the door of your raucous party rather than staying to contribute. The anything-goes sites are better when you want hit-and-run participation (think YouTube, as one example), and the moderated sites are better when you want to build a community; either is a possibility, so consider what you're looking for in your audience.

Let's say you've decided to do some sort of comment moderation. On the other end of the spectrum, then, are blogs that delete without mercy any comment that disagrees with the blogger. This can also be a frightening atmosphere to step into as a reader unless you're prepared to brown-nose and nothing else. If you're never sure your comment will see the light of day, you're less likely to want to bother trying. And as a blogger, it's probably a chore to support that big head on just one neck.

So, somewhere in the middle then, eh? All right, here are some possible avenues to explore as you cobble together your own middle-ground commenting approval system:

  • Decide whether you're going to allow anonymous commenters. Some do, and some don't. I usually allow it if I think it's a comment left in good faith (particularly if it's left on a post about a sensitive topic), but not if I think the commenter's posting just to be inflammatory. Some people think anonymity gives them a license to be obnoxious with impunity, and I like to prove that isn't the case.
  • Decide what level of spam filtering you want to do. This doesn't refer just to whether you use a spam filter or word verification. Inevitably, someone will sneak through anyway. I for one do not allow comments from people with SEO names ("dining room tables," I'm talking to you!) or who post seemingly "helpful" comments pointing people to the same manufacturer's site as the answer to all problems on a certain topic. If someone wants to post about their company or product, I'd much prefer it to be out in the open and related to the subject at hand, and then I don't object. Sneakiness gets my goat, and earns a comment the axe.
  • Some sites thrive on discord and debate, and some aim to bring together like-minded people in a supportive environment. I can honestly say I understand both sides, and it's really up to you what sort of environment (living room) you want to foster. If you enjoy arguing into the night in real life, you might invite lengthy comment threads that throw facts and opinions back and forth. If that sort of thing gives your stomach butterflies and fills your sleep with nightmares (no, seriously, been there!), then encourage a more encouraging atmosphere. One way to do the latter, besides or instead of deleting comments that don't align with your beliefs, is to respond to comments in the calm and supportive manner you wish the discussion to proceed. If, on the other hand, you wish to encourage a rousing debate, you can stir things up in the comments by being as inflammatory as you hope others will be. Note that having an argumentative comment thread can be intimidating to readers who are conflict-averse, so do this only if you don't mind not hearing from such readers, and if you don't mind attracting commenters who are there just out of a sheer love of arguing. The downside to a calmer, supportive environment from the reader's perspective can be a sense of stasis, of not needing to read or respond to comments because of an expectation that everyone will be agreeing anyway. Think through what you envision your blog looking like, and see if you can't find the position that will keep you and (most of) your readers happy.
  • Some blogs deal regularly with sensitive topics and have a comment policy to exclude any comments or commenters who can't play by certain fundamental rules. For instance, if it's a fat-acceptance blog, the comment policy might warn off those who will post comments that are condemnatory toward fat people. If it's a body-acceptance blog, the comment policy might be broadened also to exclude comments that are condemnatory toward bodies of any size. If you have a particular ethic in mind with your blog, you might want to exclude comments that violate that ethic. It's up to you. Some bloggers prefer to allow through such comments and then debate and educate the commenter on the offensive language or position. Again, some of this decision will depend on what you want your living room atmosphere to be.

Finally, once you decide on a commenting policy, it's best to state it somewhere on your blog, in a dedicated post or page, or even just a paragraph in the sidebar or above your comment box. That way, you can refer to it if things start taking a downturn or if someone protests a comment deletion. I know, you're referring to your own writing to prove your authority, but for some reason, it works. If people know you've thought this out beforehand, they're more likely to go along with your decision.

What is your comment policy? What do you value in the comment space of blogs you frequently read? What do you wish was different?

Photo courtesy Premasagar on flickr (cc)

2 comments:

Rachel said...

I like Rachel Held Evans' (http://www.rachelheldevans.com) comment policy for its brevity and thoroughness. Rachel's blog fosters an active and lively conversation in the comments, so readers and participants know that she's not draconian in the application of the policy, but it serves as a reminder to keep it civil:

"Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us."

Lisa C said...

I'm lucky not to really have to moderate my comments (I think it's because my blog isn't searchable by search engines, so I get much less wayward traffic there). I have a spam filter but haven't gotten any spam yet.

My policy is much the same as yours. I don't like anonymous commenters, but they are allowed as long as they are somewhat polite and stay on topic. I do feel like I am inviting people into my home. I think people ought to get a feel for a blog before they comment. It's possible to stumble on someone's personal blog meant for only friends and family, and it would be awful for them to find some stranger disagreeing with them...which is how I felt before I went "public" with my blog.

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