– Mark E. Smith

It seems necessary once more to remind the borderline Aspergerians and youngsters who overpopulate the Web that a comments section is not like the letters column of a newspaper and is not necessary for the health of your site.

I simply don’t agree with the insistence that the Web is about “conversation,” which you are invited to “join.” If I believed that I’d be Mathew Ingram, articulating what the Web isn’t to one’s gullible, aging bosses (and running a conference on the side). Web sites can include comments and “conversations,” but that is merely a technical feature, not a defining one.

Owners of newspaper sites have acted the most shocked at the contents of their comments sections. On the surface, they are the most surprised by the lack of inhibition and the overabundance of extremists. They should have known better than anyone who was going to show up: They’ve been the ones editing and curating letters-to-the-editor columns for generations. Part of that job entailed censoring extremist opinions, or even opinions that ran too short or too long. Now everybody can read what editors had been reading, and suppressing, all along.

Clay Shirky has warned against comparing Facebook to old-media forms. Facebook is really just like Facebook, he says. I’m here to tell you comments sections are like comments sections, not like letters to the editor. In practice, the most significant difference is the one I just mentioned: Curation.

Web-site owners generally do not have a clue what they’re in for when they open up comments, despite years of evidence and experience that should have given them a pretty good idea. It is a matter of settled fact that if you open up comments, people will show up to shit in the pool.

This isn’t the 20th century and there’s no excuse for acting surprised. You’re supposed to have a plan. And you might as well copy the one that works the best – MetaFilter’s. Matt Haughey learned the hard way that rules don’t work. There will always be an edge case that isn’t edge anymore and shows your rule was too strict or too lax. What one needs are guidelines, rules of thumb. They have to be applied intelligently and people have to be able to talk about what happens. The MetaFilter way of handling this is MetaTalk, a separate forum just for discussions of MetaFilter.

With round-the-clock curation by mathowie, jessamyn, cortex, pb, and vacapinta, who are correctly know as admins and not moderators, there is almost no shit in the pool at MetaFilter. I say this even though I am often dissatisfied by what they actually do let through. (In practice, more than one user has to flag a comment before it gets looked at, unless it’s a slow day and somebody just happens to have time to look at every flag. This is not a large hole in the dike, but it is quite big enough for scattered vermin to squeeze through.)

Comments sections suck pretty much everywhere else. I know of surprisingly few exceptions. Gawker has a curious new system, a kind of Son of Slashdot, that seems to work OK, so if you’ve got Denton’s kind of money and an army of ancien–Eastern Bloc developers, you could adopt that one instead of Haughey’s. It seems that just the right defectors from old Gawker showed up at the Awl. I don’t know what Dave Topping is doing at the Torontoist, but whatever he’s doing is working much of the time.

What surprises me are vertical-interest sites, which are solidly hit-and-miss. Steve Munro caters to transit fans who have vast catalogues of opinion backed up by expertise, plus the owner has a strong voice. Whereas Typophile has been dysfunctional for years, a fact the near-invisible, unreliable greenhorn “moderators” of the site are in denial about.

How to make comments work

After 19 years online, which includes a decade and a half using and administering mailing lists, the path to success seems obvious.

  1. Don’t enable comments unless you really have to. Even if you do, some postings don’t need comments.
  2. You need published guidelines and a separate place to discuss the application of same.
  3. You must have courage in your convictions and must have enough backbone to delete comments and ban users when necessary.
    1. If you are too much of a pussy to throw your weight around now and then because somebody might call you a tyrant or a censor, hang up your skates right now and save everybody some trouble.
    2. It’s slightly more desirable to delete first and ask questions later than the converse.

If you don’t carry out these steps, you end up with comments of the calibre of a newspaper site or YouTube.

Or the Tea Makers.

A worst-case scenario

Alphonse Ouimet has, from the outset, shown a tone-deafness to the consequences of comments. He’s so vague about it he couldn’t really even muster an argument, but if he did, it would be along the lines of “the Tea Makers has always been a free-speech zone.” There may have been merit to that philosophy, if it even existed at the time and weren’t an ex post facto rationalization, during the CBC strike in 2005 that brought the Tea Makers into existence. It hasn’t held water since then.

If Matt Haughey is the model to emulate in a successful discussion forum, Alphonse Ouimet is a kind of Must to Avoid. He doesn’t understand the harm that accrues to a site from toxic comments, and, importantly, he just does not acknowledge the personal harm they cause. I believe this is because he is unflappable in the face of a crisis of his own. The problem is that toxic comments create a crisis for somebody else, something his own Asperger’s variant makes him unable to even notice.

Add this to another facet of himself he doesn’t understand – namely the lengths to which he will go to assert control over a site he’d long since left behind – and the result isn’t just a fouled atmosphere and a shattered reputation for the site. Worse yet is the serious personal distress knowingly inflicted on many people and knowingly allowed to continue. When you don’t delete a comment that levels a personal attack, you endorse it. You think it’s the least the victim deserves.

A claimed commitment to freedom of speech is often indistinguishable from a nihilistic indifference to the suffering of others. Alphonse Ouimet would never kick a kitten across the room, but neither would he raise a ruckus if somebody else did.

And that’s pretty much what goes on at your site whenever you fail to control a comments section. You turn into an enabler of abusive behaviour. You turn your site into a scared, scarred family with a drunk dad.

Still think your site needs comments?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.11.05 14:06. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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