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Rethinking user comments

Maybe its people's increasing comfort with the Internet and the anonymity it provides coupled with their increasing general despondency about life; but comment quality seems to be rapidly deteriorating.

I visit all sorts of blogs and forums and I'm noticing people confusing civil debate with garden-variety ad hominem exchanges. Many are just getting involved in conversations to disagree for the sake of disagreeing, hurl abuse or peddle their own products. Comment threads commonly also go way off topic.

Even at the academic level it's a problem. I was reading a post on an environmental site frequented by scientists about dealing with folks who have problems understanding climate change. It started off fine, then a battle broke out between two seemingly very well educated participants regarding whether climate change was real. This was ubergeek stuff and much of it went over my head. However, the bickering became the focus and even these two masters' degree-level fellows wound up swearing at each other. In doing so they both lost the argument and destroyed a good thread.

The noise to signal ratio is becoming very unsettling. There has been many occasions where I've had an interest in a topic and then had to claw through pages and pages of static; trying to learn more from the few people participating in the thread who have some genuine expertise in the topic and were trying to convey information rather than massage their own egos.

Something needs to be done and as site/forum/blog owners, we all play a role in addressing the issue. 

If you take a look at forum guidelines, usually you'll find general housekeeping rules such as:

- be polite
- stay on topic

Unfortunately, often these aren't enforced. Ad hominem attacks have become the norm, but the problem is that most people do not understand what this term means. Essentially it means attacking the person, rather than addressing the issue and sometimes the attacks can be very subtle. You can learn more about ad hominem arguments here.

Perhaps we should be making it a privilege to contribute to a converstation rather than convey a message that it's a right. Perhaps we need to attach status to comments being published, much like "letters to the editor" sections of newspapers were viewed. It's not like being able to leave comments is the novelty it was a few years ago.

We shouldn't be afraid to censor or moderate to keep things on track and keep user generated content useful. If someone is being a pain in the ass and won't take notice of polite and gentle coaching - don't put up with it. Zap 'em. If their buddies kick up, zap them too. Keep zapping/moderating until you have the sort of community you want. If you end up with no-one commenting as a result - that may not be the disaster you think it will be - as long as your site's focus isn't a forum of course. 

The problem is that if the trolls, self-promoters and whingers are the majority of your commenting population for whatever reason - that's exactly what you'll keep attracting. The best way to discourage trolls is to not feed them.

Freedom of speech is all well and good, but if folks are going to say something, they should make it useful and relevant - depending on the nature of the blog or forum of course. :).

If you're scared of losing revenue, consider this. If threads on your blogs are getting bombarded with me too's, trolls, nutters and general negativity, it can not only drive others from your site, it takes the focus away from your own products and services or those you advertise. 

Not everything has to be open for comment and in some cases you'll gain more than you lose by switching the feature off altogether. If you don't want to do that or take an iron fist approach and you're running a content site; try sticking an AdSense block or an ad for your products in where your comments would usually appear and stick the comments below that - I think you'll soon see what I mean.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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