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Comment Quality Under The Spotlight

Posted by Michael Bloch in web development (Thursday May 3, 2012 )

It’s been encouraging to see a few more publications and journalists publicly questioning blog comment quality as it’s a really important topic.

Back in 2009, I wrote about people increasingly confusing civil debate with garden-variety ad hominem exchanges. Things certainly haven’t improved since then.

I find in one of the communities I watch over, I’m spending way too much time in correcting people’s concepts of debate and their twisted views of “freedom of speech”. The views have been fostered through being able to get away with bad behavior elsewhere; or through exposure to the many aggressive bloggers around the web.

It’s been more than one occasion I’ve been accused of censorship. Actually, it’s true. I am a censor and quite happy to labeled as such.

I find it difficult enough to ignore the atrocious spelling and primary-school level grammar in discussions; but ad hominem attacks between members of an online community (or even drive-by commenters) – impossible.

I explain to these misguided folks that the concept of “freedom of speech” should be accompanied by a strong sense of personal accountability and responsibility for their actions, coupled with an awareness and understanding that exercising that freedom doesn’t include attempting to destabilise a community in their pursuit of whatever goal, snarkiness or demeaning others in order to boost their own ego.

Online publishers have generally been afraid to really moderate comment threads and online communities; aside from the really nasty stuff, for fear of their readers going elsewhere. My opinion is, let those people go. Who wants them – they are probably scaring off others who can contribute something truly valuable to a thread.

It’s this lack of action that has played a major role in downright venomous stuff littering the ‘net.

I think the ABC’s Jonathan Green summarized it nicely:

“..the angry backchat, fanned by more than a decade of wanton incitement by none other than the mainstream that now decries it, does not add to the sum of the discussion. In all likelihood it excludes the politer more reasoned voices and diminishes it.”

Andrew Stafford from The Age says there needs to be more transparency – for commenters not to feel they have so much protection in their anonymity:

“…with the nation’s political and personal manners increasingly coarse, it might help elevate the tone of how we speak to each other, and provide at least some protection from an army of baiters, haters and spivs.”

As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, publishers and owners of blogs and forums have to help change the quality of conversations. Benevolent dictatorship is far better than mob rule. Wear the censor’s hat (or if you really dislike that term, replace it with “moderator”) with pride.


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