Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Musings on the art of commenting

Do you love your freedom?

Those of us who spend a lot of time on the internet encounter many different things. Some sites are simply functional or informative. Others express opinions and invite debate - or not.

The blogosphere, by and large, involves some degree of debate. In recent months, sites like the Huffington Post have changed the way the comments are moderated and that doesn't sit very well with the more outspoken readers. Some sites have rules, others don't.

The diversity in approach to comments around the internet made me think of how things are on our very own Palingates. When I started it all those months ago, I was an avid reader of Palin Deceptions, a very moderated blog, and I thought moderation was the "in" thing to do. So I clicked on the corresponding alternative when setting up the blog parameters. It lasted about one week. I couldn't be bothered to moderate the comments and didn't see the point of it. The moderation feature came off and things ran very smoothly until a certain spammer reared his head. Long excerpts from a critique of Don Quixote were posted hundreds of times on several threads. I have nothing against Cervantes (far from it), but these comments were posted as an attack on Palingates, with the single aim of disrupting the discussions. Blogger didn't offer appropriate tools to solve this problem, so we deleted the spammy comments manually and switched to Disqus.

We still don't have moderation, but can cope with malicious attacks without having to waste time and without interrupting the discussion. It was a very good decision. The threads became more fluid, the debate more dynamic and the number of people joining in multiplied over the weeks. Trolls don't last very long and there's no need to ban anybody for dissenting opinions. Commercial spammers are swiftly dispatched and our readers are spared some very corny jokes and raunchy videos from a Swedish site, among offers for laptops, IT solutions and anatomy enhancing products.

Just as a matter of curiosity, these are our internal rules:

  • Spammers and malicious impersonators are banned. Malicious impersonators are those who appropriate regular commenters usernames and post comments that confuse the discussion. Others post under several different monickers in an attempt to validate their previous comments. These are called out, but not necessarily banned. Once their game is up, they leave on their own accord.
  • Comments containing personal contact details are deleted. In the case of our own regular commenters, it's for safety reasons and anybody who wishes to get in touch with each other via e-mail is encouraged to contact Patrick, who will facilitate it. Contact details for third parties are not published if there's a risk of backlash against the person concerned. Media, government bodies and organisations contacts are OK.
  • Flagged comments are considered and discussed a case at a time.

The opinions of the blog owners are expressed in the main articles and the comments posted through Disqus express the commenters personal opinions. The responsibility for main posts rests with the named authors and the responsibility for Disqus comments rests with each individual. There is a note on the sidebar explaining this.

On very rare occasions, comments are flagged as inappropriate. We look at each case as they arise. We have to balance some things out before making any decisions. If we delete a particular comment, will it affect the flow of the conversation? Are we disrespecting someone's opinions? In the convivial atmosphere at Palingates, sometimes a "just for fun" moment can create a conundrum for us. We have many journalists visiting the blog, looking for solid information about Sarah Palin. The numbers are bound to grow after we won the award for best political blog. If a comment or a picture attached to a comment is posted for fun but would make a wrong impression, we think it's better if it's not there. In such cases we always contact the person who left the comment or picture to explain why we have deleted it.

We understand that our lack of rules may be confusing at times, but it's very difficult to establish criteria that's waterproof. Most of the time things work very well.

We don't have filters, but every now and then Disqus decides to swallow random comments for no good reason. When we spot these, they're quickly approved. Considering that we have over ten thousand comments each week, sometimes it's a bit tricky to keep on top of Disqus's idiosyncrasies... 99.9% of the time, if a comment disappears, it's not due to moderation.

Palingaters are very busy people and the comments come in thick and fast. It's a very mixed bag. We have networkers, link providers, deep thinking people, irreverent people, short commenters, lurkers, occasional trolls, you name it, we have it. Seriousness, snark, humour, concern for each other are all present every single day and provide the unique flavour of Palingates. I've noticed that when Sarah Palin or her "perfect" family are particularly irritating, the tone of the comments changes slightly and the language becomes a bit blue. Again, each comment is considered individually and addressed from the point of view of adding to the discussion or not. I also noticed that when things get too heated, people post soothing youtube videos, which are much appreciated as a mental health break.

Of course this amount of freedom is not to everybody's taste. The trolls themselves don't know how to cope with it. They come from sites where people are ordered "to leave my blog, motherf&*%#r!," which would never happen on Palingates.

We love our freedom and on the rare occasions when we have to look at a comment more closely and make a decision, we always ask ourselves if we are suppressing ideas and opinions. An open forum shifts some of the responsibilty regarding how things are presented, but we're still responsible for the overall "image" of Palingates.

Let me finish on a light note. Poor Track went all the way to Eye-rack to fight for the 1st Amendment and it would be very sad if we didn't show how much we love our freedom and value the freedom of others...


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