Comments, Trolls, and Moderation

It was an early winter’s morning in 2009. The participants of Science Online 2009 were slowly, wearily emerging from the haze of the night before — the reputation that marine science bloggers had livers of steel was not yet a stone-carved edict. We sat down for a session, I don’t remember which, that was ostensibly about managing commenters. This was they heyday of Web 2.0, the nascent social media ecosystem was in its early successional stages — no longer larval, but still bursting with untapped potential. Blogs were still king. There were earnest debates about whether Twitter or FriendFeed was a better platform.

Someone stood up, I don’t remember who, but they were certainly qualified, and made the startling (thought paraphrased) statement: “If you moderate comments, your legally liable for anything said in those comments. You’re only protected if you let all comments through.” This is not true, but it was certainly the mentality of the 2000’s, where comment threads were fast and loose. Newspapers took this advice to heart to such a degree that even the spam was left exposed to the world. Even today, articles on your local news site may boast more comments about how much money Freddy Fakename makes working from home than actual responses to the article.

Here we are, half a decade later, and Popular Science has chosen to close its comment threads, forever. The science behind their reasoning is shaky, and covered better elsewhere. We’ve struggled with comment moderation at Southern Fried Science for years — experimenting with variations ranging from total openness to login requirements and everything in between. We genuinely do value all our commenters and you an rest assured that if you’ve been around, and commented on more than one article, we have nothing but fondness for you (yes, even Malcolm). We like comments. We like engaging with people interested in our work. We like engaging with people who disagree with us and our Hippy/Redneck/Liberal/Fascist/Republican/Socialist/Libertarian/Anarchist/Eco-terrorist ideology (yes, I have been accused of being all those things, sometimes in the same post).

Over the years we settled on a comment moderation policy that works for us. Not surprisingly, it’s the same policy that newspapers have been using for a century. Your comment is a letter to the editor. We appreciate every letter. We read every letter. We do not publish every letter (though we do, in fact, publish most). Each author has a slightly different threshold  for what constitutes an appropriate comment. We have a community moderation system, so you can get an idea for how the rest of the audience feels about a particular comment. We are heavy-handed with off-topic, derailing, or demonstrably false comments. We make no apologies for any of this, because this is our space.

Popular Science looked at their space and decided that comments were not providing that value. Other blogs implement moderation policies much more stringent than our to create a safe space where people an discuss issues without facing harassment. Some have created auxiliary message boards, separating the comments from the posts by a link. Moderation is what drives productive discussion. If you’re comment threads are being overwhelmed by trolls, throw out the trolls. If you’ve got haters harassing your regulars, throw out the haters. If, like PopSci, the cost of moderating the trolls is greater than the benefit of allowing comments, than by all means, close the comments. The secret is moderation. It’s a big internet, I’m sure they’ll find somewhere else to go.

Trolls have been around long before the internet. This really isn’t a new phenomenon. Just ask H.L. Mencken:

  1. It has been fascinating watching reactions to popsci’s decision to shut off comments. When I first read their article on it, I actually agreed with them. I’ve spent enough time on science based facebook groups to see that when you get a bunch of people who have a basic grasp of science into a discussion of a topic that requires a more-than-basic grasp, everyone clings to the few facts they know and use those to bash opposing opinions over the head. When someone who is new to that subject comes in, interested in the actual article, and then reads the comments and sees how viscous armchair scientists can be, it’s pretty easy for them to get turned off. That’s why I rarely comment on science articles. I know I don’t have a full working knowledge of any branch of science and honestly I don’t want to get beaten up by science bullies.

    I love the idea of comments being considered letters to the editor. I think that’s the perfect way to handle this. Also, maybe force the internet to take a course in logical fallacies?