More signal, less noise: cleaning up your comments

“Today, I would like to discuss with our community the recent decline in both quality and civility in our front page news discussions/comments. While I remain proud of our community discussions on articles, and while I acknowledge that they are far superior to the status quo online, things have taken a turn for the worse in recent months.”

I caught that paragraph in my RSS feed a few hours ago, part of an article that Ken Fisher of Ars Technica posted. A similar topic wandered in an out of Andrew’s blog, about whether comments should be moderated. I always wonder how devolving civility or haters affect the community, especially whether it puts off potential commenters, although I agree that allowing comments sans moderation is better in principle.

There’s also the aspect of anonyous commenting, which doesn’t appear to be an issue with Ars Technica crowd, although there may be a good number of aliases. Don Tapscott wrote a while back that Anonymity is a double-edged sword, because studies have shown that people take ethical liberties when they assume no one is watching. (I also liked Tapscott’s post because I get a buck from a friend every time someone refers to the dogs on the Internet.) Tapscott included this interesting quote from New York Times deputy managing editor Jonathon Landman: “There is no constitutional right to have your comments published. And
certainly if it’s abusive or stupid or something, well then, what’s the
point, why is that a good thing?”

Landman continued, “The challenge is to create an environment in which the right kind of people want to participate… Wikipedia has done a miraculous job of preserving standards in a collaborative way, and to me the great accomplishment of Wikipedia is not so much that it gets a lot of people to participate. That’s actually relatively easy. It’s that it’s able to enforce clear set of accepted standards and that it’s able to get the community to enforce those standards.”
There’s also interesting research about recognition in online communities, suggesting that quality of participation is much higher when people identify themselves.

What do y’all think? Moderate or not? Anonymity or not? Or is there something in between that works? And what about context — should it be different depending on where or for what purposes the commenting is for?

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Tim Bonnemann

The Washington Post recently announced that it is working on a new system that would still allow anonymous commenting but would provide ways for both the community and a team of moderators to better sort through the noise: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/02/AR2010040202324.html

For more ideas on potential “things in between”, check out our blog and some recent posts on the topic: http://www.intellitics.com/blog/?s=anonymity

Christina Evans

To Harlan: a couple of points on your comment. First, I don’t know about the U.S., but in the Canadian government, it is certainly possible in today’s environment to be a “senior” executive (in terms of your position), while being a Gen Xer — don’t look at me though, I’m not either one! ๐Ÿ™‚

Second, it is also very possible to be in disagreement with someone without being disagreeable. Most people are open to disagreement with their position, as long as it’s not disagreeable.

Finally, I don’t know what the “right kind of people” are, but I sure know the wrong kind in this context. The wrong kind (in my opinion) are those who can’t marshall an intelligent argument against the writer’s position, so resort to a personal attack against the writer. And although it can be difficult to know exactly where to draw the line, I am in favour of a moderator to remove those comments/attacks.

Sheryl Grant

@Tim, thanks for the link to your blog on semi-anonymous commenting. That’s an interesting way of handling government-initiated discussions, and you made a good point about the value in giving people a choice about how much of their identity they want to reveal publicly. Good compromise.

In another post on GovLoop, @Henry shared a link to the New York Times’ change in policy, similar to WaPo’s.

Although anonymity and civility are not the same, the trend to disclose or semi-disclose identity is partly a way to increase civility and perhaps (one can hope) improve the quality of the information being shared. Wikipedia is an interesting case — They have a policy that specifically addresses civility under Wikipedia:civility. Fascinating, too, is the page of user essays on civility. .

Sheryl Grant


Yes, Gen Xers are in senior positions here in the US, too. One of them is currently the leader of the free world ๐Ÿ˜‰

Patrick Quinn

If we were to get a do-over on K-TOC, I’d probably require a registration portal that prohibits anonymity.

We treat the community as we would a public meeting. Anyone can say whatever they want, however they want, so long as what they’re saying wouldn’t get them thrown out of a public meeting. It isn’t a perfect system and does nothing to inhibit the all-caps wackaloons, but it enables us to host the widest possible range of comments and viewpoints.

Similarly, government-sponsored public meetings invariably require that anyone stepping up to microphone give their name. I have no problem with a similar requirement for online commenting. We don’t use it at K-TOC, but one day we probably will.

Sheryl Grant

@Tim, thanks for posting that. Really interesting — it seems the trend is to editorialize with technology. Wonder if government social media practices or policies will trend that way.

And here’s an update on the judge whose identity was disclosed (filing for $50 million in damages).