Comments policies

Overlawyered is lucky to have a valued set of commenters from whom I often learn things, and it’s been quite a while since our comments section has suffered from any outbreak of bad commenter behavior, flame wars, or that sort of thing. I was reminded of our good fortune since several bloggers have recently added guidelines on comments moderation or otherwise outlined their views. At Volokh Conspiracy, known for its busy and high-quality comments section, Orin Kerr has posted a “Clarified Comments Policy” which with perhaps a slight change here or there could also serve as a comments policy for this site. Meanwhile, the site I helped launch a couple of weeks ago, Secular Right, from almost its first day attracted a high comments volume (more than 2,000 comments in the first two weeks) including more than a few that were contentious or uncivil — not an unexpected consequence when there are sharp disagreements on the topic of religion. After one blowup I noted the following:

Let’s make it clear right now, though, that this is a moderated comments section. It may resemble a very broadminded letters-to-the-editor column; it is not going to resemble a public-access cable channel, graffiti wall, or Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner if I or DH can help it.

What’s more, it’s moderated for the benefit of this site’s intended audience, bearing in mind that some lines of discussion more quickly become tedious and irrelevant to that audience than others. Up to a point, I have no objection to efforts to save our immortal souls or turn us into leftier-than-thou Kossacks so long as they have decent entertainment value (short, witty, and nonrepetitive all help).

One group we’d be better off without are those who feel that commenting on this site is somehow a matter of right, no matter what the tedium factor, and radiate wounded entitlement when they learn that’s not how it’s going to work. They really would be happier elsewhere.

Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice is kind enough to quote this in a post discussing his own moderation practices, and then adds several more pertinent thoughts which are worth reading by anyone interested in comments sections. Meanwhile, Social Services for Feral Children touches on some of the legalities involved (“I love you all. Don’t get me sued.”).

As I say, much of this may seem not especially timely at the moment since this site is not experiencing any particular problem with comments, but I’m going to post it just so that I can refer back to it in some time of greater need.

P.S. Orin Kerr returns with another post on the topic. Ideas from the resulting thread include: deputizing trusted commenters with moderation powers; nesting comment sub-threads; allowing readers to rate comments with a +1 or -1 reaction; adding “ignore this commenter” options for users; and collapsing some types of comments to single lines that readers could click for more. Most of these steps lay beyond our current technical capabilities, though I’m not sure what’s available by way of WP plugins.


  • Often it all just comes down to “Use common sense, be polite to other people”. Eventually with every commenting system there is a troll dropping by. Personally I think (and hope) the audience here is smart enough to just ignore those people when it happens.

  • There is a WordPress plugin known as “Comment Karma”, which allows readers to rate comments with a +1 or -1, much as one finds at Slashdot.

    I’m not sure you need it. You seem to have a pretty good base of commenters, though of course, given your subject matter, I’m sure there’s some pretty awful stuff that doesn’t make it through moderation.

    Personally I can’t stand the karma system. It seems to work well enough at Slashdot, but at Plastic, a more politically oriented site which started very promisingly in 2000 or so using a similar karma system, cliques developed and gangs of partisans began rating comments by their ideological opponents downward without regard to whether the comment was in in fact (+1, insightful) or (-1, stupid).

    In the end, Plastic ate its own tail. It still exists but has very few readers, which is a shame because it launched with support from the late, lamented, and had a great userbase at the start.

    I suspect that politically (or legally) oriented sites can’t succeed if they allow the mob to decide what’s clever and what isn’t. The temptation to hit “-1” when one disagrees is too great for some people to be allowed to exercise it.