Comment is Infrequent

The Guardian‘s Comment is Free site has been troubled again this week after they introduced a half hour waiting period in between comments. The accusation levelled at the commenters was that the discourse was not of a high enough standard and that a wait of half an hour would force people to calm down and think a bit harder before they posted. Thus, the assumption goes, would the conversation become more erudite, more intellectual, more stimulating.

Georgina Henry said, in her post Less is More:

[T]he sheer number of comments now coming in from individuals is making it harder to keep the quality of the debate high through post-moderation alone.

Aside from the persistent breaches of our talk policy a frequent cause of complaint is the pointless chatter that litters threads. Too many comments have nothing to do with the original post, or degenerate into back-and-forth slanging matches with others which just get in the way of reasoned argument and put off people who want to engage with the original piece.

[…] For those that want to cotinue to debate the issues raised by CiF bloggers, we’re proposing to introduce a comment frequency cap which will only allow individuals to comment once every half an hour. If it works it might make for more thoughtful contributions from those who tend to write before they think. If it doesn’t work – ie, if it simply dries up or drives away the best while leaving us with the worst – we’ll think again.

The majority of commenters were outraged at this arbitrary limitation of their freedom to post, and unsurprisingly so. They feel that it’s their site now, and that The Guardian has acted undemocratically and heavy-handedly. Commenter Sealion said:

Wow, what an atrocious idea. So what’s the problem? Cif has become increasingly popular and thats a problem for you? So you suggest that people don’t use your site, they go find another, or use a talkboard. Cif is a talkboard….did you really think it was a blog?

By your own admission, discussions have become better when the originator has come online to debate with the commentators. 1 post every 30 minutes? That’s altrui knackered then. And Sunny. In fact anyone who wants to get involved in a discussion is going to have to wait 30 minutes for a reponse from somebody they may have raised a point to, which is going to kill any debate stone dead, or persuade people to create multiple screen names to get around it and add chaos to confusion.

People will also write longer pieces because they have only one chance, and then they’ll probably go off and do something else because this isn’t much of a spectator sport.
Yes, it will probably get rid of a lot of abuse and pointless comments, the same as it will get rid of just about everything else. This will kill discussion, people will just post an essay length summary of their opinion and then leave.

Of course, it didn’t take commenters long – about 1 hour and 4 minutes – to figure out that The Guardian were using cookies to achieve their aim and that, by deleting the cookie one could post as much as one wanted.

But the reason people feel miffed is not just to do with their ability to post comments. Henry had posted previously that CiF had around 10,000 commenters, but only 100 people have posted over 207 comments each, with two having posted over 1,500 and one person approaching 2,500. This is a power-law distribution. Now, quantity is not the same as quality, but I would wager that if you plotted the quality of the comments, that too would follow a power law: the majority of users write perfectly acceptible comments and the name calling, ad hominem attacks and unpleasentness is committed by a small minority of users. Yet by imposing a half hour wait on every single user The Guardian are reacting disproportionately, as if the problem is widespread ‘bell-curve’ problem. It’s not, and the commenters know it. They feel as if they have been treated unjustly and that The Guardian has meted out an indiscriminate punishment to all without bothering to try and solve the problem posed by a minority.

After an evening of protest, Georgina Henry ceded some ground, and the system has changed so that the half hour wait is per article, not across the whole site. However, she doesn’t acknowledge that the commenters’ protests are in any way valid, and in my view fails to take in their points at all. She says:

Thank to the odd commenter who understands and supports what we’re trying to do. Just to reiterate, for the critics, there are other audiences that we’re trying to reach which this might help – they include the vast majority of people who read CiF but never comment; those who comment occasionally when they have something worthwhile to say; those who used to read us but are put off by the mindless irrelevant chatter that infects many of the threads and those who would like to engage with the original argument but have to scroll through too much rubbish before they do so.

How is this supposed to help? It’s natural that there should be a power-law of comment frequency amongst readers. I would expect nothing less – it’s how almost all these sorts of websites work. Lots of people read, some post once, and a tiny minority post frequently. This distribution is extremely common and well understood. Apart from, it seems, by Ms Henry.

There is no need to try to encourage those who don’t post to post by shutting up those who do post. Maybe the people who don’t post don’t post because they are happy just reading? Is there actually any evidence of droves of people put off by ‘mindless irrelevant chatter’? If that’s the reasoning behind limiting posting times, then I fear that there’ll be disappointment when the number of people posting doesn’t suddenly increase in leaps and bounds.

But there are a couple of themes here that CiF needs to understand. Firstly, ‘messy’ comments is not only inevitable, it can also be good. Euan Semple said:

We can tolerate a lot of apparent messiness and our ability and desire to make patterns allows us to get real value from it.

Dave Snowden was right when he said if you have a complex environment you need to have simple rules. Complex rules just result in a mess.

One mans rubbish is another man’s gold dust.

We can work together on complex activities with minimal directions.

The question is, what are the rules? Putting a wait time on posting is not a rule that is going to encourage less chaotic commenting, it’s just going to string it out over a longer period of time, and maybe destroy some valuable conversation that might have otherwise happened.

Perhaps, more important, is whether or not the original author actually takes part in the comments thread. Blogging, done well, is about a conversation, and on CiF, it seems that that conversation is rather one-sided: columnist opines; commenters comment. It that really any way to encourage an intelligent discourse?

What to do? The Guardian is – understandably – worried about not just quality of conversation, but also libel, defamation and other things that they might get sued for. This is serious shit – they cannot and should not allow libellous material on their site. They have to strike a balance between chilling out about the mess and ensuring that really nasty stuff gets dealt with.

But half hour waits will not appreciably help, especially if all it takes to sidestep the delay is to delete a cookie. Keeping the existing system will annoy people more than it will help. The Guardian will have to be more innovative than that.

Here’s a thought. How about learning from sites that face a similar problem. Slashdot is well known for having a rather low common denominator amongst the comments. Yet it’s still readable… So long as you know that you can filter out the rubbish by using the built in ratings system. Digg also uses a ratings system and comments with a low enough score are hidden from the casual reader: whilst they remain on the site, you have to unhide them to read them. Could the Guardian not improve on these systems?

It’s essential to remember that the problem is not really a technological one, but a social one. Comment ratings systems are only a tool to allow the community to look after itself, but the tool has to be well crafted in order for it to work.

Let’s consider a simple thumbs up/thumbs down system which the community can use to police itself. It can have a sliding scale of punishment, to allow for the varying severity of misdemeanours: -10 points, say, and your comment is hidden; -20 and you have to wait half an hour before your next comment is published; -50 and your comment is deleted. Extreme behaviour gets a ban.
The problem is, such systems can be gamed. Even if you have a system wherein you can only vote once for each comment, malicious behaviour from a minority can break the system. How could you combat this? Perhaps by using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – send all comments to MTurk and pay an uninvolved strangers to answer the question “Is this comment abusive?”. I’m assuming that a combination of RSS and MTurk’s API would make it possible to integrate this seamlessly into the site so that you have an impartial input into whether or not comments are good or bad.

It’s possible to completely outsource comment moderation, but my personal feeling would be that it’s preferable to let the community have a stab at self-moderation first. The more people feel divorced from the way that a community is run, the less they care about it. I think this is why people react less well on threads where the author of the blog post doesn’t engage in the discussion, particularly when they don’t answer (reasonable) questions that are directly put to them. Taking the comment moderation and giving it to some third party, whether a room of moderators at The Guardian or an external moderation house, feels a bit like saying to the community ‘Right, you can’t be trusted’.

So I think there are a few things to pull out of all this:

  • The Guardian needs to chill out about comments. They’re not all going to be Nobel Prize winning essays, and some of them may go off topic. No big deal.
  • CiF bloggers need to interact more with the commenters and stop thinking of commenters as annoying, underemployed and overopinionated. Digs like “My guess from looking at the email addresses is that the list is overwhelmingly male” by Georgina Henry do not show much respect for the people who make CiF as vibrant as it is.
  • The Guardian needs to think about ways in which the community can self-moderate and use technology to facilitate that process, not try to use (shoddy) technological fixes to try and arbitrarily shut people up.

CiF could be a great site, but it needs some significant work and a change in attitude from the bloggers there in order to evolve from the ‘soap-box with hecklers’ model to a being a real blog.

And finally, thanks to tomper for this blog post’s title.

We’re off on holiday now for two weeks. I look forward to seeing if we’ve any comments when we get back…

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