Another approach to sanity on the net

I was told the other day about an interesting feature of some of the most widely used blog comment software in the newspaper business, Pluck Site Life, which is used by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and others. Apparently it sorts commentators into three classes, and for those in the lowest class, there is an option for the moderators to put them in a padded cell of their own where they can see their own comments, and no one else can.

This seems to me one of the most cynical and unpleasant pieces of software design I have ever come across, because it destroys the whole idea of community. The purpose, of course, is to resolve the central problem that all newspaper comment sites face, which is that the overwhelming majority of their readers are tediously aggressive loonies. If they are all eliminated, then no one else bothers to show up and the advertisers lose interest. But if they are left to run free round the asylum they drive off any sane or well-informed readers.

The answer I favour is brutal and public moderation, that makes community norms entirely clear without entirely suppressing free speech. Disemvowelment does this very well, since it is possible to reconstruct the original comment, with some effort, if anyone cares enough. So does the YouTube method of hiding, rather than scribbling, obnoxious comments, while the Slashdot system sort of works, too. Perhaps, in practice, the Slashdot system approximates to the Pluck one, since who actually reads the zero-rated comments except for the people who write them?

But in all these cases, the public punishment of bad comments serves to encourage better behaviour, which is what we ought to be trying to do. People go online to show off, and they will respond to incentives about what sort of behaviour gets them admired.

The Pluck method removes all that. The loonies are robbed of their dignity and don’t even know it. It is entirely corporate. It comes from the world of the Marching Morons, which is, increasingly, the world in which we discover we were living all along.

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6 Responses to Another approach to sanity on the net

  1. chris y says:

    But wouldn’t you realise you were being treated like this as soon as you logged onto the site from a different IP? D’oh, where’s me comments? Or are you arguing that these people are tedious agressive idiots, as well as loonies?

    I entirely agree that moderation is a far more dignified way of dealing with such folk, which is why I read Making Light daily and never go to Comment is Free if I can help it. I suppose the reason papers use Pluck and its like is that there isn’t the money in the world that would make TNH moderate their sites, and not just anybody can do it right.

  2. acb says:

    I did think of this, and it’s a snag. But not if you have to log in to comment — and my guess is that most of the really obnoxious commentators comment often. In that case you will be identified by cookie rather than IP address. Sure, some of them, some of the time, will notice it. But their comments complaining about where the comments have gone will still appear to go up …

  3. Tom says:

    The thing that you’re assuming is that trolls have any interest at all in participating in a community or a discussion.

    While some do, many do not, and so public punishment or making community norms clear doesn’t really change their behavior. Disruption is actually their goal.

    While it may seem a corporate and inhumane method, it’s not only used by large corporations – I first heard about this method being used by the SomethingAwful forums.

  4. Charles says:

    Agree with Tom – these people will only be there because they’re consistently troublesome, mad, libellous or some combination of those. It’s not a default. Seems rather smart to me, I must admit.

  5. quinn says:

    You know, I love your blog. It’s one of three I still follow. The comments are nearly always a pleasure to read. Something about the intersection of Anglican gossip, journalistic scuttlebutt on people I’ve never heard of, Dawkins bashing and Swedish fishing draw in just the right kind of crowd.

    It’s not a corp solution, it’s really old, like pre-web. I like it. Trolls range from clueless and persistent to scary stalkers. I’ve probably dealt with nearly the whole spectrum. Aggressive loonies are one thing. People hell bent on destroying a community or part of it a) can not be reasoned with or conditioned to better behavior and b) will eventually succeed. As near as I can tell, the three things that kill communities are tech changes, spam, and trolls.

    Being a bit of a shell shocked internet vet, these days trolls have the speech rights of spammers and phishers in my book. There’s no use banning them. They will be back again and again until you’ve had enough, and you shut it down. This is why bb shut their comments down, btw. I know they’re back now, but I’ll never look at them again. I don’t know the demographics of various attackers, but there are definitely sites that draw worse than others.

    Damnit, this was supposed to be a short post so I could link to this: (Microsoft Helps Defend Against Bozos, search for it) Which I’ve always found more elegant. In short, it throws up a database error when Everybody’s Favorite Person tries to post.

  6. acb says:

    OK. The last three of you have persuaded me. We need both approaches; and the padded cell is probably the best way of dealing with the actively malevolent, because they will go on trying until they think they have succeeded.

    Quinn, I’ll try to put some more fishing stuff in when the weather allows. I did look at the Greenspun link, but, you know, my TCL isn’t up to it.

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