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.