Moderation

I thought I would write a brief post about this site’s moderation policy, or lack thereof. As I may have said before, starting this blog was all a rather spur of the moment decision and I didn’t really know what kind of moderation policy to introduce. The obvious one was to discourage vitriolic and extreme ad hominens, but apart from that I thought I would just wing it. The story of my life, to a certain extent 🙂

So, I have done very little moderating and there hasn’t, in my view, been much need for it. In the past few days, though, I’ve closed down a couple of comment threads. The only reason for doing this was to avoid discussions becoming unpleasant and because I couldn’t really see anything constructive coming from further discussion. It also avoided me having to too obviously take one side over another. A little cowardly maybe, and maybe also a false balance (it should be clear which side of the debate I’m on). I’m also aware that too much (or maybe any) moderation will lead to me being criticised by some as closing down the debate. I thought, naively as it turns out, that closing the comment thread, rather than moderating one individual, might avoid such criticism. Given the stick I was getting on Twitter last night, this expectation was wrong. It’s probably also something that I should simply accept.

I also may well have been wrong to moderate in this way. If so, I apologise. I really am working this out as I go along. An issue that I have is that I’m not even sure of the purpose of this site. In some sense it is simply a place where I can write what I think and can be corrected by and learn from those who know better. Maybe some might learn from what I write, but they will often – I suspect – learn more from the comments than from the posts. I suspect the posts will (and already have) vary from posts that aim to be quite scientific, to posts that are more opinion than scientific fact. There does seem some value in allowing all views to be aired in the comments if only so that they can be rebutted or ignored if ridiculously wrong (and then exist for others to judge). On the other hand it can be (and has been in cases) very disruptive. I still think that this illustrates something, but does somewhat destroy the comment thread.

So there you go. That’s my current thinking and any other thoughts would be welcome. Maybe I need a clear moderation policy so that I can avoid criticism when moderating those who clearly violate the policy. In reality, however, there is probably no real way to avoid criticism so it really may make absolutely no difference what I choose to do. Maybe I just expect people to excuse my mistakes and show some understanding. I am, however, probably expecting too much.

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29 Responses to Moderation

  1. For handling content moderation I have the following segment in my terms and conditions:

    Your use of the site is subject to all applicable laws and regulations, and you are solely responsible for the substance of your communications through the site. By posting information in or otherwise using any communications service, chat room, message board, newsgroup, software library, or other interactive service that may be available to you on or through this site, you agree that you will not upload, share, post, or otherwise distribute or facilitate distribution of any content — including text, communications, software, images, sounds, data, or other information — that:

    a. is unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing, defamatory, libellous, deceptive, fraudulent, invasive of another’s privacy, tortuous, contains explicit or graphic descriptions or accounts of sexual acts (including but not limited to sexual language of a violent or threatening nature directed at another individual or group of individuals), or otherwise violates our rules or policies;

    b. victimizes, harasses, degrades, or intimidates an individual or group of individuals on the basis of religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, or disability;

    […]

    f. impersonates any person or entity, including any of our employees or representatives.

    […]

    However, we and our agents have the right at their sole discretion to remove any content that, in our judgement, does not comply with these Terms of Use and any other rules of user conduct for our site, or is otherwise harmful, objectionable, or inaccurate.

    It’s basically saying in legal terms what isn’t allowed on the site with a catch-all that allows me to intervene if something happens that isn’t caught via these rules. But it’s also quite dry, so the following from my YouTube rules pages explains it in a more down to earth fashion:

    The rules that you must follow on any of my videos are the following, they are enforced, and there are no exceptions:
    1. No spamming/comment flooding
    2. No sockpuppets
    3. No threatening behaviour
    4. No stalking
    5. No libel or character assassination
    6. No bigoted comments
    7. No unsourced claims
    8. No uncivil behaviour

    Again I reserve the right to intervene if something isn’t caught by these rules and threatens to derail everything. And when I say there are no exceptions I mean it, friends of mine have had comments removed or received warnings from me when they broke a rule.
    The only extra rule for my blog is that offtopic comments aren’t allowed. They have to relate in some manner to what is said in the post or provide a counterpoint to what is said in the blog post. This prevents derailment of discussions because someone said something that isn’t relevant.

    This in combination with extra code in my theme for comment moderation (private notes, saving of original comment, and publicly visible moderation remarks) it gives me a lot of tools to keep exchanges productive.

    But the thing is you need to have these type of documents on your website so that visitors know what the rules of the road are. I constantly refer to these pages when moderating my YouTube channel or comments on my website. It really helps with the tone of exchanges and helps to keep them productive. Plus people feel welcome on my channel as it allows dissenting voices in a civil tone.

  2. Yes, you make a good point. I think I had thought that a lot of this would be obvious, but maybe that is a rather simplistic view.

  3. To you and me some of it might be blindingly obvious, but if it isn’t spelled out a lot of folks tend abuse the lack of explicitly stated rules. These documents were a direct response to the first few times that I did intervene and I then getting a lot of flack from those few users for not having these rules available somewhere. And they have evolved over the years as I gather more experience on what does and doesn’t work.

    Still hasn’t stopped these types of users from breaking the rules and complaining about them being victim of enforcement of those rules. But everyone else likes the clarity and the consistency of the rules. Especially since my YouTube rules contain the procedures of how I enforce them, what you need to do if I seem to have missed something, or how to appeal if you think it was done unfairly.

    All this is also the reason why I have a terminology page on which I explain the usage of certain words like so-called sceptic or climate science denier. It’s again to prevent discussions on how I’m using words and to pre-empt complaints about redefining words.

    It does take some time setting up documents like these but in the end they have saved me a lot of time as I can simply point to them when I intervene.

  4. Rachel says:

    It’s your blog, you can do whatever you want. If someone else doesn’t like it, that’s their problem and not yours. For what it’s worth, I’ve learnt a lot from your blog and I enjoy reading it and I enjoy reading the comments too. I must go and see what happened on twitter…

  5. BBD says:

    Just ban everyone who is unpleasant to you on Twitter!

    😉

    Only kidding. I suspect that you should follow your instincts and simply be slightly less tolerant of obvious nonsense. One can’t afford to be too nice in this horrible old world, or people take advantage.

  6. Skeptikal says:

    As someone who brings opposing views to your site, you’d probably expect me to be against any form of moderation, but not so. I think that while a discussion remains civil, there’s no need to moderate… but when that changes and people resort to personal attacks, then you’re going to have to draw a line in the sand.

    While we may not agree with each others views, we all have the opportunity here to put forward arguments supporting our views while at the same time seeing the arguments against our views. Most sites are so pro or anti AGW that this isn’t possible, so your site is a little bit unique in that regard.

    Personally, I think that closing down a comment thread is a good way of moderating a discussion when it becomes ‘heated’. It gives people time to cool down and think about the way they conduct themselves. Nobody can really accuse you of taking sides if you’re stopping both sides from commenting simultaneously. Some people may not like that, but it’s your site and you make the rules.

  7. You’re probably correct. I have discovered that I care less about “being taken advantage of” than I used. It doesn’t really mean all that much and if someone wants to take advantage when someone else tries to be “nice” then that reflects more on them than on the other person. Being a bit less tolerant is probably sensible though 🙂

  8. Thanks. It is indeed the personal attacks that I would most like to avoid. I certainly don’t object to a bit of snark and some strong words, but direct, vitriolic and unpleasant attacks I would regard as unsuitable.

  9. You’d have a hard time enforcing 4 to 8, Collin.

  10. Since blog posts are only a pretense to follow though the same conversation over and over again, closing a thread does not deprive anyone of any opportunity to add to it in the next op-ed.

    That’s for the Waiting for Godot part. The part that is a comedy of menace is trickier. That depends upon character. Your winging skill is helping you there too.

  11. Nope, it works rather nicely as someone gets 3 warnings and then it’s exit. Anything that really crosses the line will get you a warning and the comment removed (so far it only has happened once that it meant an instant block).

  12. Oh, and if I had a request for moderation, it would be that moderators enforce commitments.

    For instance, when Dennis Bray offered the usual “yes, but Schneider said” and is being provided chapter and verses by Tom Curtis, Bray ignored it and went on to pick on Karsten, who should know better than to start a food fight when your interlocutor is already between a rock and a hard place.

    Dennis Bray had a commitment toward his “yes, but Schneider”. A moderator should oblige commenters to honor their commitments. Some kind of mediation should be resolved, without which the delinquant could be moderated until he acknowledges the point.

    This would also the usual roll over down the thread with repetitive comments (hi Latimer) or Gish Gallops (hi Shub).

  13. Yes, an interesting point. I had erred on the side of sometimes not getting involved unless it was obvious. In the case of Tom and Dennis Bray, I was somewhat confused by the context and so found myself in the tricky position of having a gut feeling for who’s views had merit and who’s didn’t but not being quite sure whether I was correct or not. I did try to intervene in the discussion between Shub and BBD but not with much success, hence decided to close the thread. Maybe not the correct decision but – as I said – I’m working this out as I go along 🙂

  14. Martin says:

    I’d second what Rachel said, and add that you do not get a rose garden by letting a field lie fallow. If you want discussions in the comment section to follow certain patterns, you’ll have to enforce some policies.

    If you do not want the tone to get too rough, you’ll have to insist on civil exchange. Btw, this won’t work if you make excuses for commenters you agree with (à la “I don’t agree with the tone, but he’s so right, please take note of it.”). You have done so on multiple occasions. If Tom Curtis uses the word bullshit every other comment, throw them out, here sure can do without. If I start calling others clowns, get rid of these comments. Ask them to reformulate – if they are interested to make an actual point, they’ll do. If not, keeping it to themselves is the best solution, anyway.

    If you want commenters to stay on topic, you’ll have to throw out e.g. political comments in a post about a scientific paper (again, also if you agree with those comments). Especially in the climate wars, comment sections have a tendency to get political no matter what.

    If you want commenters to not just vent short opinions, but actually substantiate their point, throw the one-liners and point-less gotchas out – whether they follow up on the request to get specific or not, you’d lose exactly nothing either way by ditching comments without substance. If Tol is too lazy to deliver a full-blown critique about e.g. Rahmstorf, nothing is lost by barring him from making depreciative comments here – he has ample space on twitter for this (and uses it).

    If you feel that comments get repetitive, and commenters talk past each other and/or get more and more entrenched in their position, tell them to stop it/go elsewhere, no matter how important they think it is (the longer such things go on, the more convinced commenters usually are about importance and accuracy of their positions).

    If commenters drag year-old discussions from nebulous places into this comment section, and you have difficulty to know what they are even talking about, tell them to go elsewhere or to clearly establish a thematic link and the necessary background to place it in the comment section.

    Now, this is just a vague concoction of impressions I had about what has been going wrong here (and to what I have contributed to, unfortunately – it is all too easy to violate blog policies if there are none, and if one can be sure that you won’t enforce the invisible ones you merely wish for) and what I thought you disliked yourself, but I might be wrong. But at the end, whatever the ideal discussion you want to have here, you’ll have to define some rules and – most important – enforce them impartially without regard for how much you like or dislike someone. Crookedtimber has somehow managed to keep comment section impressively civil and interesting for quite a while now, so perhaps you can get some clues there how they manage to do it.

  15. Wait until you get enough interesting Climateballers, Collin. I don’t think it’s possible to prevent them from playing a more physical style. Notwithstanding all you can convey by using the most polite tone one can imagine.

    I speak French. We have a long tradition for salon conversations. Trust me on that one.

    The best one can expect is that we all remain playful:

    http://scientistscitizens.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/some-communication-principles-for-an-e-salon/

    If I had to formulate these principles into one silver rule, it would be that if you think you’re winning, you’re doing it wrong.

  16. Yes, I am aware of my own inconsistencies which is probably, in itself, a good reason for some kind of policy. Of course, I could argue that since I don’t have a policy I’m entitled to be inconsistent 🙂

  17. > I did try to intervene in the discussion between Shub and BBD but not with much success […]

    It was not wise to do. One does not simply contain BBD that easily. Once upon a time, I always wrote his nick “BDD”, perhaps infuenced by binary decision diagrams. But then he reminded me of the British Bull Dogs, which I used to watch when I was younger.

    I have not mispelled his nick since then.

    PS: This comment is to illustrate what I just said to Collin about politeness. Humor tops moralism.

  18. Martin says:

    And it’s perfectly understandable, too: nothing easier than to overlook somebody you like call somebody you dislike names. But then, the question is if you want to have discussions here, or provide another sociotope for the like-minded (as if there weren’t already enough) – or, as I think, simply another outlet for the same bunch of commenters who have been saying more or less the same things in other comment sections, for roughtly a decade. Also, it’s not exactly an achievement if sceptics say you are treating them unfairly and are actually right.

  19. BBD says:

    You absolutely must ban Willard! He’s too clever by half. Shows me up and I don’t like it!

    🙂

  20. Indeed, these are all the factors I need to grapple with in the next few days.

  21. BBD says:

    If I had to formulate these principles into one silver rule, it would be that if you think you’re winning, you’re doing it wrong.

    See! See what I mean! This is intolerable. Why can’t I say things like this? It’s not fair! He has to go.

  22. I can’t ban Willard until I’ve worked out what he’s saying 🙂

  23. BBD says:

    Then his future is assured!

  24. This:

    If I had to formulate these principles into one silver rule, it would be that if you think you’re winning, you’re doing it wrong.

    Well, the compliments I got for having a welcoming discussion environment is from the comment sections on my YouTube channel. And trust me, there are some really nasty folks there. Compared to other comment sections on YouTube mine looks like it’s Care-a-lot because I enforce the rules I mentioned.

  25. Ignoring questions or constantly switching to a different subject when they’re refuted (without acknowledging it) can result in the user being blocked on my YouTube channel. Those type of exchanges just aren’t interesting or productive, so I end them.

  26. Anon says:

    I guess I would have had the same problems moderating the discussion with Dennis Bray. From a scientist you expect reasonableness and a willingness to listen and learn. And Tom Curtis was also not friendly, which gives an excuse for Dennis Bray not being friendly. Consequently, I also noticed too late, when the situation was already totally out of control, that there was no interesting in a productive discussion. In retrospect the very first comments in this discussion should already have been moderated.

  27. In retrospect, you may be right but – as they say – hindsight is 20:20 vision 🙂

  28. Marco says:

    Moderation requires time and effort. It may be possible on a blog with a few comments a day or with sufficient moderators and very clear rules, but in all other cases it is an almost hopeless task.

    I was once moderated by Wotts, didn’t mind it too much as I realized the comment was not constructive (although I think the observation was spot-on, especially considering later comments of a certain person on this blog and about Wotts), but could see how some people could get upset because others did get ‘similar’ comments approved. It would need to amount to a pattern before I’d get upset, but not everyone is so forgiving 😉

  29. Yes, you are still one of the few I’ve moderated and I appreciate your understanding. I think I was probably correct to moderate at that time but wrong in retrospect but, as I’ve already said, hindsight is 20:20 vision 🙂

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