The internet is a big place and we’re all invited to contribute to it. Sometimes those contributions create the opportunity for people to respond in the form of publicly viewable comments.

Comments have a reputation for badness, but that’s not entirely the fault of commenters, it’s the fault of the comment systems in use today.

People misbehave when they feel abandoned or insulted, and the experience design of most comment systems creates exactly that feeling. If comment systems treated commenters better, their comments would be better.

To that end, I propose the following Commenters’ Bill of Rights.

But first, a disclaimer. Comments, while being a good and necessary part of the web, are not required on everything. Anything can be posted to the web and there’s no law that says you must have a comment thread on it. But if you choose to add comment functionality to your site, there are a few things you must do to comply with the Commenters’ Bill of Rights.

Commenters have the right to edit or delete their comments.

Just as people talk without thinking, they comment without thinking, too. Sometimes even the most even-tempered of us posts a comment before realizing that it sounds hostile, contains errors, or is just generally bad. This is just human nature, so it must be designed for.

Having an immediate way to edit or delete a comment after posting will help people self-correct. Sometimes all it takes is to read your comment in context to realize that you’ve spoken out of turn. Sites that do not allow commenters to self-correct after posting are excluding a huge set of volunteer copyeditors with the perfect incentive to make the comment thread better: the commenters themselves.

Caveats: In governmental use or formal debate settings, there may be cases where the removal of a comment from within a thread could disrupt the train of thought. In these cases, while the commenter should still be able to edit or delete their contributions, the site could add a line disclosing the change. For example: “This comment was edited by the author 15 minutes after posting.” Or: “This comment was deleted by the author.”

At the root of this right is a simple fact: You own your words, even when you post them as a comment. Because your comments are your property, you have the right to edit or delete them whenever you wish. Giving commenters this respect will help improve all comments. Real ownership creates pride of ownership.

The content creator has the right to remove comments or opt-out of comments entirely.

As we invent more flavors of user-generated content, we must retain the ability for the content creators to manage the communities that grow around their content.

Vine is a telling recent example. The app enables people to post publicly-viewable 6-second videos. Vine forces every video to have comments with no way to opt-out, so if you’re a pretty girl on Vine you’ll be greeted by a stream of creeptastic comments every time you say hello. This is just wrong.

Flickr, as usual, did it right, and has done so for a long time. There, the photographers can choose whether or not to allow comments on every individual photo, who can comment (anyone, contacts, or just friends and family), and delete any comment at any time.

Kinja, the Gawker Media commenting system, takes this a step further. The platform puts every commenter in charge of moderating all the replies to their comments. So if I leave a comment in response to a post, and someone replies to me, I have the power to moderate that response.

Not only does this give power to the commenters, it also helps distribute the work of comment moderation to the commenters themselves. The system creates a positive feedback loop, as the commenters are rewarded for good comments by having more responsibility to promote other good comments.

As creators, we have the right to choose if we want comments on our work. And if we choose to allow comments, it’s up to us to moderate them. Any comment should be able to be removed by the owner of the content that engendered the reply.

Caveats: In flat systems like Twitter, where every tweet is on the same level as every other tweet, it should be possible for me to remove a reply from my view without deleting the tweet itself. In other words, I have the right to break the reply’s association with my tweet, but not to remove it from Twitter outright. If Twitter enabled this, it would remove the major reason people misuse “Block” now — it’s simply the only way to remove someone else’s tweet from your view.

Commenters have the right to reply privately.

Sometimes the aggravating factor that turns a minor snark into an all-out war is the publicness of comments. It’s the difference between a hushed personal conversation and being criticized in front of all your friends. So it’s amazing to me that more social sites don’t have a private alternative to public comments.

Years ago, Vox, a public blogging community similar to Tumblr, had a great solution for this. Below the public comment form, beside the post button, was a simple text link. Clicking it changed the form from a public comment to a private message from you to the author. It was perfect for those moments when, halfway through a comment, you realize you really just want to tell the author what you’re thinking, not the whole world.

Giving people an affordance to easily switch their communication from public to private is an effective way to take disagreements offline, leading to a more conflict-free comment space, which in turn invites more and better comments.

Caveats: Private communication channels can become spam vectors, so they’re best limited to contacts and closely monitored. In places where that’s a concern, they could be limited to an in-stream comment that’s not visible to anyone but the author (as “notes” are here in Medium initially).

Commenters have the right to clear, human-readable comment guidelines.

Comments are potent because they’re so flexible. Are comments responses to the work or the author? Are they a line of communication between author and audience, or are they a peanut gallery conversation where no response is required, like talking to the TV? The truth is, comments are all of these things and more, which is why they go wrong so often.

If you’re going to give people the ability to leave words on your work, and you don’t want utter garbage, it’s up to you to tell them what you want.

In my experience, many site creators are strangely shy about making their expectations clear, but it’s the uncertainty that leads to negative participation. If you put an empty box on a city sidewalk, it’ll be filled with garbage in no time. Don’t be afraid to tell people what the box is for.

In practice this means creating a clear set of community guidelines that include examples of what you want to see and what you don’t. And make sure these guidelines are summarized at signup, login, and wherever you give people the ability to comment. (Here’s an example set of comment guidelines I wrote for my plant blog. Flickr’s are great, too. Yours should match the look and voice of your site.)

Making these expectations clear also gives you the leverage to be more forceful in removing comments that do not meet your criteria. You can’t get angry at someone for breaking a rule you never told them about. Give your members the best chance to do the right thing before punishing them for doing something wrong.

Caveats: None. If you put a comment form on your site, and you don’t tell people what it’s for, then you have no one to blame but yourself when it collects garbage.

There will always be bad comments and bad commenters, just like there are rude jerks in every real world community. But protecting these simple rights for commenters will make negative participation in comments is much less likely. And sometimes that’s all it takes to help people do the right thing.

Fertile Medium

An advice column for living online.

    Derek Powazek

    Written by

    Digital community, analog farming. Social media design, photos of goats and chickens. Author of "Design for Community," teller of stories. Mostly harmless.

    Fertile Medium

    An advice column for living online.

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