Bad comments are a system failure

So why can’t you fix them like any other bug?

Jessamyn West
Aug 13, 2015 · 7 min read
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Good moderation has a top down view of the conversational ecosystem and the underlying technology.

Internet comments are awful. Recently sites [like Popular Science, Bloomberg Business, Reuters, Mic, The Week, re/code, The Verge, and now The Daily Dot] have been giving up on hosting local comments altogether. Blaming trolls and spambots and the shift in engagement to platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, you can almost hear the sighs of relief in their articles discussing these decisions.

This “What can you do? People are awful amirite!” attitude towards comment sections is fatalistic and misguided. If you don’t want comments on your website, that’s fine, don’t have them. But don’t act like comments are some sort of intractable problem that can’t be realistically addressed by mortals. They’re not. There are only a few reasons why most internet comments sections are terrible, and real-world solutions to those problems. Be honest: you could fix this, but your priorities are elsewhere.

MetaFilter, a site I used to help run for a decade, has maintained a community based on conversation for over fifteen years. It’s nothing but comments. It’s mostly not awful. The Daily Dot’s article claims “No one has quite figured out how to thread that needle” between having a vibrant online community and supporting all voices, yet they then go on to say that “commenting systems take thoughtful moderation and constant development” strongly implying they’ve decided not to have either.

MetaFilter is a community of Internet People, people who spend a lot of time online. Everyone who spends a lot of time online is online for a reason. I am online a lot because I live in a rural area, keep late hours, and want people to socialize with when my town is asleep. And I like making jokes with other nerds who understand and appreciate them. Some people work swing shift or are otherwise time-shifted, are expatriates where people don’t speak their language, are caring for family members at home, only like to interact when they can multitask, have a disability or social anxiety that makes online communication a better option for them, or are just better at communicating through text than face to face. Understanding your community of people who are heavy online users is part of learning how to manage them and help them be their best selves.

No Reset Button

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Go home internet, you’re drunk.

Having threads that close, having moderators that redirect entrenched disagreements, giving users timeouts if they can’t get with the program, all of those can help a community reset and get back on track. These are time-tested strategies that work, but they require human attention and are difficult to automate. This means resources, usually money.

Context Collapse

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People need to know who they are talking to.

The community has to make decisions about its values. Are “101” discussions like What Is Feminism or What Is Racism tolerated, encouraged or out and out disallowed? Is your community a safe space with mechanisms like trigger warnings and spoiler alerts, or not? Are those expectations explicit and enforced by someone who is contactable and respected? Some initial work at creating practical and enforceable ground rules can keep every contentious discussion from turning into a first-principles slugfest.

The Lie of the Self-Moderating Community

Non-admin users can certainly build up social capital and power over time. They can become trusted users that other community members look up to and emulate. They can become power users who flag problematic content and communicate about site issues with an admin team. However, they can’t make site-wide decisions and set policy without having the keys to the store; they can’t speak for the site owners, or shouldn’t. Giving volunteer users some admin-like powers without compensating them somehow is a potentially exploitative situation for any site which makes money.

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These people are at your tea party. Are you being a good host?

Moderating is about sharing as much of the top-down decision making as possible while at the same time keeping the community from eating itself. Off-the-shelf technology for facilitating moderation is rarely up to the job. Custom tools for a community’s specific needs encourage a feeling of ownership, of buy-in, of specialness. Staff who do the jobs of running the site should be compensated decently to do that and they should be given the right tools to be effective, tools that can grow as the community grows.


Too often moderators are seen as the disposable front-line interference runners who have the unenviable job of communicating policies and decisions that they had no hand in making. Meanwhile, developers and site owners design features for the bottom-line and for the community that they wish they had, not the community they do have. The language of these policies and decisions is always about making the site better for the community when really it’s about making it better for the investors, the owners or the advertisers.

Money paid to website writers is often low, but writers can supposedly trade on this for exposure that will potentially help them get more lucrative writing jobs. The same is not true for moderators. If they do their job well, their work is often almost invisible. Getting paid for invisible product is not a feature of the gig economy. It makes sense that with finite financial and human resources, money goes farther if you spend it on the things that will help you make more money, visible things. All human-mediated interactions — support, moderation, abuse investigation — don’t scale and don’t make money. So, we see sites cutting back on those things but instead of saying “These things don’t make us money.” they say “These things are very hard to do.”

Creating desirable communities is often a matter of a few more people being given real decision-making power. They should also have secure positions from which to communicate those decisions as they interact with their communities. When it’s done right, good moderation is knowing your commenters well enough that you can head off problems before they turn into multi-day public disasters.

Allowing your community members to be harassed and stalked and driven off is unconscionable. Allowing your comments section to turn into the worst parts of the internet is bad for business, or should be. Abdicating the responsibility of good community management makes all of us Internet People look bad and is a completely avoidable failure mode that site owners should work harder at getting right.

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Also inspired by @anildash and his article If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection.

Thanks to Joanne McNeil, James D. Poolner, and Quinn Norton

Jessamyn West

Written by

Rural tech geek. Proud member of the librarian resistance. Collector of mosses. Enjoyer of postcards. ✉️ box 345 05060 ✉️

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

Jessamyn West

Written by

Rural tech geek. Proud member of the librarian resistance. Collector of mosses. Enjoyer of postcards. ✉️ box 345 05060 ✉️

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

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