For the first time in the eight year history of this weblog, I have an explicitly posted comment policy. At times I have really struggled with this. There have been moments when I have been overwhelmed by antagonists. A few examples leap to mind, usually when I make a post critical of someone with strong fan support and/or a forum or Twitter account from which to marshall people to swarm me. Once was when I dared criticism Ze Frank’s video podcast as not working right and not being good enough to be worth the trouble. Another was while the floodwaters were still in New Orleans and bodies were still floating down the street, and this blog became a nexus for anti-American hate speech. I ain’t hanging with that, and I ain’t being pulled by the strings of my own sense of fairness to punch myself in the face.
My struggle is always balancing a reverence for free speech with my reluctance to be the host of speech with pretty much no value other than to stick it to me. For this reason, I have always been loathe to just delete these comments outright, no matter how spiteful or douchey they were. That struggle is pretty much over. I’ve decided that I don’t have any obligation to be the publisher of anything anyone says and if I don’t like it, I will get rid of it. This usually boils down into the “life is too short” approach. When people’s only interest is to be a drive-by egg thrower, I’m not going to refuse to hose off my siding anymore.
Dealing with antagonistic comments is nothing new. Practically every newspaper in the country has comments that are useless because they let any form of vitriol and attack live in there with no efforts to police it. Think YouTube or Slashdot threads, and you’ll realize that many commenting systems break down quickly into a race to the bottom. Some time ago I listened to the Webcomics Weekly episode where Scott Kurtz had a conversation with Merlin Mann. Building and nurturing community was a lot of what they talked about and naturally comments and fora came up. They discussed the topic of disemvowelling (a technique created by science fiction fandom’s own Teresa Nielsen Hayden) and Merlin was against it. He said something I’ll paraphrase as “Moderate it or don’t; delete it or let it stand but don’t make your commentors wear a funny hat.” I heard that, and my first reaction was “I’m OK with funny hats.”
Here is a technique I thought up and am morally OK with but which I never actually put into practice on this blog, although I always reserve the right to do it someday.
- Create an email address that you control and can receive email at, but is unguessable. Some random string of 20 characters like a GUID or a digest or a random password any generating website can create for you. Keep this secret as it is really important.
- Set up a Gravatar using that address as the key. Set up the picture as something really stupid. A dude wearing a dunce cap, a picture of a donkey’s ass, anything that is a clear iconic indicator of disdain.
- Someone leaves a comment that is in the douchey grey area, a non-spam comment actually entered by a person that is a legitimate statement but also from someone not of good will – an ad hominem attacker, a drive-by mud flinger, anyone with an axe to grind but who has not put in enough karma and flight time to have the right to be as big a dick as they desire to be. Rather than approve or delete the comment as it stands, edit it so that the posting email address is your email from Step 1. Now approve it.
- Every time you read the offending comment, laugh at them like a monkey fighter.
This has two upsides – it allows the comment to be published as it stands while making it clear that it is recognized as being an offender of the social contract; and by editing the email address to something the poster does not know, they do not get automatic moderation for future comments. That’s always a weakness when you have WordPress configured as they almost all are to allow anyone with approved comments to skip moderation. Approve one borderline commentor and from then on they have the key to automatic posting. I have never done the above technique but I certainly could without feeling bad about it. If you want to come in my house and be a dick, you are subject to house rules. Now, I’ve just made the house rules explicitly posted.
The point to emphasize and be clear on is that disagreement with me does not trigger any of this. You can think I’m as wrong as you like. It’s aggression that is the key. Telling my I’m a dick or an idiot, particularly if that is your first ever interaction with me doesn’t stand. Ad hominem attacking of any of the other commentors will not stand. If you can’t express yourself without aggression, you’ll have to do it elsewhere. We’re following the rules of the Roadhouse here. “Be nice” and for bouncers (ie, me) “Be nice until you have to not be nice.”