15

"Don't read the comments" is pretty common advice on the Internet, and for good reason: once somebody starts leaving snarky or rude comments others tend to follow suit. Blog owners or community moderators can clean them up later, but often the damage has already been done -- people get upset, your site looks bad, etc. On some platforms owners/moderators can screen all comments, requiring that they be reviewed before being posted, but that's not always possible or desirable (see below).

I am a moderator on a medium-sized Stack Exchange site. We get a lot of comments, and -- contrary to the common wisdom -- many of them actually are helpful, constructive, and timely, so we wouldn't introduce a time delay by moderating comments even if the platform allowed us to. But we also get those other kinds of comments, enough to be problematic, and because we don't have constant coverage sometimes a comment thread descends into chaos until a moderator comes along and cleans it up some hours later.

I am looking for cultural (not technical) ways to deter those negative comments in the first place, before they make a mess. What should we do in how we present our site, or in how we engage users (new or otherwise), to make them less likely to want to post disruptive comments? Are there relevant sociological or psychological techniques we should be using?

A few notes:

  • We can and do take corrective action against users who show a pattern of this kind of behavior.

  • Stack Exchange uses a reputation system and users must reach a certain fairly-low reputation level in order to be able to comment. This threshold is not adjustable. (It does a good job of fending off spammers and drive-by snipers.)

  • Users can flag inappropriate comments and moderators rely on these flags to know where the "hot spots" on the site are. With very few exceptions, only moderators can delete comments.

  • We have a worldwide community.

  • Just curious: are you talking about rude comments? Or just threads that are just noise? – Anonymous Penguin Jan 17 '15 at 19:26
  • @AnnonomusPenguin both, if possible, but I was mainly thinking about the latter. On my site this often starts with a joke or borderline-rude comment that people react to, and then people react to the reactions, and it snowballs, often quickly. Our mods are active, but we can't be everywhere. – Monica Cellio Jan 18 '15 at 1:37
  • "Don't read the comments" – Jan Doggen Jan 28 '15 at 9:31
9

I see three problems:

  • You need to get avid users to keep their comments under control.
  • You need to get occasional users to keep their comments under control.
  • You need to get avid users to help with keeping comments under control.

A large part of keeping comments under control is “monkey see, monkey do”. If you want to keep comments constructive, make sure that non-constructive comments aren't left around. At any given time, you should have only the non-constructive comments in the last few hours, not a huge amount. If a new user sees a lot of snark in comments, they'll add their own.

With respect to avid users, it's also important to stress that being the world expert on knots in crazy staws doesn't make it ok to belittle or push against those who prefer their crazy straws untangled. Politeness norms apply to everyone.

Since keeping the comments constructive involves deleting the bad ones, you also need to maintain a culture where it's ok to delete comments. This is the case on Stack Exchange, where comments are intended to be relevant and temporary anyway — although many comments stick around, the ideal fate of a comment is to be integrated into the post, and off-topic comments are supposed to be deleted. (In spite of all the tooling being pretty much identical across Stack Exchange, a few sites have a culture of not deleting comments. I'm not familiar enough with these sites to see if that significantly hurts acceptance for the deletion of bad comments.) See Moderating a community that strongly opposes deletion of content for more views on acceptance for deletion of comments.

It can sometimes help to frame the deletion of a comment as something that would normally happen, rather than something bad from the user. That's especially the case when there's a burgeoning comment flamewar: rather than tell the parties “I deleted these comments that were getting non-constructive” (“but he did it first!” “no, he did!”), tell them “I deleted these off-topic comments, this isn't a chat site”. In a culture where non-constructive comments are frowned upon, this allows the posters to save face: they can pretend they did nothing wrong. Take a note in case the same users engage in the same bad patterns again and again, but keep that quite.

We now get to the third point: get avid users to help you. You may not be around all the time, but hopefully the side does have a large enough ratio of avid users to uninvolved visitors that if there's someone around to be offended by a comment, there's also someone around to take action. The first thing here is a technical point: provide an easy way for users to report problematic comments. Stack Exchange provides this with flags. It helps to provide a way to automatically remove or at least deemphasize comments that are reported by many users (potentially weighed by some kind of participation or moderation score).

Beyond deleting comments, there are ways to (try to) prevent comments from appearing in the first place. Some of these are technical, such as requiring some minimum constructive participation before a new user can comment (which is the case on Stack Exchange). Limiting the rate at which comments can be posted in one location also helps — one isolated bad comment is rarely a big problem, and it takes two to produce a big stream of bad comments. One thing that's cultural is to emphasize the advice “don't engage”. The reaction to a bad comment should be to either leave it alone or flag it, not reply to it.

2

Perhaps point out to your "Trusted Users" that the moderator tools are available in the review section of the site. Let them know it would be appreciated if they keep an eye on the "Most commented" Qs & As and flag appropriately. You can do this via an FAQ type meta post and mark it with the [Featured] tag. The featured tag makes it visible from the main site.

If your Trusted Users are active in chat, post the meta in your chatroom and start a discussion around it there as well.

Speaking of chat, be quick to direct the people posting such comments into the chatroom where it's more natural to have discussions. Make it clear that where they're having conversations is not the proper place, but that there is a place they can.

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