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Moderating journal comments?


Every two or three weeks, I get a comment on an old entry in this journal, from someone who's just happened across an entry while looking for something else. Some of those comments are interesting; some are kind of generic; but most are abusive in one way or another.

Some of them are personal insults, apparently from random passers-by who felt the need to tell me that (for example) I'm ugly as a blond. I started deleting those comments even before I turned on moderation for old entries; I don't really want my journal to be a venue for people who don't even know me to insult me. More generally, I often delete nasty personal comments even if they're not aimed at me; I want my comments section to be a place for civil discourse and discussion. Constructive criticism is fine; gratuitous insults aren't. If the commenter left their email address, I usually drop them a note letting them know that they can re-post their comment if they do so in a civil tone.

But there are some areas that I'm less sure about. For example, for a while I was regularly getting comments from people who were claiming that a certain online company was committing fraud; I have a feeling that since I do moderate some comments, I could be held legally liable for publishing defamatory comments that might or might not be true. So I deleted those comments, and changed the phrasing of my entry to stop it from coming up in searches for [company name scam].

And recently one of my posts about homosexuality received a comment that explicitly said that lesbians are perverts. (And not in an affectionate or reclaiming sense of the term.) This was after I had turned on moderation for all old entries, so I would have had to explicitly take action to publish this comment. And I thought about it, and decided that I didn't want to. There are lots of places on the Net where people can go to insult queer people; why should I provide another venue for that?

And yet, I'm not really comfortable with that last decision. I firmly believe, in the general case, that the answer to speech I don't like is more speech in response, not suppression of the ideas I don't like. I sorta feel like I should've let that comment go through, and then posted a response to it, and let y'all post responses as well if you wanted to. (I don't actually delete comments, just mark them as unpublished, so I can reverse my decision on this later if I want to.)

And yet and yet, I'm a lot more comfortable with that speak-up-in-response-to-negative-speech approach if I'm not the one doing the publishing. And if it's in a less personal venue than a blog.

There are a lot of other areas I'm uncertain about, too. For example, a couple of times discussion here has gotten pretty heated among regular readers; I really don't like it when people I like and/or respect insult each other, especially in my journal. So far, I haven't stepped in and deleted such comments, but I'm sometimes tempted to do so when that happens. And more generally, I'm a big fan of civility, but I know a lot of my friends aren't. (More on that in a future entry.) To what degree are the comments here a place for general discussion, and to what degree are they participating in a venue that is essentially mine, subject to my whims and my guidelines?

All of this leaves me uncertain about when to remove (or decline to post) comments and when to leave them up. I'm looking for input, though I reserve the right to stick with my current gut-feeling approach. What do y'all think?

Let me get one side point out of the way first, though: let's please not use the term "censorship" in this discussion. If we do, the discussion has an almost 100% probability of turning into yet another installment of the Floating Internet Censorship Flamewar that's been going on since about 1986. One person will say "That's censorship!" and another will say "No it isn't; only a government or other institution in power can commit censorship!" and another will argue with that, and the point of the discussion will get lost in a furious storm of semantic hairsplitting. In the context of this particular entry, I'd prefer that people pretend the term "censorship" doesn't exist; let's talk about issues rather than word definitions.


Tell you what, Jed, next time somebody posts "lesbians are perverts" (or equivalent), point it out to me, I'll go over and post that the previous poster is an asshole, and then you can cut off comments on the grounds that it's an unproductive flame war and we both need to settle down.

— David M.

For the record, it isn't me, Jed. I usually do not post comments and if I do, I ALWAYS sign them.

Just in case you were wondering.

Steven Francis Murphy
North Kansas City, Missouri

And then there's Steven Francis Murphy, who was perfectly civil in this comment (thanks for that, Steven, and for signing your name; I honestly appreciate both of those things, and fwiw this entry of mine wasn't intended as a veiled comment on your comment the other day; the timing was coincidental), but has now posted two obnoxious and personal insults-disguised-as-compliments on another entry of mine in the past couple weeks. (Admittedly, his comments were not all that insulting; I'm pretty thin-skinned about this stuff, and I'm almost certainly overreacting.) Which again makes me think "Why should I allow my journal to be used as a forum for insulting me?"

I mean, SFM may well insult me in his journal all the time; I don't read his journal. But I get tense and upset when people are snide or nasty to me, and I don't want my journal to make me tense and upset. Also, it makes me want to strike back, and if I give in to that impulse than I'm doing exactly what I don't want other people to do, which ends up making me more upset that I'm not living up to my ideals.

On the other hand, I also don't want my journal to be a place where everyone agrees with me all the time.

I think what it comes down to is, again, that I like civility, politeness, niceness, and kindness. It's a fact of life that not everyone will be civil, polite, nice, and kind all the time. But I have a very strong preference for those old-fashioned virtues, and it's pretty tempting to try to enforce that preference when I control the publishing venue. And I honestly believe that it's possible to express strong disagreements in a civil way.

And to switch to a more personal and direct address: Steven, I feel that it's possible to praise or agree with someone you disagree with or dislike without adding a reminder that you still disagree with or dislike them. And fwiw, I would very much prefer that you do that in the future if you feel like praising or agreeing with me. From my point of view, adding the but-I-still-don't-like-you bits makes the praise worthless.

My sarcasm the other day clearly didn't have the desired effect, so I'll try being more direct, as I should have done in the first place:

I found your comments about me hurtful and insulting. I don't care what you think about the anthology you were originally commenting on--I don't have anything to do with that anthology. But it upset me that you went out of your way to post a snide comment about me personally, and it upsets me more that you did it again just now.

Since you've made clear that you don't particularly respect me, it probably doesn't matter to you whether you upset or me or not. I can't control that.

But I can make clear that I was upset and hurt.

Also, as a general comment to people who post obnoxious comments to me: I try hard to avoid saying nasty things about other people in public. I'm hoping that at some point sniping at someone who doesn't fight back will get boring. (But I imagine that a lot of the reason I keep getting trolled is that I keep rising to the bait; I know some people post obnoxious stuff just 'cause it's fun to get a rise out of people, and I never learned not to be bothered by that kind of thing.)

But still, at some point I may stop being willing to let people post stuff like that in comments on my journal. I'm still thinking about that.

I think you're wise to see yourself as a publisher of your blog, and to see that as involving a particular set of responsibilities.

Just because you are a publisher does not create an obligation to publish material you don't like. Having a point of view does not create an obligation to give voice to all opposing points of view. Indeed, as a publisher you should believe in the value of what you are publishing, even if you do not agree with its content.

It's important to remember that you are one publisher among many, and that there is a huge difference between an "official" publication of some clearly defined group (such as a school newspaper) versus personal publication. An official publication has a moral obligation to be open to the voices of its defined group. A school newspaper should be open to contributions from all students based on content-neutral criteria. I'd have been very disappointed in my school newspaper if it had only allowed editorials to be written by Catholics. But I don't mind if the Catholic Club decides to put out a newspaper that only allows editorials by Catholics, as long as other clubs are also allowed to put out newspapers.

If we want to ensure that a diversity of voices are heard, we need to allow a diversity of voices to speak up. We do not need to assist all of them ourselves. If you find a comment by Joe Commenter to be hateful or unpleasant, let Joe publish his comment elsewhere. Joe has plenty of options open to him.

We also want to seek out a diversity of voices to listen to, and that's a piece of the danger of a highly segmented marketplace of ideas. It is much easier now to only listen to voices that we agree with. But the listener should shoulder the responsibility of finding different voices. Your blog does not need to present all available voices, even though it is more interesting for being open to a fair variety.

I second a lot of what Michael said, and I'd also note that some voices/comments will shut down the discussion, not open it up. Take "lesbians are perverts"--where's that going to go? What productive engagement is going to occur? The internet provides a wealth of opportunity for people to announce that they hate other people.

On a slightly different line, you keep a personal journal. You write about personal feelings, about your own experience. It's okay to keep it personal. Or, if you like, it's okay to control the form of the performance. At an open-mike night there's going to be a fair amount of audience reaction, but no well-run event is going to have people swarming the stage or screaming obscenities. That's not what the openness of the event is for. You don't need to provide a forum for that either.

I've never received comments like this, so I don't know what I would do, but I think a blog is sort of like your backyard barbeque - anybody can wander in, but you can feel free to eject anybody who annoys you for whatever reason, because it's your yard, not the public square.

There is a major and important difference between "only allow comments I agree with" and "don't allow people to insult me." I am perfectly capable of telling someone "you're wrong" or "you're wrong because $reasons" without attacking their honesty, intelligence, or appearance, and usually without attacking their morals. There are statements and proposals that I find sufficiently repugnant that it is difficult for me not to accuse the other person of being unethical. But even there, I can do so without getting off-topic: that is, I can say that the specific statement or proposal is evil without claiming that the person is evil in unrelated areas. (For example, if someone called for wiping out the intelligent species inhabiting Jupiter, I could argue against genocide without making unwarranted claims about the first person's sexual proclivities. (Yes, it's a silly example. Silly examples can reduce the risks of being sidetracked.))

I think free speech issues are irrelevant in a personal journal. It's a personal journal, not a newspaper.

I think it's weird and creepy that folks would insult you on your journal, or other people (although I suppose folks do get pissed off in discussions). I would have done what you did; there was nothing constructive or interesting that was going to come from those posts.

The above was me. I tried to use the LJ username thingie and forgot to click on "sign in." Sorry!

I think Michael did a wonderful job outlining why it is neither unethical or unintellectual to control the discussion in your blog. I think the backyard bbq analogy from faster bunny kill kill kill is apt. I had been thinking along the lines of people chatting on their front porch as I walk by--they are loud enough for me to hear, but they haven't invited me into their home. This brings up a fundamental question: what is a blog?

I really want to respond to Haddayr's comment about why someone would want to insult another person in their journal. I've been tempted. I ran a google search and accidentally found myself reading a blog that infuriated me. The writer trashed the "fat ugly" women who go to our local swimming pool. Besides thinking he was a sexist pig, he hurt my feelings. I had a lot of trouble holding myself back from telling him what a jerk he was. But, I refrained because even though he was posting on the internet, he was obviously writing for himself and his friends. His front porch--I walked away.

Actually, Jed. I don't think I've mentioned your name once in my blog. I've mentioned my grousings about SH Fiction Editorial policies (and I stick by those grousings). I have discussed those grousings at Asimov's Forum, but for the most part these days, I try to limit any commentary to phone and in person conversations with one friend of mine.

As for the anthology, well, I didn't post my comment to "attack" you. I posted it based upon what it says. It is an anthology that just wants one point of view. It certainly doesn't want my point of view on the subject matter, even though a third of my grad history studies are in gender studies (and the field does interest me intensely).

As it stands, Jed, all my other flaws aside, if I talk, attack, comment or do anything on the net, I sign it.

And I didn't know if this post was a veiled comment or not. I didn't worry about that. I simply wanted to clear the air that it wasn't me.

Now I'm going to go back to lurking.

I would say, having dealt with detractors at my own blog, that dealing with them comes as part of the territory. I usually respond to their comments and leave them in place.

People disagree, sometimes they aren't pleasant about it. That's life.

S. F. Murphy

I'm sorry you've been insulted. How creepy. No has directly insulted me but I know I'd immediately delete any insult. I have felt insulted by spam. I got diet spam when Little T was really sick and losing weight. IMO personal insults in comments deserve as much consideration as spam, i.e. very little. They're annoying distractions. I'd simply delete them. Disagreements I keep, but we're intelligent people and know the difference. In any medium, there are always limits on free speech, because people need basic protections. From a free speech POV,

Basic civility is usually a requirement to be published in most newspapers or indeed most media, because most people prefer it, including me. And if the commenter doesn't like your rules, they can create their own personal blog and make their own rules.

I'm sorry you've been insulted. How creepy. No has directly insulted me but I know I'd immediately delete any insult. I have felt insulted by spam. I got diet spam when Little T was really sick and losing weight. IMO personal insults in comments deserve as much consideration as spam, i.e. very little. They're annoying distractions. I'd simply delete them. Disagreements I keep, but we're intelligent people and know the difference.

In any medium, there are always limits on free speech, because people need basic protections. Basic civility is also usually a requirement to be published in most newspapers or indeed most media, because most people prefer it, including me. And if the commenter doesn't like your rules, they can create their own personal blog and make their own rules.

1. What Michael said.

2. Having reviewed the evidence, I will say that I like you better with your natural hair color, but you're pretty cute as a blond, too.

Don't fret about it Jed, just delete anything you want to delete. I think that some periodicals are good at printing constructive, intelligent criticism of their content...but you almost never see any published letters to the editor that are flat-out insulting.

You should "delete" in your sole and absolute discretion, with no handwringing or compunctions.

It's your journal, I'd say you don't need to overly fret about what you suppress.

People who are insulting you clearly don't belong; neither do those unproductive people (such as those against Lesbians) who fail to contribute to the discussion in a constructive way.

The analogy of the backyard is apt. Having it open doesn't mean that anybody can wander in.

I have to agree with most of the comments above. This is your journal, manage it in any way that you desire. On the internet there is so much space for people to say anything that they want to say. Closing off this outlet really does not infringe on their freedom of speech in any way. (Though I deeply respect your position that "the answer to speech [you] don’t like is more speech in response" I don't think that that requires that you create a forum for the speech you don't like. In short, I think that you should feel free to delete comments, and even go so far as to say that you don't need to tell anyone what you've deleted (as you did in the [company name] entry.

That said, I am still a little freaked to see the pics of you as a blonde (I missed that entry!) but that is just because I met you with dark hair. Also--I always assumed that somewhere back in the early days, some sort of handshake process made you aware of who I am. But that may be in error. If so, drop me a note (Typekey tells you my email?) and I'll clarify. Although I prefer to maintain strong anonymity on the net, I'd be happy to tell you who I am in private if you don't already know. I've actually slept in your home. :-)

Oh, by the way, I didn't realize that feeds at LJ couldn't turn off the comments! Ooops, sorry!