Mild to wild: The nuttiness of ’net comments

I started out as a writer in the print days, and have run web sites devoted to cars, computers, business, and statistical software. Like everyone else, I’ve seen a massive range of commentary.

The smartest, in general, has been on the highly technical sites, where the “general population” doesn’t go — even if everything is understandable. The dumbest, generally, is on mass-media news sites, and I suspect quite a bit of that is due to “bots” — automatic software that squirts bits of hate on command.

moderation

For email feedback, I’ve never seen anything beat MacStats, where I’ve had one crank in  twelve years. This is Joel West’s Macintosh statistics software site, which I’ve been maintaining since 2005. Joel himself handed it over happily, because he wanted it to be continued but didn’t have the time for updates. There’s no forum on that site — there really should be, but there isn’t.

The next best isn’t my own site — it’s Macintouch. (Ars Technica is probably similar, but I rarely see the comments there.) Macintouch is cheating, though, because it’s moderated — every comment has to be approved. I think just knowing that prevents people from posting insane things. MacRumors, which reaches a similar audience but is flasher and a bit more clickbaity, has a good mix of thoughtful and foolish.

And then there’s my main site, allpar.com, which has no less than three paths for commentary — the forums, instant feedback on the news (via Disqus), and comments on Facebook. All three are semi-moderated, in that if I see (or am warned) of something straying over the line, it will be deleted, and I can ban individuals. The forums have an entire moderation team — people who warn, talk down, delete, and such, as needed.

On Allpar, the most intelligent conversations tend to be on the forums. We have some idiocy there, and it gets deleted, which I think sets a tone — if you must, reinforces cultural norms of minimal civility and rationality. There’s a lot of straying, too, generally from people with very strong opinions and newcomers. Arguments get heated easily. There’s much more emotion with cars than with statistical software, though I can get rather heated on the topic of SPSS.

Disqus attracts the wildest, rudest, and dumbest comments — though many are quite intelligent and rational, many are also simply insane. It is here that readers suggest killing all employees of the EPA, and used to say we should jail the last President for various specious reasons (such as not allowing any drilling, though he presided over record drilling numbers, or wanting to ban cars, though he never said or did anything that would lead to that).

This is where I need to have a hundreds-of-words-long list of words that will cause a comment to be held up for review. This is where politics are most readily brought in, even when wildly inappropriate. For example, when FCA issued a voluntary safety recall because airbags might not deploy in one car — something they discovered and fixed without any government intervention at all — the system auto-moderated numerous comments slamming the “witch hunt,” insisting that we shut down the federal government and/or NHTSA, and going after “mindless power-mad bureaucrats.” All because FCA found a software error and fixed it, on their own. (And if they hadn’t fixed it, I suspect there would have been a class action suit because “we paid for side airbags that we can’t use.”)

The news is also where I get people copying and pasting the same comment up to ten times, because it doesn’t appear right away (Disqus puts in a comment noting that it’s under review and will not appear just yet.) Some people get very angry if it takes any time to approve their comment.

Incidentally, I’ve set both Disqus and our internal forums to only allow comments from registered users — if you don’t do that, you get flooded in hate and spam very quickly indeed.

Facebook is a mixed bag, largely because it gets the fewest comments. The main distinction of Facebook is that most people never read more than the headline of any story, which is hard, because many headlines are mild clickbait — not untrue, but also not telling the whole story. That’s largely due to length limits and, well, my desire to have people leave Facebook and go to my site. I don’t get a salary from Facebook, after all.

On all of these, I (or we, in the case of the forums) are frequently harassed about over-moderation, political correctness, and such.

Someone could use this as a starting point for an experiment to figure out how to foster civil discourse. (It could be me, if I had the time.) In the meantime, I’ll just leave the data here and let you draw your own conclusions… then go off and catch up on what’s been going on at macintouch before returning to do some moderation.