There was a thought-provoking article by NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, Online Comments: Dialogue or Diatribe? She talks about the struggles in maintaining an open atmosphere with restricting the unproductive and frankly vicious attacks.
At its best, commenting builds community. As a blogger, commenters give you updates, different perspectives, and cool advice you might have missed. Here's a New York Times article by a business blogger, What I've learned from blogging. He credits commenters with nothing less than giving him a free, real-world education.
At its worst, commenting devolves into a cesspool of hate that can turn off users entirely. Witness this tweet by a prominent blogger, BlogTyrant:
Youtube should just close all comments. They are the absolute dregs of humanity; filled with hate speech, racism and ignorance.
The niche of the website plays a big role. The audience of YouTube is apt to write different comments than say, TED Talks users. That can't be helped.
What about free speech? Another well-known blogger, Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Workweek, takes the position that he calls "The Living Room Method." Basically, a website is like having a party at your house. As the homeowner, you can throw out guests for rudeness and lack of manners. He talks about this and other blogging best practices in a presentation, How to build a high-traffic blog without killing yourself.
Just like you don't want jerks to ruin your party and drive away your friends, you should not feel guilty at all about deleting hurtful comments that would turn off your fans and loyal visitors.
What are some ways of stopping trolls? I'll discuss several methods here:
Have a comment policy. A truly determined troll won't let this stop him, but it gives you cover when you decide to delete someone's nasty comment. Here's what Tim Ferriss states at the end of each blog post:
Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That's how we're gonna be -- cool. Critical is fine, but if you're rude, we'll delete your stuff. Please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name and do not put your website in the comment text, as both come off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)
Other bloggers take a more formal and legal-sounding tone, by saying things like, "We reserve the right to delete racist, sexist, etc."
You shouldn't prevent constructive criticism, though. That's always helpful, if occasionally bruising to the ego. But users can be critical without being rude. If they don't make the effort to be polite, why should we let them have a platform to our audience, to our users? Respect goes both ways.
Moderate comments. This is where you approve or reject each comment as it comes in. If you have even a modest amount of traffic to your blog, this quickly becomes unsustainable. Many content management systems (like WordPress) will have comment settings. A popular variation is to only moderate first-time commenters. Once you've approved their first comment, you don't have to moderate them anymore. They are free to post their thoughts in the future.
Use captchas. These are the little graphics with randomly-generated numbers, letters, and symbols that you have to type in before you can submit a comment. Mainly used to fight spammers and programs that roam across the Internet posting crap in your comments.
Use Facebook Comments. Anonymity protects the malicious. Since most Facebook users are attached to their real names, if they use their FB account to leave a comment, it's like saying something to your face. TechCrunch is one high-profile site that has switched to FB commenting, although founder Michael Arrington said it was an experiment. One TC reader did say that he felt the situation had swung to the opposite extreme, where everyone was too positive and afraid to voice dissent.
Use third-party comment systems (e.g. Disqus, IntenseDebate, and more recently, Livefyre). On the surface, this seems like the perfect solution: let someone else deal with the hassle of comment moderation! I think the biggest drawback is letting your content go to a place outside your control. I consider comments to be 50% of blogging, and I'd be wary of letting someone else take half of my content.
There is also another factor I call "registration fatigue." Users don't want to sign up for yet another service and share their e-mail again. Some of these systems have OpenID and let you comment with your Facebook or Twitter account, which helps alleviate the problem.
However, it does introduce extra steps that a user has to take before he can write a comment. This goes against the principles of usability, so you'll probably reduce the number of comments you get. On the other hand, a user who is willing to jump through these hoops will hopefully have a more thoughtful comment to share. They can't just get away with a quick, "You suck!' If they're too lazy to write a complete paragraph, they probably won't spend the time to log in to leave a comment.
Disable commenting entirely. This is a drastic step, obviously. If you know you're going to be writing about controversial topics where you expect 99 percent of people to adamantly disagree with you, this might a viable option.
It's not without precedent, either. Paul Graham, founder of the startup incubator Y Combinator, doesn't allow comments in his essays. He also doesn't allow social sharing, offer printer-friendly versions, and a lot more. I actually don't think it was that he disabled those features, but never installed them in the first place.
For more on this topic, check out this post on Copyblogger: The dark side of authority. The last line is a real zinger!
Have you dealt with trolls on your websites? Please share your tips and tricks for beating these online Rumpelstiltkins.
UPDATE: Just read this great article on The Next Web: Should user comments dictate online content?