Long-time internet community participants may be familiar with the tongue in cheek concept of Godwin's Law, which states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." As Wikipedia summarizes, "given enough time, all discussions—regardless of topic or scope—inevitably wind up being about Hitler and the Nazis."
As a blogger and moderator, one way to inadvertently accelerate Godwin's Law is to delete or edit a reader's comment. Even if the comment or post you're moderating is completely off-topic or offensive, chances are decent that if you moderate someone's comment, they'll lash back with a predictable "Why are you being such a NAZI? What about free speech?"
These retorts are irrational of course — comparing online moderation to the genocide of millions is preposterous and offensive. When you delete a comment, you're not silencing a person's first amendment right — you're saying "Not on my website," which isn't the same as "you can't say this anywhere, ever."
Trying to make these points after-the-fact is challenging, because it's easy to bog yourself down in the specifics of the particular situation and discussion. The best way to sidestep Godwin's Law is to have a carefully written commenting policy linked prominently.
Many of your commenters likely won't actually read it, but by having your policy explicitly stated, when you do have to moderate comments, you can provide an easy link to your rules — making it less likely that commenters will quibble over the details of the specifics of the particular situation. In other words, instead of having to explain, "It's not that I'm offended by your comment about apples," you can just say, "I have a standing stated policy about fruit, which applies to your apple statement."
On each of my sites (Offbeat Bride, Offbeat Home & Life, and Offbeat Families) I've create slightly different versions of my commenting policy. Here's Offbeat Bride's and here's Offbeat Families' comment policy. They've proven remarkably effective in dealing with comment drama, and while I would never suggest that your policies should be the same as mine, I can offer these tips for creating a commenting policy that's a good fit for your community:
Identify your boundaries
Sit down and think about what kind of comments bother you, on your own website or that you've seen elsewhere. Obviously, you can't anticipate every problematic commenting scenario, but you can generally file comments into a few different trouble buckets like tone, topic, and self-promotion.
- TONE: Sure, nobody wants abusive or hateful speech on their site, but what about swearing? What about snark, i.e. bitchy comments that aren't abusive but aren't supportive? Tone is difficult to articulate and moderate, but it's worth having some thoughts on the subject.
- TOPIC: Are there subjects that just aren't OK on your website? I have a stern "no weight loss" rule on my forum, but what the hot button issues are will be completely dependent on your website's focus. Are comments that are completely off-topic OK with you?
- SELF-PROMOTION: Of course, we all hate comment spam left by spambots. A tricker question to consider: what about when a real person leaves a self-promotional comment that, while not technically spam, contributes nothing to the discussion?
You don't owe it to anyone to host comments that you don't want to. As longtime blogger and community moderator, Derek Powazek, explains:
The wonderful thing about the web is that anyone can contribute to it. If you have something to say, there are plenty of places to say it. But your right to post to someone else's site rests with that someone else. This is so painfully obvious; anyone who doesn't get it must simply have an axe to grind. It's like assuming you have the right to go inside any house you can see from the street, and pee on the carpet.
Write your policy with a human voice
Your comment policy doesn't need to be written in legalese — it should be in plain English, written in a firm but non-combative tone. Don't write to the people who are breaking the rules — write it with a voice of proactive helpfulness, as in "if you want to be part of the discussion here, we'd love to hear from you! Here are some guidelines." Oh, and for the sake of your sanity, don't write your comment policy when you're in the middle of dealing with a comment crisis.
Part of this humanity is recognizing that your policies may frustrate people. As I say in my comment policy, "we understand these policies won't be popular with all readers — and that's fine! Thank goodness it's a great big internet out there." This is a gentle way of saying "If you don't like it, don't let the door hit you on the way out."
Explain your motives
By their very nature, comment policies can come off as heavy-handed. Although you don't need to justify every policy, it can be helpful to explain your motivation with certain policies. For instance, when I tell my wedding vendor commenters: "Please do not use your business name anywhere in your comment — not as your name, not in the body of your comment, not anywhere. (Here's why!)" By providing a link an outside party's explanation of why over-promoting yourself in blog comments isn't necessary, I make myself look like less of a control freak … and hopefully might even teach novice commenters a thing or two about blog commenting etiquette.
Be clear about ramifications
Be very explicit about how you treat comments that don't follow your policies. In my comment policy, I reserve the right to delete OR edit people's comments, because sometimes I'll receive comments that are half-good, and half-bad … and I like to let the good half remain.
Comment policies don't need to be static — as your community grows and changes, you can feel free to update and edit your policy so that it best fits your members.
Feel confident about your policy
Your goal is to create a policy that you feel good about enforcing. Because remember: Your website is just that — YOURS.
Here's how I say it on Offbeat Bride:
We understand that this comment policy won't be a good fit for everyone's communication style — and we're fine with that. Thankfully, it's a great big internet out there, and we heartily encourage you to share your thoughts and opinions however you might like via your own blog or website, or on another site, that matches your communication style. Since we pay the bills to keep Offbeat Bride online, we're pretty clear about the kind of conversation we're willing to host.
In other words, no one's being a Nazi here and everyone's first amendment rights still apply. It's just that this is my website — and it's not OK to walk in off the street and pee on the carpet.
PS: The text of my comment policies is Creative Commons licensed, meaning that as long as you credit with attribution, you can feel free to borrow text for your own commenting policies. Again, I don't think my policies would be a good fit for all websites — but if portions of it work for you, feel free to reuse with attribution.