Clean it up, shut it down: how we know it's time to close comments on a post

I have this thing I say to editors when they forward me the 10th (or 20th, or 30th…) shitty comment on a given post: Clean it up, shut it down.

The comment policies across all Empire sites are very clear: we remove all comments that are shitty. As Wil Wheaton says, "It's ok to not like this — just don't be a dick about it." Basically, if you ARE a dick about it, your comment gets remove — even if we personally agree with it. (Those are the WORST comments to delete, because inevitably someone complains that we remove comments just because we disagree — which is sooooo not the case. It's just this simple: we value constructive dialog. It makes me sad that people don't know how to be constructive, especially when they're presenting a perspective I agree with!)

On certain kinds of posts, my editors can get a serious work-out keeping up with shitty comments. After 20 years of participating in online discussions [side note: HOLY SHIT IT REALLY HAS BEEN THAT LONG], I'm pretty good at predicting when a post is going to be controversial, and we make a point to schedule those posts for days when that site's editor can be watching comments like a hawk.

Even so, when the amount of editor time expended removing crappy comments overwhelms the value of constructive, respectful comments coming in, that's when comments get shut down.

It's hard: of course we want to let conversations run their course, but the reality is this: I don't pay my editors enough to stay up all night watching comments roll in. And on some of our more incendiary posts? That's what they'd have to do — or else deal with the agony of waking up in the morning to dozens of spiteful, argumentative, judgmental, shitty rants back and forth. At a certain point, it's just not worth it any more. When the number of shitty comments outnumber the constructive comments 2:1, that's when we shut comments down. At that point, readers are welcome to take their opinions to Twitter, to their Facebook pages, or to their blogs — we no longer have the editor resources to keep up with ensuring the comments adhere to our policies.

A great quote:

Here's the deal: We strive to cover pop culture with intelligence and wit–note: "strive"–and assume that that's what brought you here in the first place. It's our obligation to make sure the site reflects that goal, and abusive / offensive / obscene posts just don't contribute to that. These are the posts we delete, and we reserve the right to define those terms however we see fit.

Past deletions have prompted charges of censorship. Let's define some terms: If we attempted to pass a law preventing you from saying something terrible, that would be censorship. If you showed up in our living room attempting to say the same thing, we'd have the right to throw you out.

[From Why we delete comments. (And how you can make us stop.)]

Ultimately, the Empire's commenting policies and moderation practices are a big part of the brand — but so is the sanity of my editors. While I know some readers don't like it when comment threads get shut down, ultimately I have to balance the value of civil, constructive discourse with the value of my underpaid editors being able to get some sleep and not cry over their smartphones. I like to think that, no matter how much we love making our opinions heard, the emotional well-being of the people who produce the sites matters, too.

  1. You guys are so good about moderating the conversation with a hands-off-until-someone-is-being-mean approach.

    It's challenging to have meaningful conversation online since people tend to act so much brasher/ruder/whateverer knowing they're semi-anonymous, but I almost always feel that I can get that meaningful discussion experience at your sites.

    I work in customer service, and it's a whole different game face-to-face. I often wish I could "moderate" our customers interactions – but then they are never half so mean as some people online can be – precisely because of that whole "face-to-face" thing. But as a manager, I also tend to err on the side of "what's going to be the least headache-y way for my staff to deal with these customers".

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  2. I noticed the other day that when you do close comments on a post you always write a final comment on why you've made the choice to close comments.
    I appreciate you do so and wanted to thank you for doing so. Understanding why you do something is really nice.

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  3. The comments policy is one of my favourite things about the Empire, and I hereby applaud it.

    And I'd like to add, it's not just the mental health of your editors it affects. It's the mental health of your readers too! In the past, I've been very het-up/upset/stressed/downright depressed by internet communities. I cannot cope with conflict, even anonymised online conflict, and that's part of why I keep coming back here. This is an online community that supports my emotional well-being, my friend. :-)

    People are *way* more nasty online than in real life, and I hope the people writing those kind of comments know that they are genuinely upsetting real people (even people other than the addressee of the nastiness – including the editors of the site).

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    • THIS! yes, I agree the commenting policy protect the sanity of the editors, readers, and also the WRITERS of the posts (when they're not also the editors). The fear of having loads of negative comments rather than constructive ones on a post I've written is one fear that has kept me from sending a submission to OBM. I'm glad that you are working to create a 'kinder' internet community for readers to submit their posts and I hope I'll be able to get over myself, grow a slightly thicker skin, and submit something in 2012! :)

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  4. Thanks for all the sweet words, guys.

    As an addendum to this post, here was an interesting thing that came up last night:

    An Offbeat Home reader left a comment that was clearly a direct snark at Cat, the editor. Cat, being a thick-skinned lady, responded respectfully.

    When I saw the thread I was like "Woah! Why did you leave up this shitty comment?" She was like "Meh, he was just being cranky at me."

    I was all, "Ok, I get that you're tough and you can take it, but it's not about you. Would you leave this comment up if it was directed at a guestposter?"

    The answer of course was no — we don't let commenters attack our writers. By that logic, we don't let them attack our editors either — even when the editors can handle it! Basically, I don't want shitty, snarky comments on the sites — even if the person they're directed at can handle it.

    Shitty comments are some of the very most contagious content.

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    • I fall more and more in love with Cat with every passing post.

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  5. I totally agree with your policy on closing comments – it not only keeps the discussion from turning into a rant/argument and hurting people, but it keeps readers from becoming rubber-neckers, stalking the comment thread just to see what the latest insanity has been (I must admit that I've been guilty of grabbing some popcorn and pulling up a chair to watch an online argument between others unfold before, and it's made me feel guilty and kinda dirty every time.)

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    • YES! On a recent controversial post we had, traffic was THROUGH THE ROOF — until we shut down comments. Then everyone was like "Meh: boring. Nothing to see here," and traffic went back to normal.

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  6. I love how much thought you have put into making the Offbeat Empire someplace wonderful for everyone who uses it. I used to run a news website and frankly, one of the reasons I left the job was because I truly hated some of the terrible, spiteful, plain mean comments that would show up there – and it was a tiny site, so I can't even imagine what y'all have to put up with regularly. Kudos for keeping OBE a safe place. :)

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  7. I am actually intimidated with your comments policy! (I mean this as a compliment). Sometimes I do read stuff I don't like and sometimes I want to say something about it. Then I remember the policy and make sure to try (don't know if I always succeed) to word it n such a way that a conversation is still possible.
    I think, too, that you are completely within your rights to decided what is on your website and what's not – you're right when you say 'it's a big internet out there'. Really, it is one of the biggest plus points of the Offbeat brand.

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    • Hahaha, me too! But it does force me to think about what I am saying – I never intend to be mean, but it's hard to read intent over the internet.

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    • Ditto! It's so hard to write a comment that respectfully disagrees with someone without being really long-winded. I tend to start with a preamble of how much I agreed with a variety of different things in the article, etc. etc. before getting to my actual comment. Then I realize no one wants to read an essay and cut all that out. But then the denuded comment ends up looking more judgmental and dickish than I had meant it to.

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  8. It's always a surprise to me when a thread does get shut down. People are upset if somebody admits to using public assistance but they're OK with somebody making artwork with their previously frozen placenta?

    I'm amazed you can predict anything, Ariel! You must be a magician. (Or maybe those 20 years have something to do with it.. ya think?)

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  9. I completely support your decision(s) to shut comments down. I think it's extremely respectful in the long run – to everyone involved. I've never understood how people get so… upset, and tactless (to be really nice). If you disagree on something or have something to say, it needs to be stated in a respectful and tactful way. And these should be opinions, not personal attacks. I know not everyone has these skills, but then that's just where it goes back to "if you can't say anything nice…"

    I love all of the Offbeat Empire! Thanks for supplying such a great community. :)

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  10. Glad to see a website take charge of their comments like this. "Don't be a dick" is an excellent motto more folk should adopt.

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  11. It only confirms me that yall are in the right place doing the right thing. I like the way yall work these blogs and share the insights to MANAGING this. Shoot, I just learn a lot about it in general reading all these things. And yes, I love the OFFBEAT empire, yall are all my heroes. Actually, anyone will to be themselves and embrace themselves, is certainly a hero of mine. Rock on ladies.

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  12. Your policy on comments and awesome moderation guidelines are the reason I actually feel safe leaving comments on the Offbeat sites. I typically avoid commenting on other blogs and forums, because even if there is a "play nice and be respectful" rule, it's usually not enforced (which is really sad, because some wonderful websites have recently gone the way of name calling, baiting, and last-wording, which doesn't make them a healthy or happy place to hang out). So yay you guys for taking the time to keep things consistent, and for making the internet feel just a little more friendly and kind.

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  13. Some of my favourite blogs/sites have a dark, scary underbelly – PostSecret is one that immediately springs to mind – which is caused by an altogether too hands-off approach to moderating.

    It means I don't participate in the comments, because I just cannot cope with some of the (really, sickeningly) awful things people say to each other and to me.

    The fact that I can be interested in other peoples comments and their responses to mine without illiciting some scary tirade of sexism/racism is the reason I view each OBE post two or three times rather than just the once. Which has got to be good for your business, right? So why don't more people do it?

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    • Why don't more people do it? Because it's really REALLY hard. The Empire's comment moderation policy requires that each blog's editor have a smart phone and glance at comments every waking hour, seven days a week. Ask Cat Rocketship about that one time she forgot to check comments before she went to bed one night, and a commentroversy that started at 8pm had blossomed into a massive shit-storm by 8am the next morning.

      We also deal with a lot of criticism when we moderate comments. People don't like being moderated, and the accusations of "you deleted my comment because you disagree with me" are just the beginning…

      People accuse my mods of being censors and "comment Nazis." There was a HUGE brouhaha on Twitter last month when, due to caching, some commenters weren't seeing their comments immediately on the site and start tweeting about how we were intentionally silencing people. We actually weren't moderating anyone (I sent at least a dozen tweets saying, "No comments have been removed; the site is heavily cached and so there can be a 10 minute delay.") but that was the assumption, and then the next step was that we were moderating people/opinions we didn't like.

      And what about when someone leaves a comment that's 90% awesome and 10% suck? If we edit out the suck, they complain. If we delete the entire comment, they complain.

      I could go on and on with stories, but the summary is this: moderating can exhausting, soul-killing, thankless work. If you're doing it right, no one knows you're doing it at all… but it is HARD. Ask any of my poor editors or mods.

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      • It is hard, soul-killing, time-consuming work. Kate Harding, who used to run Shapely Prose, which had long, thoughtful comment threads and the most horrible trolls, was talking about it the other day on Twitter, and said something about how she'd be willing to do it again for 80K a year, but not 40K. (I assume USD, as she lives in Chicago.) I don't think you could pay me enough money to moderate comments on the internet as part of my job.

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        • Oh man, reading this post I am seeing so much I agree with:

          I have basically lost my stomach for making any argument more inflammatory than "Personally — and I am in no way saying you should agree with me — I enjoy sunshine and puppy dogs and rainbows."

          This is basically where I'm at, too. There's a reason I don't write as much on the Empire blogs: I have lost all patience with qualifying my opinions and defending my ideas. It's exhausting and time-consuming, and so these days I focus my attention on publishing other people's opinions. Maybe they still have the energy to defend their ideas — I don't.

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  14. As someone once lambasted for asking a stupid question on a forum (not on the Empire, of course) I THANK YOU!! This is my first post or comment on anything public since that experience. It was awful. I asked a stupid question, yes, but it was an honest question. As result I had people tell me I should kill myself and I was too stupid to pass on my DNA. The worst part is, it went on and on and on. Only one person actually addressed my question, after that there were tons comments all trying to out-do the previous insult.
    So far I have yet to put my profile on OBB public because of that experience, I now feel more comfortable participating in some of the discussions instead of just reading. Maybe.
    Thanks for your thoughtful and kind use of mediation.

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  15. I am sending all Mods and Editors virtual cake. The work put into this blog is astounding.. and fully worth it. I for one am normally too shy to post in forums because of fear of trolls.. but here I feel free. If ever there is anything I can do (other than what I already do which is try my best to never need to be moderated personally) just say the word and it shall be done :D This blog is a haven and a wonderful corner of the internet. It's like a blanket fresh from the dryer and you just wanna wrap yourself up in it's Awesomesauce and thank whichever diety you'd like for the chance to partake in the fun! I hope with posts like this, your lives are made easier by people's eyes being opened to what they potentially have been doing without realizing it.

    Big Hugs!

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    • Aww, thanks so SO much for this, Shannon!

      As for as "anything you can do," as a member of the Tribe, starting next month (on the NEW post-Ning Tribe), you'll be able to make a donation, join us as a Subscriber, or become a Lifetime Member to show your support. :)

      Free members will still have full run of the community, but members who want to show their support can do so.

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  16. I'm really impressed that you guys are willing to put your foot down on out of control threads, even when it means sacrificing pageviews. Way too many blogs lately, hell even Forbes, are posting incendiary content, letting it fester, and then raking in the ad revenue.

    And I'm definitely guilty of rubbernecking on a controversial comment thread.

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    • Yeah, that's one the cynical downsides of publishing business models based on CPM ads (ie, ads that pay based on impressions, instead of clicks).

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  17. I usually don't shit-comment in posts I don't like (too much effort, too little reward), but still, if there's a point of view I strongly disagree with (ahem), I'm glad to say that your policy makes me REALLY think of what to say and how to say it, so the comment is not deleted. After all, if I strongly disagree, I want my opinion to be heard and considered. Although I enjoy some popcorn from time to time, it's just that I don't come here for them :P

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