October 31, 2003

Plexiglass Slab Over the Tarpit of Hell

For my many sins, I attracted a link from Pejman Yousefzadeh, and the trolls came flooding in. I was instantly reminded of Leonard Richardson's:

...'Tar Pit From Hell' theory of discussion boards which I expounded to my co-workers many months ago. It is basically the following: when you add a public discussion forum to your site you are placing your site on a big slab of plexiglass which floats around on the Tar Pit From Hell. As long as no one actually uses the discussion forum, you are safe. But the more people pile on to use the discussion forum, the deeper your site sinks into the Tar Pit From Hell. There are various measures you can take to slow your descent into the Tar Pit From Hell, but none of them deal with the fundamental problem, which is the fact that your site is sinking into a damned tar pit.

I believe I've beaten back the trolls and restored some rationality and civility... pseudo-rationality and an absence of complete vulgarity... to the comments... to most of the comments.

But it took time I do not have. I would pay money to Pejman Yousefzadeh if he will never to link to my site again.

I like my comments. I like (almost) all of my commenters. I think that I learn stuff from the people who write comments here. I think that they learn a lot of stuff from each other. I'm happy that the comments have an edge, and have considerable energy. I'm scared that if I require more politeness and moderate with a much heavier hand I will kill the energy, and destroy a sociological standing wave that is actually rather nice.

But why does it have to be so hard to construct and keep a useful, functioning comments section? Why is it like setting up a large plexiglass slab floating on top of the Tar Pit from Hell? ,/p> Posted by DeLong at October 31, 2003 12:00 PM | TrackBack

Comments

I think authentication makes a difference. Having user identities which are tied to actual email addresses means the trolls and morons need to at least do SOMETHING before spewing, and the authentication can be removed for problem cases.

And this makes a difference even in a large community like slashdot: Mod all Anonoymous -1 or -2 and the trolls tend to go away. For smaller communities it is even better to tie a user identity to at least something (eg an email address) so that identity takes time to create.

Fully anonoymous, we believe whatever-you-put messageboards tend to fail. A little bit of identity and the problems become much less.

Posted by: Nicholas Weaver on October 31, 2003 11:35 AM

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1) Comments are good, becuase it is a check against careless blogging. Commenters can intelligently refute points or expand on them.
2) You do get outright rude trolls
3) On the internet, in any public forum, you must have a thick skin. Come to think of it in political conversations in person - you have to have a thick skin.

Posted by: Mcwop on October 31, 2003 11:44 AM

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For everyone who thinks that bloggers don't have lives and so spend all their time spouting, there are the people whose entire existence consists of posting comments in discussion areas to prove them wrong.

Posted by: paul on October 31, 2003 12:17 PM

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This is such a precious medium, I only hope there are professional software allies who will keep these sites secure. What a treasure you are Brad.

Anne

Posted by: Anne on October 31, 2003 12:30 PM

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Bayesian filters would work wonders to moderate a blog without removing the edge. Hire a grad student to read and apply. They need the money, you need the time and it's a wonderful research opportunity.

Posted by: pt martin on October 31, 2003 12:50 PM

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We at Ars have one of the largest and IMO most successfull online communities on the 'net, with tens of thousands of active members and many more than that who only post periodically. One thing that we've learned is that the only way to cultivate a quality discussion board is through active and constant moderation. A comments system doesn't necessarily have to be a plexiglass plate over a tar pit of hell, but it's always at least like a grade school recess hour. If watchful grownups aren't around to keep the kids from terrorizing each other, then it all descends into miserable chaos rather rapidly as the number of participants grows.

This is probably not good news to someone who doesn't have a lot of time (or inclination) to moderate, like you, Brad.

What I'd suggest in your case is asking one or two of your most trusted regular commenters to moderate for you. Delegation works quite well in this regard, especially if you're on the same wavelength as your mods.

Posted by: Hannibal on October 31, 2003 12:57 PM

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Interesting bit of synchronicity here; a few days after you link to Sumana's weblog, you quote Leonard on the difficulty of discussion boards. Meanwhile Sumana is wondering[1] for entirely different reasons why you don't use NewsBruiser, Leonard's free and fancy weblog software that has coincidentally just added comments, complete with Bayesian filtering for spam and other contentless annoyances...

[1] http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~sumanah/cgi-bin/nb/nb.cgi/view/weblog/2003/10/21/1

Posted by: Nathaniel Smith on October 31, 2003 01:44 PM

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"I like my comments. I like (almost) all of my commenters. I think that I learn stuff from the people who write comments here. I think that they learn a lot of stuff from each other. I'm happy that the comments have an edge, and have considerable energy. I'm scared that if I require more politeness and moderate with a much heavier hand I will kill the energy, and destroy a sociological standing wave that is actually rather nice."

We dearly like you, and even the commenters about whom we complain [almost all]. As Anne noted, Brad, you are a treasure.

Posted by: lise on October 31, 2003 02:06 PM

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Can't this be analogous to a big law firm: something for grad students or undergrads (akin to associates) to do for training and to develop a sense of community? Also, can't you enlist the help of the Computer Sciences department, or students therein, to figure out how to send nuclear spam to the offender as retaliation? Is escalation a proper strategy? Or is remaining above the fray the best course to follow?

Posted by: Cal on October 31, 2003 02:44 PM

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Retaliation is never the right answer. It's probably illegal. (Laws in most developed countries are vague enough to cover anything that adversely affects someone else's computer and of course they don't make allowances for motive.) Besides, it runs the risk of unintended side effects.

Agree however that it would be good if Brad could delegate the moderator role to people who have more time than he does. Anyone have experience of doing this with Movable Type? (If Movable Type doesn't support this functionality, it would seem like a nice feature to add to the pay-for product.)

Posted by: Christian Murphy on October 31, 2003 03:07 PM

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This site is great! I really do think I learn a lot from it and from the posts in the comment sections! If a moderator is appointed, I really hope that she or he wouldn't be to strict - pulling posts just to prove that she or he is doing a good job. Above all, don't let the moderator change posts! The Agonistas changes the headlines to my posts there, I don't know why, but I really felt bad about it and just can't go there anymore.

We need some disagreement to get the discussion going and provoke people to share their insights and ideas. Name calling however is very much a different and adverse phenomenon.

Thanks again for a fabuous blog!

Posted by: Mats on October 31, 2003 03:32 PM

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let me know if I get out of line, I like to use a needle when I can.

Posted by: big al on October 31, 2003 03:41 PM

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Brad

There's a new blog which would interest you covering exactly this, called Everything in Moderation - http://www.everythinginmoderation.org/ - which describes itself as being about "Creative ways to manage online communities and user-generated content".

It's only been running a few weeks, but Tom Coates, the guy behind it, has a fine track record of innovation in this area. Well worth a look since you're clearly troubled by this.

Posted by: marek on October 31, 2003 03:50 PM

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Brad

There's a new blog which would interest you covering exactly this, called Everything in Moderation - http://www.everythinginmoderation.org/ - which describes itself as being about "Creative ways to manage online communities and user-generated content".

It's only been running a few weeks, but Tom Coates, the guy behind it, has a fine track record of innovation in this area. Well worth a look since you're clearly troubled by this.

Posted by: marek on October 31, 2003 03:56 PM

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I'll chip in my own support for the previous suggestions made here that you adopt some sort of Bayesian filtering mechanism; see

http://reti.blogspot.com/2003_10_12_reti_archive.html#106647036304377379

for an earlier post in which I suggested just the tool to do the job for Movable Type users.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on October 31, 2003 06:21 PM

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But you'd think the trolls would be frustrated by never knowing if their comments had actually posted or not...

Posted by: Chris on October 31, 2003 08:27 PM

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Hannibal nailed it: moderation is what works in large public boards. This is a new kind of work, no?

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on October 31, 2003 10:22 PM

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I too thank the Professor. I learn so much from this site and its comments. I would mourn a valuable experience were it to end.

The problem reminds me of a phenomenon I observed often in political action meetings in the antiwar Sixties. (Of course the meetings were open to anybody who blew in off the street...those were the days!) So you'd get people who'd rant on and on. We'd all have to sit and listen for a while. Because they were lonely, or emotionally hurt--there were lots of those. Or because they just started to feel strongly about an issue (i.e. the War), but hadn't yet found the social validation--that's how it works. Or because they'd just awoken to the general pleasure and human privilege of intellectual being--they were just beginning to put it all together in their own minds, and couldn't realize how advanced the conversation already was.

If they became repeaters, we nudged them, took them aside. Once or twice we held the meetings somewhere else, and didn't spread the word!

Well, I guess you can't do that here: a different filter would be necessary.

Posted by: Lee A. on November 1, 2003 04:52 PM

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