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MR Round Table: Should Blogs Moderate Comments?

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Leandra Medine: We’re conducting this round table because we got an e-mail from a reader recently that said something to the effect of:

“Hey MR team. I was just on one of my favorite personal style blogs, and I was looking at the comments. I had previously commented something in regards to the post which was not targeting the blogger but rather, opening up a larger discussion about something I disagreed with. I went back later and saw that my comment, along with a few other readers’ comments, were deleted.”

And then she asked our thoughts on bloggers censoring comments.

Stella Bugbee, Editorial Director at The Cut, both online and print: Do you censor?

LM: I would say that our commenters are allowed to say whatever they want and we take it. (Unless they’re being outrightly vulgar or racist.)

Amelia Diamond: And we censor really offensive words when they’re used towards someone else. Obviously people can curse, but if it seems like an attack, anything sexual, or if it’s anything that we think might make another person uncomfortable enough not to return to the site, we censor it.

LM: We had this one male commenter for a bit who kept calling everyone’s mothers whores. It was very dramatic.

SB: How did you deal with him?

LM: We blacklisted him.

SB: So he’s banned from the site? Did you reach out to him beforehand or anything?

AD: No. We actually had one reader e-mail us saying, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this person is making me feel uncomfortable.”

Kate Barnett: I think the crux of the question from the reader was also, does this take away from blogging? Or what blogging is supposed to be? I thought it was interesting that she felt that it was her right to be able to comment and talk. Certainly at Man Repeller it is, and it’s very much a community, but if I was starting my own blog tomorrow I don’t know if I would have comments. And certainly a lot of sites mandate that they have to approve each and every comment.

LM: Some have disabled commenting.

SB: Like who?

LM: Well Sea of Shoes did years ago when she started.

SB: Has it affected her relationship with her readers?

LM: I don’t know. I really don’t, maybe though. Because there certainly is a sense of community tethered to the smaller sites.

SB: Do you talk to your commenters?

LM: Yes.

AD: All day long.

SB: We talk about recurring commenters who are destructive forces — and not necessarily balanced ones. I think comments have different purposes for different blogs. For The Cut, commenters early on were very important. If you look at the number of people who are reading the story versus the number of commenters on a story — and often times with really negative comments, it can skew the way you think the story has been perceived — if 800,000 people have read a story and 17 people have commented, that is literally a statistically irrelevant number of people. Yet, it could dissuade a writer from being more honest with sensitive material that is going to be published. So I have different feelings about it.

I think when it comes to a brand like yours, where it’s very much about talking to a reader in a personal way and that’s a huge part of what you do, engaging with the reader is mandatory. For a site like The Cut, there are a handful of commenters and you see them over and over again.

That’s not to say that every comment needs to be positive, at all. A lot of the time the conversations do get interesting on NYMag.com and The Cut, but with the numbers, it’s just not born out.

AD: So then why wouldn’t NYMag.com disable comments? Do you see a benefit in keeping them there?

SB: Definitely. They’re funny. You know sometimes you read the stories just for the commenters. The Vulture conversations about Mad Men are just as good as the recaps.

Any time you’re getting a ton of reader engagement at a higher level, it’s great. We have a funny relationship with our commenters. There are some of them who are really hardcore and they come back all the time. We talk to them and we know that certain commenters are going to comment on certain stories directly to us in the same way over and over.

But I don’t think that online (in general) commenters should have a right to say whatever they want. You should conduct yourself with all of the basic decency that you would in person.

LM: Technically speaking, anyone has a right to say whatever they want anywhere, just by virtue of living in a place that champions freedom of speech.

SB: I think that those who are terrible, abusive and racist commenters should not have the right to say whatever they want on our blog. We have a code of conduct. I think that people deserve to be protected and we’re not doing nearly enough to protect them online. When a commenter gets really abusive online, they should be banned. There’s no reason for that. Especially on a women’s website where that happens so quickly.

For example, we may publish a story that might trigger the Menimism rights movement, and our writers will get flooded with hate mail. It’s like, sure you have the right to say those things but we don’t have to publish them. And if you were saying threatening, abusive things to me in person I would call the police. Why would I allow you to say it in my comments?

You can say that you don’t like a jacket I picked, sure, but you can’t say that you’re going to rape me in my sleep. No. Absolutely not. There’s no world in which that’s okay.

KB: I think we’re fairly lenient. We don’t get an influx of truly malicious comments and we probably give more credence to malicious comments than we should. In so far as: is it productive? Is it attacking someone? Basically if it’s not productive we feel comfortable removing it or blacklisting that person.

SB: I’m not talking about intelligent criticism. And yes, they have the right to say whatever they want. We do not have to keep their comment on the site, though. I think that’s the difference.

AD: I always think about Howard Stern. He rose to fame because people hated him, and those people called in all of the time to tell him how much they hated everything he stood for and said. The network was thinking that they had to fire this guy, because everybody hated him. But the numbers just kept rising because everybody who didn’t like him tuned in every day. 

Whenever there is a group of people that rise up against something, there is another group that rises up to defend it. It creates this two-team army that feeds off of one another. That happens with comments.

LM: Right, they’re also essentially fighting for the same cause. Which at the bottom line — specifically for a business — is a rating.

SB: But getting back to having asked people to write sensitive things that they don’t want to write about because they feel bullied in the comments, it’s just not okay. There have been times where, in order to get someone to write a story of that nature, I had to say we’d turn off the comments. That doesn’t happen very often. The majority of the most sensitive material comes from people who are sort of beyond the comments. They don’t really care, because they’re not going to read them. Our ballsiest writers don’t read the comments. They know not to. They know better. This is less true about fashion content.

AD: Do you feel like it’s dishonest to delete a comment? Do you feel you’re the one — at The Cut specifically — who gets to make that call?

SB: Oh no. We have an autobot that’s programmed to scan all of the comments across the site for profanity and racist words. There is a whole set of derogatory terms that when detected, get instantly deleted.

We also have a user guideline that anyone can see, which I think is a very clear way of talking to people. It’s a way of saying, “If you’re really engaged, here are our community rules.” For example, hate speech is not tolerated. Language needs to be kept in check, stay on topic; don’t impersonate other people, etc. So it’s all there for anybody to see.

If a commenter is really egregious and they violate often, they get a warning saying, “You will be banned from the site.” So it’s not like we just ban them from the site. If you read the comments across the site, a lot of them will be like, “Oh I can say this, but I can’t say that, NY Mag?” Like, “I can say the word ‘motherfucker’ but I can’t say the word ‘pussy’?” They get very specific in their critiquing of the guidelines. But I think having a very clear set of expectations for commenters and readers is the best way to go. It’s sort of like they can’t fault you for kicking them off because these are the rules. These are our terms.

LM: I guess it’s also very different because New York Magazine, as an entity, doesn’t operate like a blog that has a face behind it. Do you feel any particular way about us deleting comments?

SB: I think it is absolutely your right to delete anything you want. You as women, and as writers and publishers, should not put up with anything you don’t want to put up with. Period. You should set and police those terms. But within that, you should let people have a conversation.

AD: I struggle with that because there are certain comments that are actually constructive criticism. But then there are…I did a post called “Moms on a Cruise” and someone commented and said that I was ageist and misogynistic. I wanted to be like, “Oh no. This was a joke, and I make fun of myself in it, too.”

SB: Well, then I think it’s appropriate to go out and say, “Wow. You’ve really given me a lot to think about. Maybe my jokes didn’t land.”

AD: Well, if this were Amelia.com, I would be like, “Fuck that!” and delete the comment. But, because it’s not, I feel like it’s dishonest to…

LM: Comments like that I don’t mind leaving on there. I actually don’t like taking comments down because I think they harness good conversation, even if the conversation isn’t necessarily constructive for us. So much of our model is based on what happens underneath the stories.

AD:  Something that I keep hearing is that editors self-moderate. We see it on our site too, where readers will jump to the defense of each other or the writer.

LM: It’s funny because now that I’m thinking about personal style blogs — like the one that reader was referring to — Vanessa Friedman called them, “mini media empires.” I don’t think they’re that. I think that they are just a digital manifestation of these people, so maybe it’s okay for them to delete comments because they don’t bode well for their brands. Kind of like a woman looking at herself in the mirror and saying, “Oh gosh I need to lose three pounds” and then losing the three pounds.

KB: Right. Why do they have an obligation to let the commenter take the conversation in a different direction?

LM: They don’t. I think it gets a little fuzzy when dollars are involved, when you’re treating your blog as a business.

SB: Why? Why does that change?

LM: There’s a level of dishonesty associated with not keeping everything open and out there. It’s like a blogger buying 40,000 Instagram followers and then going to a brand and saying, “I have 40,000 Instagram followers, do you have a thousand dollars for a sponsored post?” Those aren’t real followers, there’s no real engagement, is demanding money warranted?

KB: I think it is interesting specifically in the context of integrated editorial. There have been times when we’ve styled something for an integrated editorial — and we’re said very straight forward if it’s a collaboration — and commenters will say, “I wouldn’t have styled it like that.” Or, “I don’t like that.” It wouldn’t even cross my mind to delete those, the same way that we try to ensure that you guys [Leandra and Amelia] have the creative freedom to write however you feel about that actual garment. I feel like removing those comments is dirty in a way. Like it’s changing the content of the site for a brand.

AD: Every time you say something, Stella, I’m like, Yeah! WE get to decide. And then you say something, Leandra, I’m like, Oh yeah, no, we can’t do that. It’s interesting to consider because MR straddles this gray line of, What are we becoming? Are comments something that change with site change? Versus when you’re a young blogger and your site kind of functions like a diary.

KB: Do you guys at The Cut have someone who’s focused on community growth? Someone fostering whoever your super-users might be? On Facebook, or Twitter, and in the comments?

SB: Our social media editor talks to people all day.

LM: I’m not very vocal on Instagram at all but often times the comments are really nasty. When I post a picture of myself, the flood gates open.

KB: And we’ve had that conversation, where yeah, I think it would be great if we were more vocal on Instagram. But I also know when someone says something really nasty, that this is one person out of the however many that have seen or liked this. And just because they’re vocal doesn’t mean that they’re reflective of everyone else.

AD: But that one sits hard, always. You can have a story of 20 commenters but that one person, man. Ouch.

SB: I have become completely immune to this. I have the thickest skin on earth and actually, it’s because I’ve watched these very brave writers that I’ve worked with lob fireballs weekly that generate so much hate towards them. And they don’t care, it’s empowering.

LM: It’s the difference between a big site and a small site, right? We feel that our community is so important, and independent of us, so many bloggers feel actualized by their commenters. It’s millennial bullying, and vice versa – inflated flattery.

KB: I don’t know — regardless of how big we grow – I don’t think our relationship with our community is going to change. I would say we would get more involved with them.

SB: I think this is a good conversation to be had. We’re going through a phase where what we say online and how we say it to commenters under the cloak of anonymity or under our own name is going to come up more and more as a form of harassment. I think it’s worth legislating. So yeah, it might seem like a dumb question of, “Do I delete this comment?” But it’s going to be a big conversation in harassment over the next ten years.

You see something like Gamergate ruin a woman’s life because she dared speak out against people. They constantly troll her on all forms of social media. That is not okay. We need to set up protective mechanisms for that sort of thing. It starts as, Okay you can say whatever you want on my blog, but it’s way bigger than that. It’s worth asking because it’s a whole confusing space. Where does my right end to insult you? In what form?

It’s definitely bigger than us and our blogs and our commenters. It’s about the way we police commenters online and the way we react to our commenters. For me it’s a safety and honesty question. I want my writers to feel safe and honest. But for you guys it’s part of your brand, and so how do you deal with it?

LM: Well for us it’s a question of why one would feel comfortable moderating a constructive but critical conversation. That’s where my head’s at.

AD: Do you think that leaving a negative comment can have a negative influence on a reader’s opinion of the story, and that that is a reason to delete it?

SB: No. You can’t anticipate that because someone lobbed a horrible comment at you, every comment below it is going to be bad so you better erase that comment. You have to stand behind what you do and hope that enough people will read it and roll their eyes at that comment. There have been times at The Cut when the comments have been overwhelmingly negative on a story and it has caused me to think we failed at communicating the thing I was trying to communicate. That has happened. And then you kind of go, hmm okay. Take it with a grain of salt but also take it to heart and say, whatever I was trying to do here, I failed at trying to do it. My jokes did not land, clearly, because 20 people didn’t get them. If 20 people didn’t get them then it’s like 100,000 people didn’t get them.

There’s some clear winners everyday and then there are stories that very few people engage with at all. I don’t look at commenters as a way to validate a story anymore. I look at a story that has really taken off and consider the reasons for that; how did that story connect to readers in a way that I thought another really good story didn’t. That’s kind of the conversation I’m having now.

Stella Bugbee is the Editorial Director for New York Magazine’s The Cut — online and in print. Follow her on Instagram here, and on The Cut on Twitter here. Read more MR Round Tables here.

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