9 tips to make comment moderation easier

I’ve written often that comments are useful on news sites, anonymity serves a purpose, and making those things work requires adequate, local moderation. But there’s the hitch: Moderating comments on an active site can be a daunting task. Phillip Smith, whom I follow on Twitter, sent out this today:

Part of the solution to managing comments involves long-term strategies such as increasing author participation and establishing clear rules. Not so helpful when, like Phillip, you’re thrown into the thick of things. So here are some quick tips from a veteran of the comment zone:

Comment moderation isn't so awful if you follow some basic guidelines.

Comment moderation isn’t so awful if you follow some basic guidelines.

Know the site’s structure. Every commenting platform has quirks. Learn them so you can figure out how to work around them. Are your comments threaded? Do you know what happens if you delete a comment at the start of a thread? Do all the replies disappear, or are they left there, orphaned? When you delete a comment, how quickly does it disappear from the public site?

Know the site’s audience. A big reason that I advocate in-house moderation is that knowledge of your audience’s habits makes moderation easier. A local person will be more aware of the euphemisms most often used to avoid word filters, the code words (on cleveland.com, for example, “East Side” was shorthand for “African-American”), the particular topics that rile users most. The more familiar you are with those things, the quicker you’ll catch on to threads going astray.

Know the site’s users. This takes time, but it’s a big time-saver. The more you see of your site’s comments, the quicker you’ll recognize frequent commenters even if they try to change their IDs. We had one guy, for example, who had something of a fetish about Krav Maga, a self-defense course. An essay about bullying? The solution is Krav Maga. Police were finally getting around to testing years-old rape kits? Those women should have learned Krav Maga. And so on. Nine times out of ten, those comments would throw the switch on the thread, derailing it. We got so familiar with it that the words would leap out at us as we quickly scanned comments, and we would delete his remarks instinctively.

Delete first, reflect later. The biggest errors rookie moderators make are either to be too generous or to waste time mulling over individual comments. Practice meatball moderation. Conversations suffer far more from the ones you let by than from reasonable comments that got caught up in your net.

Target the insults. The Nieman Lab recently summarized a study of comments on a newspaper site. One of the unsurprising findings: The biggest single type of offense was name-calling, found in 14% of all comments on the site. Based on my experience, personal attacks are also the most likely to lead to comment wars. We started out with a list of obscene and scatalogical words commenters couldn’t use about other commenters. Then we expanded that to words such as “stupid.” By the end, we were likely to take down even very elegant insults.

Target key posts early. Once you know your audience, you’ll know what kinds of stories are most likely to draw comment flies. (Your colleagues can help a lot by warning you before they post.) Dive into those posts early and fiercely. The first comments on a post set the tone. If you let a few jerks jump in, rational users will stay away and the rest of the clowns will move in. It’s always harder to clean out a post when it’s been festering for an hour or more.

Don’t read everything. Reading every word of every comment is another rookie mistake. There’s no time — and it’s not necessary. People who are going to violate your rules usually don’t wait until the end of a comment to do it. Skim the comment list. If you miss something, you’ll probably catch it later when you spot someone responding.

Skimming gets easier and faster the more you moderate. You’ll spot the style of frequent commenters from just the first few words, and know whether that person is rational or not. Eventually, you’ll get so that you can let your eyes wander over the comments as you scroll through them smoothly, relying on your brain to alert you when it processes something amiss. It happens subsconciously; when your brain waves a red flag, you’ll have to scroll back a few comments and maybe even read two or three all the way through before figuring out what triggered it.

Yes, it’s a bit like trusting the Force — but it works.

Use all your weapons. The methods we had to deal with comment bozos shifted around while I was at The PD. At first, we could only delete comments; if we wanted to put a user on ice or kill the account completely, we had to appeal to outside authorities. Eventually, we got the ability to instantly freeze someone’s account, which also had the delightful side effect of removing every other comment they’d ever made. After I left, Advance added a bozo filter, which makes a user’s comments invisible to other users but not the original commenter — so he or she doesn’t realize there’s a block, and doesn’t immediately create another account.

Whatever weapons your site gives you, use them. Comment moderation is no place for pacifists. Most of your problems will be caused by a very small percentage of your users. They will use every trick they can to disrupt your site. You owe it to the rest of your users to fight back.

Don’t let it get to you. Take breaks. Don’t take any attacks on your moderation personally; treat them as accolades for your effectiveness. Joke with colleagues.

Comment moderation is never easy, but these tips can get you over the rough spots.

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