Confessions of a Retired Comment Moderator

Confessions of a Retired Comment ModeratorGuest blogger Elliot Guest writes:

If you take nothing more away from this article, let it be this: The comment system as we know it is simply a sum of its parts. Those parts that interact together are what we call commenters.

I’ve worked as a comment moderator for two different sites. The names of the sites don’t really matter, since the results that I found for both were largely the same. If you’re interested, one was (and still is) a big-time tech blog where, as you can well imagine, some of the most heated debates of the internet take place.

To begin, here’s some perspective. In a comments section, you don’t see the people; you simply see whatever they input into the comment box. It isn’t always pretty.
There are people who could be doctors, shop assistants, CEOs, runners of charities, anything. Inside of that comment box, though, you are limited to the content of your own input. There are no second chances, though on some sites there is an edit button. You can either have valid input or be labelled as a troll. It’s an interesting social study to say the least.

The word “troll” is something that I disagree with, as it covers too many ambiguous scenarios without a clear definition to give it credit. If someone were to disagree with a post, be it about Apple or Google, Mac or PC, they would quickly be defined by their peers as a troll or as a fanboy. But here’s the clinch. As far as any visitor is concerned, there is no difference between the two, as the only thing a visitor can see is the conversation between two threads of typed words, distinguished only by user names.

Below are a few groups of people I noted who would be named as trolls during my time as a comment moderator.

Deviating from the Accepted Norm

This is perhaps the saddest example. It is a person who likely doesn’t care either way, but places forth an opinion which is quickly exploited by others in the comments section. Likely enough they’ll have a well-structured point that will be lost in the back-and-forth that will develop (usually as a result of the “true” troll, described below). A well-meaning, but ill-advised statement that rattles the cages of others will be hailed as trollish, especially since the conversation that leads from their comment will likely not be seen as constructive or meaningful. It’s not the fault of the OP (original poster); it’s the system they’ve been placed in.

The Misinformed

The misinformed just can’t wait to get talking to those in the comment section and will write a comment without having read the article fully and  — often to their own downfall — will be called out on this. There are also those who misunderstand what the article is even about, and thus write a comment that would be considered inappropriate because it doesn’t contribute to the discussion. They may even be well-meaning, but in the act of writing they accept the unintentional consequences of writing in a comment thread where other users are more informed and willing to demonstrate their opinions. Which leads me neatly to…

The “True” Troll

The “true” troll is the person who actively sets out to instigate chaos for chaos’ sake. They can take a comment previously posted and will disagree or provoke those reading to respond in a way that doesn’t promote good discussion. They may not even have an agenda, and they may not have fanboy inclinations — they simply, in the words of Alfred Pennyworth in The Dark Knight, just want to watch the world burn. They aren’t necessarily bad people, but their actions have the simple result of devolving what could be a good conversation and making it meaningless. If you had a friend in real life whose only aim was to annoy you, you likely wouldn’t be friends for very long. This is the advantage of the troll: They can simply “disappear” should they be outed either in the thread or by moderators.

It is in their anonymity that they derive their strength, as without a name they can never be held accountable. Sure, as a moderator, you have the power to ban a user from a site, or ban an IP address (if the comments are truly reprehensible), but the effects of those punishments will never really harm those determined enough to attack the systems that they inhabit, and the damages they inflict can be irreparable to the site’s reputation if people take note and stop visiting.

In truth, some of the things I saw put me off from comments sections altogether: personal attacks against the writers, racial insults, and vehemence that I never thought I’d see. The state of commenting is certainly better today than it was when I moderated, though. The acceptance of systems that allow easy identification of the commenter (such as Facebook Connect) mean that a history of the commenter can easily be seen, allowing for greater judgement to be made on behalf of moderators. Also, if you’re forced to use your “true” identity by way of Facebook, it appears you’re much less likely to instigate actions such as I described above.

At the end of the day though, the entirety of the power lies in the users, and it is those users who make the system what it is. There is hope. In comment systems lie the collective powers of hundreds of readers, able to act and debate information in a manner that has never been possible before. It is only with the acceptance of this power that a comment system is successful, as well as the accepted participation of all involved.

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