Thursday, May 01, 2008

Comments and Quality Control

I've written before about the value of filtering out abusive or otherwise unconstructive comments for the sake of promoting reasoned discussion. It's an easy decision to delete comments that don't contribute to the conversation at all. I'm less sure what to do about relevant but low-quality comments. At present I tend to just leave them there but ignore them. (Of course, sometimes I fail to respond to good comments for other reasons, e.g. lack of time.)

But this liberal policy has some unfortunate consequences. The inclusion of low-quality comments may bring down the quality of discussion overall. As Tyler Cowen observes, "the best comments come in the first fifteen or so, after which quality declines precipitously and often exponentially." Short comments are no problem, I think, but long rambling ones are a disincentive for later readers. (One may feel obligated to read the earlier comments before responding, or even feel less comfortable responding to the original post after the conversation has apparently "moved on" to the rambler's choice of tangent.)

The ideal solution would be to have graded levels of comment prominence. I like blog templates which highlight the blogger's own comments relative to the norm. It would also be helpful to be able to make some particular comments less prominent than the norm. The text might be 'greyed out', for example, paled or even completely hidden by default unless readers select to 'click here to display this comment', or some such. Most readers could thus easily ignore the comment, reducing the risk that it will derail the thread, without resorting to heavy-handed deletion (which risks provoking [misguided] complaints of "censorship").

[I've posted this feature suggestion to the Blogger help group, and anyone who likes it is also encouraged to tell Blogger, since they will be more likely to implement a feature for which there is more demand.]

In the meantime, I'm tempted by the following policy: if a comment is both lengthy (i.e. more than a couple of sentences) and unproductive (by my lights), I may delete it and invite the commenter to instead repost the comment on their own blog -- they are then welcome to post the link in my comment thread, since that is far less obtrusive and distracting. (I'm happy to email the person their deleted comment, of course, so they needn't worry about having to rewrite it from scratch.)

Feedback welcome: Is this a good policy -- would it serve to increase the quality of discussions on this blog (which I think is generally quite high to begin with)? Does it seem reasonable? All things considered, do you think I should implement it?


  1. Well, gosh, now I feel self-conscious.

    Generally, I wouldn't advise that policy, but in this context--a blog with a narrow subject matter, with high level discussion, and intelligent commenters (and me)--it's a good idea.

    But I would have thought that was already the policy, as I seldom see very lengthy, unproductive comments around here.*

    *Except for those of anyone who disagrees with me.

  2. I would imagine that threaded comments would make more sense, so that one can choose to reply either to the post itself, or to a comment on the post: starting a thread. Then tangential discussions would have their own thread, easy to ignore. (If threads were collapsable, all the better.)


  3. Scott - yeah, I agree that the comments here are generally extremely good (and perhaps I should have emphasized this more -- I certainly don't want to discourage people!).

    But sometimes a thread gets derailed nevertheless. So I wonder, for example, whether the discussion of 'Zombie Rationality' might have been helped by moving some of the tangential comments elsewhere. (Maybe not; perhaps no-one would've had much to say about the original post's topic in any case. But I wonder.)

    Alex - good point. Collapsible threads would be great. I'll add that to my feature wishlist!

  4. In my experience, attempts to keep threads on topic are futile, no matter the architecture or supervision. But perhaps you'll have better luck.

  5. Is the idea to filter for competence or to filter for pertinence? Obviously the two can't be wholly told apart, but still.

  6. Peli - I'd prefer to combine those into a single scale of contribution value, and filter for that (i.e. whether the comment contributes to the discussion). It seems less offensive to focus on pertinence. But I guess my main worry is the possibility of incompetence diverting the discussion.

  7. Well, it's your a blog, but I think it's a very bad idea - as long as someone is honestly trying to grapple with the issues, why discourage them?

  8. I'm leery of significant comment monitoring. Too often on blogs, comment moderation is just an excuse to make it hard to express disagreement with you. Not that I expect you to do that, but "appearance of impropriety," "slippery slope," and all that.

    One thought: what's the merit of a system that would let people respond specifically to each others comments? This might make it easier for people who want to talk about the initial post to ignore tangents.

  9. Something nice David Chalmers does is answer in private comments he deletes for being too confused to contribute to the discussion (I know because I had the misfortune to make some of those). This seems like a good policy if one has the stamina, esp. given your agenda of making analytic philosophy more widely accessible without adulterating it.

  10. Or if you can't be bothered with what David Chalmers does (in relation to PG above), then perhaps a system with a list of polite, pre-written reasons for comment deletion would be a reasonable way to go about things. Blogger doesn't have this (as far as I know) but if you like the idea you could always suggest it to them.

  11. Well, I think there is one thing in favor of the policy, namely, that it can sometimes be tricky to judge how tangential your own comment is (not everything that jumps out at you in a post is something the writer of the post considers even important), and this does handle that issue.

    Also, sometimes comments grow on you without your realizing it. When I notice that a comment is growing long I often move it to my own blog. But in cases where you're responding to a number of points in the post or the previous comments, or just laying out some reasons for a particular point already mentioned, a comment can seem short when writing it but turn out to be quite long indeed. (You can catch it in preview, but (1) some comments are borderline in length; and (2) I doubt very many people always use preview.) And it would handle that as well.

  12. Hi Richard
    I'm also leery of comment moderation myself. However I would consider implementing one of those vote up vote down things that allows your readers to rate the quality of comments.

    The downside to this is that it breaks the narrative flow of arguments (by changing their position)



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