Commenting Reveals All

Whenever you set up a blog, a wiki, or any other social media tool that invites user comments, you’re making a choice. You are deciding that you want the communication to be a conversation. You want to talk with your readers, not just talk at them

How you do that says a lot about your own readiness for social media. There is a spectrum of approaches. The purist approach is exemplified by Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant in their Associations Now article on blogging. On commenting, they recommend “open and easy.” They mean: no login, no captchas, no moderator, and of course easy to use. If there’s a problem, the community takes of it.

How’s that work in practice? For personal blogs like this one, no problem. If someone says something hateful or off topic, I hit delete. Cool. For many small companies, the same thing applies.

For others, it’s a little trickier. Our Massachusetts Medical Society blog started with “open and easy” approach, and we became an easy mark. We were overrun by spam in no time flat. So I pulled the plug on “open and easy” and added comment moderation.

We have another issue, legal liability- but not the “what if the worst happens” kind of liability. With few exceptions, if independent doctors organize to talk about economic issues (i.e., their own reimbursement), even just two doctors, they break the law. So we must police anti-trust violations, or put an awful lot at risk. And it’s not up to me to take that risk, if you know what I mean!

The New York Times site takes the same approach. Its editors moderate comments on all of their articles. They let you know about it with nice, clean, non-legal language.

It doesn’t seem to affect their commenting volume very much. For example, on Oct. 3, within three hours of posting its article on the “bailout” bill, the Times had more than 300 comments. (Sure, it was the story of the year, and the Times has millions of visitors daily, but you get my point.)

The same considerations go for wikis, too – but maybe even more so, if you intend the wiki to be at least somewhat authoritative. What if someone makes a life-altering decision based on something erroneous in your public wiki during those 30 minutes that it was published? In many worlds, such as medical publishing, that is not an acceptable risk.

Has our moderated approach inhibited commenters on our site? Probably. But given the choice between a spam sandwich and a little dead air, I’ll take moderation any time.


4 thoughts on “Commenting Reveals All

  1. Good points, Frank. I wouldn’t be much of a social media geek if I didn’t recommend the purist approach first…and the pragmatist approach as a back up. You’re right. Many moderated blogs have very vocal communities. It’s just one factor in the big picture.

    On the shiny new tools side, there are a lot of technical solutions that mediate between open and moderation. For example, I’ve seen blogs where a commenter can still get the thrill of seeing their comment on the page while it is being moderated–no one else can see it, but still, the person who submitted it can see that the comment is in the queue. Also, there are spam filtering plugins like Akismet that really do weed out spam comments, whether or not you choose to moderate. No matter what the strategy, there’s a tool out there that will help.

  2. Lindy, thanks.
    The tricky thing is that what works for one community may utterly fail in another. Once again, we see the wisdom of that commandment, “Know they reader.”

  3. Frank, great post! I have to say that we had a similar experience on Acronym–spam comments build up really, really fast without our CAPTCHA in place. The unfortunate part is that some people have problems using the CAPTCHA, or don’t see it and then run into error messages when they try to post a comment. I hate that the CAPTCHA creates frustration, but I’d hate for our readers to see some of those spam comments even more (as I’m sure you know, some of them are fairly vile).

    I’m less concerned about the liability aspect, at least based on my experience so far. I haven’t seen a single one of our regular non-spam commenters post anything that wasn’t respectful and appropriate (even if they strongly disagree with a post). I hope that’s how things continue to be as our commenter community grows!

  4. Thanks, Lisa.
    One other kind of spam I’ve noticed: Those designed to be link bait. They say something like “nice post!” and slip in their site’s URL. They may seem innocuous, but if there’s enough volume they dilute the authority of the referring site.

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