Scalzi had a great post on blog comments a couple days ago. It’s totally worth reading even if you don’t run a site.
My own experience comes from spending a lot of time in the ’00s as a moderator on the now-defunct StarWars.com forums – a learning experience, to put it mildly – and also having had to deal intermittently with the absolute worst kind of internet commenters – newspaper readers. But I’m nervous about moderating for other people – how far is too far? At work, we pretty much just zap spammers, death threats and any slurs that make it through the filter – the basics are really all we have time for. As for StarWars.com… Well, there are things I’d do differently now, let’s say. (Yes, I was one of the people who came up with the ‘forum Jedi approved’ thing, and yes, it was stupid.)
I think having comments on less niche websites like papers is just a bad idea, period, and though things have improved slightly because of the Facebook factor, don’t let anyone tell you that having ‘real names’ attached is a blatant cure for people being uncivil. It blunts the margins a little, yes, but it is by no means a cure-all. The answer is, of course, more in-person moderation, but that takes time and staffers and that is one thing that many papers just do not have to spare.
And all this built up over the years to make me something of a hard-ass when it comes to moderating at Club Jade. I finally made our comment policy public a few months ago. My goal is not just to get as many comments as we can, but to get a high level of quality comments – and so far, I’ve been very happy with what we have. (Outliers and all.) And it’s not any particular chore to keep up with them, 99% of the time. (I will never moderate a message board again, though.)
But as we get more popular, as the Episode VII news starts heating up, more exposure means more new people to the site, which also means people who have no clue who or what we are. One that stands out to me was a guy who commented on one of our early Episode VII posts, a guy freaking out about ‘what about the books, am I the only one here who read the books?’ when we are a site that started with a focus on the books, named after one of the Expanded Universe’s few breakout characters. Frustrating, but easy to enlighten them.
I can’t claim to be any great shakes even as a blog comment mod, though – Maybe I’ve just been lucky. But I do have a very clear concept of the kind of community I want to have and have been, for the most part, lucky enough to get – an intelligent, respectful place where people don’t panic but actually think things over before they start typing. (And observe basic grammar rules while they do it!) And as some in Star Wars fandom get more and more rash and quick to judge recent developments, I hope that stands.
Building up a commenting community doesn’t happen overnight, particularly when you’re a smaller site to start out. With Club Jade it took years to get to the point where having a manageable 10 to 20 comments on a story is a regular thing that happens. And even if you’re bigger, it’s kind of a crapshoot – Star Wars fandom’s biggest fansite, TheForce.Net, recently added comments, and their numbers are decidedly mixed. But to my mind, comments aren’t about numbers, they’re about quality. I’d rather have three thoughtful comments than two dozen that knee-jerk all over the topic at hand.
There are sites I read comments on, and sites I don’t. I think it’s to one’s advantage to get familiar with the sites you read, so that you know which ones it’s worth venturing into the comments for – but I don’t blame anyone for turning their comments off, either. I am a huge fan of lurking on sites as well, until you get a general feel for the place. (Even then, I am not a huge commenter myself.) But as a moderator? It all depends on what you can handle.