Why we have comments – and why you should care

If you’re a regular commenter on this site, January sure was an interesting month for you. It was for me.

We started by declaring war on snark and concluded with perhaps the biggest story of the new year, which happened to be about a company that repeatedly referred to its own customers in an obscene way.

And boy, you’ve kept our moderators busy. This morning’s heavily-flagged post is no exception.

Even if you’re just a lurker or an occasional visitor, you’ll want to read what’s next, because it will probably affect you.

Why we have a blog

This site exists for one reason and one reason alone: to serve consumers who need help.

Although that may seem obvious, it isn’t always. I love to tell stories, and sometimes my articles are written in such a way that a reasonable reader could assume I’m doing this for sport.

I assure you, I’m not.

We are here to help consumers.

I write in the articles as I do because I want you to care. And I think most of you do.

You also tolerate my clickbait headlines and my provocative polls because you understand there’s a real reason behind this exercise. Each case highlighting a customer problem and a resolution helps to inform consumers and, over time, can improve service. That’s a worthy goal.

Why we have comments

The discussion section of this site serves the stories, and in turn serves consumers. Again, this may seem obvious. Then again, maybe not.

In fact, this site has attracted its fair share of what the moderation team likes to call “recreational” arguers — people who come here to disagree for the sake being disagreeable.

I think a healthy debate is important, as long as it’s focused on illuminating the story and informing the customer.

Over time, some commenters have lost sight of why the comments section exists.

They treat each post as if it were a fresh scrap of meat thrown to the wolves. They savage the consumers who turn to me for help. They attack my credentials and try to discredit the posts instead of using their industry expertise to make constructive comments.

The result? The comments section has devolved into a toxic basement of name-calling, snark and angry rhetoric. During the last few months, I’ve heard from too many readers who say they no longer read my stories because of what’s below them. Our simple rules — be nice, stay on topic, no personal attacks — are routinely flouted.

You’re chasing away the customers

That made me wonder if the bile-filled barbs were making consumers look elsewhere for help, too. Do they come to the blog looking for assistance but leave in disappointment when they see the comments that heckle other consumers? Do they shake their head and ask, “Whose side is this guy on, anyway?”

I believe the answer is: yes.

So I decided to do something.

The first step was a warning shot, fired in early January, when I asked the commenters to cut the snark.

During the last month, the moderation team has also been reading your comments more carefully. We’ve issued warning letters to commenters who repeatedly violated our published policy.

Today, I want to offer a glimpse behind the curtain to help you understand what’s going to happen next.

We have 16 volunteer blog moderators who have the rights to approve and remove comments in Disqus. Our group is almost always reactive, which means that we don’t go looking for trouble. Instead, trouble comes to us by way of flags on comments.

Anyone can flag a post they find objectionable.

When we see a problematic comment in the queue, the entire team is automatically notified. Most decisions are easy. For example, every comment with a link automatically goes to the “pending” queue to avoid link spam. Profanities are also filtered out.

A small percentage of questionable comments require a discussion. Did the comment violate our policy? I assure you, that’s often a lively debate among the moderators.

If something “iffy” drops into the queue, we’ll send a note to the group, asking for feedback. We take a quick vote and a simple majority decides whether the post goes to the “approved” queue or gets deleted. To keep the discussion as current as possible, we give ourselves an hour from the time the notice gets sent out to make a decision.

Obviously, not every moderator weighs in on every comment, but we try to include as many as possible in every decision. Once the clock runs out, action is taken by the moderator who first reported the comment to the group.

But there’s more: As of January, we’ve also kept track of the most-flagged commenters who violate our policies. If you get a lot of flags, you’ll receive a warning letter. If you don’t heed the warning and your comments continue to generate flags, you’ll receive a public warning on the site. You’ll know it’s a public warning because it will come from me and it will say “this is a public warning.”

I haven’t written any of those yet, but I am about to.

If after that you still don’t comply, you’ll receive a 30-day suspension, followed by a ban.

Too much or not enough?

Some of you will say this is going too far and that free speech should rule in the comments. Others will counter that I’m not acting quickly enough. To both groups, I would say, please give the system a chance to work.

All of the moderators support a spirited, focused debate. Dissent is a natural part of any discussion. But if the argument turns so unpleasant that consumers won’t come to us for assistance, I can’t do my job, and the blog you enjoy commenting on will no longer exist.

I admit, on several occasions, I’ve been ready to draw up a list of commenters who have personally upset me and blacklist them without any due process.

But cooler heads prevailed. While I still have my finger on the trigger, I now believe a more measured approach is warranted. I think most of my moderators agree with this careful and considered policy.

Commenting on the site is a privilege, not a right. My intent is not to chase anyone off this blog, but to carefully explain to offending commenters what we’re trying to do and to ask them to make their contributions fit within the broad framework we’ve outlined. If, after repeated warnings, violators fail to understand the purpose of this site, they will be asked to take a timeout to reflect on their actions.

If they come back rehabilitated, we will welcome them. If not, we will politely ask them to take their comments elsewhere.

I believe the result of this new policy will be a friendly and engaging discussion that makes consumers comfortable turning to us for help. But I can’t do it without you. If you see a comment that violates our rules, please flag it.

Together, we can make this site better.

Update: We’re getting a lot of questions about “snark” in the comments. The dictionary definition of “snark” is “crotchety, snappish, sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent.” When I say we declared war on snark, I mean that we stood up to the excessively negative, cranky, short-tempered comments that have infested the blog. They turn away consumers and make the site an unwelcoming place to visit.

Put differently, this is not your digital playground. It is not my playground, either. It belongs to the aggrieved consumers who need help. We are just visitors. Please behave as if you were a guest in someone else’s house.

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