The war on snark is over and the good guys won

Note: Effective Jan. 1, this site shifted from a travel advocacy site to a general consumer advocacy blog. But that isn’t the only change for 2015.

When I enrolled as a graduate student at the University of California, one of the first things I did was visit Sproul Plaza, where the Free Speech movement was born in 1964.

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I had no choice: Sproul Hall was home to Berkeley’s office of the registrar, where you stood in a long line to get your student ID.

Not so long after that, in my journalism law class, I learned that while monuments to free speech were inspiring, there is no absolute right to “free” speech (see Brandenburg v. Ohio, for example). You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater.

Why am I telling you about free speech? Because the Supreme Court of this site — the moderators who read all of your comments — have ruled.

It’s a “good news/bad news” verdict for those of you who like to opine on the site.

I’ll start with the good news. Starting now, you can comment on the day’s blog post on the forums without active moderation (in other words, without someone having to read and approve it) as long as it adheres to our revised commenting policy.

Here’s today’s post, for example.

The entire forum is set up the same way. We basically trust you to do the right thing until someone reports you.

We’re doing this for two reasons: First, we’re trying to shift some of the longer discussions to the forums. But second, the forum software allows you to build a community (with your bio, avatar and social media coordinates). It’s a better electronic home for a debate and there’s more accountability to the community.

And that brings me to the bad news. Starting right now, all blog comments will be moderated. Here’s the exact language from our updated comment policy:

Our blog comments are moderated. We read every comment before posting, ensuring that it makes a positive contribution to the discussion. Posts that are off-topic, mean-spirited, or otherwise inappropriate will not be approved. We will make an effort to notify a reader if a comment isn’t approved, but we reserve the right to deny a comment without reason.

There’s a reason for this, too. You don’t have an absolute right to free speech in the comments, and you definitely don’t have the right to take down a letter-writer, source, or company.

Too many people have complained about the toxic, unhelpful tone of the comments in the last few weeks. We had to do something. This is that something.

Some of you will disagree with our decision.

You believe you have the right to call a consumer stupid or ignorant. You think you have the right to mock a company representative for the crime of doing her job. You think you have the right to call me a socialist, anarchist, or whatever label you want to throw around.

And you do. But not on this site.

So starting today, this is a snark-free zone.

I hope this policy creates a kinder, more constructive discussion where everyone can feel free to participate. If there are disagreements, let’s be civil about it. No more name-calling, insults or ad-hominem attacks. They simply won’t be tolerated.

I’m serious about this.

How serious? Well, I’ve approached a few people who I know personally and who share my vision of a snark-free site, offering them the power to moderate comments. If you want to comment, you’ll have to get past them.

Won’t that affect the number of comments on this site? In the short term, probably. Several readers will no longer have their comments approved, and they will need to find a different blog to comment on.

But in the long run, I believe this will be a better site. I hope you’ll stick around to find out.

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60 thoughts on “The war on snark is over and the good guys won

  1. Thank you! I’ll come back to being a more regular reader again-the comments have been miserable and really detracting from a lot of excellent work done!

  2. Thanks for taking the term “free speech” to a higher level. Just because you have the right to free speech does not mean I have to listen. It doesn’t require a newspaper or forum to publish your free speech.

  3. In general, moderation is good. I have always assumed that our comments have been moderated. But I don’t like the idea of moderating for mere attitude. I LOVE to see attitude from company reps on the forum. When we report instances of it in our travels, we’re accused of embellishing our stories. Our best response is for the world to see travel company attitude right here in print.

    1. There’s a line between a skeptical attitude (which is welcome) and creating a toxic cesspool of rhetoric (not so welcome). I think we’ve all seen what the comments can look like when the snark rules. It’s time to end that. That’s what we’re doing today.

  4. Please clarify what is allowed and what is allowed on the FORUMS. The reason I ask? You, Christopher Elliott, declared recently that the forums were a snark-free zone, because you had angry consumers emailing you directly. But the above implies that snark is allowed on the forums, on the blog post of the day.

    So, please make sure that your readers understand that the only snark allowed will be on the blog post of the day, and where that will be posted, so that it doesn’t spill over onto those consumers asking for help on the other parts of the forum. Thanks.

    1. No, I didn’t mean to imply that. We’re cutting the snark in 2015. We want the site to be helpful and positive. The only difference between the forum and the blog is that the forum posts are still unmoderated (with certain restrictions).

      1. I’m serious about wanting clarification. If unmoderated comments are only allowed on the blog post of the day that’s been posted on to the *forum* and no other unmoderated comments are being allowed on any other section of the forum, you’re going to have to make that a special section, not just categorizing it in “How to Use this Forum”. It’s like when I plant a particularly aggressive colonizing plant in my garden (think mint or zebra grass); if I don’t want it growing elsewhere, I have to contain it.

        1. No problem. You can comment on the forums — the entire forums — without moderation. That applies to the post on today’s story and any other post. The system allows us to moderate certain users selectively, but we haven’t used that function yet, and hope to never have to.

      2. This seems to happen every year. Can we just ignore it this year?
        We have a forum to grow and take care of. Let the people play here in Disqus, please; and let’s keep the forum heavily concentrated in live help (instead of debates). Thanks.

  5. The thoughtful philosopher in me, believes the new rules actually increase free speech since they promote and encourage the posting of ideas for debate and discussion without fear of intimidation and ridicule.
    The ever present child in my psyche rebels and reacts with the same reply I gave “The Ma” as a five year old: “You don’t want us to have any fun !”

  6. As a professional blogger myself this is something I’ve wrestled with on my own site. It’s difficult to balance letting readers have input with keeping out the nastiness.

  7. The key to the “right to free speech” is that it is part of the first amendment to the US Constitution. That means a few things. A) It means it’s about what the US government can or can’t do about what you say or write. A private company or organization is not bound by this. B) It is also why *libel* and *slander* laws exist. Just because the government may not be involved doesn’t mean you get to say or write things that are injurious to others. and C) this oft-quoted “right” is from a US document. I’m pretty sure there are many readers here from The Magical Land of Canadia as well as other countries. Many other countries have their own “Right to Free Speech” in their federal constitution, but differ in many ways.

    In short, when a private organization says that you do not have a “right to free speech,” they are not taking something away from you. They are, in fact, not giving you something you never had in the first place.

    1. It’s not simply about the federal government, but all government including state and local. I can’t be thrown in the county lockup for saying something my local officials don’t like. This happens in some places.

      1. Federal law generally trumps local law, with some exceptions. State governments are still answerable to the federal government, as are county/parish, city, town, etc. governments. So you can safely call the mayor of your small hamlet a vile name and it’s protected speech. However, if you make an unsubstantiated claim of criminal activity by your mayor, you can still be cited for libel or slander (as appropriate).

        1. Free speech also doesn’t mean that government is required to support a forum – only that they won’t interfere. I can’t go into a city or county meeting and use nasty language. They have a right to shut that down. However, they can’t stop anyone from criticizing them in a forum that won’t shut it down.

          As for Chris’s original comment about Sproul Hall, I remember seeing something about the place. Anyone could actually borrow amplification from the administration to use on the steps. I think a deposit was required. There was also a placed that served coffee on campus called the “Free Speech Cafe”.

  8. Happy to hear this. It has seemed lately that some have equated dissension to derision. And while that may not change for everyone, at least it won’t be seen. Respect the person at least if not their ideas.

  9. I welcome this change, as I almost suggested to shut down the entire comments after the Omni Hotel incident. That was clearly out of control. Shaming LWs is quite opposite and counterproductive to what this site is trying to achieve. Frankly, I really don’t get why people attack their fellow consumers. I always read these letters as if it could happen to me tomorrow.

    1. I followed the Omni thread, so I have to ask…are there posts still there (that haven’t been moderated out of existence) that wouldn’t pass the new rules? I see a lot of harsh admonishment, yes, especially over the chargeback that the LW did. But other than a couple instances of the word “scam” (that were later explained, and not deleted), I can’t say that there is anything approaching delete-worthy. I may be missing one though.

      In short, if someone feels, for an example, that a LW did something shameful, should they just not comment? Should they temper the words saying, “I feel that what you did was extremely shameful…”? Or can they exhibit their true feelings?

      Further, does it go the other way? For example, can someone say about a business, “I used to go to that company, and I hope those scammers get shut down over stuff like this.” ? In other words, is the prohibition against snark limited to that against consumers?

      I guess I’m looking for an example.

      1. I think it’s safe to say the freewheeling days of comments are over.

        Our moderators (of which you are one) are reading every single comment. Our standards will be higher. Does the comment make a positive contribution to the discussion? Or does it just try to insult someone? If it elevates the discussion, approve. If it doesn’t, don’t approve.

        We’re all about being nice. You know, the kind of comments you’d expect to find on an advocacy site.

        I was embarrassed by the Omni thread and I almost closed the comments permanently after it. The OP asked me to delete the entire post. I thought about it for a while and decided to try something less drastic.

        1. OK, I will play it by ear then. I think we might have different threshholds, though, so it may be interesting for a while.

          Personally if I’m in the wrong as a consumer, and pull a boneheaded move (and I’ve done so plenty of times), I want to know.

          Then again, it might all play out nicely when people know they’re getting moderated.

          1. I agree, and we should not be shy about saying someone was wrong. But in a way that doesn’t insult the LW or make them regret having ever come to us for help. I think we all know when we’ve crossed that line, and are simply beating up on a poor consumer.

          2. I was referring to posts that were speculating the nature of the trip. There was one post guessing where the LW worked. I felt these were violation of LW’s privacy.
            Many complaints, if not all, can be addressed without mentioning details, such as with whom, where, when, and on what occasion a particular travel took place. All she wanted was a different room type. She didn’t have to explain why. We didn’t have to guess why. Discussion on these specifics won’t add much to solve the problem, thus not constructive at least, if not looking “snarky” to some.

          3. There’s a big difference between speculating on things and attacking people. Nothing wrong with speculating that somebody possibly worked for Company B unless you tagged on “and everybody working for Company B is a moron” to the post.

            And from a reader standpoint this site would be dead within 6 months if no details were provided. The backstory and specifics are what keep people reading. An endless string of articles saying “generic person had generic trip with generic problem” won’t win any repeat visitors.

      1. If you were from travel industry, then, yeah, I would see a motivation in spotting a scammer. But I bet most of the commenters are not.

      2. Yeah, but my instinct is that most are innocent, and just inexperienced. I know that I have learned a lot by reading these posts; before which I could have made many of the same -seemingly stupid/scammy/greedy – mistakes.

    1. Is it sad that my first thought was, “I’ll miss Raven”? I never thought your snark was rude, or offensive just clever.

  10. Thank you so much for this. I was getting to the point where I had to tell myself to be calm before I read the comments, which I previously enjoyed. I don’t think sarcasm and shaming add to any discussion, unless it’s a comedy routine I’ve paid to see and I understand that ahead of time.

  11. This generally seems like a good idea, although I’m not sure I agree that you should hold posts to the standard of “snark free.” Surely it is possible to have a snarky post that does not violate these guidelines.

    I also hope the moderation doesn’t mean that we cannot accuse the letter writers of misrepresenting what actually happened. Calling somebody a liar (even as nicely as possible) is always charged, but also justified at times.

  12. Some of the regular snarkers have interesting ideas for discussion hidden beneath the frat boy snark. I would hope that these snarkers will control their writing so that their ideas will be discussable.

    The only thing I worry about is the time lag between submission and appearance after moderation. Right now I read my post and edit out the typos. Now I will have to remember to do it before submission, unless the mods are empowered to fix my typing as they moderate.

    Edit: AHA!! My post shows up immediately for me, and I can edit it. There is a little tagline saying “Hold on, this is waiting to be approved by Elliott. above it. Problem solved.

  13. So, I guess I will play the contrarian. I understand why comments are being moderated. I just wish that there was a less drastic way to do so. I guess a few bad apples really do spoil the bunch.

    I am particularly interested in situations where the LW is acting shamefully, e.g. exploting a fat fingered fare, lying to gain Chris’ assistance, or otherwise perpetrating a fraud (ethically, not necessarily legally), etc. We shall see what is acceptable commentary under such situations.

    1. I firmly believe that not every consumer complaint is warranted nor should be held up as an example of a company doing evil to an individual. I enjoy a good, vigorous debate, and am afraid that this new system will squash that entirely. I’m all for culling the blatantly offensive remarks and ad hominem attacks, but the consistency across moderators has been lacking. If the poster and the moderator agree, the comment stands. If the poster and the moderator do not agree, the comment does not stand. If I could be assured that moderation is happening to prevent offensive material and not to prevent opposing viewpoints, I’d be so much more sanguine about this new system.

      1. Maybe we have a different understanding of this site’s mission. We’re here to represent the consumer, not the company. It is not this site’s mission, nor the comment’s section’s purpose, to determine if a consumer is trying to scam a company.

        It’s the other way around.

        If commenters want to research every case I write about to determine if someone was trying to play the system, I’m not sure if this is the appropriate venue. A relentlessly accusatory tone in the comments is exactly the kind of discussion we want to avoid.

        We’re not here to blame the victim. People are coming to us for help. We should help them — not assume they are trying to defraud a corporation.

        1. A judgment based on the idea that one party is always right because of
          the position that they are in (e.g. “consumer” vs. “company”) rather
          than on an impartial notion of justice is exactly the attitude that
          causes the need for a “consumer advocate” in the first place. If
          advocating for an unpopular cause–which in this forum is the
          company–is cause for silencing then the forum is part of the problem,
          not the solution.

          1. Not quite. We are on the consumer’s side but we don’t always side with the consumer. When we don’t, we are careful to not alienate the consumer. We want people to feel free to share their grievances with us without fear of public humiliation.

          2. I don’t understand how that works in practice. There have been a few consumers who appeared to be scammers such as those who avail themselves of fat fingered fare and those who appear to be outright lying; who try to hoodwink their way into a favorable resolution. How do we have an honest discussion without stating the dubious morality/ethics of their actions? I guess we can always use flowery language such as, The facts seems not to support the LW assertions.

  14. Free speech is not the issue here. The owner of the blog or forum has the absolute right to set the terms of participation. Almost anyone can comment without being snarky or profane and still get the point across. Those who can’t should go elsewhere.

  15. You can most certainly yell fire in a movie theater, provided there is or you believe there is a fire.

    The poll is so polarized, can’t there be something in between?

    I think the new plan will certainly make the daily blog a lot slower of a read

  16. The big disadvantage- and the main problem moderation had before – was the wait for comments to be posted. I also don’t care for having comments on the same material in two different places. Mind, I don’t like the snark and I’ve had to deal with personal attacks in the past – which very nearly caused me to leave the site. Im not anti moderation but it’s not a perfect system by any means.

  17. Yea, good move. This is one of the few places I feel like has some really solid conversation and hopefully this will help things along! Cheers!

  18. I should clarify that we don’t actually delete posts. They are held in a queue, and if there’s something questionable, we wait for the moderators to discuss whether to approve the comment. Comments that don’t meet our criteria are simply not approved.

    We already have a few comments in the queue this morning, and will discuss them as soon as we can.

  19. This is excellent, I get so weary of nasty comments that aren’t necessary to the communication. I know that I’ve often been snide and critical of certain OPs, and I will endeavor to communicate my feelings without that. Next, can we do something about grammar!!!???

  20. Gee. You mean that we all have to behave like adults? And now, if you can figure a way to keep everyone on topic….

    1. Actually, I feel like mild tangents build a sense of community because they help us to relate to each other. But insanely off-topic, I see your point.

  21. Kind of a pet peeve of mine for a while has been the inconsistent policing of these issues. It’ll become a hot topic a couple times per year then things will go right back to how they were. General snark isn’t a problem in my opinion but when people are directly calling others “idiot” and the like without any action at all you just invite the aggressive posters to push the envelope more and more.

    But what exactly changed? Last I recall the blog comments were being moderated and there were several people where “moderator” showed up next to their user names. I recall several cases over the past few months where people were either told to be nice or posts were removed. Had that stopped? Or it’s always been in place but they’ve rededicated themselves to it?

    1. You won’t see any more of that. The posts that violate our policy simply won’t be approved. So our moderators won’t need to run around telling people to behave. The bad behavior will be stopped before anyone sees it, hopefully.

  22. I’m not going into a discussion on what defines speculation and attack, but just would like to simply state that it’s not okay to keep speculating or whatever you call it when the other person expressed embarrassment and begged to stop. Maybe you didn’t read the entry in question.

    I believe Chris has routinely omitted certain specifics from letters and I know there have been certain readers who demand those specifics. It’s quite possible that the new policy and overall attitude of the site will turn away some readers.

  23. I agree the speculation can be appropriate, but speculating that someone possibly worked for Company B is often a thinly veiled attack, effectively stating that the only reason why so and so has their opinion is because they are biased.

    I do like specifics and backstory though.

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