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The future of comments

When I first started this weblog, I had the naive belief that allowing comments to posts would engender discussion about space policy topics and events. In many instances it has, but, unfortunately, the comments in a couple of recent posts have spiraled out of control, featuring some rather unprofessional remarks. This includes allegations of libel, some of which have been directed towards me simply for hosting the discussion. In both cases I’ve closed those posts to further comments, but perhaps later than I should have; for that, I apologize to any offended parties.

I have, in general, kept the discussions in the comments unmoderated, restricting my role to either closing the discussions that have gotten out of hand or deleting spam posts. This no longer seems like a tenable policy, primarily because of the actions of a handful of people. For the time being, I’m taking one step by eliminating the ability to post purely anonymous (without name and email) comments, since these comments have fueled much of the hostile debate. (I do recognize that it’s easy to circumvent this by posting with a fake name and email; I’d hope people here would not be juvenile enough not to do that, but I’ve overestimated people before…)

I’m also considering other changes, up to and including banning all comments and even closing down this blog. Those are undesirable alternatives, but they may turn out to be the only alternatives. I welcome any suggestions you’d like to make, either as a comment to this post or in an email. (All emails will be treated in confidence.) Keep in mind that some alternatives, like a Slashdot-style moderation system, are beyond the capabilities of the Movable Type software that runs this weblog, and switching to another system might be too much of an expense (in time and money) to be worthwhile.

11 comments to The future of comments

  • Mark Zinthefer

    I would also suggest installing and running slash out of port 8080 or something and testing its functionality. Movable type is great but it’s also dying unless you want to pay for upgrades. Plus, it’s very hard hit by spam comments.

    it would also be nice to be able to view all the childish arguments thread by thread rather than in one giant list.

  • Nathan Horsley

    Jeff, please dont let your blog be dragged down to the level of others who cant be bothered with the criticism and comments of others on their own blog. It does seem like the members of the peanut gallery (I include myself in this group) are becoming less and less cogent in their “argumentation”, but there is still value in getting the perspectives of the readership. Even if all we are learning is that people are deeply divided, that is valuable data for policy making purposes. However, I believe there is still occasional useful data provided in the comments section in between the ad homs by the irresponsible minority.

    In re the threat of libel, any suit against you for a comment made by another individual on your blog would most likely be a loser, and would have a good chance of being frivolous (so as to place the burden of legal defense costs on the plaintiff). Note that this should not be considered legal advice, and that I have not done an up to date lexus search on this one. However, the cases I am aware of that have addressed this question have found the Communications Decency Act of 1996 makes an online publisher (which you are as to this blog) immune from suit for libelous material posted by another on their site. For some very basic info on this subject check out http://ojr.org/ojr/law/1087423868.php.

    As for anonymous posters, are they really the cause of the problem of unprofessional dialogue in the coments? As someone who has posted anonymously here and on other sites (but not recently, none of the posts below are me), I can understand that there are times when ones job would be put at risk by sharing a perspective that is out of step with the leadership. I would argue that the very people who have the best chance to have useful data (especially as to space related activities) are those who would be most at risk by contributing that data openly. This is exactly why dead-tree journalists have been awarded some privilege in keeping their sources confidential. Furthermore, I am not aware of any instances of anonymous posters here giving incorrect data (perhaps misleading, but given the partisan discussion around here, that is hardly a unique criticism). It seems counterproductive to try to out those who would best serve the public by remaining anonymous and providing information. The only value I can see in requiring names is that a very few people would no longer be able to “defend their position” by accusing the other party of cowardice. However, even this value is low in that the people who actually have reason to withhold their identities will just use psuedonyms, and the other parties will just attack them on that ground (as can be seen in the offending posts below).

    I hesitate to argue that the “discussion” below is an example of the value of blog sites, but it is the discourse between opposing viewpoints that makes blogs useful. Much like democracy, it aint always pretty, but it is the best system we’ve come up with yet.

  • Brad

    I think the problem is temporary, so please wait a couple more weeks before giving up on comments. Once the election is over I believe people will settle down.

  • Back in the days of the Space for Clark campaign blog there was some great guidance displayed when writing a post. The website’s gone so as best I remember it went “Please be courteous to other users and focus your posts on the issues rather than individuals.”

    It may seem obvious, but it was great advice and did seem to discourage the kind of bitter personal comments that sours political discourse.

    And of course there’s always the nuclear option of adding an offender’s name to the spam filter :p

  • Having been on of the perps in a previous thread I think part of the problem is something our Mom’s taught us: “if you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all”. Twothings get me wrapped around a poll:

    1) the desire on the part of some to respond just so they can say “But!”. Most of the time its people just being overly pedantic, for others its that impulse that some have on the Internet to say that “everything sucks”. There are many who complain no matter what you do. “Here’s a million in cash! That sucks, you should have given me a check. You suck.”

    2) For others its of the “yea, well I’m so cynical I think we’re all going to die tomorrow morning so I’m just going to shoot down everything anyone says as Pie In The Sky”.

    In my particular case I let someone’s questioning of whether my motives and ambitions were reasonable to get to me when I simply needed to realize, yet again, that rarely will what anyone says here actually affect anything. Did Burt Rutan care whether or not anyone on a blog thought his aspirations were to pie in the sky?

    I think we all just need to remember that silence is a virtue. Unless you actually have something to say that’s on topic and substantive then either don’t post or go get your own blog. They’re easy to setup and usually free. As far as what what Jeff does I think the best thing is to wait until after the election. And even then simply turn off comments and link to people who have the committment to setup a blog and construct a coherent statement on it.

  • First, MovableType isn’t dying–version 3 is free for if you’re publishing no more than 3 blogs, a class that most of us fall into. I and my company are using MovableType and think it rocks.

    As to comments, anonymous comments should be out. If you’ve got info that is “special”, it shouldn’t be posted here but emailed to the blog owner. I think anonymous comments leads to people writing things that they would never have the guts to do if their names are known. Further, given some of the comments written here, perhaps moderated comments should be the way to go. If people can’t write responsibly, then they need to be housebroken.

    Jim Hillhouse

  • Please don’t shut this down. While I am clearly of the minority opinion, and this site reflects the bitter division of the country, I think communication is almost always of greater value than the lack of it.

    I think your current policy is best. Shut down conversations when they get out of hand, but let them continue as long as possible. It’s your site, you are the “editor,” and all of us should respect your decisions on this.

    In the mean time, it would help if everyone on every side remembered that we _are_ one country, and that those of us who are culturally out here in San Francisco are every bit as much a part of it as those down there in Houston. We all have to learn to live together, or. ultimately, our nation will fail. The fact that we are more-or-less evenly divided means that any failure of our nation would be truly devistating for everyone. This site _should_ reflect our divisions, but it should also reflect the good will and the ability to compromise that are the only things that could ontinue to hold our country together.

    – Donald

  • I haven’t been posting here anonymously– or for that matter, at all– but I do have to agree that, for people with jobs in the industry, it may be necessary to be unidentified in posting to a public forum. Requiring a real-name e-mail address which isn’t posted along with the comment might help; people might be less offensive if they knew that their real address was available even if it’s not posted.
    My only comment on politics will be to mention that, for space exploration, the real issue is the economy. If the economy does well, there’s a good chance of a push for exploration succeeding, while if the economy stays poor, there won’t be much in the way or resources for exploration, public or private. (And, since the two parties have opposite views on which candidate will be better for the economy, this is pretty much a non-partisan position).

  • Al Gore once said that whenever Democrats get elected President they spend their terms cleaning up the mess the prior Republican Administration(s) made of the economy. I would submit that there is a lot of truth to that, and add that ideological decision making is rarely a good idea. If you believe in “good government,” it puts significant constraints on what you can do. If you believe in “little or no government,” they you can feel perfectly okay with throwing a wrench in the works, which also gives you an inherent electoral advantage (you don’t have to behave responsibly). This is the David Stockman theory of economics: make deficits so large that there is no choice but to cut government spending. The problems from our point of view is that, first, it clearly doesn’t work (is the government smaller?), and second, using a bull in the china shop to break the government also breaks government space spending.

    – Donald

  • billg

    Here’s one way that would create a lot of work for you, but would give you full control of the comments that did appear: Have the comments emailed to you, rather than posting directly to the blog. Then, as you saw fit, you could cull and edit the comments and present them on the blog in whatever form you wish.

  • Sam Dinkin

    You could be like the Wikipedia and let anyone who logs on moderate. If someone does not like the post and is offended, they could hide it so no one else could see it any more. Or you could be like AOL and only give that right to people you trust to help you moderate. That would result in some censorship, but I think that would be better than shutting down altogether.