Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A guide on how to handle comments (for blog owners)

with 7 comments

A few thoughts on what to do and not to do with comments:

  1. Do not reply to each and every comment. The result is almost invariably low content and low quality, something better left unwritten. Reply when there is an actual reason, e.g. to clarify a misunderstanding, dispute an issue, acknowledge an error, … Thank-you replies should be limited to those comments that have truly brought value. (Other rules apply if an off-blog relationship to the commenter is present.)

    Yes, there are blogging experts who claim the exact opposite. Their idea is to maximize “followers” by making everyone feel welcome (or similar). This idea is flawed in several regards, most notably that maximizing followers should not be the goal for the typical blogger, but also that quality usually beats quantity and that those readers who actually contribute with insightful comments are not impressed by low-value replies.

  2. Allow for a threaded discussion. Doing so makes it easier to keep an eye on who has said what to whom on what sub-topic. The WordPress default depth of three is well chosen between the wish for good threading and the need to avoid comments that are just a few words per line; and is also a good choice for minimizing confusion—too shallow and too deep threads can both be very confusing when several parties discuss. If you deviate from three, four is likely the second best choice.

  3. Use the “reply” function. Do not, absolute not, add your answer to the original comment. Doing so makes it hard to keep a threaded discussion going, more or less excludes any third party in advance, and screws up the email notifications about new comments.

    If the addition is partial or interspersed in the original comment, there is high risk that other readers will be confused as to who said what. Note that a change in e.g. color, bolding, or similar, will not always be clear to other readers and will not appear at all in the email notifications.

    Do not answer using a “non-reply” comment, for the same reasons as why threading should be enabled.

  4. Think twice about editing others comments at all. If you do, make it very clear what you have changed and why you did so. Be particularly vary of “helpful” language improvements. Not only is there a risk that the change accidentally distorts the original intention, but there is also a great many opinions on what is considered correct/better. If the comment is hard for third-parties to understand, but you feel that you have understood it, then simply write a reply with a paraphrase and inquire whether you are correct.

    Think thrice before deleting selective parts of a comment—and if you do delete make very, very certain that the contents are not distorted. (Valid partial deletions can occur e.g. when a comment contains severe rudeness towards another commenter, but also makes a good point or gives a good argument along the way.)

    There is a special circle in Hell reserved for those who deliberately alter the meaning of someone elses comments.

  5. Err on the side of too little censorship.

    This topic has been discussed in many other of my posts (search for e.g. “censorship”.) As to date, I have myself kept back a whole of two (non-spam) comments in almost a year of blogging—both of a kind that there would have been nothing left if I had tried to selectively delete parts of them (cf. above). 210 have been published.

A very good example of how not to do it can be found at [1]e (no threading, low value replies, replies in the comments, censoring of dissenters). Another example is [2]e (partial in-comment replies and confusing changes to comments in bold).


Addendum:

As I have observed time and again after writing this post, there is another very important rule:

If a blog owner edits one of his own comments (or, in some cases, the original post), he should do so in a manner that does not alter the meaning, extend or shorten the text, or otherwise make changes that moves the comment away from its original state in a non-trivial manner. (Correcting typos and grammar errors, replacing an unfair slur written in heated moment, and similar changes are usually not a problem.) In particular, to deliberately publish a comment in a half-done state (as an equivalent to a save-operation in an editor) and then continue editing, borders on the inexcusable—use an external editor for such purposes.

The reason is that other commenters may read and answer to the original email notification (even editing offline or using a “reply by mail” mechanism), and changes can cause considerable extra work for them, make the reply unnecessary, cause them to give a reply that does not address all relevant aspects or is confusing to other readers, or similar. This applies even more strongly, and for similar reasons of consistency, to comments that have already received replies from others.

A better way is to add a new comment with a clarification or retraction. This way, the original email notification remains relevant and additional notifications are (automatically) issued for the new comments.


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Written by michaeleriksson

January 6, 2011 at 12:37 am

7 Responses

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  1. I personally don’t like “threaded” because because it can be confusing to read but I do think there is value in having each comment clearly labelled with a number so if someone wants to answer a point made in a particular one it is easy to see what is being refereed to by prefacing the comment with something like “#21” 0r “@21” Blah said this works better than threaded comemnts if you want to answer several points made by different commentators.
    I also disagree with what you are suggesting about the “small talk” and trivialities they are as important in a written conversation as they are in a verbal one because they establish and maintain relationships.

    I totally agree with what you say about the site owner editing the comments of others and I do it very seldom (not counting fixing mistakes by request)because it simply pisses people off and if you want a good argument what you are doing by excessive editing is cutting of you nose to spite your face. I do how ever fix obvious typos which is generality much appreciated by my regulars.
    I think that when it comes to censorship that what ever words or terms you want to “ban” should be made absolutely clear on your commenting rules page (which everyone should have) I make it clear that as blog owner the final say on what is or isn’t OK is my personal discretion because it is a mistake to have a legalistic set of rules that some bush lawyer types will try to argue about.
    There are few shortcomings with the WP commenting system but it is that it doesn’t have the same “buttons” for formatting comemnts that it has for composing posts, It would be nice just to have an easy way to add bold italics or hyper-links to a comment and a review function would be nice too because having to remember and get right all of the HTML prompts is a pain

    Iain Hall

    January 6, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    • In the end, there is always a matter of taste and personal preference. The “threaded issue” could, however, be easily resolved but for one of the main problems with WordPress: They put the blog owner and not the reader in charge of what functionality is present, how it is presented, etc. Here, e.g., the comments should be stored in a threaded manner and the user should decide what depth of threading he prefers in the display of the comments (including the option of a depth of one = no threading).

      A detail on censorship: Censorship of individual words (e.g. the “f-word”) is not a major issue in my experience. The main problem is when comments are withheld for dissenting with the blog owners opinions, including those that are deemed to be racist/sexist/whatnot on unfair grounds.

      michaeleriksson

      January 7, 2011 at 1:16 am

  2. I agree with you about blog owners who selectively moderate their commentators to bias the threads. It is a despicable practice that should be roundly denounced at every opportunity.

    Iain Hall

    January 8, 2011 at 1:17 am

  3. This is a very well written column. Some excellent points (particularly #4). My only disagreement would be on #1. I like the feeling of some sort of acknowledgement reply. If I have bothered to write something to someone, I feel like a thank you or some form of reply is appropriate.

    Keith Spillett

    January 15, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    • Here you put me in a bit of a bind: On the one hand, this is one of the types of comments that I would normally have left unanswered. On the other hand, if I do so, I (potentially) leave you feeling let down as described in the very comment I would not answer…

      Why no answer? Because there is no factual issue to debate: The point you bring is perfectly valid and describes a perfectly valid personal point of view. At the same time, it is just a matter of preference (which applies equally to my own take on this sub-issue) and any arguments back-and-forth would ultimately just be expressions of personal preference without any hope of finding an “absolute truth”. In the main, the important thing would be for other readers to have access to the two sides of issue—which is already achieved simply by letting your comment through.

      (To be more specific concerning the difference in preference: I am much more interested in issues than in people. To my continual annoyance, most other people are the other way around. In addition, different preferences play in depending on what the target audience is, what goals are persued by blogging, and similar. Cf. above and the linked-to earlier post.)

      michaeleriksson

      January 15, 2011 at 9:43 pm

      • I can see your point about the bind. Now that I understand better your position on this, feel free to not respond to anything I write or respond if you feel it works within the framework you described.

        I’m afraid I fall well within the category of folks who are more interested in people than issues. I tend to find the shades of grey in people’s opinions to be more interesting then the absolute truth of the situation. It makes me a bit of a sophist, but it’s also what I find really interesting in life. I think your desire to find an absolute truth on any level is an admirable thing.

        Thanks for taking time to respond (even if it was against your better judgement!)

        Keith Spillett

        January 15, 2011 at 9:54 pm

      • That, OTOH, is a comment that I normally would answer :-) The reason being that I see a danger of some miscommunication.

        Specifically, I did not wish to differ between absolute truths and shades of gray—more-or-less everything has at least some shading and most issues have quite a lot of it. My intent was more on the process of coming closer to the truth (be it absolute or shaded), to gain additional insight for oneself, to convince the readers of some aspect, and similar. This in opposition to subjective statements of personal preference (de gustibus non est disputandum) and other cases where the shades far outweigh the truth, which are not only improductive to argue about, but also often lead to school-yard situations.

        As an aside, I should probably have added a smiley to the discussion about the bind.

        michaeleriksson

        January 16, 2011 at 8:38 am


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