A guide on how to handle comments (for blog owners)
A few thoughts on what to do and not to do with comments:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 e (no threading, low value replies, replies in the comments, censoring of dissenters). Another example is e (partial in-comment replies and confusing changes to comments in bold).
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.