Comments online are hard. Moderating online conversations is hard. At the same time having that potential for interaction, for connection with other people, feels worth doing hard work for.
So how should comments work on this website?
When someone submits a comment on my website I will do my best to follow this process:
- Read and try to understand the comment.
- If I think I’m not understanding the comment then I’ll try to reach out to the commenter for clarity.
- If I think I understand but feel like the comment would hurt further communication on the page/site, then I’ll try to reach out to the commenter to work out a better way to say whatever it is.
- If I think I understand and don’t feel like the comment is adding anything to the conversation (e.g. “First!”, or “Me too!”), then I might feel good – it’s nice to be appreciated – but I probably won’t post it.
- If I think I understand and the comment is just negative without substance (e.g. “If you think this you’re an idiot”), then I might reach out to the commenter and see if I can get a clearer picture of what the disagreement is.
- Once the content of the comment has been worked out, I’ll post the comment along with a link to the version of the page that received the comment. I might also comment in response, or update the page itself.
If there’s no contact info, that’s fine: I think it’s important people be able to post anonymously. It just means that if I don’t understand I have a more limited set of tools for getting clarity.
Why do it this way?
Communication is hard. I’d like for the comments to be a place where good quality communication happens.
I think that there are a lot of things that can prevent good communication (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Discomfort at the thought of being misunderstood.
- Discomfort at the thought of your words resulting in real-world repercussions.
- Lack of knowledge of how to express your ideas. Getting your ideas across to people who may not have the same underlying beliefs/assumptions as you is a skill that must be learned.
- Lack of respect. You’ve got to think about other people, because communication takes two (or more).
- Assumptions. We often assume we understand what someone else intended/thought/felt/did. We often are wrong.
By slowing the process down a bit, allowing anonymity (but not encouraging it), adding a mediator (me!), and limiting comments to those that contribute something meaningful, I think we can move towards better communication, and more productive conversations. It’s not going to be perfect, but I think it can be good.
It might be nice to use a third-party tool to handle comments. I could just push people over to github (where this is hosted) to chat via issues or something like that, though that would require everyone commenting have a github login. I also looked at disqus, which seems to be a pretty popular choice across blogs on various platforms. Disqus does have lots of interesting features, like email moderation and whatnot, but I’m still not sure I like it, even though it would be much easier to implement than anything I try to make.
The moderation options that existing services (like disqus) provide are things like banning folks, blocking specific messages, etc. The interface for people commenting is designed to make it quick and easy to comment, and feel a little like they’re built to help websites with “engagement”. I’m not sure that those are the tools I want to have at hand for comments on my website.
I very rarely see a comments section that I feel good about reading, and I don’t know that I can make it happen here, but I’d like to have the greatest flexibility in trying to make it happen. The plan is that each comment comes in, I can look at it, check with the author if I have any questions about what they’ve written, and add it to the website if I feel like it’s actually contributing to a conversation. I can offer edits to what people have written to help with tone or clarity.
So, how should I have people submit comments? I think a standard form would be ideal. Should I write my own or just use a google form? Using something pre-built would be easier – I’m a little nervous about getting some of the details about the server right – but the UX for a built-in form seems like it could be a lot better.
Let’s not let the perfect delay the good: I should start with a google form and switch to something custom if it becomes necessary.