“Don’t be a dick” - the golden rule of news website comment threads

 by Martin Belam, 1 September 2011

Someone made a point in a Guardian comment thread the other day that our community standards were a bit over-long. I happen to think that if you take most community management guidelines or blogging and commenting guidelines for staff, they basically boil down to “Don’t be a dick”.

In fact, I think there is quite a simple flow chart to follow if you find yourself on the wrong end of a moderation decision on a news website.

First, ask yourself, “Was I being a bit of a dick?”.

I’d define dick-ish behaviour on a news site as including, but not restricted too: personal attacks, using “amusing” clichés like EUSSR and Tony Bliar, making the same off-topic point day after day, being rude and grumpy and unwelcoming to newcomers, mocking other people’s spelling, bullying and hectoring staff and journalists appearing in the comment threads, asking “is this news?” on a story you are not interested in and which nobody forced you to read, hate speech, “ironic” hate speech, anything that might now or in the future potentially land the publisher in legal hot water, and any comment which includes the phrase “I don’t suppose the moderators will publish this but...”

If the answer is yes, you think on reflection that you were being a bit of a dick which is why you got moderated, then, fair play to all, and let’s move on.

If on the other hand, you don’t think you were being a dick, there is a secondary question.

When you got moderated, did you:

A) Shrug your shoulders and think, “Oh well, it was just a comment on a news website”

Or did you

B) Flounce back onto the comment thread demanding to know why your comment has been removed? Accuse the publisher of censoring you or restricting your freedom of speech? Insist you should be given a personal reply from the moderation team which will cost a business time and money, even though you registered and left a comment on their site for free? Demand an inalienable right to publish whatever you want on someone else’s website, even though they are a known legal entity that can be sued, and you are signed in with a pseudo-anonymous nickname and are using an edgy avatar image which you don’t actually own the picture re-use rights for?

If the answer is ‘A’, then great, you seem to be a well-balanced individual who found being moderated a bit annoying but not the end of the world

If, on the other hand, the answer is ‘B’, then I’m afraid I have to tell you that you are, frankly, coming across as a bit of a dick.

And I think we’ve established that this is against the guidelines...

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Excellent and absolutely spot on.

Are you a moderator or administrator of a commercial blog & comment site? Do you regularly get complaints from your users about arbitrary and unfair moderation? Are those complaints justified? Are you, in fact, being a dick about it?

I think there is a simple flowchart to establish whether or not you are in fact getting your moderation policy wrong.

First, ask yourself "does our business model depend upon persuading thousands of users to come to our site, view our advertising, and lay a claim to being among the best online communities in the world?"

Does your employer regularly harvest your comments for free newspaper content, marketing value and commissioning ideas?

If so, do you regularly remind yourself that without readers and commenters you are out of a job?

Do you regularly remind yourself that many of your customers devote considerable time, thought and emotional energy to the comments they make, and care passionately about what they say, and are likely to be genuinely hurt and upset when they are moderated, put into pre-moderation or banned?

If not, do you ever find yourself thinking you are doing your customers a favour by allowing them to come to your site, increase your hit counts, provide you with free content and keep you in cushy employment?

If so, you're being a bit of a dick.

If you do remember to value the customers who keep you in a job, next ask yourself about your community guidelines and how they are enforced.

If you are asking your customers to keep to house rules, ask yourself if those house rules are applied consistently and fairly? Are you regularly getting complaints that people are being moderated despite having kept to the house rules? If so, have you considered the possibility that your house rules are *not* always applied consistently and fairly? Do you, for example, apply different standards according to the political perspective expressed? Is it possible that some comments are being moderated not because they breach guidelines, but because the individual moderator or the editorial team just don't like what they say?

Do you acknowledge that moderation decisions are difficult judgement calls and therefore your moderators will, from time to time, make the wrong decision? And if so, are you approachable, conciliatory and willing to listen? If your staff are busy and over-stretched, do you make every effort to ensure that this cannot be mistaken for arrogance, conceit and indifference to your customers?

If you have considered all of the above, humbly recognised both sides of the issue and done your best to make sure that your customers feel valued, respected and included in your community, then you have done a good job.

If you arrogantly assume that you and your colleagues are always in the right and your customers are often in the wrong, then chances are you're coming across as a bit of a dick.

And I think we've establshed that is against the guidelines.

What about puns involving footballers names?

using “amusing” clichés like EUSSR and Tony Bliar

True. Every time I see ZaNuLiarBore or ConDemNation I die a little inside.

This morning, someone said how much they despised socialism even when they were at uni. I got modded for suggesting they must have been a right little charmer and asking if they wore a tweed jacket at the time. I don't think I was "being a dick" to any unjustified extent.

My reaction was to laugh like a drain. I suppose the man was a bit sensitive about his sartorial choices and reported me for abuse. :-)

Give back Phil!
He's not a dick. He's a superhero.

Neil censor-shipperly

Anthony banned a bore

That is a vanden borre pun, I can tell you are impressed.

Sorry, Martin, but this is meaningless rubbish (a dick is what Martin says is a dick), very disappointing given your usual standards. 2 particular objections:

1. You expect people to essentially roll over and die for moderators, whereas moderation and interesting issues are always a serious topic of concern.

2. Repeated cliches happen to be a powerful political tool, particularly for destroying reputations which should be destroyed. Bliar is a very good example of that.

Brilliant, Ally. You should post that on waddya.

Kiz makes an excellent point.

Excellent AllyF :-)

One point I'd pick up on specifically - "Do you acknowledge that moderation decisions are difficult judgement calls and therefore your moderators will, from time to time, make the wrong decision?". Absolutely. But, you have to remember that from the other end of the telescope, most people seem think that they are an instance of being treated unfairly when they have been moderated. Way back in the day I used to sit next to the community team at the BBC, and they did at the time have a policy of entering into personal correspondence with users and sending an explanation for which bit of the "house rules" had been breached if people appealed against moderation. It was an absolute time sink for the team, and meant they couldn't get engaged with doing the good stuff about online news communities, which I should add, if you read this one post in isolation, you might not realise I absolutely love and enjoy being part of. I've been doing online community stuff for years - the bit where news organisations meet audiences meet technology is my fascination.

Hi Martin

Not every comment deleted by Graun mods deserves modding.

Someone posts some crap. Their crap deserves modding but it's on a busy thread so it will stay up for some time, and might escape modding completely.

Someone else comes along and debunks the crap. Their debunk is a decent comment.

If the original crap post goes, the decent debunk post often goes too.

And this is a significant problem where the original crap post is a repetition of some myth circulating in the blogosphere. The decent debunk really needed to stay up.

Some reaction to this post on Twitter - (i really should get one of those Twitter-trackbacky widget things shouldn't I?)

@Popjustice: "I have been toying with using that exact phrase for the Popjustice forums."

@olivierthereaux: "Not just for news websites… RT @currybet: “Don’t be a dick” - the golden rule of news website comment threads"

@MissCay: "@currybet Ha! 'Don't be a dick' is the first thing I advise students/organisations on when I speak to them about social media."

@dankerins: "Ever posted a comment on a news site? Then you need to read this: http://www.currybet.net/cbet_blog/2011/09/news-websites-comments-golden-rule.php via @currybet"

@Zaski: "@currybet Good post, it's very true. It seems the anonymous vale the internet brings breeds 'dicky' comments. YouTube is a prime example."

@Sarah_Booker: "@currybet I am very tempted to post a link to your comment blog on a site I used to moderate where the trolls are being 'dicks'"

@StephenDGardner: "Absolutely spot on. RT @suellewellyn: Golden rule of news website comments? "Don't be a dick" via @currybet http://bit.ly/qB8sCx"

@lakey: "In one... RT @currybet: “Don’t be a dick” - the golden rule of news website comment threads http://bit.ly/nydWH7"

@thebiscuitninja: "It's quite simple.. just don't be a dick. Nice post from @currybet on website comment threads http://www.currybet.net/cbet_blog/2011/09/news-websites-comments-golden-rule.php"

I read this and thought, hmmm good point. Then I read Ally's reply and though, hmmm this guy is right too.

When I moderate, I err very much on the side of leaving things up if I can. So house rules are not always evenly applied - I normally give someone a few chances to settle in and make friends and have reasons to be less of a dick.

But eventually, if they are being consistently abusive and dickish and making the board a less pleasant place for other people, I will start to give warnings, delete posts and possibly end up banning them.

I think if I applied the rules in a way that was obviously consistent that I would have to come down on things that I consider are fine to be left. I aim more for fairness than absolute consistency, and I think "don't be a dick" gets quite close to how I judge what is fair. I don't think much thought or care goes into the kind of dickish posts Martin is talking about.

I agree though that I make mistakes, and I don't mind explaining decisions or accepting publicly that I made the wrong call. But on a busier board, that would become unsustainable.

"But, you have to remember that from the other end of the telescope, most people seem think that they are an instance of being treated unfairly when they have been moderated."

Oh yes. What we have to remember is that most people *are* dicks ;-)

Hi Martin

I think the Graun mods are taking flak for a side effect of reactive moderation.

Regardless of whether or not a post should be modded, many posters react to a post they don't like by replying to it. Some react to a post they don't like by using the Abuse button.

And this is naturally going to result in a lot of problem posts not being modded and some decent posts being modded. Because the Abuse button box allows the problem to be framed by the person reporting Abuse, and the moderator reading the text may be persuaded by work pressures to play safe and just zap the post.

So some of the most shouty opinionated people grab a big say in which posts the mods zap. Which is perhaps why so many hard right troll crap survives and harmless puns get zapped.

Living with this for individual comment moderation is one thing. But it also seems affect whether people get banned. And so trolls survive. But harmless punsters get banned for being off topic or insufficiently respectful.

So, hypothetically, if somebody has received a banning for puns. And then subsequent banning for registering again under a new user name even though they avoid the sport section entirely... What are the chances that they can get their original username back if they promise to be super careful and hardly pun again at all and never in the sports section?

Why is Bitey allowed to keep coming back? We all know it's him after a couple of posts, it's clearly against the rules, but he is allowed to blatently get away with it?

Just wondered like.good article btw MBellam. :)

Sorry, but as far as CIF goes, this just does not reflect my experience. Moderation on CIF is terrible. I am a moderator on another site and I understand the need for it (and the fact that you get criticism for it), but it is all over the place on CIF. Wildly uneven, some moderators zap you for the most innocuous remarks whilst others are reasonable and tolerant and others again will leave racist (at least "dog-whistle") racist, homophobic and sexist gibes up.

And the sensitivity to any questioning of moderation is baffling. Any reasonable person is going to accept the need for moderation and any reasonable person is going to understand that it will be impossible to achieve complete consistency and satisfy everyone. But questioning moderating decisions is not tantamount to revolution. And if it is thought to be off topic then there should be a place for it.

When the Natalie Hanman took over we were asked what we wanted to see done differently, many, many, long time posters raised the issue of moderation but it was completely ignored in favour of mostly minor cosmetic changes.

I honestly do not understand why the moderation on CIF is so poor. The very least that we should expect is some level of consistency. And I am afraid that we do not currently have that.

Got this back earlier this week.

It's clear, from your email, that you were attempting to make a joke when you suggested the death penalty for Sam Tomkins. However, it came across on the thread as offensive and a little aggressive.

All I wrote was "I am not normally in favour of capital punishment but in the case of Sam Tomkins..."
And yet the serious right wing bile about immigrants, the disabled, survives, even when reported. Nothing wrong with the standards as written, it's the way the are (mis)understood.

Interesting blog and comments by everyone. But re the Graun, there clearly is a problem with moderation policy and inconsistencies. A month or so ago, there was a comment which was highlighted in the bar as one of the posts of the day, then you clicked on it and it had been moderated ;-)

tx, I recently got a series of posts deleted for pointing out that bitey, a much banned poster with a history of unpleasant stalking of a female poster, had posted another barely veiled threat to do her harm in the real world (posting under an assumed name).

My posts were deleted but the post with the threat was allowed to stand.

Utterly, utterly, baffling.

tx, I recently got a series of posts deleted for pointing out that bitey, a much banned poster with a history of unpleasant stalking of a female poster, had posted another barely veiled threat to do her harm in the real world (posting under an assumed name).

My posts were deleted but the post with the threat was allowed to stand.

Utterly, utterly, baffling.


But don't you think that a large number of people get in touch with news sites all over the world saying "All I wrote"? Sucking up masses of resources which could be avoided if, instead, you'd just shrugged your shoulders and said "Oh well, it was only a comment on a website"?

Nothing about the resources involved in deleting obvious jokes, all the while ignoring the bile that passes for intelligent (their word, not mine) comment? It's not about this joke, it's about the inconsistency. If the moderators weren't so keen on deleting (in other threads) comments made by what might be seen as stereotypical Guardian readers, some of whom may actually buy the paper, thereby paying some peoples' wages, whilst ignoring the paywall dodgers, I wouldn't have minded. Still, it's all about new custom these days, isn't it?

Grunch - Agree broadly with the post and only ever shrug shoulders but have been privately stupefied many times by how arbitrarily the mod laws seem to be applied: for instance allowing people clearly opposed to the paper and it's readership's views a very wide wriggle room for outrageous falsehood while bringing down the mod hammer on anything vaguely contentious from those who sound like they may actually buy the paper. That said I'd rather The Guardian spend time and resources on it's reporting rather than more e-cops and forum policy.

Everyone here seems very familiar with Comment is Free. I am not sure that the Guardian should make that assumption when commissioning writers, especially if the writer in question plans to speak about a sensitive personal subject.

I have merely been a reader of the Guardian newspaper for thirty years. I did not know anything about the Guardian web site or the repuation of the bloggers on Comment is Free when the Guardian asked me to write a reply article about mental illness I did so and I was open about my experiences. I did not expect Guardian online readers to be so rude, not just about me but about other people with mental health problems.

The Guardian did accept my suggestion that the word "disability" be included alongside "race, religion and sexuality" in the section on hate speak in the Guardian's moderation rules. I count that as a victory.

I would like to see one more concession. The Guardian should brief vulnerable contritors beforehand to make sure they can see the rumbustious nature of the Comment is Free Audience.

People with disabilities generally do not have media minders. They tend to trust the Guardian on account of its long-standing liberal traditions but some of these people will have no knowledge of the Guardian web site. Internet access is a luxury for many people on benefits.

Nonetheless the Guardian seems to want to use contributors with disabilities. I do not claim to have a monopoly of good ideas but I do think that a brief warning about likely abuse at the commissioning stage would be valuable.

Sorry for afterthought but also some of the best, most active and productive posters have been put on permanent pre-mod and hence discouraged from continuing to post. While personal message is unworkable as a general policy surely it can't hurt for the people who put the most time in to trying to achieve a constructive community so they at least have an idea WTF is up. A progressive paper where all of it's most frequent and articulate BTL commentators are conservative is a possible result and while this wouldn't hurt the quality of the paper's output it is somewhat perverse.

I should point out, by the way, that I have myself been very vexed by commenting policies on news website, but in my case, it has always been when the Daily Mail has taken something I've submitted, rejigged it a bit to change the meaning, and then stuck my name against it

I think the moderators are all lovely, intelligent, goodlooking people*

*they are reading this you know.

MCMP, an Anthony Vanden Borre pun, congrats.

Some more reaction from the Twitterverse...

@IanDouglas: "“Don’t be a dick” - the golden rule of news website comment threads http://bit.ly/pldORh by @currybet. Right bang spot on."

@jonhew: "@currybet's post on commenting reminds me of "Use Best Judgement" policy @megpickard mentions http://bit.ly/n02Zrv"

@amyjobr: "Like. I want to adopt for our terms.RT @currybet “Don’t be a dick” - the golden rule of news website comment threads http://www.currybet.net/cbet_blog/2011/09/news-websites-comments-golden-rule.php"

hi martin,,with regard to your dayjob much of the user dissatisfaction can be traced to friday night moderations in particular. the most puzzling and obtuse de;etions seem to me to have a consistent friday night sat morning cycle.
i have observed this since the first days of waddya.

cant post more,,lost my glasses,,typing hurts my eyes

Hehe, great post, Ally.

Martin1984 also makes some excellent points.

Perhaps it is just because I notice the loss more, but it seems as though the Guardian is very quick to ban posters who submit intelligent, well-written and well-thought-out posts attacking the editorial position from the left but very slow to get after those attacking from the right.

Obviously I myself am failing the test of intelligent, well-written and/or well-thought-out as I'm not banned (yet). ;-)

MartinBelam, I've actually enjoyed your contributions on Cif and you have my sympathy as I too work in IT and it takes frigging ages to get any changes approved due to corporate bureaucracy; no doubt the Graun is as guilty as any other damn company I've worked for. Well done getting rid of Pluck and finally the horrendous character encoding bug.

I post as leopold1904 on Graun. Can't say I'm bothered overmuch by the Graun mods or their rules except for their puzzling insistence on banning pranksters like Phil - who is not just entertaining but like the best jokers makes good points along the way. And yet some seriously nasty shites out there are allowed to live long as posters.

Um - have run out of things to say. Keep up good work and so forth. I suppose. Compared to the Scottish cyberworld Cif is a pastoral symphony.

"I honestly do not understand why the moderation on CIF is so poor."

And yet, I'd hazard a guess that you go back to it again and again. Serious question: Why?

Hi Martin,

Obviously a slightly tongue-in-cheek (and amusing) post. I know some of the pain of moderating online comments. Thankfully, we get slightly less than 15,000 a day.

You flag up lots of stuff that is common among commenters that is a pain in the arse, and doesn't contribute to good conversation.

But you also say a couple of times that people whose comments are moderated, even when they haven't "been a dick", should just "shrug their shoulders and think 'oh well, it was only a comment on a news site'".

I agree that they shouldn't go barmy or be a dick at moderators for deleting a comment, or not providing a satisfactory reason for doing so, but to say it's "only" a comment on a news site, and to expect people to shrug their shoulders and forget about it, it suggests that you don't expect them to care about it.

The Guardian puts a lot of stock into online communities and commenters, employing full time staff to engage with them and mining the comments for content, and if the site really takes it seriously and think it's a worthwhile arena, wouldn't you like your community members to do so too?

More reaction from amongst the Twitterati:

@francoisnel: "Web Life Skills 101> “Don’t be a dick” - the golden rule of news website comment threads http://www.currybet.net/cbet_blog/2011/09/news-websites-comments-golden-rule.php via @currybet"

@euonymblog: "I love @currybet : don't be a dick http://ow.ly/1wx7Lb"

@Paul0Evans1: "The blog-commenter's golden rule from @currybet http://www.currybet.net/cbet_blog/2011/09/news-websites-comments-golden-rule.php There is, however, lots of simple things The Guardian could do better."

I replied: "@Paul0Evans1 nothing is *ever* simple with 3m users watching :-)"

@Paul0Evans1"@currybet no. But Guardian's attitude to comments comes from the same place its editorial policy comes from - pandering to the pseudo-left."

@Paul0Evans1: "@currybet when a paper keeps printing columns from Seumus Milne & Simon Jenkins, the comments thread will always be a mess."

"And yet, I'd hazard a guess that you go back to it again and again. Serious question: Why?"

Because the moderation is only one element of the site. A very bad one, IMO but it doesn't define it. The single most important thing is the other posters.

But the range of topics under discussion and the fact that it is a busy site with lots of contributions, are also important.

I stuck with another site for years where the moderation was draconion and far from fair and consistent because I liked talking to many of the other people who posted there. I did give up on it eventually, and the moderation might drive me away from CIF at some point, as might the flocks of rabid right wingers who circle the site these days. But at the moment there is still enough good stuff and enough other posters with things to say that I am interested in for me to stick with it, despite the moderation.

"Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely"

I think moderators are sometimes viewed in this light.

Moderators will always get a hard time because of the power they wield and seldom get any praise unless there is broad agreement from the community that someone is 'being a dick', aka unpopular. Most of the time 'the community' doesn't notice or care if someone breaks the guidelines and therefore the lonely moderator suffers the full wrath of the scorned commenter.

Moderators are not disimilar to traffic wardens, bloody annoying, but also right - which of course makes them much more infuriating. As does anything where we know we've been caught doing something we already knew we shouldn't.

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