Welcome to my reign as comment czar

Happy 2014 everyone! We have a number of improvements and expansions planned for Savage Minds that we’ll roll out as the year goes forward. Today I’m announcing the first one: we will be revamping the comments policy on our site.

For years we’ve felt that the comments section of the blog were, well, toxic is pretty much the word that comes to mind. We never really had a solution to this problem because different Minds had different senses of how severe the problem was, and because solutions took cycles that most of us didn’t have. This semester, however, I am finally taking the plunge and am dedicating myself full-time to moderating all comments.

My goal is to create a vibrant, civil, inclusive space where genuine discussion about anthropology can occur, and where anyone — professor, grad student, or random passer-by — can participate. Creating this community has always been central to our vision of the blog, but had fallen by the wayside. We’re bringing it back.

In the next week I’ll be announcing a new comment policy. We’re still working out the kinks, but essentially, I will personally be moderating all SM posts. Every commentor will have to register with our site, and all comments will be moderated by me before they are posted. I am also planning to ask for a volunteer/intern to work with me on comment moderation, as well as other aspects of the site. There’ll be endless thanks (and a letter of recommendation) for the person who comes on board to help.

I’ll be posting more of this soon. If you want to provide comments about the new comment policy before it comes into effect, now’s your chance.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

64 thoughts on “Welcome to my reign as comment czar

  1. Question- how quick is it envisioned that comments will be approved? I ask because I fully approve of a comment czar but nothing is more discouraging than to leave a comment and then come back 3 weeks later and it is still in moderation. Not that I would think that will happen here but just a concern I would like to raise with moderation before posting. Waiting to see if it ever gets posted is equally discouraging.

    Also- with moderation you never know if you were moderated or if your comment got ate by the spam trapper.

    Would it possible just to try a strong posting policy with moderation for those that violate the policy? With wordpress you can replace someone’s comment with your own words. I have had to do it once or twice – replaced a comment with the phrase- comment removed because this person was issuing personal attacks. It works surprisingly well as a sign post to others that trolling is not allowed. When trolls see that their posts won’t be tolerated they tend to stop. With pre-moderation they tend to try and post a few times because they think the spam filter got them when really it was just a mean post.

    You have to be tough with this- trolls will complain as soon as you replace their post “hey I didn’t say anything bad, violation of my rights, etc.” but you ignore those posts and they will get the hint, usually.

    Just a suggestion from my personal experience and what worked for me (which may not work here)- feel free to take it or leave it.

  2. To answer your question Doug, I am trying to moderate comments three times a day. Hopefully that will increase to six or more times a day (spread out across a whole 24 hours) as we get additional help. When a comment is in violation of the policy, I email the commentor with the comment and tell them why it is in violation. That way they can resubmit it.

    Sometimes it takes longer for some posts to be moderated. Some are easy and are just clicked through. Others, like ones which are potentially explosive, I read about and think about for a while before I approve them.

    We’ve thought long and hard about differing ways to edit comments from trolls, to ban people outright, ratchet up or down the comment moderation, etc. Trust me — we talked about it. A lot. But in the end we decided this was the best option.

    Once things get settled in the new system, it seems really likely right that we’ll just go back to having the site software auto-moderate. But for the first little bit I want to do a full monitoring, and then ease up.

    For the record, I have approved 4 comments, sent back 2 for modification, and not completely trashed any.

  3. DWP writes “Kerim has said that my grievances have nothing to do with the moderators or the site, but this is a blatant lie and willful distortion.”

    I don’t think DWP is lying about this – in that there is some connection in her mind – but none of the Minds is able to understand the connection. Not only are the grievances themselves often expressed in a confusing and incoherent manner, but they rarely have anything to do with the specific blog post on which she posts them. And – this is important – even if the grievances where coherent and relevant, they would still violate our comments policy which bans personal attacks. Our blog is not the forum for discussing these personal matters.

    This is in stark contrast with many of DWP’s other comments which have been welcome and often thought provoking challenges. This is why we have not banned DWP from this site, as has happened to her elsewhere.

    In the end, the choice is DWP’s. She is welcome to continue to participate on the blog, but only if she stays on topic, and refrains from making personal attacks. We would also ask her to stop harassing bloggers with mass emails and phone calls whenever she doesn’t get her way. No matter what, this blog will never be a forum for her personal grievances, and no amount of yelling will do anything to change that.

  4. I am an adult anthropology undergrad at the University of California and I’ve been reading Savage Minds for about a year. I have never left a comment, but I have always enjoyed reading others’, and I am shocked by this new censorship policy. I have never read any comments that I’d consider “toxic,” and I’d chuckle at this obvious projection of personal insecurities if I weren’t also stunned by the way you are targeting DWP in such a vicious, racist, and condescending manner. I have always found her comments thoughtful, respectful, and relevant. Anthropology is supposed to give us a comfortable space to talk about uncomfortable things, and if anthropologists start silencing each other, where will we be able to go to discuss them?

    Also, your assertions about why and how people utilize this site are arrogant at best. I was never “afraid” to comment here for fear of being “pounded down by people who are further up the hierarchy” – for one, I don’t believe in hierarchies, and for two, I’ve simply enjoyed observing the existing discussions and incorporating them into my own development as a student – but I can confidently say that I am now 100% discouraged and will no longer be visiting this site. Your new “moderation” policy, and your justification of it, exemplifies the type of self-stratification and abuses of power that I’ve turned to anthropology to help dismantle; in fact, I believe it explicitly violates our code of ethics. I’m very disappointed by the fascist turn this blog has taken.

  5. Thanks for pointing me to Brison’s work Rex – I don’t know if anyone else in our working group is familiar, but I wasn’t so I appreciate it.

    I’m just now catching up with this thread, and wanted to add that in catching up I was struck that this thread itself seems a perfect example of the kind of problem that prevents discussions, namely the discussion constantly gets derailed into a discussion about people’s behavior, and pointing fingers, rather than the topic at hand.

    One of the best structural solutions to this I’ve seen for this is again, at MetaFilter, where any discussions about behavior and comment policy are restricted to the separate ‘MetaTalk’ section. So in that model, once the discussion becomes about behavior, moderation policy, or etiquette it doesn’t go away, it doesn’t derail the comments, instead it moves to the talk section where it can continue without interrupting the chance for a sustained dialogue on the topic of the post – and moderators enforce this by simply deleting comments that don’t comply because there IS a space for those comments.

    Structurally it might seem challenging to reproduce here, but it could simply be a partner WP blog, or new page or discussion forum for example, a ‘Savage Talk’ forum – with a mirror post for each new post on the main page, or one for each day, or whatever – and if folks want to have a 50 comment long discussion about someone’s comment being inappropriate, they can do it there.

    Something to think about for the future.

  6. You keep insisting I have been banned from other sites but I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t even post anywhere else as Discuss White Privilege.

    You are really being unethical and distorting the truth to twist some people being annoyed with me because I spoke up about abuse they don’t want to take a stand against though the site enabled/enables it, into I abuse people on every website I visit and frequently am banned. Please, stop distorting the truth.

    How about you acknowledge the multiple guest bloggers and sites who haven’t been angered by my speaking out and even have asked me to guest blog?

    Ok, we all get it, a bunch of people hate me for speaking up. And others do not. Imagine that.

  7. Michael, there is a lot written about this, at least in the Pacific (Dangerous Words, Disentangling: Conflict Discourse in Pacific Societies, Disorderly Discourse). There’s also a lot of discussion about how ‘clans’ are made through talk (What Gifts Engender, Ku Waru) but those are pretty specialized.

    My concern with running a metatalk option (beyond implementing it) is that many people would feel that we’d created it to silence them in an important place and shunt them off into an unimportant one, which wouldn’t really satisfy them. I think they’d be right: we’d be blackholing them, basically. That’s why we’re taking the much more difficult (but ultimately more rewarding) path of trying to get the comments here back on track.

    I’ve allowed the comments here to run on at length about our negative personal qualities — including posting Amanda’s claims that we have a ‘censorship policy’ which, if we did, would not have appeared — because this thread is about the shared history we and our commentors have. Being off-topic IS the topic!

  8. Amanda writes: “I am shocked by this new censorship policy. I have never read any comments that I’d consider “toxic,”

    That is because we have always had a comments policy and these comments have been censored before you read them. Rex was deliberately provocative in titling this post, but the reality is that very little will change for most readers. The main change will be greater consistency across the site in enforcing long-standing policies.

    We have always erred on the side of greater dialog and we will continue to do so. In fact, many other sites have banished comments altogether or relegated them to a separate forum, as suggested above. We would like to avoid doing either as we value the discussions found on this site.

    Another reason for the change is to ensure that guest bloggers are not in the position of having to read the unedited comments or having to decide how to apply a policy they are unfamiliar with. We will do that for them – just as we have been doing for all of you.

  9. Contrary to Discuss White Privilege, I do not believe Rex has been rude in his responses, and I’m quite happy to comply with the idea of either following the comments policy or leaving the comments alone.

    Seeing the comments from and about Discuss White Privilege has made me question somewhat the idea of an unmoderated blog. I find myself agreeing with this:

    I for one do not think that free publication of dozens (hundreds?) of 2000-word comments on how racist Rex is and how Savage Minds systematically promotes privilege makes up for the dozens (hundreds?) of lost opportunities to promote various anthropologists’ research and widen the range of voices and perspectives on this site.

    And I can see that some level of moderation is clearly necessary. Quite honestly, I’d have unsheathed the banhammer long before this point.

    I have never claimed that you have called me ‘evil’, as anyone who has read this post can see. In fact, this is something that AJ West, who has also participated in this discussion, has called me (or my ideas).

    That’s not quite true. I said that a restrictive comments policy probably won’t lead to a community, and compared the idea that restrictive moderation of comments would reduce negativity to the idea that Stalinist government reduces instances of petty theft. Perhaps it would have wider repercussions than simply reducing negativity. I don’t think it’s evil to be restrictive, and if you get what you want out of it, then good for you. Perhaps the site would be more to your liking, and of course it’s up to you to decide what the site should ideally be like. I just don’t think that the main problem with the comments here is the supposed toxicity of the arena, and I don’t think additional moderation will cause more people from more diverse backgrounds to compose more productive comments.

  10. I am inclined to agree with Al that moderation will not, in and of itself, cause more people from more diverse backgrounds to compose more productive comments. My online experience in numerous email lists, forums, etc., suggests that effort expended to exclude the obnoxious is not sufficient to overcome what appears to be a universal process, conversations becoming dominated by a handful of regulars with views that harden over time. Once this has happened, excluding the obnoxious only reduces participation. That is why, as I have mentioned before, the efforts of the Savage Minds bloggers to introduce new themes and invite new bloggers to contribute are so important. But even they have only slowed the tendency described above. I wonder if, when inviting new bloggers to blog, it might also be possible to invite others, not already contributors or commenters, to add the first responses. Something along the lines of the old *CA comments solicited for articles published in Current Anthropology.

  11. I know this may now be considered an “old post,” but I wanted to second John’s point about inviting occasional responses to invited blog posts. This could be a cool way to jumpstart a conversation into a focus on some of the themes of the posts themselves. The responses need not be put up all at once, right away, but might be staggered as an additional way to maintain and expand the discussions.

    As for the issues of race and gender discrimination, I think the Minds take the issue seriously and I am glad that there are people in their audience here who will work to keep these issues up towards the front of our collective minds. I hope that the proof of both of these will be seen in the working out of the new moderation system/comment policy and that the Minds will be willing to tweak it if/when it needs to be re-evaluated.

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