Request for Comments on Comments

We Minds wanted to take a pause for a bit and request some feedback from readers about a quandry we’ve been facing lately, so please read this and leave some comments below, or email us or me personally We are concerned that the comments sections of our posts have changed in ways that we are not entirely comfortable with. The two big issues as we see it are 1) churlishness and 2) kudzu.

The issue of churlishness raises its head in posts that tackle political issues, particularly HTS and race. Its not surprising really — churlishness is a regular feature of the blogosphere these days, and of course some of this wider attitude will begin seeping into Savage Minds, and of course we understand that many of the topics that we discuss mean a lot to people, and thus evoke strong emotions. However, please remember that we imagine this blog to be the bar at the academic conference — a place of convivial companionship. And, as people who have been blogging for a decade (!) we remember a more cordial time in the blogosphere, and we are looking to get back to that day. In sum, we think there are lots of topics that reasonable people can disagree on, and we’d like to make sure that SM stays a place where that kind of measured disagreement can occur, both out of anthropological and academic impulses to relativism, tolerance, and civility.

The second issue is what we’ve come to call kudzu: the spread of comment threads from a small number of commenters that are dozens of entries in length and thousands of words long. We are glad to have a such a lively community and we appreciate the time that people take to read and think about our posts, however, we fear kudzu for two reasons.

First, kudzu has a chilling effect on conversation, and keeps a wide range of people from participating in the comments. Sure, its technically true that people can still log on and leave comments on threads no matter who has been talking. But in practice it turns people off — and the goal of SM is to turn people on.

Second, the goal if SM is to turn people on — one of the reasons that we started the site was to promote discussion of anthropology across the Internet, up to and including creating new sites. While we’re happy for people to think of SM as a living room they can stroll into and sit down a spell, we don’t want it to be so attractive that people never start their own blogs and websites because ours is so comfy. If people find they have 5,000 words to say on a topic then they should start their own blog!  We feel like if we’ve inspired people to write but have not inspired them to do it on their own, then we have failed as bloggers.

Now, we don’t want to blame any particular people for the state of the comments section — except perhaps ourselves. Between travel and personal lives, we have not had a lot of time to do more than produce posts. Additionally, we have a tendency to scroll around comment threads that don’t interest us. However, we know from feedback we’ve received that not everyone feels that way. So we think the first way we can get our community humming is for us to reengage with the comments on this blog.

The second thing to do is… well, there are several options. After mulling over a large number of possible changes we decided a good first step was just to share with you all what we have been thinking. Perhaps this will encourage people who are too talkative on this blog to consider giving a bit of space to others, and help those who are ready to flame to take a step back and consider chilling out.

We’ve been considering a number of technical changes to the forums: for instance, a way for people to flag posts that they consider inflammatory. We might also install a system where people can vote parts of comment threads up and down in popularity, making some more visible than others and letting people go to town in the less visible threads where they are not intruding on anyone. We might also limit the length of posts, or close comments on a post after a particular period of time, or even make people register as users before they post on the blog. We might be more active yanking comments, or fudding people who behave churlishly.

There are lots of options. We welcome feedback about any of these options — and we’d be especially interested to hear more general comments about the state of SM’s commenting community. So… let us know what you think and… thanks!


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

28 thoughts on “Request for Comments on Comments

  1. I do not have a preferred solution, but I appreciate this description of the problem and the work that the authors are putting into addressing it.

  2. I personally would like to see:

    1. Some sort of hard word count limit. I’ve posted at a number of blogs which only allow comments of certain length and I found that this avoids having conversations dominated by one or two individuals. You can probably set this up so that the box in which you write your posts won’t let you type more than a certain length post.

    2. A ban on direct personal attacks. Despite claims of some blog posters (not on this site) that this amounts to a form of persecution, most personal attacks are clear cut. Calling someone stupid, a smartass or a fascist for example is a clear cut example of a personal attack. I would suggest some sort of temporary ban for the first offense (maybe a week or two) followed by a ;onger (or permanent) ban for the second offense. I’ve found that this sort of system helps discourse on a lot of blogs and message boards.

    3. A ban on sock puppetry. I think that it is clear why sock puppetry would be a problem.

  3. For some reason, I always end up with weird typos when I post on this site. I apologize.

  4. I agree with Grad Student Guy. A hard but generous word count limit– like 200– may reduce the wall of text which only the most devoted would read anyway. Writing for clarity and brevity should be a skill we all have! I also put forward the deletion of offending posts. When personal attacks and such are seen as a waste of time since they’re erased anyway, in theory commenters will change their habits. If not (the dreaded person with nothing else to do but be on the internet), then a ban may be in order.

  5. I appreciate the thoughtful comments on this situation. I was becoming less interested in SM because of the over-emphasis on political discussion and the tone and length of the comments.

    I like the idea of registering for the site (although there are a number of arguments against this that are also valid). A limitation on the length of comments is a good idea. If someone has lengthy but valuable remarks on a topic, perhaps you could either over-ride the length limit or else let them post an entry.

  6. I know I’m guilty of kudzuing – possible the archetypal kudzuer – and it’s basically because I’m used to the free-for-all comments, long and short, on ScienceBlogs and others. Sorry! A word count would be a good idea, but so would starting a blog…

    Again, apologies.

  7. Overall, my opinion is that open discussion and participation should be encouraged. But those who comment have to learn how to listen, debate, and disagree with a certain measure of respect. That’s not always easy for some folks.

    Having some basic guidelines about comments might help. No personal attacks, no flaming, etc. Some sites deal with the comment threads by taking a more active approach, and by gently reminding some folks to calm down every once in a while. Some blogs have a comment section moderator for that reason. So that’s one way to go.

    “However, please remember that we imagine this blog to be the bar at the academic conference — a place of convivial companionship.”

    I like the bar analogy, since it allows for a little more informality and maybe some stronger opinions/views. I think that guidelines about civility in the comments section are always good, but you also don’t want to turn the comments section into debate-lite, where people really don’t really express themselves or say anything.

    Last point: I think that having a way to vote comments up or down is a good system. This lets the users and the site admin know how readers are reacting to comments–and people don’t have to actually post a comment to voice their opinion in some small way. You just have to find a way to make it so that people can only vote on an item once, to avoid abuse.

  8. Such things can backfire. If you look around at other similar blogs you’ll find that there’s very little going on, other than occasional postings from moderators. As a moderator on another unrelated site, out of two other mods, we’ve dealt with all manner if issues. Really, the mods job is to maintain active participation of discussion, because really the main blog posts aren’t as interesting as the discussions they help bring about. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. Really long and unwieldy posts seem to be a minority among the posts as an aggregate, and really it’s just as simple as saying, “hey, keep things in check,” now an again. The bar analogy is a good one, but how many conversations stay neat, tidy and on topic in any bar? The question is, does the bandwidth cost anyone money? If it does, then we really do need to keep it down. If not, then what’s the issue? Right now, on my site on Ning, there’s a esoteric debate between 3 people for the last couple of weeks and I get alerted every time they reply, about 6-7 times a day. I delete the replies and move on, because I don’t care about it.
    Also, generally conflict is something that can’t be eliminated, but it can be managed. Civility needs to be maintained, no doubt. But, most conflicts tend to work themselves out so long as a rule against ad hominens is maintained. People usually use various pretenses in complaining to moderators about various people, but in generally they really just don’t like what that person has to say. Other than seeing different names in the recent comments area it affects people’s lives in no way.

  9. Rick,

    “The bar analogy is a good one, but how many conversations stay neat, tidy and on topic in any bar?”

    None of them, and that’s what makes them interesting.

  10. I gave up on Savage Minds and a male dominated bragging ground two months ago, but a friend just sent me a link to this topic (after this exchange: /2010/05/21/house-panel-puts-the-brakes-on-%E2%80%98human-terrain%E2%80%99/comment-page-1/#comments ) It is pretty simple for me and my friends: the constant poster with little reading or field knowledge, yet he tries to control every conversation, who calls himself “Rick” has kept us away. If you think he’s for real and not part of a concerted effort to destroy intelligent conversations, you don’t get what’s going on. Count how many posts he’s made on topics going on and on at great lengths that he knows nothing about and you’ll see what I mean. I do not mean this as a personal attack, but this is the most direct answer I know; it why I and many others have stopped reading and posting. We won’t be back as long as the problems you describe continue.

  11. As I said in a previous thread: “This is also the first time I have seen someone singlehandedly destroy the level of discourse on a blog sight [sic] and drag down other posters with them. ” When discourse degenerates on a blog site, it generally is the fault of a specific posters or posters. This often puts those who want to maintain the previous level of discourse in the catch-22 to position of either saying nothing and letting discourse degenerate further or calling out the specific poster and becoming a part of the degeneration of the discourse.

    I think that putting in place rules like those I suggested previously prevents this sort of problem from happening. In my experience, those who argue against such a system are those who know that they are part of the problem and/or who know that they will likely be banned from the site for insulting others or sock puppetry.

  12. You know, I don’t think it’s really fair or useful to start dragging this post down into a rehash of recent personal disagreements and/or conflicts. As I see it, this is actually a chance to move past some of the issues that have arisen here. In a post that is dedicated to trying to find ways to deal with some of these problems, I think it makes sense to contribute thoughts and ideas that might help the situation.

    I do not think that singling people out and making MORE personal attacks is a very productive path.

    And let me make this clear: I have some serious disagreements with certain people who post comments here–especially when it comes to subjects that get very political like HTS. But, in my view, dissenting opinions and views should be both encouraged, appreciated, and respected. If there is no room for dissent, then that’s when there’s real trouble. Unless, of course, we are all here just to have our own views and opinions validated.

    Time for a clean slate at SM. Come up with some guidelines about comments, and stick with them. Anyone who crosses the line should be dealt with as the site admins see fit.

    In the end, respect goes a long way.

  13. It’s your blog. Do what you want. Delete abusive posts. My personal opinion is that your concerns about “kudzu” posting are misplaced. You guys have few enough commenters anymore anyway. Or, do like some, and stop comments entirely.

    Frankly, if you have people who comment regularly here, and make insightful remarks, invite them to join the blog, instead of telling them that they should go somewhere else and start their own blog. Just my two cents.

  14. I would suggest that whatever the end result is that there is some acknowledgement that moderation is always going to be subjective to some extent. I find irksome claims that particular rules for internet policing are hard-and-fast.

  15. What kinds of bells and whistles are available for commenting without shifting the blogging platform you’re using? If possible, one thing that might be good is having the ability to mark individual posts as either “like” or “abusive”. Being able to mark posts as abusive would presumably make the job of moderating more easy by calling your attention to problematic posts, and the “like” feature would provide some feedback to posters as to how the rest of the community thinks about their posts.

  16. As a passive reader, I agree about churlishness, not so about kudzu. I was indeed enjoying the specific tone of savageminds, and was often wondering what made it possible here (whether it was an effect of this site’s specific demography, or some invisible moderation). While I hoped such atmosphere could be exported to other forums, I noticed indeed, lately, a shift towards the more conventional antagonising internet style. And it did reduce my attention level, as far as the comments were concerned.

    But, before that, I often found long comments on a par with the original article, and it was part of my interest in that site. I wouldn’t like the comments to be limited in size. In anthropology, things can seldom be reduced to three sentences. It’s a domain in which I prefer to follow a discussion in an article-after-article format than in a series of one-liners. I’m also not a very huge blogs client, my internet life is reduced to 3 or 4 favorited bookmarks, and I’m not sure I’d follow the dozens of blogs I’d have to, if the most interesting comments were expelled to websites of their own.

    I agree in particular with two comments here. Firstly, if someone makes really good long interventions, guest-blog her/him (or maybe just make an “article” of her/his comment). Secondly, the degradation of a forum [i]can[/i] indeed often be due to very few (overactive and slightly megalomaniac) users. I haven’t followed the latest discussions closely enough to point at anyone, or to even know if it’s truly the case here, but I’ve witnessed that process on other forums and it’s very frustrating. To be honest, I don’t know if such issues even have solutions (as they don’t always imply denouncable “transgressions”), but one has to be aware it is possible (and quite easy) for one person to accidentally drag a whole place down – and not rule out the hypothesis out of principle, or ignore it out of fear of making it worse.

    I’m returning to my spectator seat. I just hope savageminds will manage to keep up its standards without sacrificing the elaborate comments that are part of its appeal. Maybe if confidence was restored to the writers, these comments wouldn’t seem so lengthy to the readers…

  17. I don’t think you can engineer a change by technical means alone – it is more of a social problem than a technical one. The bartenders need to actively manage civility in the bar – whether through comments to keep the noise down, or refusal to serve a drunk, or the threat of bouncers – as long as it is in the interest of furthering the discussion. Another analogy might be the classroom – if a student is dominating the discussion you don’t say “ok everyone, from now on you can only speak 2 sentences at a time” or “we will take a vote after every person’s contribution in order to rate them”. Instead you steer the conversation. Often on the internet we are too afraid of being accused of silencing or of attacking the person to step in – but in ‘real life’ people actively manage their discussions with subtle and not so subtle quips that let people know when they are out of line.

    OK so that might take too much effort (you have lives, jobs, kids and have been running this site a long time) and it would be nice to have a robot do it for you. The voting system would be ok – although it can also be misused. You could limit the length of posts – but some people habitually write short posts that read like unfiltered synaptic misfirings – and I don’t know if you ever read a youtube comments thread but brevity does not guarantee anything. A single long post can be ignored, but an entire thread of them is mud for discussion – and the only way to prevent that is to take an active bartender’s role.

    I am hoping that the first steps you have taken (simply airing the matter) will be enough. Wait a while see what happens.

  18. I agree with Napio and Tim. I’ve seen nothing here that couldn’t be redirected or damped down by some active bartending. And it’s my impression that in the past there was much more of that. I can certainly understand busy lives or blog fatigue setting in, but that would seem to recommend the strategy of promoting productive commenters to official status.

  19. “I agree with Napio and Tim. I’ve seen nothing here that couldn’t be redirected or damped down by some active bartending.”

    I agree.

  20. I am a new reader of SM. I’ll be starting my Ph.D. in Anthro this fall (wheeeee!) and decided to read a few anthro blogs on a regular basis as part of my preparation for graduate study. I chose this blog as one of my regulars because I like the wide range of topics addressed and the varying points of view among the posters; this blog seemed a good one for helping me to get a feel for what’s going on in anthropology these days.

    While I have continued to enjoy the entries, I’ve found that in general the comments aren’t worth my time. They do tend toward churlishness and can be dominated by just a few voices- not appealing voices, at that. I’ll still continue to read the blog entries even if the comments don’t improve much in quality, but it would definitely be nice if the comments were such that I’d enjoy and learn from reading them. Sorry that I don’t really have any concrete suggestions on how to make that happen. Of the suggestions that have been made so far, more active moderator involvement seems like the best option to me.

  21. One tactic that seems to work well is disemvoweling. A post that’s offensive, but not quite gross enough to merit instant deletion, can be disemvoweled. English without vowels is still readable (slowly, with some work) but the post doesn’t jump out at you and it is definitely marked as “not what we want here.”

    Only someone from a seriously deficient graduate program, like Miskatonic University, could possibly think that!


    nly sm frm srsly dfcnt grdt prgrm, lk Msktnc nvrsty, cld pssbly thnk tht!

    There are programs that do this automagically. The technique was invented by Teresa Nielsen Hayden on the Making Light blog and is now in use at BoingBoing and at several other blogs.

    But of course none of this will work without some moderator attention. Not a day after the fact, but as soon after the offendiing post as possible. It would be a good idea to have a moderating team; they could share the burden.

  22. As a guest blogger whose topic (war and mil issues) is a flash-point for these kinds of flames, and whose most recent post is part of what’s prompting this thread, I really, really appreciate SM calling out churl and kudzu, which, I think, are aptly characterized. Thanks also to all the folks who’ve tried to steer various threads back on course.

    So here are some thought on what’s emerged so far:

    I completely agree that if folks have enough to say about a topic they should consider getting there own blog, especially if they’re interested in debating the finer points of military policy or strategy which is not, as I understand it, what SM is for. We shouldn’t have to make space for academic conversations in our threads. SM is a space for academic conversations, loose and tipsy though they may be.

    I can be a bit long winded (even at the AAA bar), but I think some kind of word limit might be useful.

    I entirely disagree with Rick’s suggestion that the only problem with super long posts is if they jack up the financial cost of running the site. They make the conversation inaccessible and irrelevant and shut down the conversation just as much, if not more, than short low blows.

    Am intrigued by disemvoweling, and reader ratings, maybe flagging for churl or kudzu?

    On bar-tending: Would this mean every post would be moderated? If so, I gotta say, I’m not sure I have time to take on a part time job. Anyone have examples of tools/techniques (other than disemvoweling and reader ratings) that don’t involve vetting every post?

    I agree there’s no perfect solution, but I think SM deserves out best shot.

  23. One possible alternative for kudzu would be establishing a forum associated with SM; people can then post as much as they want, within specific areas on interest. Churl is an innate property of the internet, and being human!

  24. While I’m still a rank beginner in the field, I am quite seasoned in online communities. Churl is one of those things that every online community contends with from time to time. Anyone who participates learns very quickly to grow a thick skin.

    Word limits will go a long way toward helping.

    Moderation stiffles free-flowing conversation and is a huge ass-pain for the moderators. It’s a good way to siphon the energy that goes into making great posts. In short, a poor use of time for this particular blog, since we can all handle some unpleasantness.

    A word of advice. If someone is pushing your buttons, the best way to get sweet, sweet revenge is to ignore them completely. Not only does it reduce ridiculous sidebars that people have to plow through to get back to the meat of the discussion, but you can bet that the perpetrator (if truly a troll) is fruitlessly checking the conversation again and again with growing dismay that you have not taken the bait.

    I tend to take it a step further and not even read the comments by people that make me crazy.

  25. Agree with Cathy – ‘ignore’ is troll/churl/kudzu 101. You can scroll faster than they can write. But I think there’s very little truly trollish deliberate sabotage here; there are just different notions of the appropriate scope and intensity of conversational dynamics, like in real life. By active barkeeping above I did not mean pyrotechnic disciplinary overkill like line-editing or devoweling or The Black Spot. I just meant the kind of metaconversational gestures Tim was talking about in relation to running a seminar, of the ‘hold on there a sec Sport, let’s see what Biff has to say about this’ variety. Of course, this would require the SM crew to be interested enough in their own posts to actually participate in the discussion of them… 😉

  26. “I tend to take it a step further and not even read the comments by people that make me crazy.”

    This is good advice, and also what I do. I’ve found that there are some people that really go out of their way to antagonize someone they disagree with. In real life I never get a chance to interact with people on either the far right or far left, but online they are more prevalent. The, I’ll just say play ground childishness, of ideologues has been studied among political scientists for some time. In 1985, and article by Closkey and Chong explores this:

    “The far left and the far right also resemble each other in the way they pursue their political goals. Both are disposed to censor their opponents, to deal harshly with enemies, to sacrifice the well-being even of the innocent in order to serve a ‘higher purpose’, and to use cruel tactics if necessary to ‘persuade’ society of the wisdom of their objectives. Both tend to support (or oppose) civil liberties in a highly partisan and self-serving fashion, supporting freedom for themselves and for the groups and causes they favor while seeking to withhold it from enemies and advocates of causes they dislike.”

    “Of course, this would require the SM crew to be interested enough in their own posts to actually participate in the discussion of them… ;-)”

    Someone had to say it, and it wasn’t gonna be me.

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