A Note on Commenting

by Latoya Peterson

Dear readers, I have been on an informal banning hiatus. At this time, I am trying to come up with a Writer’s Guide for the site and a Guide to Good Conversation.

However, incidents pop up all the time. And the time to write is short.

Now, Carmen and I have been going around and around about what to do about the comments section. We’re growing in readership, and that’s good. But we are also not exactly pleased with some of the conversations as of late. Public banning tends to make people jittery, but what you all don’t see are all the conversations that take place offline.

There conversations are generally between Carmen and myself, but also occassionally include Wendi, Fatemeh, Nadra, and Thea. And we plot strategy. What should we do about this comment? Is this person a raging misogynist or a person advocating a different point of view? Is this person just being bigoted toward certain groups? Can we reach them? Or are they determined to force their viewpoint on everyone else? Is this person a troll, or just looking for understanding?

There things are hard to discern from behind screens. We can only (literally) take you at your word and this isn’t an exact science. But, when the comments become a place neither Carmen or I want to engage in or visit, something has gone horribly wrong.

We’ve batted solutions back and forth. Carmen thought about imposing Kai’s informal “No Assholes Rule” which is basically “if you consistently annoy us and disrupt the spirit of this
blog, you’re gone at our discretion.”

I was leaning toward Ragnell’s policy:

Notice to Commenters:
My comment section is not your blog. You want to take a tangent, be abusive, or write a book on how you agree/disagree with me?

Get your own blog. They’re free.

But we are quite fond of writing books around here, and I like to read some of them, so that was out.

I was going to say something to the effect of “I support free speech – get your own fucking blog” but that’s a bit too simplistic and hostile.

But, luckily for me, on June 2nd, Kate Harding came to the rescue.

In a post titled “Meta:Why I’m Such a Bitch,” Kate captures our feelings exactly.

Kate writes (All emphasis mine):

You know, comments are simultaneously the best and the worst thing about blogging. The immediate feedback is gratifying, often educational, and (at least around here) usually fun. I love getting to “know” the regular readers of the blog who participate (though I don’t forget about you lurkers, either), and I’ve even developed a few real-life friendships out of comments and the Fatosphere community. Hell, when Sweet Machine and Fillyjonk started writing here, I’d never met either of them in person — I just assumed from their comments here, at Fatshionista, and at other blogs that I’d like them if I did, and I’d be proud to have them contributing to a blog with my name up top. Both hunches turned out to be very true.

But there’s a reason for the bitchy comments policy I wrote before they ever got here: Unmoderated or even lightly moderated comments can turn sour very fucking quickly. [...]

it’s the same at most online versions of major newspapers and many blogs that don’t make comment moderation a top priority — I don’t even bother looking at the comments, because I know they’ll be full of argumentative assholes spoiling for a fight, better known as trolls. When those comments aren’t dispatched swiftly, they take over a thread like weeds.

And that sucks, because there are always some good comments in among the bullshit, but when a thread is overgrown with jerks, it’s not even worth trying to find those comments. Skimming through the troll comments to get to the good ones raises my blood pressure and makes me sputtery, so I just don’t do it. And that’s the number one reason why anyone who pisses me off here gets shown the door right quick (see rules 5 and 7). [...]

The problem with this policy, insofar as there is one (and I don’t actually think there is), is twofold. 1) The definition of “troll” is open to interpretation. 2) People who get on my tits aren’t always trolls, per se, and I don’t necessarily care about the distinction anyway. If somebody’s comments are consistently giving me a stabbing pain behind the right eye, I feel no obligation to be patient with that person, regardless of whether he or she falls under the rubric of “troll” in most people’s estimation.

And that’s the thing I think I made abundantly clear in the comments policy, but which some people still seem to get hung up on occasionally: It’s my right eye — and Fillyjonk’s and Sweet Machine’s respective right eyes — that makes the determination as to whether certain commenters are causing more trouble than they’re worth. We don’t take a vote, we don’t check comments against a list of specific unsavory behaviors and score them on a scale from 1 to 10 — we just ask ourselves, “Is this commenter giving me a fucking headache?” And if the answer is yes, then we generally follow a three-step process. 1) Point out that the person is violating the standards of discourse around here in some way, and warn them that it needs to stop. 2) Get snarky. 3) Banninate. Sometimes, we skip straight to 2 or 3, depending on the size of our headaches, but usually, if you look back, you’ll see we did carry out point 1 somewhere in there. And in light of the clearly posted comments policy, bothering with step 1 is being generous. [...]

What this means is, if you think we’re being unnecessarily bitchy, this is probably not the blog for you. And that means exactly what it says — it’s not a criticism, just a fact. We’re not trying to be exclusive for the sake of it, we’re just saying, the bloggers here all have strong personalities, zero patience for bullying and/or thread derailing, and high standards for communication. We’re actually pretty forgiving people in real life, but if we gave the benefit of the doubt to everyone here who gives us that stabby pain, A) we’d go crazy, and B) the comments threads here would be miserable reading for the vast majority of Shapelings. Everyone loves a little blog dramaz, but nobody loves a thread where one or two people keep yelling, “BUT YOU’RE WRONG AND I’M RIGHT I’M RIGHT I’M RIGHT WHY WON’T YOU JUST ADMIT I’M RIGHT?” (Hence rule 6, among others.) So we don’t put up with it. Period.

Realistically, this means that we have probably, on occasion, banned or berated a perfectly decent person who might have eventually blossomed into the kind of commenter we can’t wait to hear from. And you know what? We’re okay with that. We’re not proud of it, and we certainly don’t set out to exclude bright, interesting people from the conversation here. But if it happens every now and again, oh well — because overall, our being hardasses helps keep this blog readable and only rarely crazymaking.

Most of our moderation work goes on behind the scenes — every first-time comment has to be approved, which is why you almost never see a drive-by fat-hater here anymore — but when an approved commenter starts driving us batshit, it’s out there for everyone to see. And we’re okay with that, too. We think about our responses, and we own them. But they’re not up for negotiation. We only get bitchy after we’ve perceived a consistent pattern of disrespect for the comments policy and/or the spirit of the blog. If you don’t perceive the same pattern, then one of two things is happening: you haven’t read all the same comments we have, or you have different standards than we do. Either way, it’s our call, and arguing with us about those calls is far more likely to get you on the shit list than change our minds.

Is this attitude of ours despotic? Draconian? Bitcherrific? Sure. It’s also what makes the comments here pleasant, entertaining, informative reading 99 days out of 100. For all the times I’ve been accused of hating free speech, banning “anyone who disagrees with me,” constructing an echo chamber, denying fat people the opportunity to read important information about their health risks (SRSLY), et fucking cetera, the discussions around here still somehow manage to be lively and loaded with polite disagreement, constructive criticism, and differing perspectives. We wouldn’t have it any other way. [...]

And as I’ve said before, if our readership were dropping, our comments threads were getting shorter, or any of the many Shapelings we’ve come to trust let us know they think our iron fists have gotten a little too big for their velvet gloves, we’d take a long, hard look at the way we run things around here. As it is, though, the numbers keep going up — and for my money, our unrepentant bitchery is one of the reasons for that. Like I said, I love comments — writing them, reading them, responding to them — but when blog owners lose control of their comment sections, it can turn me off on a whole damn blog, even if I’m crazy about the posters there. If the discussion sucks, I go where it doesn’t, and I can’t believe I’m alone in that. Every time a public banning happens here, I get grief about how I’m alienating people who might want to learn — emphasis on the might — as if the entire fat rights movement will dissolve tomorrow if I don’t award every jerk who drops by his or her own special soapbox. But alienating the people who cause trouble makes this space safer and more welcoming for those who don’t. It makes it the kind of blog I love to read — and until somebody starts paying me a shit ton to do this, the fact that I love reading this blog as much as writing a third of it is the only thing making it worthwhile.

So that, my dears, is why I’m a snarky bitch with an itchy banning finger, and why I encourage Fillyjonk and Sweet Machine to be the same (not that they need my help, frankly). It’s because I love this blog, I want to keep loving it, and I want people who are turned off by thread-derailing bullies to keep finding their way here and falling in love with it, too. So far, it’s working.

And there we are. Now, I am going to write a bit of a prettier thing for the site for all to see, something about discourse and knowing when to agree to disagree. But that’s the sentiment, right there.

If we are evil, angry despots, so be it – but no one has the “right” to wreak havoc. And we aren’t going to deal with thread-jacking, blog bullying, or general asinine behavior.