Another Meta-post: Moderation-fail, or, being too Minnesotan

I have banned, I believe, two people from this blog so far.  I ought to have banned several more on the basis of causing disruption or making conversation generally more difficult.  And there are certainly more posts I should have yanked than the handful I have. The trouble is, I’m a Minnesotan. Whenever I think of banning someone, or even removing a post, I go, “But…but…I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”  And so I let the disruption go on.

Here we see the problem with Minnesota Nice.

Anyway, this is to announce that, from now on, jenphalian will be helping to moderate.  If you are rude (by my standards or hers), or if your posts make the discussion less productive (in my opinion or hers), you may have the post yanked (there will be some explanation at least, but probably not a great deal), or, if one of us deems it appropriate, we will kick your ass to the curb.

I do not plan to use disemvoweling.  But I might change my mind if I get pushed hard enough.

Oh, and, if one of us yanks your post, do not appeal to the other: Mommy and Daddy are together on this, and we will turn this blog around and take us all home if we need to.

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46 thoughts on “Another Meta-post: Moderation-fail, or, being too Minnesotan”

  1. I find that blog moderation and running a class discussion are more alike than not, some days. There’s no F2F equivalent of disemvoweling, that I know of, sadly. May I ask why you prefer to delete rather than disemvowel?

  2. TexAnne: Disemvowling strikes me as having an element of mockery in it that deleting doesn’t. Which isn’t to say I won’t mock–I will. But I want considerable cause.

  3. I haven’t seen any of the sort of outright trolling that disemvoweling or otherwise mocking would be appropriate to. People commenting here are smart and snarky and that’s good.

    Endless tangents or pleas for attention, those I’ve seen, and those are disruptive. I think it is kinder, though maybe not wiser, to warn before deleting comments or banning users. I’m very very nice, though. I don’t have any claws. Really.

  4. Thanks, that’s helpful. I wonder if the F2F equivalent might be a time-out–it’s always seemed to me that keeping people from speaking is a two-edged sword. I’ve always been lucky in my students, though; in my whole career I can only remember one troll.

  5. Oh, you can’t really troll this time of year, doncha know? That hole in the ice ain’t movin’. You see more people trollin’ once the lakes are clear, especially when they’re fishin’ for muskie and walleye.

  6. I’m glad, Steven. I have a long history of offending people in online discussion, when as far as I can tell I’m following all the norms that everyone else is following. I’d rather be moderated than simply banned or, even worse, disliked. Cues are hard enough to read in face to face conversations, let alone on screen.

  7. It must be something about the long, cold winters…”Minnesota Nice” sounds awfully similar to “Canada Nice”. Although when you consider our national sport (Lacrosse) & national obsession (Hockey), there is a tremendous amount of whacking people with bloody great sticks involved. Perhaps we’re not quite so nice as we’d have people believe. Having said that…Disemvoweling? Qu’est-ce que c’est? I’m not familiar with the term. Sounds rather gruesome & painful.

  8. Keith, disemvoweling is a way to take the teeth out of a troll comment. Here is an example:

    Kth, dsmvwlng s wy t tk th tth t f trll cmmnt. Hr s n xmpl

    For this we can thank TNH, who has given me all sorts of moderate-y advice.

  9. Ahh…Clever! Although I must admit to being a little disappointed that there are no sticks involved…>sigh<

  10. Or we can not thank Teresa, because the technique has been described as the geekish equivalent of pulling down the pants of the kid everyone else on the playground doesn’t like. My biggest complaint is its supporters say you can decipher the meaning if you want to, but that’s blatantly not true: “historical” and “ahistorical”, for example, disemvowel exactly the same way.

    It’s a remarkably easy technique to abuse. On BoingBoing, a moderator called Antinuous is (or was, anyway) a devout supporter of the Dalai Lama, so when someone entirely unknown to me was disemvoweled for speaking up for China, I reemvoweled what he or she said, and was only able to do so because someone else had quoted a key part of the comment, and that quotation was not disemvoweled.

    When I reemvoweled the rest, I expected to find something abusive in it, because disemvoweling usually occurs when disagreements have heightened. I was surprised–and then not surprised at all–to discover there was nothing rude in the comment. It simply rejected Antinuous’s narrative, and that had been reason enough to disemvowel him.

    As you may have guessed by now, I despise disemvowelling.

    But since I am embracing the principle that humans are only rationalizing animals, it does not surprise me when smart and essentially good people–and most of its supporters can be fairly described as smart and essentially good people–rationalize it.

  11. I would agree with you Will, regarding the disemvoweling. I’ve lurked here a lot, and elsewhere I’ve participated in these online convo’s, and I’d agree it’s a ridiculous thing to do, especially if one claims to be “moderating.” If a comment is worthy of removal, then remove it. If the offender repeatedly offends, ban him. Don’t be childish and leave a garbled mess behind where their comment was.

    And yeah, doing any of the above just because you disagree with what the person is saying is totally a-hole behavior. Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of that too.

  12. Trolling was an issue on public forums, where nobody had the right to make somebody shut up. People would say things that nobody wanted to hear, and there was no way to make them stop. They tried moderated public forums, but that was a lot of work for the moderators and it often turned out that the people who were willing to moderate were themselves a problem.

    Now it becomes an issue on personal blogs. You wouldn’t go into somebody’s living room and make a big scene, would you? Maybe if there was some personal issue…. Sometimes trolls feel they have a mission to deliver a message. They don’t understand that when nobody wants to hear the message they would do better to look for a place where there are people who want to listen. Information flow routes around damage, but not when it’s trolls doing it.

    It’s easy to just delete an account, but if they have a mission to cause trouble on your blog then they will make new accounts and post until deleted, maybe every day or several times a day. Sometimes trolls have a lot more time on their hands than blog managers. Also it is easier to automate the trolling process. You usually have to read a post before you realize it is the same old troll with a new name. So it turns into a burden.

    If you just delete everything and they keep coming back, how can you persuade them to go away? You can try to publicly shame them one way or another. But often they are resistant to that. If they were normal people they would not be trolls. And often that looks to other participants like you are being mean to the emotionally disadvantaged. Maybe better to keep it out of sight, but there’s the chance if you do something different it will work, and the same old thing probably will get the same old result.

    I’ve had occasional success by suggesting a forum that they might like better. Crank physics trolls are often happier on a blog with other crank physics trolls than a serious physics blog. The busier they get in a place where they get responses, the less time they spend in a place they are just ignored.

    And I have had some success by ignoring them for awhile, and then asking them carefully what it was they had to say. When they got attention they got all excited. I repeated what they said to make sure I got it right, and then told them why they were wrong. If they didn’t go away then I ignored them until they said something new, and repeated the process. It never took more than 3 cycles. It required that I pay attention, but that was OK since there was always the chance they were right about something that people generally don’t understand. You never know when listening will pay off.

    TNH did something like that with me once. People were playing a big round of Ain’t It Awful about health insurance. I asked them to try to understand the problem and they didn’t want to, they just wanted to keep awfulling. They were generally smart people, too. So I started to explain it anyway, hoping that somebody would be shamed into thinking or something. TNH started to respond in a hostile way and asked me what I wanted. I said that I could explain the fundamentals of how health insurance worked, and it was important to understand. So she let me explain. Then she said that I had explained it as promised. I was happy and I left. She didn’t even have to understand it or tell me why I was wrong. I would have preferred that those smart people think about how to make a workable health insurance program, but by that point I’d given up. Just not getting ignored or despised for a post or two was enough.

  13. Will: As we Jews say, context is everything. I don’t know the details of that conversation you describe, but I can easily–easilyimagine situations where an apparently harmless and reasonable comment was, by where and when and circumstances, completely trollful.

    That said, while I have not promised never to remove the disemvowler from its closet, I am very much inclined to do anything but.

    (On the other hand, when Ethan was here making extremely rude comments about my personal life, I was sorely tempted)

  14. Steve, my reply grew enormously, so it’s here:

    Which isn’t to say that you have to tolerate assholes. Including me. Warn us, ban us, delete our comments, whatever. Your site, your rules. No one needs to endure rude comments about their personal life, or anything they don’t want to endure.

    Just don’t let your rules include deliberately changing what someone typed, I beg you.

  15. Will: My dispute is not with the particular case, it is with your argument. Perhaps I misunderstand. What I heard was, “If a post is polite and respectful, it cannot be trolling.” I’m merely saying that it is easy to imagine how a harmless-seeming post can be trolling. For example, if that is the sixth time it was said, and the moderator asked that the matter be dropped after the third. I do not claim this was true in the case you mention.

    I am not addressing the disemvowling issue, because I’ve already addressed it.

  16. Hmm. Why shouldn’t a polite, respectful comment be tolerated? “Don’t feed the trolls” usually works: most people are happy to say their say and stop. There’s a huge difference between people who reply and people who spam.

  17. If someone keeps saying the same thing over and over, eventually it’ll bug me and I’ll make it go away. Sometimes it is hard to see the difference between someone who is just repeating himself, and someone who is trying to find a new way to get his point across. That’s why AIs can’t yet moderate blogs.

  18. So ban us. But do not pull our pants down, say we’re wearing pink underwear, and get your gang to laugh as we run crying from the playground, especially if our underwear is actually Superman red, only a little faded.

    Okay, I’ve said the same thing three times differently. To prove I’ve finally accepted that humans only change their minds when they’re flicked by the fickle finger, I’ll drop this now.

  19. Clearly, a post which looks polite and friendly out of context, can be trolling in context. Were the particular moderators that Will is talking about deleting or disemvoweling comments simply because they disagreed? You could trust Will’s judgement or see for yourself. But it can definitely happen that innocuous looking posts can be trolls — you are right. And it can definitely happen that moderators can punish commenters just because they disagree.

    It’s your space. You have the right to delete or move anything, to make your blog more what you want. There needn’t be any ill-will involved. So for example, crinoids have survived for more than 350 million years, and for a long while they were the dominant filter-feeders in the oceans. There was a type of crab that learned to hide on crinoids. Its enemies couldn’t reach it without risking the crinoid attack, and it could eat the crinoid’s leavings. Was it just a parasite or did it do anything useful for the crinoid? Who can tell from fossils that are hundreds of millions of years old? But over time the crabs evolved for their role. They changed to shapes that were better for holding on to crinoids, and their mouthparts got better at reaching the crinoid’s anus. After adapting very well to their environment, they went extinct when that kind of crinoid did, leaving only fossils. If I were to write a long description of this in an active topic where it might tend to derail the conversation (particularly if I did not well explain the metaphor about who was the crinoid and who was the crab), it would be perfectly reasonable for you to delete it or, if you liked it, move it to somewhere more appropriate.

    Imagine that Will wrote a comment that you considered disemvowelling, and then instead you deleted it and posted your own comment in its place.

    “Will Shetterly wrote something so utterly stupid, illogical, and mean that I deleted it. It was racist, sexist, perverted, and it showed what a greedy capitalist pig he is.”

    Of course you wouldn’t do that. But if you disemvowel his comment, isn’t that kind of similar? You are telling the world that he did something you don’t want them to read.

    If you were editing a fanzine and Will sent you something that you decided not to publish, that wouldn’t be any great big deal. If instead you published a notice, “Will Shetterly sent me some unpublishable drivel”, that would be a somewhat bigger deal. Blogs can be a bigger deal than a fanzine because there are real reasonably-quick conversations going on that people want to join in.

    If you don’t want my essay on crinoid/crabs, OK, fine. If I can’t be part of the conversation, that stings a little. If you tell everybody “J Thomas tried to be part of this conversation but he wrote something bad, take my word for it he was bad bad bad and you don’t want to see it, trust me,” is that really something you want to do?

  20. This is getting just incredibly stupid. I’ve already said everything except, “You have a 100% guarantee that I won’t disemvowel anyone, ever, no matter the circumstances or provocation.” I won’t say that. I’ve said everything but that, but I won’t say that. If that is insufficient, then there’s nothing more I can do. Jesus Christ.

  21. I just realized something about outrage culture: when you’ve effectively won, you fight more furiously. For the outraged, the goal is unconditional surrender.

    So it’s cool. Keep it in the arsenal if you gotta.

  22. Personally, I still feel that whacking people with sticks is a better idea. Just sayin’…

  23. “I’ve said everything but that, but I won’t say that.”

    I apologize. I spent some hours putting out fires with my comment unfinished, then I had a chance to finish it.

  24. My word. I thought disemvoweling as just a clever joke made by a man who is extremely clever with words. I had no idea it was a thing people did as a form of moderation.

    Medieval scribes frequently disemvoweled themselves, but mostly because they were lazy buggers who hate me and think I should be better at Latin. And paleography.

    Although sometimes they wrote things like “euouae” which is only the vowels of a popular phrase, “seculum amen” which is shorthand for “in saecula saeculorum, amen.”

    Can you tell I spent all afternoon in Latin land?

  25. Mr. Brust: There. Now doesn’t that feel better? Lord tunderin’ but youse take yerselves seriously ’round here…

  26. David in Latin land! I was just thinking “homo sapiens” is a lousy name for our species. Do you know how to say “rationalizing human” in Latin?

  27. I don’t, Will. I’m pretty lousy at Latin composition and my skills have atrophied because my sources tend to be written in fairly romance-based ecclesiastical language. I’m not sure how to approach the word rationalizing either, though there might be direct Latin related concepts. But high-skilled Latin composition fans tend to lurk fairly avidly around the net, so maybe one of them will chime in.

  28. Just noting that I’ve read through this thread, numerous objections to various forms of altering comments are filed in my brainspace, etc.

  29. I don’t think there’s a really good translation, but I think “homo ratiocinens” gets the point across.

  30. Chaosprime – I can’t come up with a good translation either. Yours works grammatically, but I just don’t think ratio means rationalizing in the sense Will means it.

  31. I just recently saw a way to make sense of the moderation stuff. It goes like this:

    When you publish a blog, you have some purpose. You want everything on the blog to further your purpose. When you moderate comments, you are being an editor. Your commenters provide you with free text, and you decide what to do with it. If you don’t want something it’s polite to send a rejection slip. Nobody should get too upset if a submission is rejected

    But suppose the purpose of your blog is to provide a social outlet. A place for the cool kids to hang out and show how cool they are. And some kid who just isn’t cool enough to make the grade wants to hang out with you. I doubt there is any possible cool, polite, gracious way to tell him to go away and never come back. But anybody who doesn’t get along with the cool kids is a troll, and it only gets harder if you put it off.

    When a blog is a social club then it inherits most of the problems of social clubs. But when it is a publication, with a purpose and an editor, maybe it doesn’t have to have those problems.

    So I like the publication/editor model.

  32. J Thomas – I can’t agree with either of those models. If blog comments were like submissions to an editor, that would be too much like one mind guiding where discussions go. As far as acceptance-or-rejection goes, the numbers are backwards. I read slush for a magazine, two or three stories per day. I believe one story in two months has been purchased by the publication. Blog comments, on the other hand, almost never need to be deleted/rejected.

    A social outlet does not necessarily mean “a place for the cool kids to hang out”. Hanging social status anxiety on blog comment engagement is just bound to be a losing game. Blogs have discussion, which sometimes gets heated, and can be productive as hell. Sometimes comments (good, bad, or otherwise) get ignored. A blog with a group of regular commenters can look like a “cool kids club” to someone whose comments don’t get engaged with often. I think it makes more sense for that person to adjust their commentary (for possible example, by looking at the frequency and length of other comments and adjusting to be closer to average) than to throw their hands up in frustration because the rest of the commenters are “too cool” to hang out with them.

  33. Jenphalian, if a blog’s owner has a particular purpose for his blog, then it’s OK for him to guide where discussions go to the extent he wants to. If his goal is to have free open discussion within wide limits, that’s OK, that’s part of his purpose.

    Providing a place for the cool kids to hang out is only one possible purpose. As you point out there are many other possible social purposes in addition to purposes beyond being a social outlet. I chose that one because it looked particularly problematic. A blog with that purpose requires particular forms of moderation because of what it is.

    It’s one possible purpose for a blog. Will talked about pulling down somebody’s pants and jeering at them. That’s what the cool kids do. It seems to me that’s the context where that image most makes sense.

    But if a submission to a publication does not fit that publication’s current needs, that does not imply any particular humiliation. It just is not the direction you want the discussion to head now. OK. When it’s your blog you get to decide that. You can be completely Minnesotan and completely nice and it isn’t about hurting anybody’s feelings.

    And if you have a blog, you get to notice what purpose you do have for it.

    I think you may be disagreeing with some sort of subtext, and not with the idea which may, with modification, be useful.

  34. I’m thinking that replying to the replies of a blog post about the possible moderation of the aforementioned blog post replies could be a possible act of self-defeatism. Or to put it another way… J Thomas, you spend way too much time thinking about blog post replies and their possible moderation.

  35. Fingo11, it’s possible that I think way too much about practically everything. Luckily I type fast.

  36. Thank you, Will.

    Also I need to tailor my thinking more toward my audience.

    There’s a technique that’s useful in math, for making proofs. If a proof is hard, try to build a counterexample. The things that are hard about the proof gives hints for what a counterexample would look like. Then when it’s hard to make a counterexample, the sticky points that make the counterexample hard give hints for how to make the proof. Going back and forth that way can turn hard problems into easy problems. Of course, you don’t know ahead of time whether you will wind up with a proof or a counterexample. (Or maybe no result.)

    In general, though, people who think they have a proof (but it’s real sloppy) do not appreciate any effort aimed at arguing they are wrong. They tend to think that someone who does that is their enemy.

    I should write less about the weak points in people’s positions, and more about things they enjoy.

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