Call me an idealist, but I believe in open blog commenting. Anonymous comments, harshly critical comments (even if they attack me personally), and controversial comments are always allowed on my blogs because I feel that censoring them would restrict an open exchange of ideas.
However, despite my idealistic beliefs on censorship, I’ve learned the hard way that allowing a total comment free-for-all is bad for business. Completely unregulated comments can quickly devolve into a low-quality exchange that your loyal blog readers won’t enjoy, not to mention that “bad” comments can distract you and take control of the conversation around your site.
So, after more than five years of blogging, I’ve come up with a system for managing comments that I feel strikes a balance between open exchange and effective blogging. Here’s how it works and how my team and I implement this policy on the blogs we manage.
Rule #1 — You Need A Comment Policy
One of the many blogging mistakes I’ve made over the years was failing to have an official blog comment policy. Comment policies are important because:
- Believe it or not, some bad commenters genuinely don’t realize that they’re acting inappropriately. These people don’t have a filter, which is why they’re so obnoxious in the first place.
- Your loyal readers like a stated comment policy – it gives them permission to help you police your site and report bad actors.
- It gives you the confidence to deal with negative comments in a consistent manner without fear of reacting emotionally.
Prior to implementing this blog comment policy on TundraHeadquarters.com, I had a lot of personal difficulty moderating comments because of my views on censorship and my fear that I might be reacting emotionally. Rather than deleting or editing comments that were clearly over the line, I just admonished the commenters for being inappropriate…which only inspired them to comment more often. I spent a lot of time and energy dealing with these people, most of which was wasted.
Even worse, my hesitation to deal with inappropriate comments in a fair, uniform manner was beginning to alienate my core audience. I noticed that some of my loyal visitors were commenting less frequently, and on many occasions I received an email from a loyal blog reader who was irritated by the way I was managing comments – a sure sign that I was losing readers because I refused to set boundaries.
When it comes to writing a comment policy, there are two critical components:
- Commenters must leave a valid email address
- Comments must be conversational
The first component is brutally simple: If a blog commenter won’t own up to their own speech in even a minor way like sharing a valid email address (which is basically anonymous anyways), they don’t need to be taken seriously.
The second component addresses comments that are designed to “stir the pot” and/or people who don’t have any sense of accountability. These “pot stirrers” (a.k.a. trolls) will frequently focus on comments made by others without responding to anyone who addresses them directly. If you add the “conversational commenting” rule to your policy, you can eliminate most of the boorish behavior.
Rule #2 – Avoid and Diffuse Confrontation
When I first started blogging, I enjoyed confrontational commenting. However, a few years later I began to recognize that confrontation isn’t effective at building an audience or growing credibility. Today, whenever someone leaves a critical comment about a blog post author and/or the content of a post, we use the following process.
1. Recognize and validate differing viewpoints (if only partially). When someone leaves a critical comment, it’s important to try to find some validity in their viewpoint. I start by saying something like “I can definitely understand where you’re coming from in regards to [issue], but here’s why I don’t agree…”.
Taking time to validate opposing viewpoints has been great because it has encouraged more commenting – it’s opened the door for others to agree or disagree. It’s also helped me become a better blogger by forcing me to re-evaluate my own point of view.
2. Don’t anticipate a conflict. It’s easy to find yourself planning for a confrontation whenever someone leaves a critical comment on your blog. However, this is a bad practice in blogging (not to mention life in general). Defensive responses to critical comments often create a confrontation. Instead, take every comment at face value and don’t try to defend yourself against attacks that haven’t happened yet.
3. Implement a zero tolerance policy for personal attacks between commenters. When someone attacks the post author personally, I don’t automatically delete their comment. I feel that part of a blogger’s job is subjecting themselves to personal attacks. After all, if a blogger isn’t willing to accept a little criticism, they have no business sharing their opinions so openly.
However, we do not allow personal attacks directed at anyone other than the author. This keeps blog comments civil, and — perhaps not coincidentally — since we implemented this rule, the number of personal attacks directed at blog post authors has fallen as well.
Rule #3 — Deal with Trolls Swiftly
If I were to define a troll, I would say that it’s a blog commenter who has absolutely no interest in conversation. They’re angry, they’re arrogant, and they’re unwilling to acknowledge any other opinions or points of view. They’re the worst the Internet has to offer.
Whenever you start to see a troll-like pattern, you need to respond to it swiftly. Here’s what I do when I think I’ve found a troll:
1. When I first suspect a troll, I email them personally. I thank them for commenting, and then ask them to review the comment policy for me. Sometimes the people I contact are so shocked by the personal outreach that they apologize, but more often they just disappear, never to be heard from again.
2. Public warning only after personal contact. If my personal email doesn’t change a commenter’s behavior (or if they haven’t provided a legitimate email address), I will warn them publicly to adhere to the comment policy.
3. Probation via moderation. If these two steps fail, it’s time to put them on probation. I add the commenter’s name, email address, and IP address to my blog’s moderation queue, ensuring that the only way they can comment freely is to change computers and call themselves a different name.
4. Ban the IP when all else fails. Finally, if the commenter is indeed a troll and no amount of moderation seems to stop them, I ban their IP address from the site by adding a few lines of code to my htaccess file.
A note about step #4: IP banning is hazardous because you can accidentally ban innocent readers, but the instructions in the link I provided will help you avoid this possibility as well as give you a fail safe just in case you ban a legit reader (full disclosure: I own YouHaveBeenBanned.com, but I created it as a public service and it’s completely free).
While I don’t think of myself to be a blogging expert, I like to think I’ve made enough mistakes to help others avoid potential pitfalls. However, if you disagree with my process, I encourage you to comment below!