Features I’d Like to See in Blogging Software

How do you deal with disruptive commenters without transforming the comments section of your blog into what TMLutas called “bonsai comment trees” — overly controlled exchanges from which unruly digressions that might have led to unexpected insights have been trimmed?

I don’t think the laissez-faire approach works with current software, because forcing readers to view all comments gives too much power to jerks and trolls who monopolize threads for their own purposes if given a chance. (The perverse incentive for bad behavior increases with blog traffic, which is why blogs with more than a few thousand daily readers usually moderate comments, if they allow comments at all.) But centralized comment moderation, which I recently experimented with, is too burdensome even for the moderator of this modestly trafficked blog, and also for the vast majority of commenters, who are not jerks.

What would be better? Here are some features that I’d like to see in WordPress, Movable Type, Blogger, etc.:

  1. A Slashdot-style comment-rating system that allows readers to rate each comment on a 1-5 scale and to display only comments whose rating is above a specified threshold.
  2. Or, per this comment on another blog, a YouTube-style or Amazon-style system that allows readers to see deleted comments, either individually or globally, by clicking a button. (Such a system should also provide a clickable button next to each comment to allow readers to flag problem comments for attention by a moderator.)
  3. A clickable “hide/display all comments from this commenter’s IP address” button next to each comment.
  4. A clickable “hide/display all comments from commenters using this name/pseudonym” button next to each comment.
  5. A clickable “display all comments from this commenter’s IP address in a new window” button next to each comment.
  6. Granular moderation settings for group blogs, so that each contributor can set his own moderation preferences and can moderate comments on his own posts only.

Not all of these features would have to be incorporated into each version of blogging software. I would prefer a combination of Features 2-6. The main things are to make it easy for readers to 1) hide low-quality comments and 2) detect sock puppetry. This could all be done without requiring commenters to register, and would reduce the moderation load on group-blog admins, as well as on solo bloggers who receive many comments.

12 thoughts on “Features I’d Like to See in Blogging Software”

  1. Tough one. The problem is finding the balance between the flow of an interesting, thoughtful comment thread and moderating it. In a group blog like this one I would like to see each author moderate their own comment threads once daily, but that is tough at times too.

    Althouse’s comment threads seem to have gotten more civil over the last few months. I don’t know if it is anything she has done proactively or not but I doubt it. The Lapides idiots of the world who enjoy hijacking comment threads and sock puppeting seem to come in waves. The IP address thing is interesting, but there are too many ways to mask your IP to make it truly effective.

    As far as moderating my own comment threads, I am a deleter, usually saving my spite toward trolls for another day and choosing to simply delete rather than feed.

  2. The features I listed would make it more expensive in time and effort for abusive commenters to get people to read their comments. That’s most of the battle right there, since the central problem is the asymmetry between the costs of leaving comments and the costs that abusive comments impose on everyone else.

    Another feature that I would like: Under the commenter’s name/alias, put a list of the other names/aliases, if any, that are associated with the IP address from which the comment originated.

    These are all easy features to implement and would greatly improve the utility of blogging software.

    I think that the software developers are typically people with limited understanding of the environment in which their products are used.

  3. I would add that I think it’s no accident that Althouse is, among other things, an experienced classroom teacher who is skilled in dealing with troublemakers. Also, she appears to have become more active (perhaps with the help of her commenters) in deleting the most destructive comments, and her blog now requires commenters to register with Google or one of the other blogging services.

    I think that with the right software it should be possible for someone who is not as skilled as Althouse is to manage a popular blog without having to do more than marginal policing of comment threads.

  4. Again, it is easy to mask your IP, but like you said it isn’t about making it foolproof, just harder for the trolls to do their work. You would think that wordpress would have patches for some of the things you are mulling, they have patches for just about anything else you could ever want to do with a wordpress blog.

    But you mentioned that it is probable that the authors of the software perhaps have never run a popular blog with trolls and their droppings before.

  5. Some of the people writing WP plugins are very good. I’m surprised that no one has produced a plugin to do what I’m talking about. There are attempts to do sort-of similar things, such as hiding individual commments, but so far most of the forum discussions I have seen on this topic miss the point. Perhaps with time more people will understand the issue, and someone will adapt the software.

    IP masking is ineffective, because the worst commenters usually have distinctive writing styles that make them easy to identify. Then, if it’s a simple matter for readers to block the latest IP, the commenter has to keep switching computers or ISPs, or releasing his IP and logging in again, every time he wants to commment. Moreover, since my version of IP blocking is independently controlled by each reader to suit his own preferences, the commenter may not even know the extent to which his comments are being blocked.

  6. Jonathan,

    Great suggestions, but I differ with you regarding registration: there are fewer things harder to follow than a discussion between various anon’s. And on occasion I’ve seen name-hijacking, too.

  7. Kirk,

    You make a good point WRT registration, though I think the IP tracking features I suggested would make name-hijacking much more difficult than it is now. I am not opposed to registration, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be optional per the blog admin’s preferences, as I think the other features I suggested should be.

  8. Jonathan,

    Just on the odd chance your not already aware, the system that runs Slashdot, called Slash, is freeware and you can set it up on just about any modern system. Here’s the Slash website.

    It’s pretty Geeky though.

    I do think that threaded discussion system (in which people reply to specific comments spawning a tree like structure) works better and helps prevent the deterioration of the main branch of the thread. People who get in pissing matchs just wander off on their own little branch were no one else sees them.

  9. Thanks, Shannon. I did not know the Slashdot software was publicly available, so this is an interesting revelation for me. It would be nice to combine the posting features of WordPress and the commenting features of Slash.

  10. I agree with Dan that those that make blog software have never run a blog. I work with a million tech guys who know how to build software but almost always deliver a finished product full of glaring structural and data problems that are obvious to me but hidden to them. But I can’t complain too much about blogger since it is free… don’t know as much about word press

  11. WordPress is an open-source system that’s mostly designed by one guy, with a lot of add-ons designed by other developers. I don’t know if there’s a revenue model. I don’t think it would be difficult technically to incorporate the features I described, but it’s beyond my abilities, and it’s not worth enough to me personally to pay someone to do it. So the issues I raised might be addressed eventually, but perhaps only if one of the WP developers decides for some reason to do so.

    The central problem, I think, is the open-source business model, and in a larger sense the lack of incentive to improve a product in a business context where a lot of the competitors are giving away their products. So WP remains a brilliant product, but one that is limited by the quirks of its main developer. Imagine an early Microsoft that wasn’t able to charge for DOS. Some superior products come out of open-source development environments, but it’s usually easier to develop products if you can sell them.

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