Bloggers are the Italian Catholics of the Internet; we’re made to feel guilty about everything. We’re constantly told that our work doesn’t matter, that we’re narcissists, and that we’re nothing without our audience. Since content marketers often measure “success” in terms of page views, comments, and shares, it’s easy to see how we come to align the worth of our blog with our reader’s engagements with it. But there’s danger in that.

The danger is that it puts your audience in control. It makes you resistant to act in fear of alienating the people who, you’re told, pay your rent. And nowhere is this more apparent than over the issue of blog comments. Take away or edit someone’s ability to get their two cents in on your post and they’ll lash out like you took away their right to free speech.

Dear Internet, it’s not the same thing.

But as a blogger, what do you do? Do you gallow your readers to control your community or do you allow yourself to step in? When is okay to close an unproductive comment thread?  Is it ever okay?

Of course it is.  You close a comment thread when your gut tells you to.

There was a conversation over at The Atlantic last week that caught my eye as I was preparing to head to Long Island for the holiday. The Atlantic’s Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal shared his thoughts on closing blog comments after they shut down a thread and were taken to task for it by the Internet. In Alexis’ post he attempts to justify why he closed comments and what he learned from the experience. Alexis wrote a pretty solid defense, but the whole thing seemed a little silly to me. Not what he had to say, but that he was made to feel like he needed to say it. He didn’t.

The Atlantic is his house. It’s up to him to protect it. You try telling someone how to raise their child.  Then duck when they go to deck you.

While some mock me for it, I’m a big believer in community and allowing my community to have a voice. It’s why we allow comments on this blog and why we encourage discussions, even when the discussion is centered on how wrong I am and what a moron I am for having that opinion. That’s okay. I have years of experience in dealing with angry blog commenters. My self-esteem can take it. But I also know when a commenter or when a discussion has crossed the line. And I have no problem shutting it down when it has. Because that’s my job.

When will I close a comment thread?

  • When the comments get libelous.
  • When all the comments are doing is facilitating a merit-less fight.
  • When it’s not a discussion, its dirty laundry.
  • When the conversation has run its course and people merely fighting in circles.
  • When it’s damaging to the brand.
  • When I, as the community manager, decide it’s best.

If you’ve ever read our comment policy (it’s linked from every post) none of that should be surprising. What is surprising to me is that people like Alexis are still made to feel as if they need to justify their actions. In my opinion, they don’t.

Listen, you have every right to an opinion and to spend your day causing a shit storm if that’s how you get your giggles. But don’t confuse that with thinking you have a right to do it here. I’m a huge fan of Matt Mullenweg’s post on how to kill a community. If you read that post, you’ll see that is first tip for killing your community is to not moderate comments.

Matt writes:

Don’t Moderate. Allow anybody to post anything regardless of whether it contributes to the conversation or not. Stupidity, libel, hate, curse words are all okay because in the comments you have plausible deniability. Make sure people know that whatever they post will live forever, and anything goes. The few smart people you did have in your comments will enjoy responding to these folks. Advertisers love being next to a good fight, too.

Sometimes moderating the conversation means stopping it – either because the conversation has become a circus or because you fear that’s where it’s headed. I’ve deleted entire comment threads on this blog, have edited words and have emailed people warnings. I don’t apologize for it. I get paid for it.

Do I get it wrong sometimes? Yes. I’ve said publicly that I regret closing down comments on our It’s Not The Recession, You Just Suck post from back in 2009.  I felt the conversation had run it’s course, but looking back, perhaps I could have kept it open. However, I’ll take a few false positives in order to protect the sanctity of my community.

Every community is going to attract a few trolls. I don’t think you get your community badge of honor until you have someone who finds no better use of his/her time than to drop by your house and call you ugly. However, that’s very different from a conversation that is actually harmful to your blog and to those around it. That feeling in your gut will help you to tell the difference.  And when I feel that twinge, I don’t stand for that. You also shouldn’t expect a public apology every time I decide to shut something or someone down. Because this is my house. If that’s offensive to you, I hear there are a few other blogs on the Internet. We protect our community because we care about it. This blog is a representation of Outspoken Media and what it stands for . Sometimes that means we have to kick a vagabond or two off the lawn.  We’re okay with that.

But that’s us. What are your own rules for your community? Are all comments created equal or do you rule your house with an iron fist?


About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.


33 thoughts on “When Is It Okay To Close a Comment Thread?


  • Alan Bleiweiss on said:

    I’m not as popular as you so I only have one blog post where a reader tried to rip me apart. I mean, he got all indignant, comment after comment trying to prove his point. And I countered every one with a rebuttal. At first I just wanted to delete the whole thread. Yet of the many things I learned from you Lisa, it’s that allowing that type of dialogue can be healthy. For everyone concerned.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve deleted a few entire articles I’ve written, posted, and gotten comments on (even when they were all positive comments), because down the road, it just didn’t feel right to leave them out in the wild, because even I am able to recognize when something goes too far off the path and breaks the quality I attempt to maintain on my blog.

    Making these choices is no different than making IRL life choices – society or our upbringing may dictate we have to explain ourselves, as if somehow prove our choice to others. Yet we only need to offer a simple “it’s what I felt I needed to do”, if we feel moved to say anything at all. Because we’re the only ones in our shoes, on our own journey.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      Can I ask what types of posts you’ve deleted? What about it/them seemed “far off the path” that you felt you had to delete them instead of just letting them stand? I’m genuinely curious. There are certainly posts out there that I’ve written that makes me wince a little, but not so much that I’d delete them. Curious to what prompted it.


      • Alan Bleiweiss on said:

        A while back I ripped apart Facebook – I was furious at the privacy fail, and just went off the deep end in my rant. Pure anger turned hatred. Then there was an article where I ripped apart a company I thought was blindly deceiving consumers – while the vast majority of those type of posts are still up on SMW, one in particular was just too far beyond even my own threshold of acceptability.

        As much as I prefer to self-edit along the way, those two slipped through and only after the fact was I able to re-evaluate.


  • danielthepoet on said:

    So I’ll be the first one to say it: this sounds like a blindfolded explanation for why comments were closed when you recently announced changes in company leadership. You are obviously free to close comments whenever you like. But I think closing comments in that particular case was shortsided. People are going to talk. As we always say in ORM, the conversation is GOING to happen – it’s just a matter of whether you choose to influence the conversation.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      Honestly, I think people want to find drama in posts where there isn’t any, which is kind of sad. I made a decision to proactively close comments on that post because I didn’t think it’d be productive to leave them open and we didn’t need the distraction of having to moderate them, to be honest.

      Bringing things back to this post — people are always going to talk. Closing comments on a post certainly isn’t going to end that conversation, but some conversations are better had off-site, IMO. Everyone has a right to an opinion, community managers have a right to keep their house clean.


  • netmeg on said:

    I’m a strong proponent of letting people speak their minds. My background is in early days of UNIX conferencing, where pretty much nothing was ever moderated, people were quick to cry “censorship!” and keeping discourse unfettered was considered more important than staying on topic. That’s what I’m used to, and so it does bother me conversations I participate in (or would like to comment on) are shut down, and I’ll occasionally flounce off in a huff if I think things are being over-moderated (like on WMW at times). If the blog or forum is worthwhile, I’ll usually come back once I’ve gotten over it (like on WMW).

    But that said, the bottom line is, if you play in someone else’s yard, you have to play by their rules. There’s no “free speech” issues on someone else’s blog. You’re not entitled to a soapbox unless you put it up yourself. So if you can’t deal, vote with your feet.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      I agree. You’re a frequent commenter so you’ve seen a lot of the comments we’ve let through that other people probably would have immediately moderated out. But at the same time, it’s our house, our rules. Rand wrote a good post about this at SEOmoz awhile back that I really liked. It was bizarre to me to see an editor at The Atlantic having to justify why he closed comments on a particular thread. As if he owed people an explanation for how he runs that community. Let me come over and show you how to raise your kid. We’ll see how you like it.


  • Joe Hall on said:

    This is post comes at an interesting time for me. A few days ago I decided to shut down my first start up at oivillage.com Probably one of the hardest decisions I have ever made in my professional career.

    In a way shutting it down is like closing comments, except instead it is a whole networking site. My decision is based in the fact that we only get like 2 unique visitors a day, and it hasn’t made a profit in 3 years. For the last 2 years its been mostly an act of love for a community that I deeply care about.

    Most of the user base that has responded to my email notice have been supportive, but a few think I am heartless. What they don’t understand, is that I am shutting it down FOR THEM. As long as it stays up unattended and inactive it puts them and their personal data at risk. It also will hopefully push them to engage the community with networks like facebook that can waste money on them for a lot longer than I can.

    But ya know you really hit the nail on the head here, why do I feel the need to explain any of this? I built that house, and I can tear it down.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      That’s definitely a different spin on the same conversation. Sort of like when Yahoo announced they’d be closing Delicious and people went bananas. It sucks as a user, but it’s not your community. If you want to make sure it doesn’t go away, create one yourself or find a paying community that’s likely to be more stable.


  • Leo Dimilo on said:

    The idea that blogs should have comments these days is kind of crazy given the fact that there are now so many tools available in which you can actually extend the conversation beyond the self imposed walls of your website. After all, given the fact that many comments are created exclusively for a link or to leech traffic, it would seem to be MORE beneficial to the blogger to extend commentary out into the web. Not to mention that it gives you more time by reducing moderation tasks.

    Many high profile marketers (such as Michael Fortin) and even some bloggers (such as graywolf) have killed the comments and gone with encouraging “tweets”, “likes” and “buzzes”…things that are actually beneficial to the website. I may be wrong but I think that this is where the blogging community is headed.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      You may be right. I hope that bloggers don’t start killing comments, though. I agree there are SO many different platforms now for users to share their thoughts, but I think there’s something special that takes place in the comment section of a blog when a real discussion breaks out. It can be hard to replicate that on Twitter or Facebook because everything is so fragmented and disconnected. I can definitely see how comments + likes + shares + tweets all start to feel a little redundant, though. Thanks for sharing!


  • Freedom of speech on said:

    moderation is needed at some point to prevent spambots. i publish every comment wich is at least no spam, even when its a rude on. if spambots and this crazy AdSense/Sharewhatsoever and “i want donation” stuff wouldnt exist, i would love to publish all poste right to public.

    cheers


  • Jen Sable Lopez on said:

    Hey Lisa, thanks once again for a thoughtful post. I’m always interested in conversations like this because this is essentially what I do all day. While we rarely close comments on a thread at SEOmoz, they do get moderated. However they’re moderated after the fact, because we don’t want to hold the conversation from happening. We also have a blog policy and I have absolutely no problem editing or deleting a comment if they’ve gone too far. For the most part, this rarely happens, but SEOmoz is our house and it’s unacceptable to outright demean one of my family members (whether that be an employee or someone from the community).

    We get our fair share of trolls, but in my opinion closing comments won’t stop them from just coming back on the next post. Often times I’ll email someone directly and let them know our comment policy and let them know that if they keep it up, they’ll be banned.

    When it comes down to it, I would close comments on a thread if I felt it were necessary, but it would have to be pretty bad to get to that point.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jen! Didn’t Rand have a post on this same topic at some point? If not, I think it came up in one of the SEOmoz comment threads. I can see how comment moderation would be quite the job at a community as large and engaged as yours. Price of fame, I suppose.

      But I think you’re totally right. It all comes down to having a strict comment policy that you can point to and enforce when needed. If someone doesn’t adhere, see ya. It’s your community, your house.


  • Michel Fortin on said:

    I killed my comments because I was sick and tired of moderating, and didn’t want to hire staff to do it. If you moderate, you then take responsibility for what you allow or disallow to appear on your blog. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

    I was tired of the bickering, whining, bullying commentors. I wanted to create content. Period. Plus, I wanted to push the conversation into the social media space, which is where most of the comments occur.

    Whether it was beneficial or not wasn’t my concern when I closed comments down. I just didn’t want to deal with it.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      Heh. I think that’s a fairly common reason for closing down comments. It’s true. Once you turn on comments, you turn on the need to moderate those comments and having someone responsible for what does/does not get through. I appreciate you chiming in on this one. Thanks. :)


  • Ivan Walsh on said:

    Bloggers are the Italian Catholics of the Internet

    Best line I read all day.

    I thought the Irish Catholics had the IPR on that. hahahaha


  • Ross Hudgens on said:

    What would it take to get this comment thread closed? That’s the question I’m wondering.

    I disagree with Alan, Netmeg, Joehall, Jen, et all. $)*#$&(&$@ this post.

    Just kidding. Good topic!


  • TrafficColeman on said:

    Some people will be fools no mater what you do, and keeping them off your blog is an must foe me. I just block people IP so they can’t comment anymore..I don’t think I will ever close an blog comment.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”


  • netmeg on said:

    If I had a blog, I would not only turn off or delete comments at my discretion, but I would also reserve the right to edit the ones I don’t like until they were more to my taste, including but not limited to changing the commenter’s name, adding a nickname of my choice, correcting spelling, or just completely rewriting the bugger to an entirely different viewpoint or topic if I felt like it.

    Good thing I don’t have a blog.


  • Tyler Adams on said:

    This is an interesting post. I agree that bloggers can justifiably shut down/moderate comments whenever they want. I also agree that they don’t need to justify this to anyone. However, I think it would be stupid not justify closing the comments on a post if that is something that doesn’t regularly happen. Whether you (the blogger) like it or not, your readers feel entitled to comment. To take that away from them without explanation is almost encouraging your readers to rebel, to get upset, maybe even to feel betrayed. You typically encourage conversation, encourage openness, encourage people to use their real names…if all the sudden you take that away from them, then it is probably in your best interest to explain way. Should you have to? No.

    If a parent takes a toy away from his child, does that parent have to explain why? Of course not. Will it help the child understand and and learn if the parent does explain? Probably. Will it make the family (community) stronger with an explanation? I think so.


    • Lisa Barone on said:

      In terms of justification, I can see leaving one last comment explaining your reasoning, however, the reaction from the Web in Alexis’ case seemed completely ridiculous. There’s one thing to say, “hey, things are getting out of control, we’re shutting it down”, and being dragged through the streets until you write a full post explaining your actions. But I can appreciate the sentiment. If you regularly encourage A, it’s hard to suddenly pull a B.


  • Tony Verre on said:

    Lisa,

    Another great post. Closing down comments, or not allowing comments period, is a ballsy move for blogs, and ballsy for anyone. Period. Whether you’re celebrity or not, any time you take away the “mystery person’s” right to voice an opinion you’ll always get called out on it.

    It’s safe to say that I’ve never had this problem where threads get out of control, that comments need to be shut down. However, that said, I wouldn’t have a problem killing them off if things got out of hand. Your guidelines/rules for when to kill them off seem to be extremely reasonable.

    Community is a gelatinous word for me, especially when it occupies the same space as blogs or forums. Simply put, many claim there is one when there isn’t one there. Just a random sampling of folks. Community, in my opinion, is one of those “new-speak, buzz words”: overused and pretentious. Very few truly have one.

    The other half of the coin is that some folks post just to boost commenting (I admit that I’ve done this once or twice) and post is engineered to make people spit piss and vinegar. How do shut down something like that? Can you? Considering it’s your post that got the reaction it was looking for?


  • Joshua Dorkin on said:

    Most forums and various other communities die because the admins can’t or won’t moderate and close discussions. They get overrun with spam, nastiness, and other nonsense.

    One of the best ways to strengthen your community is to create a sense of order, and to let your members know that there are limits that they can’t cross. Otherwise, what results is chaos – and that chaos has a seriously detrimental affect on your brand – if you survive it.


    • Freedom of speech on said:

      i have to admit that. it seems to be a social skill people adopt to just sit and watch until things are messed up.

      if its a private board/website/blog its my turn to decide. its diffrent from censorship by goverment , cause i have to admit the rules, while there is noch chance to deny. except from going elsewhere….. but where to?

      i dont force users to look if the dont like stuff, the can just close it. i tried that several times with some goverments, sadly it doesnt work….


  • Dave Harrison on said:

    Lisa:

    We’re reposting this from Business Insider.

    We’ve been surprised that there’s not more discussion about this issue in the blogosphere. We launched our blog at http://www.tradewithdave.com just about a year ago. The growth has been amazing, but we still haven’t found a manageable strategy to deal with the feedback loop.

    We know enough about the wealth of networks, Metcalfe’s law, Lorenz attractors and Mandelbrot to know that we cannot completely unleash exponential growth until we have a feedback loop. We’ve had to choose between selling out our white space to Google Adsense and then turn those same dollars over to staff that would moderate the feedback loop. It didn’t make sense to us to be a gerbil on that wheel, but we still haven’t figured it out and we have tens of thousands of loyal monthly readers for a small blog.

    Not only is the issue of feedback and free speech a challenge, the technical solutions are also tough although gradually improving. Whether you use Disqus or IntenseDebate as a management tool or Facebook, Google, etc. as part of the Open ID standard, you still have to deal with the tech. Just try to post something on Huffington Post and you see how wonky it can be. BI is a great site, but sometimes the tech exhibits those same traits and it doesn’t work that great on an android mobile.

    We know enough about our readership to know that enough of their profile-driven behavioral economics would lead to advertisements on our website that don’t reflect our gestalt. In light of the reality of a tiered internet as approved in the recent FCC regulations, the stakes for the use of the web as a publishing platform have only been raised. Odds are that bloggers will wake up one day and find themselves thrust into the baccarat area of the casino where the little signs on the table read “$500 minimum.”

    In the meantime we’re still trying to figure out if the river that is the internet is contained within the name given by the native Americans to the Susquehanna river….. “mile wide… knee deep” as we keep carefully wading across feeling with our toes for that unexpected deep spot.

    Dave Harrison
    http://www.tradewithdave.com

    To read our article on the non-neutral nature of net neutrality, titled A Movable Beast, click here; http://tradewithdave.com/?p=4261


  • Gabriele Maidecchi on said:

    I think it ultimately comes down to the specific case, there’s no set rule apart from the obvious ones (racist comments etc). I think that every message contributing to the discussion has the right to be also controversial if needed, and I am a big hater of censorship of any form. However, I understand that in some situation there’s no much room for mediation, and that’s why I refer to a case-by-case policy.
    So far I haven’t had the need to shut down any thread or delete any comment, but since my blog isn’t exactly the most popular kid of the group, that’s kinda easy.


  • Jennifer on said:

    It’s interesting how relative anonymity on the net encourages ordinarily decent people to lash out with a huge array of hateful, sexist, racist, or just plain disrespectful things they would never say in person. I have only thought about closing comments on one blog entry, in which it became clear that the volley between me and a guest was not only going anywhere and getting less respectful, but was also causing me significant stress. The conversation ended before I did anything, but if it happens again on my personal blog, I would feel justified in acting sooner. Company and business blogs probably have more factors to consider before closing comments, but I think setting and enforcing rules for their own space is entirely appropriate.


  • Nick Norris on said:

    It’s funny, because recently I visited a post from someone I follow on Twitter, and the post left a LOT of room for debate; however, when I went to post a comment, I couldn’t find the comment form. I replied to the bogger asking him why he would write such a provocative post and not allow people to comment on it. He responded back by sending me over a couple links explaining why he doesn’t allow comments on his blog. Personally, I think that preventing discussion gives off the impression that “what I say is more important than what you say, and I’m not even going to give you the opportunity to prove me wrong..” But that’s just my opinion.

    Personally, I take the unmarketing approach and have a pretty loose comment policy. I will close down comment threads if they get too far out of hand, but that’s pretty rare for me. It may sound a little cliche’ but I think allowing your users to engage on your blog is much more important than making whatever point you are trying to make.


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