When Is It Okay To Close a Comment Thread?

December 28, 2010
By Lisa Barone in Content Strategy

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?

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