Freedom to comment isn’t free

The standard policy for blogs and online forums is for everyone to be free to add comments unless they repeatedly violate rules against swearing or personal abuse. In the past I have taken this approach on my personal blog and Facebook profile and so only blocked a handful of people over many years. This policy ensures that all comments, even those judged negatively by the original author, can be found somewhere in the resulting thread. But it has some major downsides, and I now wonder if it was a mistake.

People who write outrageous things and get banned never last long enough to do much harm. The real damage is done by frequent commenters who are uninformed, thoughtless, long-winded, mean-spirited or uncharitable. I have inadvertently wasted a lot of time over the years reading and responding to the resulting comments. While I could ignore them, that allows incorrect claims or poor character to go unchallenged. Even if I knew I were wasting my time doing this, obnoxious comments preoccupy me and lower my productivity whether directed at me or others. Many readers start scanning comment threads and I imagine they can find the experience similarly draining.

The worst case scenario is the ‘comment thread death spiral’. The best comments typically come from those whose time is most valuable: busy professionals who actively study or work in a given field. But comments threads are naturally dominated by those who spend much of their life on the internet commenting on blogs and often bring no particular expertise. Each foolish comment lowers the signal-to-noise ratio and reduces the attention good comments receive. This wastes everyone’s time. But it is particularly particularly annoying for ‘busy but informed’ commenters who barely have time to read the original post, let alone wade through lengthy comment threads. They realise their remarks will be crowded out by others, or they will have to wrangle with uninformed responses, and rationally opt out. As a result, bad comments disproportionately drive away the best ones. The average quality of comments falls and the cycle repeats. This partly explains the negative correlation between the quantity and quality of comments between blogs.

Despite the damage they do, most authors refuse to warn or block those who leave lousy comments because they do not violate social norms, and in most cases mean no harm. It is impossible to set up clear rules to specify which comments are helpful and which are not. Instead, the author must exercise a lot of responsibility and discretion, which they do not want to do because it is time-consuming and opens them up to conflict and criticism.

A nice alternative is up- and down-voting, which has worked well on Reddit and Less Wrong. This allows (anonymous) readers to notify everyone else about whether something is worth reading before they bear the cost of doing so. Modules for this are tricky to set up, and rely on a large, active and intelligent audience of voters. But they are invaluable and ought to be the default. A simpler option would be ‘highlighted comments’, which would let the author pin the best comments at the top of the page.

Where those options are unavailable, should we worry about authors choosing which comments, or commenters, remain on their websites? I think not. Most writers want to offer readers a good experience in order to attract more of them. When choosing commenters they will bear this in mind, just as they do when choosing the content of original posts. If you find their writing worthwhile out of the millions of blogs and books available, you can probably also trust them curate comments effectively if given the chance. Where they don’t, you can seek responses elsewhere or vote with your feet and read someone else. Personally, I feel that the benefit of not having my time wasted vastly outweighs the risk that I will be prevented from reading good responses, or have my own removed.

We don’t let strangers without interesting things to say interrupt and talk over conversations with friends and colleagues. We invite the people we want to our seminars, parties, and so on. Despite some drawbacks this model works pretty well, and it should be acceptable online more than it is today.

Update: a similar point made by someone familiar.

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  • Robert Wiblin

    Don’t be reluctant to comment now. 🙂

    • Hugh P

      OP is a fag.

      It’s interesting to look at the evolution of computer programming help forums. Originally, it was just a linear Question + answers, but now with sites like stackoverflow the high quality “comments” are much much easier to see, even for outsiders.

      I can’t see any reason why a system where comments ordered by time of writing would be better in any way than a system where comments were ordered by voting by the group of people who are free to comment (i.e. everyone for most public sites like reddit and overcoming bias).  The only potential downside is if you are trying to get the full range of views on an issue (including crazies). But I’d imagine a poll would be better for that.

      I’d imagine a possible improvement on up down voting would be to match readers with their preferred commenters — so if a reader upvotes a comment by a commenter, future comments by that commenter would appear more prominently than other comments with the same (global) upvote score.

    • AKAHorace

      For spectacularly bad comment threads see “Pharyngula”. The problem there is not just the quality of the comments but the quantity, people get into lengthy tiffs that end up taking over the threads. 

      You could have a system where everyone has a limited amount of comments, only a few trusted commentors who have a good track record would have more than this limit. The people who enjoy making poor comments tend to want to reply obsessively to everything; this would keep them away. 

  • I wish Blogger/Discus had a way of implementing HellBans, where a HellBanned user posts comments but only he can see them, and wonders why nobody bites. Alternative arrangement: HellBanned users can see each other, but nobody else can. 

    • That’s too easy to notice and circumvent and would probably enrage people even more than downvotes.

      The best strategy of all is to figure out how those people that you want to be banned ended up posting on your blog/forum in the first place and what exactly is it that bothers you about them.

      Real “trolls” are extremely rare and I don’t think I’ve seen even one on e.g. LessWrong.

      I am always amused how oblivious e.g. people associated with MIRI (formerly known as the Singularity Institute) are to the fact that those people who they perceive to be trolls seem to be solely focused on them rather than e.g. the Future of Humanity Institute. The forgone conclusion that they must be trolls prevents them from arriving at any other strategy than trying to gag them. 

      Another obvious insight should be that those people falsely labeled as trolls almost never show up at posts which are technical and precise or simply well-argued. The conclusion being that reducing vagueness should make it much harder for anyone other than a real troll to say something that you don’t like.

      • I rarely delete comments at my blog. But I see the troll farms that some other places wind up with, and imagine getting a lot of use out of Hellbanning. Even if they do catch on and get enraged, it’s way more work for them to shift computer / IP if enraged than for me to add one to the ban file.

  • I too have often wondered why “Discus” doesn’t implement a “Reddit Mode” turnkey system for any blog.

    • Tim Tyler

       You can vote on posts and sort by “best rating”. However, there’s no “dislike” – and voting is forced to be anonymous.

  • Don Geddis

    If this blog had adopted the reasonable suggestions in the OP, you would not be seeing this comment.

  • The only interesting claim in this vicious little piece of signaling is that comment frequency negatively correlates with comment quality. Contrary to my observation in many forums and contrary to the general evidence, which is that in general quantity of output correlates positively with output. 

    I have to confess: I’m the frequent commenter who spawned this OP. 

  • Douglas Knight

    Not so directly connected to your post, but I’ve been meaning to say that the comments abruptly got much worse when the volume of posts went down. I think it is the same number of comments spread over fewer posts.

    • Eh, I suspect the (perceived ?) decline in comment quality is related to the decline in post quality – or to be more charitable – people who liked Hanson’s posts may bristle at the other posts.

      Hanson was intriguing, unpredictable, fun to read. The newcomers posts are quite jarring. At least for me.

      • Robert Wiblin

        Hey Alexei/Douglas,

        I’m not sure whether the comments have declined that much since we started. I don’t really trust my memory enough to say how they’ve changed over the last few years.

        Sorry to hear you find our posts jarring. I’m open to any constructive feedback and imagine the others feel the same! Feel free to email me if you would prefer.

  • Anoan

    Yes the upvote system on lw helps to maintain that cult circle-jerk vibe, is that what you’re going for?

    • Agreed, big problem with voting systems.

      If anything, the upvote only system (like on this site!) is best IMO.

      • Actually, both systems could coexist on a single website.

        Imagine a system where users can upvote and downvote, and they can select whether they prefer to calculate the total karma from both upvotes and downvotes, or only from upvotes (or anything between).

      • Great suggestion.  This is also suggested in Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control,” in several areas, discussing feedback. I highly recommend that optimizing different kinds of emergence be the goal of all posting, and taking advantage of higher and higher levels of emergent order, and being able to ascend and descend the hierarchy based on threshold-based filters.  Several filters should be able to be applied.  (Positive, Negative total rank above and below a threshold, but also total “disagree with politics rank,” or neutral of judgment categorized from dropdown of various philosophies, “objectivist-categorized,” “collectivist-categorized,” “self-political-categorization” “self-political-categorization of all comments mismatches community assessment of remark’s philosophy by over 10 points” etc.)

        To some extent, LW already does this (allows one to hide comments below a threshold, which assumes that longtime commenters will be smarter, better judges than raw emergence, etc.), but having several of my highly critical, but high-utility and rationally prioritized posts downgraded and hidden by people who simply put in a lot of time at LW has repelled me.  It’s a garden that has a lot of beautiful flowers planted by the gardener (Eliezer) but also a lot of people stomping on things they think are “weeds” (the symbiotes of those flowers).

        It’s enough for me that interested artilects scan the comments at some future point.  I don’t need to impress a bunch of stupid humans who can’t even prioritize keeping themselves out of sociopath deathcamps (and are too intellectually cowardly to even discuss the subject with reference to reality).  Seems to me, some of Marvin Minsky’s “negative expertise” is called for on LW.  My guess is that one only gets significant “negative expertise” by communicating with a lot of smart people, in both meatspace and cyberspace and different networks of both.  Before one does that, the problem can’t be clear, because of evolutionary social programming.

    • Robert Wiblin

      It’s a problem due to the in-group out-group culture of Less Wrong more generally. Without voting the comments section would be noise which would be even less useful.

      • Without voting the comments section would just be noise which would be even less useful.

        Looking at some recent Reddit threads on LW related issues, some of those people who are normally upvoted on LW are downvoted and vice versa. Which seems to indicate that ‘noise reduction’ is not equal to maximizing the standard of epistemic rationality with respect to reputation systems. Which in turn should partly disqualify such systems for use on sites devoted to truth, accuracy and the refinement of rationality.Obviously such systems have their uses. But their positive effects seem to be exaggerate and their shortcomings ignored by LessWrong.

      • Robert Wiblin

        Any ideas what would work better?

      • VV


        Any ideas what would work better?

        Named up/down votes, named upvotes and no downvotes and (e.g. Facebook ‘likes’), requirement or suggestion to motivate downvotes (e.g. the Stack Exchange forums).

        The LessWrong system of anonymous up/down votes, and the karma penality/ban for answering downstream of downvoted comments (even your own), incentivizes groupthink and silly status politics. It’s also prone to abuse: there are often complaints from people who got all their old comments downvoted in a row, not to mention how easily the system can be subverted using sockpuppets.

      • @google-a440896de6828195755813ebe44bbdf9:disqus 

        Any ideas what would work better?

        Downvotes are the biggest problem. Without downvotes you can still use upvotes for noise reduction etc. yet without all the side effects of negative incentives.

        Negative incentives in the form of downvotes only cause people to become emotional or make uncharitable conclusions. But if some opinions simply get more votes than others, then that is at worst recognized as a bad judgement of the majority, not as a personal attack or the attempt to censor opposing opinions.

        Another possibility for improvement, if you want to keep negative incentives, is to punish those who repeatedly downvote people without explaining what is wrong. This is important because it would allow those who are downvoted to learn about the reasons of those who downvote them and then update based on those reasons. If for example the reasons are a subjective disagreement, then they should not change their opinion because they are not factually wrong. Those who downvote you might also be unable to explain themselves. You can’t possibly infer that from the change of a number associated with your submission.

        Just two quick ideas. There are others.

      • @google-a440896de6828195755813ebe44bbdf9:disqus 

        Any ideas what would work better?

        Counter question, would you feel comfortable replacing the usual academic peer review process by public up and downvotes? Do you think it would be good to have Wikipedia entries filtered by up and downvotes? 

        Something that would be much harder but would allow the effective use of reputation systems is to only use such systems given that the goal of the discussion is unambiguous and well-defined and that all participants are informed about the subject and share a common goal. 

        In the case of Reddit the goal is often to filter content for “awesomeness”. The result is that on average most people find the top-voted posts and comments interesting or agreeable. Is that a good idea for LessWrong though?

      • Arch1

         Any ideas what would work better?

        It is not for every discussion, but some debates would I think benefit from a tool which could dynamically represent the logical/evidential structure and state of an evolving multiparty debate.  I believe that many complex debates get lost in the weeds in part because the available tools (essentially text threads or trees) only very crudely support the logical structure of the arguments. 

        If anyone is aware of such a tool, I’d love a pointer.

  • david3368

    A former blogger here made a similar argument:

    It was once a well-kept garden of intelligent discussion, where knowledgeable and interested folk came, attracted by the high quality of speech they saw ongoing. But into this garden comes a fool, and the level of discussion drops a little—or more than a little, if the fool is very prolific in their posting. (It is worse if the fool is just articulate enough that the former inhabitants of the garden feel obliged to respond, and correct misapprehensions—for then the fool dominates conversations.)

    So the garden is tainted now, and it is less fun to play in; the old inhabitants, already invested there, will stay, but they are that much less likely to attract new blood. Or if there are new members, their quality also has gone down.

    Then another fool joins, and the two fools begin talking to each other, and at that point some of the old members, those with the highest standards and the best opportunities elsewhere, leave…

  • A good alternative is up and down-voting, which has worked well on Reddit and Less Wrong.

    With major caveats

  • anon

    Could this be generalized to other forms of communication too? In politics and public discussion, do ignorant, but vocal individuals who spend large fraction of their time engaging in public discussion crowd out more informed, but also more busy professionals?

  • Robert Koslover

    Hmm.  Mr. Wiblin, so you’ve been blogging at this site for just a short time, but already you want to change the rules?   Already you find yourself desiring to block or remove posts that, in your own judgement, are a waste of time?  Hmm.

    • Robert Wiblin

      Comments here aren’t so bad, but naturally there are a minority we would be better off without. There are other blogs where editing, voting or highlighting would add more value – Marginal Revolution for example has many some awesome comments but they tend to get drowned out.

      • Robert Koslover

         Now, this is a bit humorous/ironic.  My earlier comment has just now (at least, at the moment I am typing this) been replaced with “This comment was flagged for review.”   Now, I doubt this particular flagging was your personal action, Mr. Wiblin.  Um…  Right?  🙂

      • Robert Wiblin

        Hah I think another commenter is enjoying the irony too! 🙂 I think I’ve managed to restore it.


    I think the reason why we shouldn’t look too much at the “quality” of comments is a) confirmation bias (no matter how smart he/she is, the author can quickly fall into the pitfall of branding comments they don’t agree with as being “bad” or “uninformed”) and b) even if you could filter for quality you might end up with so few commenters that the blog runs dry.

    If you’re going to implement a vote system, don’t have a downvote button, only an upvote button (which this blog does right). Also, have indentation for replies (which this site has but only for two replies, maybe that should be five).

  • Roy Stogner

    “If you find their writing worthwhile … you can probably also trust them curate comments effectively…”

    Aren’t there any psychological reasons why people capable of intelligently producing new ideas might nevertheless not be the best at rationally evaluating criticisms of their own ideas?  Perhaps some reasons we should be looking at Overcoming?

  • Talking to your readers about this was probably a mistake.

    I like the “featured comments” idea.  All the smart people would soon learn not to read non-featured comments, and the Caledonians of the world could just drop into the void.  Or an “author hide” function which is easy for people to override in the preferences, but by default gives people the experience the author wants them to have.  Don’t trust the author not to hide intelligent comments?  You shouldn’t be reading an author like that in the first place!  (Don’t trust *me* with that much power?  Stop reading my stuff.  Seriously, go away.)

    This comment has been posted here because it would get downvoted on Less Wrong.

    • froginthewell

      Unfortunately there are too many intelligent and insightful bloggers whose attitude to comments is far less than healthy. There is a trade off to be made that is not at all pleasant to deal with.

    • I find Caledonian/melendwyr more interesting than the average commenter. He can be overly brief/cryptic sometimes though.

  • Coming back to this discussion, I am struck by) Robert Wiblin’s smug confidence that he is capable  of judging the quality of posts (without demonstrating any basis for so supposing) and 2) the lack of almost any recognition that what is called “quality” on a site like this has ideological agreement as its principle component..

    The complaints about “quality” come exclusively from political rightists, and they are implicitly directed at liberal or socialist Commenters. There are some reasons for this that I can’t completely disparage. “Dissident” Commenters tend to comment more; it’s easier to contribute to a discussion when you disagree. (Also, Comments will generally tend to be a little “meaner” across ideological lines.) Aversion to this political trend among Commenters is the sole  reason for Robert Wiblin’s post. He hides this reality under a mask of intellectual overconfidence and disparagement of opponents (as slackers, not “busy people.”)

    LW is organized to exclude those with different ideologies. I can’t say that’s necessarily a bad idea, but it should be done honestly (not LW’s way, either), not by pompously claiming the mantle of expert when you’re really a greenhorn.

    Now, take this post. To the point, it is one that Wiblin would like to exclude. I think it makes new points that needed to be stated. Would it be better to exclude its abrasiveness? A supportable contention, but it wasn’t really examined because Robert Wiblin was too concerned with claiming the mantle of quality and signaling that he’s a busy person.

  • if I t ain’t broke don’t fix it!