A technological fix for my New Year’s blog resolution?

So, how are you doing with your New Year’s resolution to monitor the comments on your blog and establish a higher tone of discourse?   That was the gist of what one of this blog’s readers put to me, making the point that the personal insults, hi-jacking of threads, and offensive comments have come back in force.   I told him that I was keeping my New Year’s resolution about the same way that most people have been keeping theirs by this time of the year (not even getting out of January)–namely, not keeping it at all.  I can offer excuses–another death in the family requiring unexpected travel, the press of other projects coming due, expected travel for professional commitments, classes starting, etc.–but I have not given up.   In addition, there have been other problems with Disqus, the discussion software this blog is stuck with, with comments disappearing and re-appearing, flagged comments sometimes going into moderation and sometimes not, and probably others.  So thanks to you readers who alerted me to these problems, and I apologize for the annoyances.  Anyway, I talked with the Patheos tech people, and let me explain what we have come up with.

If anyone flags a comment as offensive, it will go into moderation.  It will also disappear from the thread with the notation “This comment is awaiting moderation.”  Before, it took quite a few separate flags for this to happen.  Now, only one offended person can send the comment to a Purgatorial state.  This should be an incentive for everyone to “explain everything in the kindest way,” as we are told to do in the Catechism.  This can be done, no matter how sharp the disagreement, and it will be good practice for all.

But here is another feature:  If the comment “is awaiting moderation,” you can still read it if you want to!  Click “show comment” and you can read everything that was said, reply to it, and interact with the more controversial comments.  I, for one, appreciate some of the more pointed comments and find it helpful to engage with people who disagree strongly with me.

Eventually, I hope to “moderate” the flagged comments, reading through them and releasing at least some of them into the main line of discourse.  Understand, though, that this takes time, and it takes my having the time.  Some of the comments I will leave in limbo.  Others I will delete (particularly those that use obscene language).

Yes, I know the one-flag rule can be abused, but let’s try in good faith to make it work.  I have noticed some tit-for-tat flagging on both sides of an argument.  With the new settings, the two complementary offensive arguments–which readers in general dislike and  find distracting–will both disappear from the main thread.  Unless, of course, someone wants to read them.

Readership on this blog is surging, by the way.  That means we get a lot of new people dropping in.  I want them to be welcomed.  Nasty disputes scare them away and intimidate them from commenting.  This also means “outsiders” from our long-established community will be weighing in, offering different opinions and perspectives.  We need to be open to that.  At the same time, hostile outsiders can’t be allowed to just take over.   The person who  reminded me of my  New Year’s resolution  also made some shrewd connections to my Jesse James , pointing out that communities need to protect themselves.  And yet those little Minnesota towns ended up showing much grace to the Younger brothers, after they shot them up.

I know, I know.  There are no technological solutions to issues of the human heart, but let’s try this.

UPDATE:  It seems that someone, miffed that his comments were getting flagged yesterday (when the new settings were put into place), started flagging EVERYBODY, including comments that were innocent observations.  That’s Jesse James attacking Northfield and will not be tolerated.  Anyone doing that sort of thing will be banned.  Sorry about that.  I’m working to release those comments that were flagged unjustly.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Well, I have just spent the best part of the morning of a busy day going through several hundred flagged comments.  The biggest part of them I approved, including the victims of yesterday’s “flagocalypse.”  Some of them I didn’t, particularly those with, what shall we say, inappropriate personal references.  Let us have as a rule that there are to be no negative personal references to or about the person you are arguing with.  No calling anyone “stupid,” or a bad pastor, or “liar,” or “you call yourself a Christian,” or “you always. . .,” etc., etc.  People on all sides of debates have been doing this, and it’s just ugly to read.  You don’t need to say anything about the person you are addressing or disagreeing with.  Just state your point.   Perhaps sometimes there is a place for that, but that place is not on my blog.  As far as who was responsible for the flagocalypse and who needs to be exiled, some of you accused someone who denies flagging anybody, so I’ll take his word.  I’ll see if we have the technology to identify a lurker.  But if this goes on, I may have to just ban the biggest perpetrators of the personal insults, which would include some people I think highly of and who have made many positive contributions to this blog.  But this whole exercise has been very depressing.  There was a time when this blog was famous for its high level of discourse, and I am resolved to return it to that level.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE:  Thanks to suggestions some of you have made, I have asked Patheos to reset Disqus once again, so that it will take THREE flags of a comment to send it into moderation limbo.  More on this tomorrow.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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