Why Comments Policies Are Useless

By Cyberquill 05/17/201212 Comments

Blogmasters and operators of online discussion forums often have a written “comments policy” designed to explain to the potentially confused would-be interlocutor what types of commentary are welcome and acceptable on their little plots of cyber-turf and what types are deemed offensive or otherwise undesirable and hence subject to removal and possible further sanctions up to and including the offending party getting slapped with a virtual restraining order.

Displaying official-sounding verbiage of any kind, of course, adds a nimbus of professionalism to any product or operation, destitute of necessary and useful information as such verbiage may be upon reflection.

The typical comments policy reads something to the effect that while disagreement is permitted and vigorous debate is encouraged, blah blah blah, comments that include personal attacks, profanity, or spam, that are sexually explicit or violate any laws, or that stray too far afield from the topic at hand, will not be tolerated and may result in anything from simple comment deletion to banning recidivists from future participation, yada yada yada, usually topped off with some catchall clause emphasizing the forum operators’ sole discretion when it comes to determining what constitutes a breach of etiquette and setting appropriate penalties, i.e., that they reserve the right to remove comments and block commenters at any time and for any reason whatsoever, stated or unstated.

Basically, if you’ve read one comments policy, you’ve read them all. You’ll find more variety in a tube of Pringles than in all the comments policies ever posted on the entire World Wide Web combined.

Stripped of all minutial surplusage and boiled down to their essence, all these policies say one thing, and one thing only. Webmasters could save a lot of time and pixels if instead of the prolix blather they posted this synopsis:

If I (we) don’t want your comment on my (our) site, I (we) will take it off. If you keep annoying me (us), I (we) may block you.

This pithy sentence conveys exactly the same information as do its prolix brethren we keep seeing all over the place. Since it perfectly encapsulates what common sense tells us constitutes everybody’s operative between-the-lines comments policy anyway, there’s little need for posting even the short version.

So who exactly are all these comments policies meant to address, and what sort of confusion are they designed to resolve?

Obviously, so-called “trolls,” i.e., folks intent on stirring animosity and causing disruption, most certainly won’t be deterred by a comments policy, so it’ll be lost on them by definition.

Anyone intellectually and technically sophisticated enough to post comments at all is probably also bright enough to know that whenever they post comments in places where other people (a) have access to the Delete button and (b) possess the absolute legal right to push it anytime they please, any of these comments may get zapped at any time and for any reason, whatever the dopey comments policy may say. A monkey could make the case that virtually any comment falls under some prohibited category. The line “I really enjoyed this wonderful post” could be regarded as either so sarcastic or so dull and unimaginative as to be adjudged offensive and intolerable.

And anyone that lacks the intuitive understanding that the very types of comments commonly listed in comments policies as objectionable stand an inherently reduced chance of remaining on display for very long, most likely won’t gain much more enlightenment from studying a standard-issue comments policy than they would gain from staring at its Aramaic transliteration.

But even if one does possess such intuitive understanding, the problem isn’t trying to figure out whether, say, personal attacks or “offensive” comments are welcome in a given forum—they generally aren’t, whether explicitly stated so in a written comments policy or not—but to figure out what exactly counts as as any of these things in the minds of those that moderate the forum. For something to be considered offensive, it takes an actual person to be offended—if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?—and what comes across as an “attack” to one person amounts to an instance of innocuous teasing to another.

For instance, a few years ago I got myself banned for life from billoreilly.com because in the course of some conversation on the site’s message boards I had jokingly referred to two other members as “drama queens” in violation of the no personal attacks clause in the site’s official comments policy. Of course, if you’ve ever seen Bill O’Reilly thunder away at his guests, you’d never guess that a relatively innocuous epithet like “drama queen” would be grounds for immediate and irrevocable termination in a forum that bears his name. If O’Reilly participated in discussions on his own message boards, he’d get himself banned for life from his own site within less than 20 minutes.

Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson, runs an excellent blog on leadership, social media, and personal growth. Some time ago he published a piece on the merits of having a comments policy: to set some ground rules and let people know what to expect. 

So let’s take a look at Mr Hyatt’s own comments policy, where he states that he reserves the right to delete comments that are “snarky, offensive, or off-topic”:

Specifically, I will delete your comments if you post something that is, in my sole opinion, (a) snarky; (b) off-topic; (c) libelous, defamatory, abusive, harassing, threatening, profane, pornographic, offensive, false, misleading, or which otherwise violates or encourages others to violate my sense of decorum and civility or any law, including intellectual property laws; or (d) “spam,” i.e., an attempt to advertise, solicit, or otherwise promote goods and services. You may, however, post a link to your site or your most recent blog post.

To me, this whole laundry list of prohibitions (“snarky”, “off-topic”, “libelous”, “harassing”, “threatening”, “profane”, etc.), once again, boils down to “If I don’t like your comment, I’ll take it off,” the universal rule which, as I pointed out earlier, applies to any forum, and which tells me nothing I couldn’t have guessed on my own using plain old common sense. Without knowing the man, how am I to know what he, in his sole opinion, might consider “snarky” or “offensive”? That could literally be anything, which renders his whole comments policy of rather limited utility when it comes to trying to predict the life expectancy of any comment I’m about to post on his site.

In other words, after reading his comments policy I’m just as smart as I was before. The only way to find out how he defines any of the terms on his list is to go the heuristic route, i.e., to post normally without worrying about the “rules” and then observe which comments survive and which ones get zapped. Needless to say, I can do that anywhere without ever reading any comments policies in the first place, which goes to show that these things are practically worthless.

The other day, Mr Hyatt published a post on the benefits of hiring a remote “virtual” assistant as opposed to a physically present one. In making his case, Mr Hyatt included a list of reasons against enlisting the latter, among them:

An affair will cost you more than you think.

So going with a “virtual” assistant eliminates the risk of running up a hefty divorce bill in consequence of having succumbed to prurient impulses during one of those late nights stuck in the office with a hot secretary.

Makes sense, but then later in the post, Hyatt writes this:

What can an virtual assistant do for you? Anything that does not require her physical presence.

This prompted me to leave the following comment in the post’s comment section:

An affair can cost you more than you think, and a virtual assistant can do anything that doesn’t require her physical presence? Having an affair doesn’t require anyone’s physical presence these days. People have online affairs all the time, you know, sending little pictures and clips back and forth and having virtual trysts via Skype.

Shortly after posting my comment, I received an email from one of the blog’s moderators, informing me that my comment had been deleted as it had “raised some concerns with the community and was deemed snarky/offensive/off-topic” and that if “these types of comments” continue, it could lead to “further action.” The email also included a link to Mr Hyatt’s comments policy as if that policy contained the definitions of “snarky”, “offensive,” and “off-topic,” which, of course, it does not; yet it is precisely those definitions that I would need in order to understand the problem with my comment.

First of all, I’m having trouble reconciling the phrase “concerns with the community” in the email with the phrase “in my sole opinion” from the comments policy—which is it? Either the community determines what’s snarky/offensive/off-topic, or Mr Hyatt makes the call in his “sole opinion.” How can his sole opinion decide what the community deems offensive?

Second, and more germane to this discussion, for the life of me I can’t figure out in what way my comment may have been snarky, offensive, or off-topic by even the most elastic readings of these adjectives.

Sure, I’m aware that the community in question is of the overtly “Christian” persuasion and that people with strong religious convictions tend to become somewhat more easily disquieted by references to certain topics than the rest of us, but the post itself had brought up the concept of an “affair,” which, no doubt, even the most devout Christian is aware denotes a type of relationship a trifle more carnal than merely holding hands in church.

So if anything raised “concern with the community,” it should have been the blog author’s own reference to banging the secretary. All I added to this already broached concept were the words “pictures,” “clips”, “tryst,” and “Skype” in order to point out that virtual affairs, too, can cost more than you think; in fact, they might be just as risky, or even more so, due to a potentially inflated sense of safety afforded by physical remoteness and the attendant danger of some explicit evidence ending up on Facebook because someone hit a wrong button on their iPhone.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “tryst.” Why knows?

But this is what I mean: I could have studied and memorized the comments policy including all the dictionary definitions of all the terms it contains until I was able to recite it all backward, and not in a million years would I have anticipated that this particular comment of mine would be regarded as a violation and earn me a warning. What’s next? If I include the term “cucumber” in a comment, will the community wax “concerned” again and “further action” be taken?

Ergo, comments policies are a waste of space. If the operator(s) of a forum doesn’t like a comment, they’ll take it off anyway, no matter what it says in the comments policy, especially if the policy contains one or more wastebasket terms like “offensive” that may cover anything—obviously, no one can prove that a comment is not offensive in a particular individual’s sole opinion. And if an individual authorized to delete and block gets offended or disturbed for any reason, how much insight into human nature does it take to realize that he or she may indeed use those powers even without having this contingency spelled out in an official policy?

And I’d like to meet a spammer who, unless he’s read a site’s comments policy, seriously expects his Viagra links to not be subject to removal.

Now you may leave comments in the comment section below.

If I don’t want your comment in my comment section, I’ll delete it.

You think that’s vague? You betcha it’s vague.

At the same time, it’s just as informative as any other comments policy.

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  • Peter Practice

    I went there and reposted your comment, replacing “thrysts” with “dates”.  Let’s find out.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Cool. Now I can expect “further action” on suspicion of reposting my own opprobrious comment using a phony identity. 

  • Blueoceanboy

    You have issues.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Am I to take this as a personal attack, a show of genuine solicitude regarding my mental salubrity, or an instance of  good-natured raillery? 

  • Richard

    Anyone
    who bans you from their website suffers the far greater loss, Peter. Over the
    few years that I have been reading your comments, I have derived enormous and
    lasting pleasure from your pithy observations and your quirky and original wit
    and humour. Never are they objectionable or upsetting and when you are frank
    you are gentle. Your integrity is absolute. This is my chance to thank you for
    all that.

    The topic of this post is one which engaged me throughout the
    forty or more years of my working life. It is always necessary to make a
    permanent record of any terms which apply to a legal relationship, for people
    always deny knowledge either through failure of memory (extremely common) or dishonesty
    (extremely rare).

     

    It is interesting, though, that website owners should seek
    to impose conditions on visitors. Have they satisfied themselves that it is legally
    possible to do so, or whether there is any legal relationship for them to
    attach conditions to? I suppose they are protecting themselves, just in case.

     

    When I first started drawing up legal documents, it was one
    of those occult arts that only initiates were admitted to. Long sentences
    without punctuation could be understood and emulated only by constant exposure
    and required a sense of rhythm and knowledge of a special syntax and
    vocabulary.

     

    It was disappointing for those who had honed those skills
    when the campaign for plain English started. In its place came a competition
    between draftsman to say as much as they could in as few words as possible. The
    result was an incomprehensibility that arose from desiccation of the language.

     

    Exposure to risk was another consequence. It was easy to
    make omissions and provide the litigious with loopholes. Then word-processing
    came along and standard forms of words became the ideal of the lazy. Those
    words were continuously added to as the result of litigation or neurosis and
    since reproduction was far easier than persuading a reluctant manual typist,
    the current prolixity and lack of structure in legal documents became the norm.

     

    The attentive can still derive pleasure from reducing length
    without risk or loss of meaning. It involves treating language as a living
    organism . With care and understanding risk may even be reduced.

     

    Your posts are in stark contrast to your comments. You seem
    to revel in stating your axioms and following through to logical conclusions at
    great prolixity. It is a joy to watch these intellectual excursions, even if
    your axioms are sometimes arbitrary. Dare I point out, though, that you
    yourself may have an attachment to  great
    numbers of words which some may not always consider totally necessary? :)

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Necessary, right. My favorite concept. You know, there’s this joke about a child that has never spoken a word. All therapies fail, so the parents finally give up and make peace with the fact that they have a mute son. One day—the kid has grown into a teenager by now—the family is having lunch, and he suddenly says, “Where the hell is the ketchup?” The parents are dumbfounded. “You talk? You can talk? Why haven’t you ever said anything until now?” The son responds, “Until now, the ketchup was always on the table.” 

      Brevity and simplicity in writing are certainly virtues, but, alas, it often takes a lot less time to compose long rambling expatiations on a subject than short and pithy ones, as the latter usually involve the extra and time-consuming step of condensing the rambling first draft. I think in contrast to privacy and disclosure statements, the posting of which has some protective merits from a legal perspective, comments policies mainly exist for convenience, so webmasters can point to them whenever a commenter complains about having had a comment deleted. As Hyatt writes elsewhere in his comments policy, “The First Amendment gives you the right to express your opinions on your blog not mine.” That’s absolutely correct. Every webmaster has the legal right to delete whatever they like on their own sites, even without posting a policy.  I’m wondering, though, if webmasters also have a legal right to perform meaning-altering edits on comments left by visitors. Let’s say you visit my blog and leave the comment “God save the Queen.” Then I change your comment to “God let the Queen choke on one of her silly hats,” thus making you look like an anti-monarchist. A few hours later, through no fault of your own, a bunch of those red coats with the tall black bearskin caps bust into your house, cuff you, and throw you in the Tower for high treason or sedition or something. In fact, I could just write idiotic comments myself, post them in my own comment section,  attribute them to other people, add backlinks to their websites, and then hide behind the claim that this is my blog, where I can do whatever I want. Could the victims sue me for defamation or impersonation? This seems to be an entirely different legal situation from simply deleting comments on our sites, which we have a perfect right to do.

      • Richard

        Was the question about the ketchup a rebuke or a genuine enquiry? Or is it a fictitious illustration of extreme economy of words? Perhaps it is a whodunnit. You may have to expand.

        One of the skills I have acquired is to keep my legal opinions to myself or to make them so ambivalent as to be worthless. I have given up the latter option as requiring too much effort. I therefore remain silent on the legal aspects of the issues you raise.

        I hope my spacing doesn’t play tricks this time. Here goes …

        • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

          The First Amendment gives you a right to remain silent on your blog not mine. 

          Since your spacing may carry meaning, I refrained from fixing it for fear of suffering the very kind of legal consequences you refuse to discuss. 

          The question about the ketchup was one of necessity. For the first time in this young man’s life, it was necessary to say something.

          • Richard

            [aside] I must stay on-topic.

            So where was the ketchup?

            • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

              The ketchup was on its honeymoon

  • jenny

    WordPress deleted a comment I made on an article about the popularity of its services.  The piece featured an a map indicating where WordPress users live, and it was clear that Russia (especially Siberia) has very few wordpressers, so I proposed that (for a small fee) I would travel around the Russian countryside talking up blogging on WP.  It was obviously a bit of silliness, but I guess the site administrator read it as a solicitation.  Or maybe Admin did not want a reader pointing out that WP has a poor showing east of the Urals.  Oy.

    I couldn’t help think of that terrific book “The Commissar Vanishes,” even if that makes me something of a drama queen.  (If I call myself a drama queen, am I in danger of being banned for life from billoreilly.com?)

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      I’ll ban you for life if you keep plugging books on my blog. 

      No idea why you’d get censored for offering to go to Siberia. Except for Siberians, why would anybody not wish you were there? 

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