I’ve never removed a comment on this blog, even in fairly extreme situations. There are many reasons, including a general dislike of censorship and the notion that once I start policing content I become responsible for that which remains. There are also some purely practical concerns related to the near impossibility of such moderation actually being helpful. As the most active moderator on a forum through nearly a million contentious posts, I learned a few lessons that also apply to blogs.

  • Whipping out the moderator hat with no prior attempts to persuade or warn people only convinces them that you’re more interested in directing than in participating.
  • If moderation is necessary, it’s better to moderate an entire line of discussion instead of trying to make and enforce hard-to-defend distinctions between one comment and another. Everybody – participants and observers alike – has their own idea who initiated a thread’s decline. People’s annoyance at being “caught in the net” is nothing compared to their anger at being singled out.
  • Deleting comments is a bad idea. Often, a comment will contain both a good part and a bad part. At best, deleting both leaves the remainder of the conversation disconnected and nonsensical. At worst, it also tells people that the effort they put into the good part means nothing to you. Close comments, mark bad ones, but don’t delete.

Unfortunately, in the thread elsewhere that inspired my own recent post about standards, Herb Sutter managed to make every one of these mistakes. I’m not saying that he was unjustified in taking action; it’s his blog, he wants traffic, and I for one had stopped visiting that thread because I got tired of being called a “freetard” and such by some of the other participants. What I’m saying is that the action he took was ill considered and poorly executed. For example, I can see that one comment, which was 95% serious commentary with one rude remark, was removed in toto; the “tinfoil hat” insult to which that one remark was a response was allowed to stand. How this fits Herb’s desire for “respectful disagreement” is a mystery, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the “moderator” was reacting to what was said rather than how. Whether intentionally or not, he has done less to improve the tone of the discussion than to influence its direction.

That such authoriarian and inconsistent actions were taken in the context of a thread about standards and openness is particularly telling. For too many people, those terms are just marketing hooks and not sincerely held principles. We already have “greenwashing” for the same phenomenon as it applies to ecological concerns. We need a similar term for people who talk the inclusive talk but don’t walk the walk. It’s a shame really, because I think that overall Herb is a good guy who brings great value to the techie blogosphere, but in this particular instance he seems to have taken a stance against responsible blogging.