Site Notes

Ask RTH Users: Do You Want Comment Voting?

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 07, 2009

I have been hearing feedback recently from some Raise the Hammer users that the quality of discussion in the comments has been declining. In particular, this comment from yesterday suggested that the comments should be "self moderating".

In response, I have been considering adding a comment voting system to the site. Here is how it would work:

This functionality would only be available to registered users, though such users could vote on any comment, even a comment by an anonymous user. Similarly, anonymous users would be able to see the votes for each comment; but they would not be able to vote.

User registration is easy, and it already allows registered users to: a) include an optional homepage link, signature line and email address (the default is to hide your email address); and b) include clickable hyperlinks in their comments. Also, anonymous comments are screened for common "spam words" whereas comments from registered users have no such restriction.

So, I'm taking a straw poll on what the RTH user community thinks. Please reply in the comments to say whether you agree with this and would like to see it added. If the response is strongly positive, I'll go ahead and build it.

One more thing: I do not want to add functionality to let people set the bozo bit on a given user, i.e. block all comments from a user by default. I would prefer to encourage good behaviour in the comments through feedback, and simply silencing everything from a particular user risks throwing out the good with the bad. Also, there is nothing to stop an anonymous user from picking a different screen name, and I would rather not provoke an escalating war of competing sock puppets.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:28:54

Oh, please, please, please! How soon can you have this up and running?

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By Frank (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:41:08

love it...provided a user can only vote on a comment once.

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By reuben (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:41:11

i vote yes for comment voting.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:47:05

Fourthed. I may just bother to register now just to take advantage of this.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:50:02

Sounds like a good plan Ryan. I agree that any filtering should be done on a comment by comment basis rather than by user to avoid both sock puppeting and to keep the site as open and inclusive as possible. Though I do worry that we'll get people registering a bunch of identities just so that they can "stuff the ballot box" and artificially increase or decrease a score.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:55:28

Frank wrote:

love it...provided a user can only vote on a comment once.

Absolutely. That's why only registered users would be able to vote - there would be no way to prevent anonymous voters from voting multiple times.

UrbanRenaissance wrote:

I do worry that we'll get people registering a bunch of identities just so that they can "stuff the ballot box" and artificially increase or decrease a score.

That is a concern, and we'll have to wait and see how serious it is. I can certainly ameliorate this somewhat by requiring each registered user to have a unique email address - but of course it's not that hard to create throwaway email addresses.

Ideally, most people won't consider their comment score on RTH to be important enough to bother going to great lengths to game the system. :)

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By JonC (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:57:26

I'm in favour. I can't see any one person creating multiple identities, but I assume that would constitute abuse and end in a banning.

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By zookeeper (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 11:58:22

Well, this would certainly assist my efforts to keep our resident troll on a strict diet. You have my vote.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 12:14:21

based on my experience on other web forums, these sorts of measures don't work. Most of us might think that "nobody would create multiple identities", but that's exactly what trolls do, and will always do.

Go ahead and do it...the first few weeks will be nice, but after that, expect a slew of 'new users' and more trolling.

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By reuben (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2009 at 12:16:22

im not sure multiple identities would be a problem since we would be voting by comment not by user. if the comment is good/strong/acceptable/whatever, it will get voted up. if it is off topic/inane/insulting/etc, it will get voted down.

while comments by certain users may get voted down more than others, it really has little to do with their username.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 12:18:08

I know my last comment may sound a bit paranoid, but believe me I've seen it happen before.

The internet does strange things to otherwise rational people, see the "John Gabriel Greater Internet Dickwad Theory" below.

http://www.penny-arcade.com/docs/interne...

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By reuben (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2009 at 12:22:30

i really hope that a system like this will push users to put more thought and research into their comments if they are trying to say something substantial -- maybe putting things into context based on the readership of RTH, or to try different methods to get their point across. im not looking to silence users, but to increase the quality of comments.

i think that the 'trolls' on RTH are still trying to participate in the community to some extent, unlike other trolls on the internet, who just want controversy and distruction. things are a bit more focused here.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 12:25:06

but repetitive

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By reuben (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2009 at 12:42:29

but repetitive

yes. and believe me the repetition will get voted down. especially if it is off topic to the original post.

if users like A Smith find that their comments continually get voted down, and they still want to be hear -- then they should try to stay more on topic, or to rephrase their argument in light of the audience, or if the majority of users on RTH are still not receptive, find another venue to voice their opinion.

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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2009 at 12:53:06

I'd be in favour, as long as people don't vote against comments just because they disagree.

But if someone is obviously trolling, then go for it.

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By openforum (anonymous) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 16:25:14

The supression of comments simply because enough people voted negatively against the comment sounds an awful lot like censorship to me. If not enough people like what you say, your opinion will be supressed. Not exactly the kind of activity one would expect to find at RTH.

RTH describes itself as such: "Raise the Hammer is dedicated to providing a variety of views and approaches to the goal of making Hamilton a great city. Towards that end, we encourage readers to contribute feedback, letters to the editor, and article submissions."

I am not sure how the practice of supressing unpopular comments could be reconciled with this statement. I can understand frustration with comments like what A Smith has made in the past, but IMO a policy like this would compromise this site's integrity, to the point where I personally would be reluctant to continue visiting this site.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2009 at 16:36:14

openforum wrote:

The supression of comments simply because enough people voted negatively against the comment sounds an awful lot like censorship to me.

It's important to understand that each person would be able to choose their own comment score threshold - by default, it would allow all comments - and that even a comment that falls below an optional threshold is still available to be read, but is not displayed automatically.

No one would be able to suppress what anyone else gets to see, and each person would have the right to set a threshold that is comfortable for them.

The state of affairs today is that many people are a) reluctant to participate in the comments for fear of being trolled, and b) finding that the comments are adding little value since they are overrun by trolls.

In other words, unregulated trolling is effectively suppressing the free expression that the comments system is supposed to encourage.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 18:25:15

Ryan would have the ability to remove or modify the moderation if it was being abused.

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By brodiec (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 18:35:35

Sounds like Slashdot. Which proves that, if motivated, the trolls will find a way. But I think the community of commentators on RTH is small enough that simple moderation will do.

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 19:27:29

I support comment rating by registered users only.

I don't think it is necessary for weaker comments to not be displayed.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted May 08, 2009 at 04:09:06

I like it, Ryan. Guess I'll finally have to register! Unfortunately, this means shortening my screen name. . .

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By Melville (anonymous) | Posted May 08, 2009 at 04:24:23

I find voting to usually be horribly unbalanced. Nothing suppresses the minority and enables the vocal majority like finding a way to make people feel marginalized in their opinions online. Its one thing here to thing to think few will agree without and feel oppressed, its another to have statistical data to back it up.

It just breaks down all conversation to binaries of yes and no; true or false. You're with us or against us. I either must agree or disagree with you. If you want to see clear and true partisanship clearly, its a good way to measure it and arguably, encourage it. But if you want to ever "fix" partisanship, it won't help you there.

Another way to look at it, would you want your blog entries and articles to also be responded to in such way? 500 to 1500 words, evaluated in a mere yea or nay. If no, why treat your commenters as second class citizens?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 08, 2009 at 07:40:01

I for one, do not intend to use my voting privileges to vote against a comment just because I disagree with the opinion being expressed. After all, differing opinions are what make debate and discussion on this site interesting. I only intend to vote down the comments that I believe are intended to disrupt healthy, civil debate by hijacking the topic to pimp a favourite hobby horse, engaging in personal attacks, taking drive-by cheap shots that don't contribute to the discussion, etc.

Hopefully these measures will improve the quality of the conversations around here.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 08, 2009 at 08:13:42

geoff's two cents wrote:

Unfortunately, this means shortening my screen name. . .

Actually, your screen name can be up to 40 characters, as per this comment:

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/1279#comm...

Melville wrote:

Nothing suppresses the minority and enables the vocal majority like finding a way to make people feel marginalized in their opinions online.

This is an important concern, but I think it really depends on the prevailing culture of the website.

I've participated on online forums with voting that were aggressively hive-minded, but I've also participated on forums that highly valued comment quality, not doctrinaire aggrement.

From those experiences, I really believe that the potential for groupthink can be ameliorated if we inculcate and reinforce a culture on RTH that values intellectual honesty, sound reasoning from evidence, and a respectful tone - wherever that leads.

Toward that end, I'm happy to include the following:

  1. A clear statement of etiquette that explains the purpose of voting: not to downvote opinions with which you disagree, but to express disapproval of comments that lower the level of discussion by trolling, insults, intellectual dishonesty, and throwing around claims without supporting evidence and arguments.

  2. An opt-out provision for registered users - if you don't want to see comment voting, you can turn it off completely for your own user account.

What do you think?

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By JonC (registered) | Posted May 08, 2009 at 08:36:38

That sounds good. A question on the default for anonymous users. Will they see unfiltered comments or those above a tolerance of 0 (or -1 or -5 or -some other number)?

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 08, 2009 at 08:49:59

I think a clear code of etiquette that all registered users have to (at least symbolically) agree to and the option to opt out entirely are excellent ideas.

We can't fall into the trap of voting down comments because we don't agree with them. The disagreements and open debates are why I enjoy coming to this site. Not many boards can get away with this without it devolving to pointless flame wars.

It will be up to everybody to be mature enough to vote on comments based on their quality and not the position the author takes.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted May 08, 2009 at 09:21:06

I'll vote for comment voting, with Ryan's proposed etiquette statement.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 08, 2009 at 10:14:46

JonC wrote:

A question on the default for anonymous users. Will they see unfiltered comments or those above a tolerance of 0 (or -1 or -5 or -some other number)?

I'd like the threshold function to be entirely voluntary, so my thinking is that anonymous users will see all comments regardless of score and will also see the comment scores themselves. If they want to vote or to set thresholds, they will have to register an account.

It will be up to everybody to be mature enough to vote on comments based on their quality and not the position the author takes.

Quite true. It will also be up to us as members of an online community to reflect and reinforce our community standards in our exchanges with each other. If you see a well-written comment being downvoted unreasonably, by all means call out the community to be fair.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted May 08, 2009 at 23:24:41

some voices speak for those that cannot speak for themsleves. I realize that many may not agree with my views of things, but I do represent the voices of those that are oppressed.

A Smith is a pain in the butt, but in some cases he does bring up valid points. I know that this poster has gotten the better of me as I am sure that my opinion has gotten the better of others as well.

Freedom of speech is that, the freedom to voice one's opinion.

Why does there need to be voting system? Debating an issue, to win allies is the important issue. Why suppress views?

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By JonC (registered) | Posted May 09, 2009 at 09:16:20

The intention is to moderate behaviour, not opinions. As Ryan stated a few posts earlier....

Toward that end, I'm happy to include the following:

  1. A clear statement of etiquette that explains the purpose of voting: not to downvote opinions with which you disagree, but to express disapproval of comments that lower the level of discussion by trolling, insults, intellectual dishonesty, and throwing around claims without supporting evidence and arguments.

  2. An opt-out provision for registered users - if you don't want to see comment voting, you can turn it off completely for your own user account.

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