Site Notes

Optimization by Proxy and Sufficiently Advanced Trolls

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 17, 2010

One of my favourite eponymous rules is Clarke's Third Law, named after Arthur C. Clarke, the engineer and science fiction writer who came up with the concept of geostationary communications satellites and whose plethora of novels includes Rendezvous with Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It states:

Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Earlier this year, an essay published on lesswrong.com borrowed this formulation for an ingenious take on the rise of content mills like Demand Media, the company behind those quasi-useful eHow articles:

Sufficiently advanced spam is indistinguishable from content.

I do urge you to read the essay, which does a great job of introducing the useful concepts of superstimuli and optimization by proxy.

Superstimuli and Optimization by Proxy

A supernormal stimulus, or superstimulus, is an artificial stimulus that produces a stronger response than the natural stimulus it emulates and exaggerates.

For a canonical example, a chocolate bar is a superstimulus.

Humans have evolved a positive response to the taste of sugar, salt and fat because we need foods containing those dietary substances for survival. Foods naturally occurring in the ancestral environment - fruits, vegetables, roots, animal meats, and so on - contained these substances in concentrations that allowed for reasonably good nutrition and health if humans followed their taste buds.

However, a chocolate bar contains those flavours in concentrations far beyond any food existing in nature, and humans respond to the flavours much more intensely than we do to the flavours of naturally occurring foods.

As a result of the superstimulus, humans tend to crave and over-consume chocolate bars (and candy, and chips, and deep-fried batter, and so on) relative to our actual dietary needs.

This brings us to optimization by proxy. Human evolution has optimized for health - a difficult outcome to measure - via the proxy of taste - a criterion that is much easier to measure and correlates pretty closely with health in naturally occurring foods.

That optimization of health by the proxy of taste was close enough for government work before our sources of food were co-opted by processed food manufacturers.

Co-Opting Responses

The big pitfall of optimization by proxy is that it allows the opportunity for third parties to manufacture superstimuli that co-opt responses and crowd out natural stimuli. In our example, chocolate bar manufacturers co-opt the human attraction to sugar, fat and salt to crowd out fruits and vegetables.

The lesswrong article applies this phenomenon to the content farms that design their pages to function as superstimuli for search engine ranking algorithms.

Search engines want to return search results based on quality. A search should result in content that was produced to high standards and gives searchers what they are looking for. However, it's extremely difficult to measure what qualifies as a high quality search result.

Instead, search engines use popularity - i.e. the number of inboound links - as a proxy for quality. The premise is that high quality content will attract more inbound links.

Content mills design their pages to appear to search engines as though they are highly popular, which bumps up their rank in search results and crowds out more legitimate content.

When you do a search and get an eHow page as the top result, it's the equivalent of searching for food by taste and getting a chocolate bar instead of an apple.

Trolls and Comment Superstimuli

I'd like to propose here that comment trolls do the same thing: they create comments that act as superstimuli for people looking to have a real discussion.

In my years editing and curating for RTH, I've had some thoughts on trolling and how to deal with it. What trolls crave above all is provoking outraged replies.

The term "troll" comes originally from the fishing method of dangling a shiny lure out the back of a boat while putting along just quickly enough to catch the interest of a fish. The fish that can't resist the lure is snared on the hook and eaten.

Crude trolls subsist on the meager attention given to their vulgarity; but sophisticated trolls can keep a debate going for days by dancing on the fine line between feigned reasonableness and deliberate obtusity. They are by far the more corrosive to online discourse.

Here's the critical insight: What makes trolls disruptive is not the trollish comments themselves, but the chain of outraged replies they manage to elicit.

That's where optimization by proxy kicks in. Trolls post statements that are more provocative than normal comments. They reply with a persistence that goes far beyond normal discussion. They shift arguments and evidence with amazing fluidity so that there are always more points to address. They press emotional buttons that weaken the rationality of their opponents. At their most sophisticated, they feign reasonableness without ever settling on reasonable conclusions.

In this vein I'd like to repurpose Clarke's law yet again:

Sufficiently advanced trolling is indistinguishable from discussion.

A discussion containing too much debate with trolls is like a diet with too much chocolate and fried dough: ultimately unsatisfying and even corrosive to good health.

Toward Better Discussion

Just as good nutrition in an environment rife with superstimuli requires a more calculated approach than simply eating what's tasty, so too does good discussion in an environment rife with trolls than simply challenging every ridiculous comment with a reply.

The reason RTH instituted that comment voting feature was to break the chain of well-intentioned participants endlessly debating trolls by giving the community an opportunity to establish shared awareness that a given user is not debating in good faith.

However, the system doesn't work perfectly (after all, comment voting itself is simply a form of optimization-by-proxy) and is sometimes abused to express disagreement with an unpopular opinion rather than disapproval of an inappropriate comment.

Trolls, in turn, exploit this mismatch by insisting that votes against their comments amount to the former rather than the latter. This plays to the sympathies of legitimate commenters with strong inclinations toward free speech and, combined with a careful application of reasonablish comments at key points, allows them to go on displacing real discussion for a long time.

I'm trying to figure out what enhancements or changes we might make to the RTH community moderation system to make it easier to "out" trolls - even the sophisticated ones - while drawing a clear distinction between trolls and legitimate contrarians making sincere arguments from evidence. Any ideas on how best to do this are welcome!

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 z jones (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 11:28:34

Very timely...

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 11:28:56

Thanks for that, I just deleted my irresistable Troll snack on your other post from this morning. As a Trainer, my inclination is towards public education, rather than infrastructure. Your post here is a good first (second, third...) step.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 11:31:02

However, the system doesn't work perfectly (after all, comment voting itself is simply a form of optimization-by-proxy) and is sometimes abused to express disagreement with an unpopular opinion rather than disapproval of an inappropriate comment.

'Sometimes'...?

Not from my perspective.

'Most often' is closer to the truth on RTH.

Where is Brian Morton? Because clearly, we need a playwright to make use of the abundance of 'online human experience' material generated on this site.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 12:02:55

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 12:11:41

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 12:12:03

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-17 11:13:00

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 12:22:12

This throttle button is amazing!

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 12:33:09

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By MattM (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 13:16:15

Can we have an "Obvious troll is obvious" graphic for identified trolls to wear proudly by their name?

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 13:19:43

Hmmm??? It is getting pretty homogeneous in here.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 13:34:26

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 13:39:22

As I asked for here: http://www.raisethehammer.org/blog/1994/...'s_beaches_streets_survive_30_kph_speed_limits

A button beside the name of a poster to turn off a poster's comments.

If somebody thinks mrjanitor is being abusive or simply obstinate for the sport of it they click the button beside my name and I go away for that individual only, not everyone on the board. Maybe my name still shows up on the thread on the particular individuals computer however none of the body of the text does. If done this way with a re-enable option the person who I offend can see my comments if there is suddenly a lot of discussion around one of my postings. Great ideas however I am a Luddite and have no clue as to how to make this magic work on RTH.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 13:40:30

Can we have an "Obvious troll is obvious" graphic

More like "Desperate troll is desperate".

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 13:48:46

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 14:06:11

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 14:12:47

Turbo, I became convinced that you are a troll - albeit a most sophisticated troll - in our debate over peak oil. You raised what I considered to be some more-or-less reasonable objections, which can be addressed decisively using the available evidence. When I presented this evidence, your responses demonstrated sheer indifference to the facts.

By now, your M.O. is abundantly clear.

  • Rush to post the first comment on a new article, a comment that heaps contempt and defeatism over the writer's proposal. This provokes a number of replies.
  • Gradually step down from the extreme position stated in the first comment to a position that seems more reasonablish. This phony reasonableness persuades others to keep debating.
  • Pretend to agree with points made in others' comments, while drawing conclusions that are utterly indifferent to the mutually-agreed points.
  • Throw in lots of non-sequiturs and red herrings to keep others scrambling to stamp out all the nonsense. Use them to set up rhetorical tautologies that attempt to paint others into unreasonable positions.
  • Cry persecution when others start to cotton on that you are trolling. Accuse the people calling you a troll of disrupting the conversation.
  • Admit to being factually incorrect on inconsequential matters as a further pretense to reasonableness.
  • Simultaneously carry on debates with several people and post individual replies to all of them one after the other, filling up the comments page and crowding out other discussion.
  • Once you have finally killed the conversation dead with literally dozens of comments, start all over again by posting an offensive first comment on a new article. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam until everyone else gives up in disgust.

This pattern of behaviour has repeated many times over the past several weeks, and a number of other RTH readers have pointed it out, both in the comments and in direct emails to me.

Here are a few more data points to put your trolling into perspective. On October 9, you posted 11 comments, or 20.8% of the total for that day. You posted 15 comments on October 20, or 17.6%; another 27 comments the next day, or 16.1%; and another 14 comments, or 14.3%, the day after. After a few relatively quiet days, you posted another 21 comments on October 28, or 16%. The next day you posted another 10 comments, or 9.7%, followed by 6 comments or 14.6% on October 30 and 12 comments or 34.3% on October 31. After a quiet November 1 (only 3 comments), you posted 13 comments on November 2 and 14 comments on November 3 (22% and 20.9%, respectively). You were relatively quiet again until November 15, on which you posted a whopping 64 comments, or 40.3% of the total, followed by another 34 comments, or 30.1%, on November 16. (As at this writing, you're up to 18 comments so far today.)

Over the entire period from October 1 to November 16, you posted more than twice as many comments as the next most prolific commenter. (Aside: a ranked chart of comment counts by commenter produces a very nice Zipf distribution.)

Your sheer output of commentary is the typed equivalent of an insufferable boor at a party yelling so loudly and continuously that no one else can have a conversation.


I write this not to try and elicit an acknowledgment from you of your relentlessly disingenuous and disruptive behaviour, but rather to make it explicit to others. From here I will waste no more time responding to you, and will instead spend that time trying to restore the decorum and civility you have done so much to undermine.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-11-17 13:33:43

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By adrian (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 14:14:48

I'm pleased to announce that the bookmarklet I developed which hides all of Turbo's comments now works in Firefox and Internet Explorer as well as Chrome.

If the prospect of hiding (and downvoting) all of Turbo's comments with one single, satisfying click appeals to you, then:

Go get the bookmarklet!

Comment edited by administrator adrian on 2010-11-17 13:15:05

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 14:24:37

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-17 13:30:27

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 14:40:45

Hey adrian, thanks for this. It hides his comments for me but doesn't downvote them (firefox 3.6.12).

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 14:46:10

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-17 13:47:25

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By MattM (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 14:48:11

That downvoting program is just going too far. Ryan expressed in his original post that the down/upvote system is for innapproriate content, not just downvoting trolls whenever. Definitely abuse of the system.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 15:04:20

If I read nobrainer's post correctly, he's saying it's a good thing that Adrian's program doesn't automatically downvote turbo's comments.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 15:23:39

It hides his comments for me but doesn't downvote them (firefox 3.6.12).

Hmmm, I tested in Firefox 3.6.8 on OS X and it seems to work fine. You're logged in when you do this? You should be able to test by using it, then refreshing the page and checking to see if the downvotes registered - is that what you're doing? (You can respond to my original blog post, on my site, if you'd like - that way we're not hijacking this discussion.)

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 15:30:00

Interjecting some classic literature into the discussion. Was reading a little Jane Austen the other day, and thought of why some comments are best ignored:

"...she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition." Sense and Sensibility

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 15:38:35

I have to say, I'm disgusted by the display of behavior towards Turbo. I don't know the guy, so I don't have any sort of bias.

As I was reading through Ryan's article, I felt pleased that something was going to be done to address the obvious abuse of the voting system here at RTH. I really thought Ryan was writing the article to encourage people to look at a person's post and vote according to it's relevance and merit. The irony that people are down voting polite, thoughtful, well intentioned posts, on this of all threads is immense.

Ryan, using the very definition of troll that you provide, those who have down voted the well intentioned posts here are trolls. I'm infuriated by their actions. I probably shouldn't be, but I'm really really bothered by it. Enough to the point that I'm thinking that this RTH thing isn't nearly what I thought it was. I was excited to find RTH about a month or so ago. Now I'm really disappointed and frustrated.

I believe that you should take a page from Garth Turner's blog. Check out the comments on his bog. He will allow the posting of just about anything on his comments section. Even if someone flat out calls Garth an idiot.

I think that upvotes should be given as a default. The only time a downvote should be given is if someone is being offensive to someone, if the comment is spam, or if the comment is completely irrelevant to the discussion. If someone is found guilty of voting otherwise, they should be warned not to. If the same person continues to abuse the voting system, they get banned.

I think that the discussion of various viewpoints should be encouraged. The majority of people on here seem to think that if someone doesn't agree with them, they are a troll.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 15:39:25

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 15:52:28

A lot of sites have "Hide all posts by this user" functionality already built in, which allows registered users to hide (or unhide) anyone they would like. Those who choose to reply can.

I see the misuse of comment voting (comments people disagree with are downvoted as well as rude/inflammatory/offensive comments) and I think adding the functionality to hide posts by anyone each individual chooses is a fair system.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 15:57:06

Some considerations in this debate, since I too have tired of The Troll Who Shan't Be Named.

1) What is the point of the RTH comments section? If it is to inspire reasoned and genuine debate on topics of importance to the RTH community, then there are implications on how individual comments should be treated, as not all comments are equivalent. Concepts like censorship cease to be an overriding concern, and instead attention is paid to community standards. Posters, both orthodox-RTH and heretics alike should be bound by common agreements on the type of debating allowed (i.e. opinion vs. fact), number of comments tolerated (as spamming dilutes the power of the section to further productive debate), and the style of dialogue (acceptability of baiting, sarcasm, personal attacks, etc.).

If it is merely a public board meant to capture any and all comments on the issues, then comments by trolls are essentially equivalent to all others, and adherence to published posting guidelines is the only concern in evaluating a comment's acceptability.

2) What place do heretical views have in a progressive, if largely homogeneous, web community? Having been on the 'wrong' side of an RTH debate, I have some sympathy with those wishing to open up the echo chamber to opposing voices. However, constantly re-iterating heretical views is unlikely to accomplish this, only radicalize debaters on both sides, ultimately destroying any chance at productive deliberative discourse.

So, despite the well-intentioned wish for this to be a free space for ideas, it is possible that this orientation becomes counter-productive because the statement of heretical opinions or facts quickly derails genuine debate and re-focuses attention from the topic of debate to the process of debating (see: this thread).

Which is to say, if this space is indeed supposed to be governed by community standards instead of a laissez faire space dedicated to all free expression (which is the way it seems to be headed given the coordinated attacks against, and eventual ignoring of the Troll Who Shan't Be Named), then those community standards should be worked out, and vigorously enforced by removing comments found to not be in the spirit of genuine debate.

Whether or not genuine debate actually results will be a function of the maturity of the community, its tolerance for heretical views, and the willingness of heretics to meet community standards instead of railing against them.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 15:58:10

Ryan, using the very definition of troll that you provide, those who have down voted the well intentioned posts here are trolls. I'm infuriated by their actions. I probably shouldn't be, but I'm really really bothered by it.

So if one user sets out to ruin discussion, pollutes the site with comments like "Closed minded idiots every one of you", "what a bunch of pathetic losers", "What a no talent and pretty much a liar [username]", and so on, and posts at the rate of perhaps 100 comments every two days, you believe it is unacceptable for the other users on the site to downvote that person's comments? You honestly think we should look at each comment on its merits and judge it that way?

Let's make a real world analogy - you go to a bar. A belligerent drunk insults you, swears at you, interrupts you, and does his very best to make your experience there miserable. At the end of it, just when you're about to leave, he tells you that he likes your sweater. Do you accept the compliment? Somehow I doubt it.

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By bobster (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 16:08:48

The troll is also a creature of a failure of civility. He would never behave the way he does in front of his friends, but here there are no consequences. Maybe one day we won't be able to get away from our online personalities; we will have invested so much into our profiles and reputations in a virtual community that to re-enter another community will require hard work and to be exiled will be a real punishment. But right now the troll can lazily appear and disappear in various forums, buoyed by the power of the points he feels he has scored with his forum posts. These points are based on the real world; were he to be discussing peak oil with his brother he imagines himself levying the same comments with devastating effect. And yet this referent is false, his brother would not be persuaded so easily because he knows his brother is lazy and doesn't apply himself. Similarly readers of the forum don't feel the troll has made a contribution, but they feel viscerally that something is wrong with him, because their norms are also drawn from the real world, where people don't interrupt you rudely in conversation. These readers also mistakenly base their reaction on real-world communities, where the troll would never have gained entry. One day these frames of reference will be different and people won't view an online forum as this fantasy space of inconsequential expression, but for now we are beset between the troll and the anti-troll: an overly generous and inclusive reader and website designer and their crude downvote.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 16:15:37

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-17 15:23:59

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 16:18:39

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-17 15:21:36

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 17:11:53

I see the misuse of comment voting (comments people disagree with are downvoted as well as rude/inflammatory/offensive comments)

True. Many of us have had it happen even though we haven't been rude or inflammatory. If you disagree with a comment, then why not lay out your disagreement respectfully, instead of taking the lazy way out and downvoting it. If for some reason you don't think it's worth arguing with, then don't. No need to downvote it.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2010-11-17 16:14:45

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 18:07:15

Throttle rocks! Thanks Adrian!

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 18:40:24

Throttle works great on my Mac with firefox. Now how to get it working on my mobile browser, where each kb of data counts?

Edit - a suggestion to the Adrian - since replies to Turbo's posts often start with "Turbo, ..." could you implement a filter to delete these posts as well? Even if you block out the trolls, a one sided argument isn't much fun to read either.

Comment edited by jonathan dalton on 2010-11-17 17:46:49

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 18:44:52

I have to say, I'm disgusted by the display of behavior towards Turbo. I don't know the guy, so I don't have any sort of bias.

Whether or not he meets the definition of troll, the obvious fact it that his posts and the responses to them make up about 90% of the comments on this site. For those who do not enjoy the extraneous beating of dead horses, that makes reading this site a pain in the ass. These days I log on and see the comment count on a given article has increased by 20 posts, and I don't even bother reading it because I know 17 of those are Turbo's posts or rebuttals to them.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 20:01:04

The thing that seems to get overlooked with the voting is that the votes are by the community at large, and all registered users are welcome to cast votes. There is no central authority doing mass voting by any means. It is not censorship. I, for one, will often upvote a comment which is not offensive if it appears to have been downvoted by some people simply due to a disagreement with the opinion itself - even if I also disagree with the opinion presented. I rarely downvote unless it is clear spam or name calling. I don't even downvote factually incorrect posts, opting instead to create a post of my own to try to correct the innacuracy.

Also keep in mind that hiding downvoted posts is a per-user setting. I have removed my threshold because I like to see all of the posts, even the downvoted ones.

For those who frequently receive downvotes, I think that it makes sense to step back and take an honest look at the posts and try to be more civil in the future.

Most heavily downvoted posts are either greatly off topic, factually incorrect, or filled with personal attacks (or sometimes just an air of taking things too far on the personal side of things)

If you think that your comments are being downvoted simply because the opinion presented is not popular, then a great approach would be get more like minded people on the site to help get your posts upvoted. I for one welcome a wide range of opinions and the more people we have here, the better the dialog will be.

What I find most tiring is having to make the same factual arguments over and over again, only to have the same posters repeatedly say "you are wrong", when it's clear that they don't understand what is being said and they refuse to even try to find out. A perfect example of this was put directly into words in a post on this very article: "when you talk about elastic and inelastic graphs I cry BS because I don't have a clue about what you are talking". Calling BS because one doesn't understand something is not a discussion. Learning about what you don't understand, and then coming up with a retort based on facts would be a more appropriate approach that I am certain would receive no downvotes!

If I were to make any suggestions about the voting system, I'd say that no posts should be hidden from unregistered users, and that setting a hidden vote threshold would be a privilege of registering with the site. This would keep anonymous users from thinking that their posts are being "removed" because they are unpopular.

Most open comment sites offer a thumbs up and thumbs down voting system - it's the way things go. Some even go as far as to have a rating system for individual users. The only difference I can see here is that the community is much smaller than, say, slashdot. So people who receive downvotes here always seem to get the impression that there is a conspiracy of "rth users" working against them. This could not be further from the truth.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 21:41:08

I'm disgusted by the display of behavior towards Turbo.

SpaceMonkey, I agree that some people are abusing the downvote button, and I'm very interested in finding ways to make it work better, but:

  1. Downvoting turbo's wall-of-sound comments is not an incidence of that abuse; and
  2. It's doubtful that technology can eliminate a social problem. At best it can ameliorate the problem - and the current voting system, while imperfect, has ameliorated the crisis of trolling on RTH.

I believe that you should take a page from Garth Turner's blog.

RTH remains deeply committed to free speech, and only deletes obvious spam. A comment is speech. A vote for or against a comment is also speech.

It's important to note that no combination of votes ever eliminates any comment - all nonspam comments are allowed, though the community has the opportunity to express its approval or disapproval of a given comment.

What is the point of the RTH comments section?

Borelli, your comment is thoughtful and insightful as usual. The point of the RTH comments section, according to the site's user agreement, is to "enhance, amplify, clarify, correct, or otherwise contribute to the totality of facts and arguments that enable citizens to participate more meaningfully in civic issues."

In turn, registered users are bound by the discussion guidelines and comment voting guidelines, which are linked at the bottom of every comment form. The comment voting guidelines are true community standards, established and refined through open discussion among RTH readers and contributors.

What place do heretical views have in a progressive, if largely homogeneous, web community?

I'm firmly of the opinion that honest, factual, good-faith discussion and debate brings people closer to the truth of the matter (I'm old-fashioned that way). Heretical views that are likewise honest, factual and argued in good faith have an essential place - indeed, I'd be hypocritical not to believe this, as my own views on a number of issues can reasonably be regarded as heretical, at least in the mainstream.

However, it is in profoundly bad faith to dismiss an argument by writing something like, "when you talk about elastic and inelastic graphs I cry BS because I don't have a clue about what you are talking."

A button beside the name of a poster to turn off a poster's comments.

-- mrjanitor

A lot of sites have "Hide all posts by this user" functionality already built in

-- Meredith

I have perhaps stubbornly resisted adding this functionality to the site. The concept has been around for a long time and is traditionally called flipping the bozo bit. It means concluding that someone has nothing useful to contribute and consequently tuning out everything they say.

The problem with this approach is that it denies the possibility of redemption, and gives borderline trolls no incentive to change their behaviour. Yes, I'm revealed here as a bleeding-heart liberal, but I've seen it happen on RTH after we instituted comment voting.

Some hostile commenters have made efforts to be more civil and respectul after getting downvoted - and their subsequent comments started drawing upvotes. Other commenters have downgraded their hostility level from abusive to merely abrasive - and any improvement in civility is worth celebrating.

Throttle rocks!

-- CaptainKirk

Of course, even if RTH won't implement a bozo bit, there's nothing to stop individuals from hacking their own clever solutions. I daresay the auto-downvoting functionality goes against the spirit of the comment voting guidelines, but I don't see anything wrong with someone choosing not to look at something on their own copy of a page, and using an automated script to do the hiding.

Again, since no one can deny anyone else the ability to see a given comment, there's no censorship.

Speaking of "throttle", I find myself wondering if it would be a good idea to limit the number of comments a registered user can post in a given space of time. Perhaps the number could increase as a function of their overall comment score. What do you think?

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 21:42:49

I, for one, will often upvote a comment which is not offensive if it appears to have been downvoted by some people simply due to a disagreement with the opinion itself - even if I also disagree with the opinion presented.

Same here.

Once, after an article I had written, the first comment was an excellent, thoughtful and polite comment that disagreed with one argument I had made. I was shocked to see someone had downvoted it, and so quickly upvoted it myself and jumped in to respond. I was truly worried that the commenter or others might think that I had called on my buddies to downvote any and all opposition, since the downvoting in this case was just so bizarre.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 22:17:23

To answer your question, Ryan - I think the idea of limiting the number of comments one can make in a day, according to their voting scores is an excellent one, as long as people like Michelle and I agree to continue to upvote thoughtful, well argued posts that were downvoted just because people disagreed with the point. That in and of itself is a form of self-policing that speaks to the 'maturity' referred to by an earlier commenter (sorry, can't find it now!)

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 17, 2010 at 22:22:53

I'm with Seancb here. Judging from the counts, I downvote a fair bit less than some, usually only for pretty ridiculous trolling and the like, and rarely simply because I disagree. But the point of voting is that everyone gets a say, and every time I hear someone complain about being downvoted (most trolls on here manage two posts max before they post only about how they're being "censored"), I laugh a little bit inside. Sorry, but we don't have to like you.

Freedom of speech is not freedom from responsibility, consequence or criticism. You may say whatever you wish - I highly doubt anyone here will attempt to "track you down and silence you". However, recognize that we, also, have a right to free speech, and if you shoot your mouth off you'll get called on it.

There are lots of people on here who post a lot - I often find myself deciding to take a break because I've been posting often, and I suspect others do too. As someone who posts often, and has some unconventional views, I can't say that I've ever been treated "badly" by the site or it's readers. Most of us tend not to post two, three, four or more times in a row if nobody else has responded. I don't always agree with Bob or Kiely, but I still love hearing from them. Disagreement is a healthy part of conversation, and that's what this is about.

That is not to say, however, that absolutely everything you can say is acceptable. Dominating conversations, frequent cries of victimization, provocative callouts and dismissive statements are all signs of a sorry, shallow, self-obsessed, manipulative twit. Nobody on here is ruder than Turbo, and nobody complains about it more than him. Nobody posts more than he does, nobody gets downvoted more often, nobody derails more serious conversations and nobody makes more blatantly unsupported (and usually unsupportable) statements. Turbo is the Jar-Jar Binks of RTH, and I for one can't stand him. How many more topics are we going to let him Filibuster before people give up and start leaving?

Artist's conception: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_oW0XBl9qmGo/Sw...

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 22:28:09

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By adrian (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 22:30:48

I daresay the auto-downvoting functionality goes against the spirit of the comment voting guidelines, but I don't see anything wrong with someone choosing not to look at something on their own copy of a page, and using an automated script to do the hiding.

The bookmarklet is a direct response to a situation where someone is clearly violating both the spirit and the letter of the commenting guidelines, as well as violating the spirit - the common law, if you will - of this community. That said, I don't actually feel good about creating it, because I don't feel good about any part of this situation or the emotions it has stirred up in this community.

The fact of the matter is that someone has made it their mission to harm this community by disrupting and ultimately destroying discussions here. They have not entirely succeeded, but they've certainly succeeded to a certain extent - after all, we're talking about it right now, and frankly we have better things to talk about. I'm not entirely sure why they've attempted to do this, but I would guess that they are frustrated by RTH's growing influence and readership.

That someone is trying to do this to the community that I love, and that I've been a small part of for so many years now, certainly bothers me. I won't delve too deeply into that, since this individual clearly feeds off that sort of negative emotion.

I do think that the best approach is referenced in your post, namely, "What makes trolls disruptive is not the trollish comments themselves, but the chain of outraged replies they manage to elicit." In other words, don't feed the troll. However, on a site that gets this much traffic, not everyone can be expected to know who to look out for; besides, the prolific commenting makes this approach more difficult to follow as well.

I find myself wondering if it would be a good idea to limit the number of comments a registered user can post in a given space of time. Perhaps the number could increase as a function of their overall comment score

Yes please. I think some of the ideas on Hacker News and Stackoverflow for dealing with trolls and spammers could be useful: throttling; overall comment score needing to be high enough to downvote in the first place; more substantial fading out of comments with a high-enough downvote level.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 17, 2010 at 22:36:34

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-17 21:44:38

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By YouKnow! (anonymous) | Posted November 18, 2010 at 06:05:50

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted November 18, 2010 at 09:44:52

Thank you RTH for treating this like grownups and having a discussion instead of banning people or letting the trolls run the asylum. And to the trolls going boohoo about being downvoted if you had a quarter the belief in free speech as the site mods you wouldn't be trying to spoil it by shouting over everyone else.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 18, 2010 at 14:05:21

I have no delusions - what I wrote yesterday was the meanest and rudest thing I've written in years to another poster on a board/forum. It took me a long time to write, and an even longer time to go ahead and post. Can't say that I'd take any of it back, though. If Turbo has the right to flood topics like this, then I've got the right to say I don't appreciate it.

Like most of the people I've met in this life whom I genuinely dislike, I have no idea if Turbo's doing this on purpose or not. And like all of those other twits, I really don't care either. Perhaps Turbo is a very sophisticated troll (undoubtedly the most successful), or perhaps he's (she?) just dumb as paint and doesn't understand what's inappropriate about posting in this manner. Either way, it's happening, it's harmful, and it needs to be dealt with.

I've never been to a web-based forum that is as polite, open-minded and insightful as RTH. And I've never seen this kind of response against a poster here, even those with far more contradictory views than Turbo. What does that say?

Turbo: we're trying to have a serious discussion here. If you don't like how it works, leave. Can you at least tell us that you understand why we're so frustrated? Attack me, or us, if you like, but it's not going to impress anybody. But seriously, dude (dudette?), what could YOU do here to get your point across better?

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted November 18, 2010 at 14:20:34

what I wrote yesterday was the meanest and rudest thing I've written in years to another poster on a board/forum.

Undustrial, I've been reading your comments on RTH for years and you seem like a very gentle person who takes nonviolence seriously. For you to express what you did says alot more about the person who drove you to that level of anger and frustration, just don't expect them to be self aware enough to get it.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 08:31:06

"I'm trying to figure out what enhancements or changes we might make to the RTH community moderation system to make it easier to "out" trolls - even the sophisticated ones - while drawing a clear distinction between trolls and legitimate contrarians making sincere arguments from evidence."

Sadly, it can't be done. I've spent now 24 years in internet communities, I spent a few years running a site about an order of magnitude larger than RTH, and very few ever rose to any significant size without the discussion being pulled apart and destroyed by trolls and garbage posts. RTH isn't quite to that size of community yet but it is approaching it, and we are beginning to see the effects.

And politics (along with sport and things we think of as boys' culture) is the absolute worst topic on which to try to have a civil discussion on the internet.

Only one strategy I have seen in those 24 years has _ever_ worked to control trolling, and that is strong leadership willing to simply ban people permanently and immediately for troll behavior, removing all such writing immediately even where a ban isn't engaged, and being utterly unapologetic about it. Such a system will engage inevitable distractions from time to time, especially when a persistent troll raises the ante after a ban (it always happens, and I've had good success dealing with the civil authorities to help enforce). But it works.

Moderation can't do the job, sadly. It's almost always too distributed and powerless, and there are always soft-hearted people (I tend to this view myself too often) who want to "give someone a chance" or dislike what they view as "censorship". Also, downvote systems tend to be misused, as others have pointed out here, as a proxy for "agree/disagree", rather than as a reward/punishment for good/bad discussion.

But people who spend a lot of time in internet communities, like site administrators, know trolling instantly, and also know that people who spend their time trolling never, ever also make positive contributions. Ryan I believe mentioned "borderline trolls" above - I am firmly of the view that no such person exists, or ever has existed. There are narcissists, but I consider that quite distinct from trolling.

It takes a strong personal commitment to "being mean" to clear out the trolls, but sadly it is the only effective way I have ever seen of removing trolls from a community discussion.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 08:37:52

Oh, one thing I forgot to address. SpaceMonkey said "I believe that you should take a page from Garth Turner's blog. Check out the comments on his bog. He will allow the posting of just about anything on his comments section. Even if someone flat out calls Garth an idiot."

The comments section of Garth Turner's blog is unreadable (as one would expect) by any rational person. Presenting a useful/usable community for people to engage in, just seems to me to be a far more important objective than not hurting people's feelings.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 10:13:03

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By atannus (anonymous) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 10:56:11

Great text.

I think you stumbled upon the answer right at

"...is sometimes abused to express disagreement with an unpopular opinion rather than disapproval...".

What you need is a two-fold voting system, where posts/comments get a meter for "appropriateness" and a separate one for "correctness". In a group capable of sustaining high quality discussion, the concept shouldn't be at all hard to pick up, and it would allow individuals to measure a comment's content quality versus its appropriateness. Hey, you can even make graphs that tell you which conversations are going which way!

pardon the english...

André

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 12:00:06

To those who downvoted my last comment...

Why did you downvote the comment? I expressed my opinion in a straightforward, objective, non rude way. I then asked a couple of specific questions.

I'm legitimately curious as to why you downvoted my comment. Thanks.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 12:02:35

Hey Andre,

I think that you provide a good suggestion. Once the rules are set in place and are clearly stated to all posters, those in violation should be banned.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 12:08:52

@Spacemonkey:

I downvoted your comment because you totally misrepresented Tybalt's argument, which is not conducive to constructive or civil debate IMO.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 12:13:41

Are you stating, as fact, that the thousands of people that read his comments daily are irrational people? Sounds rather trollish to me.

Straw man is made of straw.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 19, 2010 at 12:30:18

What you need is a two-fold voting system, where posts/comments get a meter for "appropriateness" and a separate one for "correctness".

I think an appropriateness or offensiveness button would suffice, or the option of voting something useful/not useful. A button called "correctness" (and I think the scare quotes belong around that word)would not be conducive to fruitful dialogue. If you disagree with an argument, just say so and state why clearly. Or don't.

Also, bear in mind that downvoting a troll is not the same as ignoring her/him. It constitutes a response/attention of sorts. (I apologize if this point has already been made, lots of words to read through in this thread...)

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 12:36:40

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-19 11:38:18

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 12:39:13

"The comments section of Garth Turner's blog is unreadable (as one would expect) by any rational person"

"..is unreadable by any rational person". I read the subject in question as do many other people. According to Tybalt, I am therefore not rational. I don't see how my question is a straw man argument. Unless of course, you are referring to Tybalt's statement as the straw man.

Because Tybalt used my quote out of context to attack the blog comments rather than the point that I was making about the blog comments, I can see why one would consider his statement a straw man.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 14:31:03

Sigh. You see, this is why I downvote willful misinterpretations of other people's comments, aka strawmen. Because it forces the people who are attempting to argue in good faith to waste time restating their arguments in the vain hope that the other person merely misunderstood. It's rude and tiresome for the other readers.

If I wanted to hear someone trying to score cheap rhetorical points by twisting other people's words, I'd listen to Bill Kelly. I come here to get away from that crap.

In any case, you asked why people downvoted you and I foolishly answered. I don't know why I thought a skilled strawman constructor like yourself would be asking the question out of genuine curiosity. It won't happen again.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 14:59:08

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 17:56:21

"Sigh. You see, this is why I downvote willful misinterpretations of other people's comments, aka strawmen. Because it forces the people who are attempting to argue in good faith to waste time restating their arguments in the vain hope that the other person merely misunderstood."

Although I am sympathetic to this, the fact is, you're not forced. Don't respond. Ignore it utterly. That's what is meant by not feeding trolls. When some simpleton produces BS or monkey screechings, do not respond to it - not in any way, even if it makes you want to scream and pound furniture. You're not required to - this isn't a formal debate, you don't need to demolish silly or ridiculous positions. Let them be, twisting in the wind.

Let trolls draw whatever "conclusions" they like. They are not participating in the actual discussion, nor will they ever take part in the collective action that we as RTH users are hoping to engage. They can go and pound sand. They make absolutely no difference.

(Of course, someone always does respond to them. Don't let it be you!)

Comment edited by Tybalt on 2010-11-19 16:58:45

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 18:30:37

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-19 17:32:01

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 19, 2010 at 23:14:13

I see adrian and industrial are still playing their games. How sad. While I respectfully disagree that I'm a troll it speaks volume about a person who would say in one breath that he feels badly about what he said and in the next not only not apologize for it but take a general swipe at everyone he's ever met that he doesn't like and say he really doesn't care about them. I'm a big boy and can take the heat but seriously talk about total hypocrisy - Turbo

I never said once that I feel badly. I don't. And I said that. Welcome to real life: people are not required to be nice when you've done something wrong.

The point of my post was to assess whether you want to be a part of this "community" (your word), or not. And you don't. You're completely unwilling to admit for a second that your actions are inappropriate in any way, despite the fact every single regular poster on here is saying so. Hell, you can't even get my name right. That's textbook trolling. I'm not trying to convince you - I'm trying to make a point to everyone else who's reading this. And that point is that you're not interesting in changing. That is exactly what you've said here.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 20, 2010 at 06:53:08

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 20, 2010 at 10:45:53

To continue with my previous point:

Also, bear in mind that downvoting a troll is not the same as ignoring her/him. It constitutes a response/attention of sorts.

Years of social services experience (since the age of seventeen) have taught me that if the best sort of strategy for discouraging undesirable behaviour is planned ignoring, then the ignoring must be absolute. Downvoting a comment from someone whose antics the community is trying to discourage is like saying saying "I'm ignoring you" repeatedly, which defeats the purpose.

Readers may be interested to know that planned ignoring is particularly effective with verbal outbursts (swearing, yelling, sulking); and, of course, writing is an extension of one's verbal skills.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 20, 2010 at 14:15:05

Michelle, the problem with planned ignoring is that it requires shared awareness of the plan on the part of the ignorers. Downvoting establishes the shared awareness that a comment is inappropriate and does not warrant a response.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 20, 2010 at 19:11:45

Downvoting establishes the shared awareness that a comment is inappropriate and does not warrant a response.

Oh, for sure. It is no doubt an effective way for those who have enough self awareness to understand the justice of such a mild correction at those times when they have fallen into trollish behavior or inflammatory posting. For those in whom the behaviour is so habitual it has become intractable, planned ignoring is the best way-- which, as you say, requires shared awareness on the part of the ignorers (pretty much impossible to achieve in an open, online community) because consistency is extremely important to bring about any positive change in behaviour. Which means that there will always be some trolls, whatever system is used.

BTW-- your dedication to a well-run discussion board is really appreciated.

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By bobinnes (registered) - website | Posted November 21, 2010 at 00:14:36

Interesting. Ryan, i didn't read all the comments - sorry if this is already covered.

My first suggestion is to consider the system used at i think, the Globe and Mail. By default the comments with the highest score move to the top, lowest to the bottom. One can override the default.

The main reason i hate the Spec and love our blogs, is that i do get educated more quickly than trying to figure out for myself how the Spec lied/manipulated/misleads/judges etc. This works very nicely at the Globe - the best comments have been upscored for a reason - and not just politeness, so i learn a lot very quickly.

I was a bit surprised at your description of how downvoting should be used. I'm sure i've used up/downvoting for a number of different reasons, not just one, ie -

general appreciation /opposite(especially when time is limited),

voting for/against what I might have to live with (ie. I generally downvote any of our expensive initiatives [LRT, stadium, AEGD] not because there is no merit but because AT ThiS TIME, we are facing a looming debt crisis, ergo, I must vote down even the most erudite/polite support). I believe this is justified on the basis that real councilors may be considering how we vote here which sort of stops me from downvoting nastily worded comments that make a point i agree with.

sometimes i just like upvoting an underdog so as to stimulate more consideration, even if the argument presented was weak.

Suggestion 2. As we discussed before, I'd love to be able to upvote an article I have no time or ability to comment on but like. Jason writes such articles - needs no 2 cents from me but always enjoyable/instructive.

Suggestion 3 for all - consider using your real name. I decided to do this partly because of my decision to go public by standing for election, but regardless of this incentive, it does have a salutary effect on expressing one's ideas in (more or less) sociable ways. Which in turn garners greater respect (i hope :-) I believe it's actually hard not to give greater weight to real people.

Finally, while i hopefully have your attention, here are some unrelated thoughts.

Please could you provide in the margin, a reminder listing of the basic editing symbols. All my feeble mind can command are the asterisks! A listing also enables dragging the symbol into the comment. Many comment boxes list the symbols just under the box for this purpose.

Also, I am always missing good stuff in the third column, like this post. I know skimming has a price but since I can't really appreciate the difference between 'recent articles' and 'blog entries', I don't really see the need to keep them separate. Jimho.

Cheers, I hope you understand your work is greatly appreciated. Bob

Comment edited by bobinnes on 2010-11-20 23:21:05

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted November 21, 2010 at 17:22:44

I can see the merit in using my real name. For the record its Allan Taylor but I don't know how to change it on my profile. I am not afraid of making my views public as I'm sincere in my belief of them Maybe people will read my comments and take them to heart if they would just park the troll nonsense. It is really important to talk to people on all sides and reach a consensus to get anything done. Right now the city suffers from paralysis because most people are indifferent and the engaged have forgotten that their interests are not shared by everyone 52

Comment edited by turbo on 2010-11-21 16:24:24

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By bobinnes (registered) - website | Posted November 22, 2010 at 00:34:38

Allan, just make a new account. As you can see from my username, spaces are not allowed.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 24, 2010 at 20:57:09

For the record its Allan Taylor but I don't know how to change it on my profile.

Allan, as per our email exchange I have merged your former "turbo" comments and comment votes into your new "allantaylor97" user account.

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