Passport Comes to Frogtown? Quick Jotting on Discussion Censors, etc.

March 21st, 2004  |  Published in Uncategorized

A lot of people are weighing in on SixApart’s recent announcement of TypeKey, a service meant to provide a way for people who like to comment on weblogs to register with a central service for one identity to use on all the weblogs they frequent.

The most thorough response I’ve seen so far comes from Burning Bird, where the inherent problems with centralized services are well covered.

Those objections are just one flavor of the issues raised. As a strictly small-time blog, our big issue here at Puddingtime! is dealing with spam bots who happen through to deposit herbal viagra comments, but our issue is just one piece of the comment puzzle.

My response was to tweak our page design so comments stopped appearing in a popup and ended up inlined in the entries they’re part of. That knocked out most of our problems, but there are several other weblogs on puddingbowl.org and I wasn’t fond of the idea of going through and rejiggering their design. About the time I was going to fold and do that anyhow, Jay Allen came out with the very righteous MT-Blacklist plugin, which offers outstanding spam removal tools on top of a decent blacklist to keep the same old offending spams from coming back because the spammer changed IP addresses.

Unfortunately, when Movable Type 3.0 comes out its plug-in architecture will have changed enough that MT-Blacklist won’t work anymore, and Jay says he might not care to continue working on it because he’s been testing MT 3.0 and finds himself pretty enamored with its features.

Some time tomorrow, the folks at SixApart will be releasing a FAQ that covers many questions being asked all over the place. I hope they’ll also go ahead and tell us the complete feature list for Movable Type 3.0’s spam-fighting functionality: banning/deleting by IP is a useful tool for after-the-fact spam removal, but MT-Blacklist does that one better by including a decent database of problematic content to keep the offending party from coming back under a different IP and doing it all over again.

Who Am I?

Classic “herbal viagra” spam is just one part of the problem, though. Outside the world of Puddingtime!, where the biggest problem we have seems to be the occasional appearance of more than one Nate in the same thread, people are very concerned about the key issue of identity as a matter of self-representation and as a predictor of usefulness to any given discussion.

The self representation issue comes down to two flavors: People who want to be the one and only “Captain Zaftoid” in the blogosphere because damnit, they think Captain Zaftoid is a really kewl name; and people who are legitimately concerned about their name being associated with words that aren’t their own.

The former case comes complete with the smell of burning plastic in whatever circuitry is driving the concerned party’s need to be the one and only Captain Zaftoid. The latter is more serious, especially as weblogs become a primary conduit through which people actually try to get stuff done. Again, not an issue at Puddingtime!, but certainly more pressing among technical communities.

The predictor issue is the one that’s really unfortunate, because it’s going to be used to silence people.

Who the Hell Are You?

Snappy the Clam has some good things to say about the use of authentication as a way to ban commenters from discussions:

This is the web, kids. The things that make it so good are also the things that make it a pain in the ass and high-maintenance at times. That whole deal about ’emergent democracy?’ Remember that? Part of that means that people with absolutely nothing to say get to talk too. Free speech is not limited to the things you find useful, or you agree with, or you deem sufficiently serious to allow publication. That’s that whole top-down journalism we love to deride over here in counterpublishing (oh, sorry, ‘personal publishing’) so much.

He forms one end of the argument, and states his case clearly from a perspective of each weblog being a mini public square with a soapbox upon which anyone (in an ideal situation) should feel welcome to climb.

The other side of the argument comes from people like Jack Bogandanski, a Portland blogger, who recently banned two commenters for serial obnoxiousness, and cited Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds’ argument about comments:

InstaPundit doesn’t have comments; its author notes that he also doesn’t have a wall in his house on which he invites guests to leave graffiti.

For two years, I had the responsibility (partial for one year, total for another) of cleaning up the comments at LinuxToday. I came under heavy fire for taking my moderation responsibilities seriously: The guidance I had from my bosses was to ensure that people posting to the board weren’t libeling each other, posting links to offensive material (e.g.: goatse & tubgirl), or dragging the discussions off-topic (such as a free-for-all over Eric Raymond’s habit of including politically charged signatures in every missive he sent us).

All I can say about my part in the moderation game is that I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore: It undermined my generally sunny outlook on human interactions. When I was doing it, I looked at myself as an activist party host. The worst drunks would get a timeout in the back room until they could stop waving (figurative) cutlery at the other guests. We never banned anyone, though some users did find themselves scrutinized pretty closely.

There’s a certain kind of person who will want to make all dissent go away, and there will be webloggers who will get in the habit of banning people who make them look like asses. The beauty of e-z web publishing is that we all get an opportunity to be a stuffed shirt, jackass, or ignoramus for very little money and with none of the hurdles very wealthy stuffed shirts, jackasses, and ignoramuses faced when it took a printing press, radio station, or actual paying gig to blast their words out to the teeming masses.

The nature of stuffed-shirt jackass ignoramuses is such that when confronted with their status as blowhard du jour, they either fight back harder or figure out a way to make all the people laughing at them stop. Some of these people, hunkered down in their blogs, will take to banning and blacklisting people with TypeKey. It’s an unfortunate, censorious impulse, but there are two things that mitigate its overall damage to the Republic:

  1. These same people are erasing comments they don’t like anyhow.

  2. More importantly, there’s a reason free and open exchange of ideas is rated as a good thing: It’s invigorating and enriching to the people who participate in it, and salutary to the perceived quality of the discussion where it happens.

There’s a certain personality type that enjoys walking into a discussion where everyone agrees with everyone else. The consensus-seeking personality is comfortable with everyone just getting along, and maybe even wants a sense that there aren’t really any objections to the groupthink on a particular issue. Dissent will bother these people. They’ll be comfortable posting to blogs where “me too!” echoes through the discussions.

Fortunately, these people aren’t everyone. Many of us like rambunctious give and take (even if we aren’t rambunctious ourselves — lord knows I’m not), and gravitate to boards where people have something to say to each other besides “spot on!” and “well put, my good man.” At the level of weblogs, that takes the form of my more-than-daily check-in on Snappy to see what he has to say: He frequently calls bullshit on the cloying, back-slapping, chummy, back-atcha incestuousness of a lot of bloggers, most of whom I’ve stopped reading because their smugness is so god-damned boring. It’s more entertaining to read someone engaged in the mere act of objecting to their groupthink.

So it will go with censorious weblog maintainers. They’ll stave off ego-implosion by making all the bad thoughts go away, and they’ll find themselves kings of the most boring discussions in the blogosphere, pleased as punch with the total consensus achieved among all three of their regulars. Better yet, they’ll find themselves surrounded by weblogs with better discussions and their capacity to stifle much of anything will diminish as people ignore them and spend their valuable time elsewhere.

Loose Ends

That leaves unanswered the issue of webloggers who, like Instapundit, refuse to allow any reader comments. What to say? They’re another test for the democratic values that might or might not take root in the micropublishing world. I know my own, subjective reaction to commentless weblogs: I find myself asking “who the hell is this guy?” A few of the good ones get my return traffic because what they’re peddling makes sense to me, or because what they’re saying doesn’t always make sense, but is well stated, others I might write off because I think they’re delusional stuffed-shirt jackass ignoramuses, or because there’s somewhere else I can go talk about whatever they’re pointing at. In the end, it’s their blog. The most the rest of us can do is mock them openly when they pontificate about “free and open discussion” while making sure to insulate themselves from it on their own pages.

Is everyone going to react like me? No. But I’m certain they’ll suffer for it on some level, and anyone happening by this entry is welcome to try to disabuse me of that notion down in the comments.

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