Has our comment section improved? I think so

Posted by on May 6th, 2021 at 3:09 pm

The old days when we left comments in person at Get Together events like this one in 2009.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Back in February, serious concerns from the community forced me to take a harder look at our comment section.

If you recall, the concerns were based on my moderating style that let too many mean and inappropriate comments get through. I’d known for years that some folks had stopped reading the comments because of the tenor of BikePortland commenters, but I didn’t take those concerns as seriously as I should have. It took getting called-out on Twitter and some pointed private messages and conversations for me to finally understand why our comment section wasn’t just disliked by some people, but in need of immediate intervention.

Because of changes I’ve made, the comments are a lot better now. At least I think they are. I’d love to know what you think.

Why do I think they’re better now? Two reasons: I moderate every single comment that comes in, and I delete a lot more of them.

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From our recent reader survey, based on 1034 responses.

Previously, once someone had a comment approved, all subsequent comments would be published instantly. (This doesn’t include folks I’ve put on a moderation list because of past misconduct and/or because I can’t trust them.) We get about 250-350 comments per week. I read all of them to make sure they meet my new standard of appropriateness.

Deleting more comments feels great! In the past I would give the benefit to the commenter and would stretch my own boundaries to find reasons to allow questionable comments through. I had convinced myself that unproductive disagreement, strong (even insensitive) critiques, and low-level meanness were valuable to the community. I had my reasons for this approach, but they were wrong. These days none of that stuff gets through.

One interesting result of this new approach is that many of the most problematic and consistently negative/mean commenters have simply vanished. This makes our site better and my life less stressful.

I’m happy to say the comment section is here to stay. When we asked if they should be shut down, 82% of our reader survey respondents (850 people out of 1034), said “no”.

Having an open, helpful, and welcoming comment section is so important to me. Thank you for all your feedback on this and for being patient as I continue to evolve and make changes as necessary.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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EliThe DudeJonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)sorenWatts Recent comment authors
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joan
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joan

Yes, the comment section is much better! Thank you for the changes! It has made a big difference. I’ve been a lot more interested and engaged personally as a result. I find the comments more interesting and more valuable, and I haven’t seen the pile-ons of old.

One interesting result of this new approach is that many of the most problematic and consistently negative/mean commenters have simply vanished. This makes our site better and my life less stressful.

I am so glad to hear this. Increased moderation has led to … almost an easier job of moderator? This is great news.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

JM, is there any seasonal variation in the number of comments received? Or maybe in the degree of hurt, snark, or hatefulness in the comments received?

Rivelo
Member

YES! Delete personal attacks always. Consider keeping comments that respectfully express dissenting viewpoints, as long as they’re about the issue, and not fellow-commenters!

There’s nothing that says that everyone gets to say whatever they want to whomever they want, regardless of the result, just because it’s the Internet.

And if The Deleted don’t like it, let them start their own dang website/blog/Instagram account.

nmr
Subscriber
nmr

Just read the comments on “Father of teen killed by driver on Hawthorne Blvd questions city’s repaving plans”, an issue I am still very uncertain on.

The comments seem better.

I think they should be better still. “SMDH” is dismissive, not constructive, though I understand how exasperating discussion can be.

edit: Also, thanks and big improvement 🙂

Momo
Guest
Momo

I think it’s great to have differing opinions on a comment thread, as long as they aren’t being “trolls.” And I really wouldn’t consider SMDH a troll. Their comments can be provocative, but in a thoughtful and interesting way that challenges people on various topics. Maybe it seems dismissive to you, but it just seems like disagreement to me. Trolls are very different, provoking fights for the sake of fighting in a disingenuous way.

I'll Show Up
Guest
I'll Show Up

Things are way better. Thank you so much for the hard work you’re doing to create a more welcoming comment section. I am definitely noticing some of the folks who always made me feel beat down having many fewer comments. Thank you!! I believe the changes will make me more comfortable to participate more.

Lowell
Guest
Lowell

I think the tenor of the comments overall is certainly better. I do worry that you as the sole moderator may burn out on reviewing every single one before it gets published. And if you are on vacation and other writers are publishing posts, I would hate for you to have to approve comments on posts while you’re gone. I think sooner rather than later you should consider adding some trusted folks to help in moderation.

(I can’t think of much anything I’d like to do less than moderating comments, so don’t take this as me volunteering. But if you ever need web dev help feel free to hit me up.)

Momo
Guest
Momo

Well done! I agree that the tone of comments has gotten way better lately. Keep it up.

Watts
Guest
Watts

Hi Jonathan,

I was an occasional reader before the change, and have been since. The comments are definitely less combative, but are also less interesting. It’s mostly a few regulars agreeing with one another and heaping scorn on ODOT/PBOT/cars and wishing they lived in Amsterdam. That’s fine, but I don’t learn as much as I did before you got rid of everyone else, and I’ve started skipping the comments altogether on some articles. They can be so predictable and just… dull. It seems pretty well established that ODOT is overly car-focused, and the usual folks saying so after every story mentioning ODOT gets tiring. That guy who knows the history of everything (David Hamsten?) sometimes seems like the only one left with something interesting to say.

I already feel like I live in a bubble (officially confirmed by the NYTimes!), and now this site has become part of it. This used to be one of the few remaining forums where people with different perspectives came together and had a (mostly) civil discussion. It doesn’t feel that way anymore, and I think that’s a loss.

That said, I really do like your renewed focus on bike news. I never really cared much for the political stuff that just seemed to rile people up. I get that from pretty much everywhere else in my life, so it’s nice to have an oasis where I can just read about a topic I love.

Thanks for seeking feedback!

Fuzzy Blue Line
Guest
Fuzzy Blue Line

Well said Watts. Be wary of of allowing a blog to become an echo chamber. Portland may very well be the most liberal, woke, progressive city in America. But when you look around the city at the current state of the city’s transportation & biking infrastructure what do you see? I see unusable MUPs like Springwater & I-205 with problems left unaddressed by liberal, woke, progressive politicians. How I long for the days of Vera Katz who actually could lead & build consensus on issues like bike infrastructure when the city wasn’t a political echo chamber. Maybe reach out to a conservative in your neighborhood (if you can find them) and ask them why they have the values they do.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Your last sentence is something I frequently say. Confirmation bias is not just a right-wing news thing. Left and right media both do a might fine job of making caricaturizations (is that a word?) of what the “other” is. It might be shocking to some but not every conservative is a “White Supremacist Proud Boy” and not every liberal is a “BLM terrorist”.

I’ve had very illuminating conversations with conservatives – their starting values/opinions might be different than mine but their thought processes are pretty sound and it makes sense they got to the point they are at.

Heck, I am a Left-leaning Independent of Jewish heritage and my best friend in town is a Libertarian Protestant from Texas.

Alex
Subscriber
Alex

From what I have seen, right-leaning views are still welcome here, it just turns out that the most aggressive, disrespectful comments were coming from the more right-leaning people. Maybe they are just having a hard time expressing themselves without being overly aggressive and genuinely listening and responding to the other side of the argument. Not sure if you have spent much time on right-wing sites, but the tone of those comment sections speak volumes about about those constituents and I am really glad that JM is combatting that; it’s a hard, thankless job.

Even this comment from MOTRG is a bit suspect imo. “It might be shocking to some but not every conservative is a “White Supremacist Proud Boy” and not every liberal is a “BLM terrorist” <- personal attack. I am actually not surprised by this, either, and I doubt many of the people reading comments here are.

"I’ve had very illuminating conversations with conservative" <- trying to apply a logical fallacy to support people that agree with him (https://www.logicalfallacies.org/anecdotal.html). I would bet that we have all had very illuminating convos with conservatives, even if the only thing we gain is a stronger support for an opposing view.

And another "Heck, I am a Left-leaning Independent of Jewish heritage and my best friend in town is a Libertarian Protestant from Texas." <- https://www.logicalfallacies.org/appeal-to-emotion.html This is almost equivalent to saying "My best friend is black."

I personally don't think I would have let this comment through, other than perhaps the first 2 sentences, which are true, but then lay the foundation for the rest of the logical fallacies.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Ah, but we are all creatures of our own experiences and those experiences influence our opinions. This isn’t a debate. To wit, though – I was not speaking about any specific topic in particular so I am not trying to cultivate any kind of support from conservatives – I’ve also had convo’s with conservatives where we did not agree. Simply stating that unemotional discourse is good and we should not demonize someone with a different philosophy.

Having a black friend, Christian friend, homeless friend, incarcerated friend might provide some kind of additional insight into how the life of another person is different. I would say cultivating that kind of diversity is good.

“This is almost equivalent to saying “My best friend is black.”” I hope you see the irony.

 
Guest
 

I disagree; I see no reason not to let this comment through. It doesn’t attack other commenters, doesn’t support bigoted or intolerant views, and isn’t unnecessarily nasty. Logical fallacies aren’t a reason not to include a comment. I think if you think a comment contains a logical fallacy, what should be done is to reply to the comment explaining the fallacy, not ask for the comment to be deleted. That way everyone learns from the comment chain.

I personally see no personal attack in the comment. MOTR isn’t calling anyone a “BLM terrorist”, he’s using the phrase in the context of saying what far-right people erroneously think anyone left of center is.

Drew Williamson
Guest
Drew Williamson

Alex, I feel that your comment is rather elitist and unnecessarily dismissive. Just saying. If you felt personally attacked by that comment, I don’t quite understand that. In any event, I am not sure why you launched into dismantling the whole thing with all these “applied” logical fallacies. Just… you know, maybe let it go? Disagree with the comment without picking it apart? It seems to me that Middle isn’t trying to convince you of anything–just stating his own opinion.

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

I stopped reading the site, when my comments were repeatedly blocked. And, I could find no rhyme or reason. My comments were not mean or nasty. Yes they were counter to much of JM’s narrative, but I thought he welcomed that. I even repeatedly asked him why I was blocked, but got no response. I refuse to access a site that just presents one side of the story. Thankfully, a few weeks ago, my comments started appearing again. I am just as much a curmudgeon as previously, but now am an acceptable grouch. I don’t think other media realize how important comments are. For instance, O’Live stopped allowing comments and also installed a paywall. I understand their reasoning, but I would guess that 50% or more of the meaningful content was found in the comments; further information, opinions, etc. I still directly e-mail the reporter when they really get it wrong factually, but the only one who responds is Canzano, who is also a curmudgeon.

Michael Kinsley
Guest
Michael Kinsley

I’m glad you were willing to take on the extra burden of content moderation but am worried it might become overwhelming at times. Just wish people could manage to express the intensity of their feelings about issues without directing that same level of intensity towards other people… Too much to wish for, sadly.

Jason
Guest
Jason

Just wish people could manage to express the intensity of their feelings about issues without directing that same level of intensity towards other people

That’s pretty on the money. I think people need to separate their grievances apart from the people they are interacting with.

Tom
Guest
Tom

Thank you Jonathan. I finally stopped reading comments after the last time this was discussed, realizing how much better my experience would be just ignoring them all together. Glad to hear changes have been made and its worth revisiting.

Alex
Subscriber
Alex

The comment section is sooo much better – it actually feels like productive conversations and/or single comments are happening again. There are definitely a few unproductive comments that leak thru, but the improvement is vast. Good work!

Jon Dohnson
Guest
Jon Dohnson

I know having a different opinion these days is equivalent to hate speech, but having an echo chamber gets a little old too. Do people feel patting themselves on the back is engaging?

Paul
Guest
Paul

It’s been said over and over here that comments are not being moderated based on point of view, but only based on manner of argumentation. I actually think your comment here is pretty close to the edge itself. You are using hyperbole and condescension to make it seem like those who disagree with you are unreasonable. And I do think it is harmful.

Watts
Guest
Watts

It has been said over and over, but the comments that make it through moderation tell another story. Perhaps there is unconscious bias at work?

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Seconded. Saying “having a different opinion these days is equivalent to hate speech,” implies that many commenters are irrationally over-zealous and trivializes and attempts to invalidate Jonathan’s and many others’ attempts to exclude hate speech to create a more welcoming community. We are all aware that you are doing your part in the culture war and are referring to “liberals.” How could that comment possibly lead to a productive discussion?

Comments like this annoy me not because I’m offended, but because it’s just such a tired trope about US politics in the abstract without saying anything constructive or specific about the topic at hand. And it seems designed only to provoke a negative response.

This is exactly the sort of comment that needs to go away because it contributes nothing to the conversation and actively disrupts meaningful discussion.

But what I really want to know is: Don’t you ever get sick of saying the same trite, snarky talking points over and over again? Cause the rest of us sure get tired of hearing it ad nauseum.

Jason
Guest
Jason

I appreciate the effort. This forum can be an intellectual equivalent of a bare knuckle brawl sometimes. I’m pessimistic though. I think people will find new and even more subversive / sarcastic ways of insulting each other. I hope I’m wrong, but my opinion is informed by the world that I have witnessed over the last year.

Steve
Guest
Steve

My issue with the comments before wasn’t differing views on the subject, it was comments going off topic with back and forth social and political views (as well as tone). I don’t understand why some of the commenters here are claiming a loss of information when Jonathan says he isn’t deleting comments based on content, but on tone.

Concordia Cyclist
Guest
Concordia Cyclist

Appreciate the heads-up, Jonathan. The change is much appreciated. Didn’t realize the changes when recently commenting. Glad it wasn’t just me 😉

Taylor Getz
Guest
Taylor Getz

The comment section is a bit better.

Jonathan, my opinion is that you still allow a lot of inflammatory content from far left posters because it agrees with your world view. Just this week CMH89 posted very inflammatory and/or triggering comments re: the police (which CMH89 does often). Using the word “boys” to refer to officers on the force and “boot lickers” to those who are supportive of law enforcement. You allowed the post to go right through. You eventually did take it down but I think you need to be more evenhanded in your censorship. Maybe share your censorship duties with someone of a more centrist nature.

MarkinNoPo
Guest
MarkinNoPo

On matters of transportation infrastructure, the comments section was and is a valuable part of my BikePortland experience.

A few of my comments have been rejected (in my view, because they marched out of step with contemporary leftist discourse on a hot-button topic, not because they were unproductive or mean). But this is your website, not mine, so you can police it however you see fit. On the couple topics where my center-left views aren’t welcome, I try to shrug and keep it moving.

I’d rather periodically roll my eyes at a deleted comment than have you determine that the comments section isn’t worth the trouble. Thank you for writing about (and facilitating good conversations about) Portland’s transportation infrastructure.

Charley
Guest
Charley

1. Moderating sounds like a lot of work. I’m glad to read you’re going to be able to get help, too.
2. Personally, I have checked myself on tone several times before submitting a comment. I am passionate and confident in my beliefs; at times those feelings result in a tone that might not be conducive to a good conversation. It’s much the same as the mentality we take to driving a car: we forget our normal social behaviors and react to a comment or idea as if the person behind it is not even human. Knowing that you will approve or not approve my comment has literally moderated my writing. This is a huge blessing, and I wish more platforms followed your model. The country and its democracy would be healthier.
3. I’ve noticed a more civil demeanor on the forum here. I’ve noticed less cross talk, and have enjoyed not wading through dozens of comments by repeat posters. I believe that the comments still represent a diversity of viewpoints, and that you’re doing a good job of maintaining this balance. It may be that the knowledge that a post will not publish immediately has further moderated some users’ behavior. Immediacy might not be as valuable for tending good conversations in this medium, and may actually cause argumentative death spirals.

BikeRound
Guest
BikeRound

I have almost completely stopped commenting here simply because I have no way to tell what will be published and what will not be. I do not engage in any personal attacks and I always aim for a civil tone, but comments that touch upon controversial topics frequently go missing. This site absolutely has become an echo chamber based on standards community. The Confederates also believed in freedom of speech, except when it came to abolitionist speech. But I am sure that we can all agree that advocating for the end of slavery is such an evil that that type of speech clearly should be banned.

John Mackelnary
Guest
John Mackelnary

Absolutely this. No point in coming back here if it’s going to be a bunch of people nodding in agreement with the author and nothing else. Kind of seems like readership and therefore ad revenue will decline… maybe that will get Jonathan’s attention?

Fred
Guest
Fred

Surely you meant “prohibiting speech that advocated for the end of slavery is an evil…”.

John Mackelnary
Guest
John Mackelnary

It was an echo chamber before, even more so now. I wish there was an outlet that covered the same stories but with less of a political / personal agenda.

ChadwickF
Guest
ChadwickF

Personally, I kind of liked the feature that had replies to a comment “nested” below the original comments.

Joseph E
Guest
Joseph E

Me too. This made the discussion more compact and encouraged more original posts and less back-and-forth

Mark Lofer
Guest
Mark Lofer

Jonathan, thanks for trying to keep things civil. I do get the impression though that you are biased in your censoring. You are very far left on the political spectrum and I think it’s hard for you to read the comments objectively. For example, you are very defensive of certain politicians you like such as Eudaly and Hardesty. I think you censor a lot of critical (although civil) comments of them.

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Even the description of Jonathan as “very far left” demonstrates the right-wing bias in US political rhetoric and that it is (also) impossible for you to view the entire process objectively.

soren
Guest
soren

FWIW, I generally refrain from posting my political views on Bike Portland because Jonathan has a history of censoring most of my “far left” comments. In particular, I have been censored when I have been harshly critical of the capitalist bike industry (local or otherwise), the police, pro-business active transportation advocates/orgs, and Portland’s center-right democratic establishment.

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

BikePortland comments have changed constantly over the years, and I expect they’ll continue to do so. Quantities, volumes, tones, personalities, issues, thoughtfulness, snark and more all wax and wane. I miss many of the temperate voices of wisdom from years past (are, Picio, Kt, the Harlows and plenty more), it’s nice to see a few drift back from lurking (hi q’Tzal & el biciclero), and I don’t miss at all the screechy, trolly, hateful types, most of whom enter my mental killfile and don’t last all that long anyway.

So yes, Jonathan, your site’s comment section is doing well. Thanks for all you do.

Eli
Guest
Eli

I may have been one of the folks in the survey who said to get rid of the comments section but gave feedback about what would make me feel differently, and this solution feels better. I’ve moderated enough online environments to know that this is a LOT of work for you, but I really have appreciated this shift. If I scroll to a comments section and see the same repetitive posters dominating, I’m not going to be engaged to read them, never mind be motivated to comment much throughout the website. (It always confuses me on here as well. On WW or the old O site, I’m not surprised, but if you’re commenting that extensively on a news site… how are you finding time to ride your bike?)