Checking in on BikePortland comment moderation

From a BikePortland Get Together event in April 2011 – when we used to hear your comments in person! (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The BikePortland comment section is a core strength of this site. Commenters flesh out stories, provide examples, share expertise and historical knowledge, and add heft to our reporting. So thank you for your contributions! We couldn’t do our work as well without you.

Providing a safe platform for discussion and the exchange of differing opinions is also central to BikePortland’s purpose. In early 2021, we responded to community criticism and tightened our approach to moderation. Since then, all comments have been read and approved by either Jonathan or myself (I usually take over on weekends to give him a break), and we feel like it has helped improve the quality of dialogue.

After nearly a year and a half of this new moderation strategy — and 513,362 total comments approved — now might be a good time to talk about how we do it.

What happens to your comments

Here are a few of things you might want to know about what happens to your comment after you click “post”:

  • Your comment appears to us in a back-end comment queue. We have a short list of things we can do with it. We can either approve it, edit it, send it to the trash or toss it into the spam bucket. Jonathan most often approves comments straight off the queue, and I often look at the thread for context if I need to. We often take context (of the thread, the news cycle, the topic, the subject of the article, and so on) into account when deciding whether or not to approve a comment.
  • WordPress has its own comment filter that automatically deletes comments according to its spam rules. These are based on an algorithm we don’t always understand. It might reject a comment because of a single word, overall length, use of many links, and other things. The spam filter sometimes makes mistakes, so if you don’t see your comment appear, let us know and we can “un-spam” it. If we haven’t approved your unobjectionable comment within a couple of hours (it might take a little longer nights and weekends) let us know, by either saying something directly in the comment section or contact us. We’ll make it right.
  • We also maintain a blocklist (also known as a “blacklist” but we don’t like the black/white terminology) of terms and usernames. This list is long and has been added to since 2005. It’s where the really bad actors have been placed and it includes very objectionable terms. If someone repeatedly leaves inappropriate comments and doesn’t heed our advice on how to make them better, they get put on the blocklist and we never have to worry about them again.

Divisive times ahead

Two months out from an election and I’m expecting the volume of comments to skyrocket. Two things happen when we get inundated; comments get approved that maybe shouldn’t be, and we delete more comments than usual. That might seem contradictory, but this happens because we don’t have capacity to keep up and take time required to consider each comment.

You can help us, and reduce the risk of your comment ending up in the trash, by not hugging that fuzzy line between approval and rejection. Take the time to collect your thoughts and write a comment worthy of them, don’t rely on name-calling or insulting other people to make your points.

Judgment calls

This is where we want to make our reasoning more clear. The internet is a harsher, more dangerous place for some groups of people than for others. Women, ethnic, racial and sexual minorities, and other vulnerable people more easily become targets of internet-fueled aggression and bullying than, say, straight white men.

It’s not that those groups can’t handle it, or that they need to get a thicker skin, it’s that they are treated worse.

It is important that BikePortland not only avoid fueling disrespect or mob behavior, we want to avoid the appearance of fueling it, including vigilantism. This means that we are particularly sensitive to name-calling and insults directed at vulnerable people.

We try to balance this sensitivity with our desire to provide a forum for lively discussion and to pierce the bubbles people comfortably select for themselves. You can help by debating constructively, and avoiding name-calling or personalizing arguments.

Watch out for “welfare queen in a Cadillac” type images. These include tropes like “rich boomers from the west hills who drive Subarus to Neil Diamond concerts.”

When I go in to edit out insults and cliches in an attempt to “save” the substance of a comment, I sometimes find that there is nothing to save, the whole comment disappears. Self-regulate. Is what you are wanting to say so important that thousands of other people should turn their attention to it?

BikePortland is a business, we work hard to provide information daily to readers, most of whom never comment. The comments at the bottom of our posts are an important part of our content, by moderating them we try to guard against the descent into ugliness that has wiped out the comments sections of other news outlets.

BikePortland is biased

Yes it is. But I’m not Jonathan’s mini-me. We vote for different candidates, we have different sensitivities, and we sometimes do not agree about whether something is objectionable in a comment. Our frequent discussions (many of them about whether to accept or reject one of your comments) are a good model for the BikePortland comments section as a whole — animated, productive and respectful.

You can join in too. If you don’t like the way something is moderated, keep letting us know. Our moderation evolves, just like your comments do.

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Cyclops
Cyclops
14 days ago

I really do appreciate all the effort they does into your comment moderation. Being rather new to Portland and the local bike scene – it’s been invaluable to helping me get my bearings on what the community is talking about. Thank you for helping keep the comments civil, constructive and diverse.

Maria
Maria
14 days ago

Thanks, BP team for all you do! My only feedback as far as comments go (or spam filter lists) has to do with the word “kill”. Sometimes I use the expression “you are killing it!” and then of course, there’s my little club called the hill killerz. Speaking of which, tonight (Tues 9/20) is our next hill killerz social ride! Come join us! 5:30pm sharp depart from SE 52nd & Flavel, 11 miles of ez hillz, end at the start of Foster Night Ride (food carts).

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin
Reply to  Maria

Thanks Maria! We really appreciate you being here. Looks like this comment came through without a problem so we’re all good.

Fred
Fred
13 days ago

Do you have a filter for “shameless self-promotion”?? 😉

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
14 days ago

What I appreciate about the BP comment section is how constructive many of the dialogs and discussions are; not all of them by any means, maybe not even a majority, but enough to make reading the exchanges worthwhile.

SilkySlim
SilkySlim
14 days ago

I think you both do a great job. Any chance you could save yourselves some trouble with a “whitelist” of users that have proven themselves to be constructive contributors? I’ll nominate the always interesting perspectives of a Mr. David Hampsten!

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin
Reply to  SilkySlim

Great suggestion SilkySlim. I’ve often wanted an allowlist myself but it’s not something that WordPress offers. At least not that I know of. Before our recent change in moderation technique, we would let anyone with at least one previously approved comment get posted automatically without moderation. But that didn’t give us the level of oversight we wanted so we now have to approve every single comment.

And one thing a lot of people get wrong is that working with comments is a time suck. Yes it does take time and energy, but I have always seen it as being just as important as the other work we do like writing stories or working on photos or videos and so on. Comment moderation IS the work, it’s not something that takes us away from the work. I think that’s why ours still exist and are so such a valuable resource. Thanks for helping keep them that way.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
14 days ago
Reply to  SilkySlim

SilkySlim, for the record some of my comments have in fact been rejected, but rarely edited, except by me – I’ll often go back within that narrow time limit and modify my text, spelling errors, and opinions before JM or LC do. Sometimes my comments are in error, sometimes they are in poor taste or the puns too vile, and oftentimes there are just too darn many of my comments. I for one appreciate that the BP staff are monitoring and deleting my comments when they do – most of the time…

matchupancakes
matchupancakes
14 days ago

Thank you, Lisa and Jonathan! The efforts to provide a space for civil discourse is appreciated.

maxD
maxD
14 days ago

BP combines the wisdom of Solomon with the stamina of Hercules! I was going to add a Sisypus reference, but I do not think this work is pointless, it is is just hard. Much appreciated Lisa and Jonathan!

Ernest Fitzgerald
Ernest Fitzgerald
13 days ago
Reply to  maxD

What’s Sisypus? A cat condemned forever to roll a ball of yarn uphill?

aaa
aaa
14 days ago

whitelist, blacklist = nah
allowlist, blocklist = yeah

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin
Reply to  aaa

yyyes. Thanks. Noted. Also just went back and edited the story accordingly. And will add these words to my internal knowledge bank of preferred usage.

Jillian
Jillian
13 days ago
Reply to  aaa

Thank you for this! Also adding to my internal knowledge bank of preferred usage!

~J~
~J~
14 days ago

In my experience the moderation appears to be used with a light touch, which is something you want because unmoderated forums are unpleasant for everyone but the resident troll(s). Obviously i haven’t seen comments that have been blocked, and one or two people obviously disagree with certain terminology that’s been prohibited, but all in all the effort to keep things civil and constructive appears to be working.

AJ Jones
AJ Jones
14 days ago

I appreciate the amount of work put into comment moderation here, and the continued evolution of moderation, guided by the often challenging balance between not becoming a pure echo chamber, while also striving to be a place that’s safe for vulnerable people. Keep up the good, and hard, work!

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin
Reply to  AJ Jones

Thanks AJ! Appreciate that you notice the challenge of that balance. You’re exactly right.

AndyK
AndyK
14 days ago

Adam Herstein sighting in the 2011 pic! Miss that guy.

joan
14 days ago

Thanks so much for asking this! You all knew I’d chime in here! First, I appreciate how responsive and thoughtful you are about moderation and to feedback. Truly and sincerely, it’s fantastic how open you are to constructive criticism and to making changes. I also appreciate how much I’ve learned from BP comments over many years, especially, years ago, when I was a new bike commuter, and even more so around bigger picture issues that impact utility bicycling, like land use, transportation policy in the state and beyond, and other things we might not think about when we ride our bike to the store but have had a big influence.

In general, I think the new approach has addressed many of the worst problems from earlier times, and I appreciate all the time it takes to do that work.

I do have a few concerns still (of course I do). I’m concerned about what I might call bad faith commenters, people who are commenting only to stir the pot, particularly on stories on controversial issues like sweeps of houseless folks or policing or anything to do with PBOT leadership. That’s not everyone who is negative on those threads. I’m thinking about people who are only trolling, who don’t live anywhere near Portland or ride a bike, who don’t really care, but do want to get folks riled up.

I also sometimes see pile-ons of a handful of folks who are commenting from the left. Perhaps it happens in the other direction, too, but sometimes the comments have little or no substance and are just mean or snarky. Sometimes it goes way too far and seems designed to silence. And it works; I still know lots of folks who won’t comment here anymore because of this behavior. I sometimes know I’ll be on the receiving end of this but I comment anyway because I want folks from more marginalized communities to see they aren’t alone, that there’s someone here who doesn’t think we need more sweeps, more police, etc. But it takes a toll for sure.

I also sometimes see a lot of very cheery comments from seemingly-new commenters anytime there’s an ODOT story, but I don’t know if there’s a way to fight ODOT wasting our money on that kind of PR strategy.

I’m not sure if there’s a moderation strategy for what I’m talking about. I think folks have asked about having registered users only commenting, and I’d be curious how that could work (and folks could use an alias and I realize folks could register multiple times).

Overall, though, I appreciate Bike Portland and the work you all do.

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
14 days ago
Reply to  joan

I live in Portland (NE specifically).
I used to bike a lot (don’t now for various reasons/excuses).
I walk a lot.
I use MAX to go to work downtown.
I care about what is happening in my community and world.

What I do, do, in my comments is post with my gut. Typically the first thing that jumps into my old geezer of a brain. Do I rile people up? Don’t know, and truthfully don’t care. It’s my comment, and others are free to post and call out my non-sense as much as they want. I’ll do the same for them too.

I’m glad these avenues of comments can be outside the echo chamber which so many seem to want. Have I had comments nixed and not posted? Absolutely, but hasn’t stopped me from giving my 2 cents.

Hope you continue to give your 2 cents.

joan
13 days ago
Reply to  SolarEclipse

Ugh, see, I’m not looking for an echo chamber – that’s a conservative talking point about the left – and I certainly wouldn’t have included you, a local resident engaged in the issues and active transportation, as example of someone commenting to troll. Why so defensive?

There are so many thoughtful, bright people who don’t comment here anymore because of this kind of incessant picking at people and use of right wing talking points. It’s tiresome. The conversations veer into this back and forth that seem to preclude more nuance. I miss the nuanced and thoughtful policy discussions from people who have felt chased off.

It’s okay not to comment sometimes, you know?

Fred
Fred
13 days ago
Reply to  joan

Joan, methinks thou doth protest too much. I agree with Solar that sometimes you just want to comment from your gut, not write a position paper for gov’t consumption. Often the rawest comments are the funniest and most appealing.

Sometimes it’s okay to offend and be offended – we all need to wear our big-people pants.

Matt
Matt
12 days ago
Reply to  Fred

Joan talks like QAnon has somehow taken over this site. Which is about 100% polar opposite from the truth.

Karstan
Karstan
13 days ago
Reply to  SolarEclipse

What part of Joan’s comment did you feel was directed towards you?

Mark in NoPo
Mark in NoPo
13 days ago
Reply to  joan

Absent telepathy, it’d be foolish to moderate comments based on hunches about whether they’re delivered in “good faith.”

For example, do you intend this suggestion to improve dialogue? Or in hopes of censoring more opponents than allies?

I’m sure you see yourself as a “good faith commenter.” But you don’t know anyone else’s heart. Guard against allowing yourself to believe otherwise as if your intellectual health depended upon it.

joan
13 days ago
Reply to  Mark in NoPo

No, I truly mean that there are folks who like to go to websites like this and be intentionally racist and sexist to get a rise out of people. I get that you’re not seeing it. It’s here and it happens.

Opus the Poet
13 days ago

I earn frequent moderation because of my perspective as a murder victim when I was on my bike (obviously I survived, but I scared the heck out of one of the guys scraping my (then) corpse off the street when I told them I had broken my femur and they should be careful). This strongly colors my response on infrastructure, and punishment of drivers that injure vulnerable users, and I used to call for snipers with anti-materiel rifles to take out dangerous drivers, and speed sensitive vehicle mines to destroy speeders’ cars. Now I’ve mellowed just a little, to the point that DUI drivers be allowed to get out of the vehicle before it’s crushed and shredded. I also have a twisted sense of humor that is also responsible for some of my comments getting blocked. But I really love reading the comments on BP.

Fred
Fred
13 days ago
Reply to  Opus the Poet

We need more of your twisted perspective, Opus. You make this site interesting, IMHO.

Mark McClure
13 days ago

Lisa, thank you for this informative article. I agree that “The BikePortland comment section is a core strength of this site” and I think it’s important for us to understand BP’s moderation process for this reason.

I also appreciate that you take context into account. When I see reader comments in one of our alt-weeklies spiral into name-calling, I check out.

Your reminder about the BP contact form is helpful.

Q: This is related but slightly off-topic. So I’m clear, would you like us to use the e-form for all direct BP communication, or just if we have an issue with our comments?

The reason for my question: I asked Jonathan, via email, if/how we should submit feedback regarding the new site. I don’t see a link in BP’s website footer to a feedback form, as is customary.

I also want to be respectful and not load up your In boxes. In my email, I did tell Jonathan I understand that the cool kids today don’t use email 😉

That said, I’m aware DMs can also be problematic. Just before I retired, I had 3 x 24″ monitors and a phone screen blinking at me with Microsoft Teams messages. Yikes!

Finally, I chuckled at your trope and liked your closing comments. I don’t want to see BP ever become an echo chamber, especially over the next two months.

joan
13 days ago

Lisa, thanks for sharing your process. I like the idea of being more protective of new and infrequent commenters. However, I also think there are some folks who won’t ever comment because of the punches being thrown because they don’t want to be subject to that. Someone who isn’t here much might not realize they won’t be subject to the same vitriol (and I didn’t realize you had this approach even as a regular reader). I think it’s a great approach in the small picture but perhaps has consequences in the bigger picture.

joan
12 days ago

Lisa, thanks for responding. Yes, it takes all voices! I’m not thinking about the loudest voices here, but the ones we aren’t hearing at all. Some of those folks used to be here and active; some folks never participate at all because they find the comment section hostile.

I’m not trying to edit the orchestra to woodwinds. I’m trying to pull back the curtain to make space for the rest of the orchestra that many of us have ignored all this time. And bringing in the rest of the orchestra might mean the tuba needs to pipe down a bit.

Sometimes we tubas are so used to our own tuba sounds that taking a break for a minute feels incredibly uncomfortable, and it takes a while for us to hear that quietly lyrical piccolo. And if that piccolo is a tiny bit off key, sometimes we get mad and just want to blare our tuba back even louder. And then the saxophone responds to the tuba and we feel excited and we don’t even know the piccolo left the stage.

I know you and I aren’t likely to agree on this because I have been unhappy with some of your moderation decisions. And I’m sure this comment here is likely going to engender some response about how I want an echo chamber blah blah blah. But, you know, what I really want is a bit less tuba, a bit more off-key piccolo, because then that also invites the … kazoo? The accordion? Whatever. I’m pushing the limits of my ability to make a good music metaphor.

Sometimes the tubas (which I sometimes play myself) are too damn loud and we aren’t hearing the harp.

This is a great analogy to what’s going on the bicycle advocacy world as a whole. We see cars as the tubas and ourselves as the harp and don’t even realize we are drowning out the harmonica.

joan
11 days ago

I don’t know how old you are and I’m not sure how you might know my age or how that’s relevant. I think BP does a pretty good job too, and I said so early on. You asked for our input so I’m sharing my ideas for how it could be better. If you weren’t open to ideas, why bother asking? It’s a bit strange to ask for input and then tell me I’m wrong.

My interest is always in hearing the voices we don’t hear from very much; we used to hear them a lot more often on here. Of course our institutions are exclusive. That doesn’t mean they can’t be better.

But, if your take is, “We’re doing great, right?” then okay. It’s up to you and Jonathan to sort this out and figure out how to move forward. I was sharing my feedback because I thought it was what you wanted. I’m not really interested in debating about this with you.

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
11 days ago
Reply to  joan

I personally like the Ressikan flute.

Mark McClure
12 days ago

Ref: https://bikeportland.org/2022/06/07/welcome-to-our-new-site-355781#comment-7478545

Lisa, I’m going to reference my post (thread) above to frame an opinion and also provide context.

I think one reason people are reluctant to post on BikePortland is because they have no assurance, that I’m aware of, that their comments won’t be used, without permission and perhaps without context, on another social media platform. It’s my understand these platforms now include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Relatedly, I don’t know whether there is a distinction, or what the distinction is, between your (BP staff’s) personal and business accounts on social media. I recall journalists were talking about this a while ago. I know when Jonathan endorsed Jo Ann Hardesty in the 2022 primary, he used his personal Twitter account rather than BikePortland’s. To me, that seemed appropriate. Regardless, I think this is an internal policy that doesn’t need to be stated publicly.

I recognize my opinion or assertion about breaking privacy rules seems untrustworthy. However, in this day and age of social media and divisive politics, I believe people are generally wary of becoming unwittingly involved in matters that are not of their choosing. Or maybe just speaking for myself.

Given everything said, and now referencing my June 7 comment above, I think it would be helpful to state what BP’s data privacy policy and practices are so we all know.

Fred
Fred
13 days ago

For me the current BP comments section is but a shadow of its former vital self, from 4-5 years ago. So many great commenters are gone.

When you went to 100% moderation, you may have gained something but you also definitely lost something.

joan
13 days ago

Ugh, that’s so awful. Thanks to Soren for the compassion and to you for cleaning up the garbage.

Matt
Matt
12 days ago

Soren is a major instigator though.

joan
12 days ago

Honestly sometimes Soren really pisses me off (like, I’m tired of hearing my neighborhood described as “twee”), but he’s often right, even if his words are harsh, and it’s an excellent point that he tends to make comments that are well-supported with information, and he doesn’t punch down.

Charlie
13 days ago
Reply to  Fred

I hear what you are saying. But I think it’s the general degradation and divisiveness of commenting at the societal level in recent years. Moderation is the best tool at hand to keep the comment sections mostly productive versus a typical internet comment section mud fest. I appreciate the work they have taken on.

Karstan
Karstan
13 days ago
Reply to  Fred

shadow of its former vital self, from 4-5 years ago

Was it still vital and non-shadowy 2 years ago? Before the moderation introduced 18 months ago?

Did people stop commenting because of the introduction of the moderation? If so, what about the moderation rules do you think drove people away? Or did some stop commenting because of the behavior that led to the introduction of moderation? Or some even perhaps because the new moderation wasn’t sufficient to the needs of those who have now left?

joan
13 days ago
Reply to  Fred

Moderation brought some people back, but the vitriol was why many left in the first place. I agree completely with Lisa that there was a lot of hatefulness lost, and that’s just fine.

qqq
qqq
13 days ago

The first time I ever drove alone onto the freeway when I was a teenager, someone cut me off badly when I was trying to merge. It was scary. Out of nowhere a cop swooped in, with their siren and lights, and pulled the guy over. It was great. That’s how I feel about the moderation here. Keep it up!

Steve
Steve
13 days ago

Thanks for your work to make online comments an ongoing feature. Some publications have just thrown up their hands and discontinued online comments because of trolls and vitriol. I value the BP comments overall. A question/suggestion: could you acquire the ability to notify posters when there is a reply to their comment?

Karstan
Karstan
13 days ago
Reply to  Steve

Steve, click on the image of the little bell with a line through it next to “Post Comment” button when posting your comment. It should toggle to an image of a bell without the line. Then you’ll get notified of comments. 🙂

Jakob Bernardson
Jakob Bernardson
13 days ago

At the time of the photo what was being said to make the brilliant and ever popular Chris Smith discomfited?