Anil Dash has written up what he’s learned about virtual communities in the past 12 years in a post titled, If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault. The larger point is that there’s no reason to accept as a given that people act like jerks on the Internet. People act like jerks in online spaces where they’re given free rein to act like jerks.
He has a lot of good advice on policing communities for companies running large sites. I want to weigh in with just one piece of advice for people running smaller sites. If you are an individual blogger and you want to raise the quality of the comments on your site, the most important thing you can do is be present in the comments. And I don’t just mean reading them, you need to post as well.
The first step toward things getting out of hand is people responding to posts on a blog and not getting any kind of follow up at all. When people assume that they’re being ignored, their behavior tends to get worse. Soon, the commenters are fighting among themselves and savaging anybody new who happens to show up.
My recipe for the managing the comments on this blog is simple. I moderate the first post from everyone, once you’ve had a comment approved you can comment freely. I read everything. I respond to stuff that calls for it. I delete (or never approve) comments that fall below the standards I set for the site. That almost never happens, but I feel no guilt when it comes to deleting truly obnoxious comments. I’ve never had to ban anyone, but I would in a second if someone were persistently obnoxious. I also get rid of anything that even looks a little bit like spam.
Overall, I’m extremely happy with the quality of comments here. Hopefully the extent to which I manage them is basically invisible.