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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Group dynamics and commenting

Here's an interesting essay on the dynamics of groups and individuals on the Internet.

Notable quote, referring to the administrators ("wizards") of an early online interactive text game:
"So we're back, and we're taking wizardly fiat back, and we're going to do things to run the system. We are effectively setting ourselves up as a government, because this place needs a government, because without us, the place was falling apart."
Damn right.

I've been pondering how to raise the frequency of high-quality comments. This inevitably involves regulating group and individual behaviour to some extent.

All commenting systems have some sort of regulatory system, e.g.: forcing the supply of an email address and/or homepage; forcing the commenter to choose a nickname; the constant threat of storing the commenters IP address; a moderation queue; forced registration. Unfortunately Blogger doesn't support several of these strategies, which is why most Blogger political blogs use Haloscan. We've held off implementing Haloscan because of the distant promise of our move to sirhumphreys.com and because Haloscan charges to archive comments over three months in age (pay for comments?! Never!). Also it's messier to link to individual Haloscan comments.

I digress.

The goal is to design a system that will neutralise the visibility of trollish and downright stupid comments and give prominence to better comments. So far the best system I've seen is Slashdot's, but that system requires objectivity from the people with moderation power and won't necessarily work on a political site which features many controversial posts with very strong points of view. At the very least we'll be using Slashdot's threaded comments, which is a standard feature of Drupal. Another possibility would be some sort of "Recommendation" five star rating system as Yahoo uses for its news and photo items. But that would be open to abuse and is not supported by non-AJAX browsers and those with high security settings.

Ideas? I'm sure the solution is out there somewhere...

Posted by Antarctic Lemur | 10/29/2005 12:28:00 pm


Blogger Bernard Woolley said...

I think we could just start with the /. style system, it seems to work reasonably well - even with the heated discussions you often end up with on /. it usually lets the cream float to the top and the trolls float down. Yes, there is the issue of who moderates the moderators, and have we got enough commentators to allow meta-moderation?

But overall, I think it is a good system to start with. Looking forward to seeing the Drupal site ;)

Are we also going to work towards a rating mechanism for authored articles?

10/29/2005 12:58:00 pm  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

Re: numbers of commenters. Why not let anyone rate a comment? Except maybe limit one rating per IP address per minute.

10/29/2005 01:12:00 pm  
Blogger Bernard Woolley said...

In /. meta-moderation is limited to those with good karma - so only those people that receive good ratings on their comments can metamoderate. I don't agree with everyone being able to metamoderate as that is obviously open to much more abuse.

10/29/2005 01:23:00 pm  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

I've got it now. As Slashdot and other sites do, we need to record the history of each user and weight their utility to the group of readers as a whole. For example Metcalphs commenting history should show he contributes facts not previously mentioned but doesn't flood the threads with reams of useless garbage.

Perhaps we should have a threshold for having commenting priveleges suspended - too many zero-rated comments = temporary suspension. And a reader must have logged in X number of times and not been rated a troll before being offered comment moderation/rating ability. The rules should be clearly established at the outset and encourage positive contributions to the community discussion.

As the TFA states:

1.) If you were going to build a piece of social software to support large and long-lived groups, what would you design for? The first thing you would design for is handles the user can invest in.

Now, I say "handles," because I don't want to say "identity," because identity has suddenly become one of those ideas where, when you pull on the little thread you want, this big bag of stuff comes along with it. Identity is such a hot-button issue now, but for the lightweight stuff required for social software, its really just a handle that matters.

2.) Second, you have to design a way for there to be members in good standing. Have to design some way in which good works get recognized. The minimal way is, posts appear with identity. You can do more sophisticated things like having formal karma or "member since."

I'm on the fence about whether or not this is a design or accepting. Because in a way I think members in good standing will rise. But more and more of the systems I'm seeing launching these days are having some kind of additional accretion so you can tell how much involvement members have with the system.

3.) Three, you need barriers to participation. This is one of the things that killed Usenet. You have to have some cost to either join or participate, if not at the lowest level, then at higher levels. There needs to be some kind of segmentation of capabilities.

Now, the segmentation can be total -- you're in or you're out, as with the music group I just listed. Or it can be partial -- anyone can read Slashdot, anonymous cowards can post, non-anonymous cowards can post with a higher rating. But to moderate, you really have to have been around for a while.

4.) And, finally, you have to find a way to spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations. In conversational contexts, Metcalfe's law is a drag. The fact that the amount of two-way connections you have to support goes up with the square of the users means that the density of conversation falls off very fast as the system scales even a little bit. You have to have some way to let users hang onto the less is more pattern, in order to keep associated with one another.

This is an inverse value to scale question. Think about your Rolodex. A thousand contacts, maybe 150 people you can call friends, 30 people you can call close friends, two or three people you'd donate a kidney to. The value is inverse to the size of the group. And you have to find some way to protect the group within the context of those effects.

I believe we could write an AJAX plugin for Drupal to accomplish most of this.

10/29/2005 01:33:00 pm  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

By doing it this way, we the founders get initial control over the comment ratings. Then those who register and pass the established standards get mod/rating ability of comments and the ability to rate the quality of the posts. Then the commenters they rate will eventually gain mod/rating ability, and the cycle will continue.

I like it. That way there's no direct control over the content of the comments but there are substantial punishments for posting stupid crap and rewards for posting good stuff, and basically the technical foundation for building a successful self-sustaining community with oversight by the longest-serving users.

10/29/2005 01:38:00 pm  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

We'd have to integrate little symbols showing various things as Trademe uses. The problem with Slashdot is the system exists, but it doesn't transfer the information to the readers.

10/29/2005 01:40:00 pm  
Blogger Ashley Clarkson said...

So slashdot doesn't make its code available to other users? Do you know of any similar employments of slashdot style systems that are open source? That's the first place you need to start.

10/29/2005 02:09:00 pm  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

It's open source:

But it runs on Perl.

10/29/2005 02:15:00 pm  
Blogger Ashley Clarkson said...

Hmm. Drat.

10/29/2005 02:17:00 pm  
Blogger Bernard Woolley said...

It may be useful to start with only the founders and an invited seed group assigning initial comment ratings, and from here letting users being rated bubble up to the top.

I guess Drupal only has a node rating system, rather than overall rating of users? Hence the need to create such a module.

10/29/2005 02:23:00 pm  
Blogger Bernard Woolley said...

I'm pretty sure slashcode is also available in php somewhere too...

10/29/2005 02:25:00 pm  
Blogger Ashley Clarkson said...

There are different versions according to the slashcode site. Looked at one, but not sure what good it is.


10/29/2005 02:36:00 pm  
Blogger fm said...

I don't think there's ever been a comment thread that's ran wild without one of you guys (the contributors) participating. So why don't you just moderate as and when you see fit (ban-delete-edit)? And don't get to bogged down with rules -- people will hold you to a standard that will go far beyond any rules you set, and in fact they may just become a source of controversy that allows trolls to pretend they have some sort of moral victory. Come up with some general principles, but just decide amongst yourselves what you think to be the right balance between argument and idiocy. If you build it right, they will come. Technology won't do it for you.

10/29/2005 02:55:00 pm  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

Drupal actually has most of what we want build in:

Thanks to Steve of DeGenerationX for pointing that out.

Not much to modify at all.

Another big plus for Drupal!

10/29/2005 04:35:00 pm  
Blogger Ashley Clarkson said...

That seems to be doing the vast majority of everything you want it to. I'm not sure whether you have tried Drupal out with this thing turned on, but you might not even modify to see how the comment has been moderated - it may display that on the page (kind of like Amazon's review rating system).

10/29/2005 04:41:00 pm  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

fm. That's the problem. Our direct intervention is required to face down anonymous malcontents, or we are required to turn on Blogger-only commenters (as now) which means they have to start the Blogger registration process to get themselves an account.

I don't like moderating or deleting comments outright. Would rather our better readers simply punish the crappier comments and commenters with some sort of negative rating.

As for trolls trying to assign themselves the moral highground - they've always been around. I have no problems tearing them a new one. The aim is for them to find it to tough to become prominent while promoting excellent comments.

10/29/2005 05:05:00 pm  
Blogger fm said...

No worries AL. I went and had a look at the Drupal link above and I must say I'm impressed how far blog commenting systems have come. Still, it only takes one deliberately rude idiot to ruin the tone of a thread, so I still think that the hand of God should make some particular comments and commentators disappear now and again. I've seen some blogs do that (and do it well) and it actually encourages the moderate lefties and righties to comment more often. By all means try and let the technology save you some hassle, but spare the rod and you spoil the child! (That should set the hares running...)

10/29/2005 05:37:00 pm  

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