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Curating Safe(r) Spaces In Comments

I want to expand a bit on Flavia’s recent post discussing the Foxnewsification of the Internet and ideas about ‘all points of view being valuable’ and needing to be aired on blogs. Discussions like this inevitably bring up cries of ‘free speech’ from people who apparently don’t understand how free speech works; as was pointed out, a comment section is more like a letters to the editor page. It is thoughtfully curated by staff who read all the letters, consider them, and decide which should be published.

Those letters may well include opposing views, as well as expansions upon the discussion or more topical letters. Newspapers are not accused of violating free speech rights when they decline to publish letters to the editor; The New York Times, for example, didn’t violate my rights when they declined to publish an op-ed I recently submitted. Likewise, the comment sections on blogs, on online newspaper articles, and in other areas of the Internet, are not free speech zones. Because they are published by private entities, not governments, and we have no obligation to publish all views. You have a right to speak: That doesn’t create a correlating obligation to publish. (If it did, imagine how much bad poetry would clutter The New Yorker.)

Especially when those views are actively hateful. One of the problems with moderating comments on sites that deal with social justice issues is that often, the comments that come in are really, really awful. Or they are walking a fine grey line that the commenter is hoping to push over. As a moderator, I feel that one of my obligations is not just in the creation of a safe(r) space, but in the creation of a space where actual discussion and conversation can take place. Discussion that must include marginalised communities, particularly those that may be the subject of a post or prompt.

For example, in my recent post on Lowe’s and anti-Muslim attitudes, it was very important to me to make sure that comment thread was a space where Muslim readers would feel comfortable. Where they could skim down through the comments and not encounter hate speech, or sketchy comments that would make them feel uncomfortable even if they weren’t outright abusive. Where they would feel welcome to participate in the conversation and add their own thoughts. To make, in other words, an inclusive space. Flavia and I often discuss this over email; people want to know where the feminists of colour are, for example, when their comment threads are teeming with racism and people don’t want to read them, let alone comment in them.

The creation of comment threads where functional discussion can happen isn’t just about eradicating spam, or pointless comments that don’t add to the discussion, or derailing, or outright hate speech. It’s also about selectively choosing not to publish comments that could potentially steer that conversation into a direction that makes it unsafe for readers. As a moderator at FWD/Forward, for example, it was very important to me that the conversation centre the voices of people with disabilities at all times, that it be not just a disability-friendly space, but, explicitly, a disability space. 

We got a lot of angry email demanding to know why we didn’t publish comments from caregivers, from parents, from nondisabled people with Thoughts on disability. And the answer, simply, was that there are lots of other places for those thoughts to be expressed, and very few public spaces with a curated conversation where people with disabilities can feel like they are not just part of the conversation, but actually are the conversation. Where this conversation can take place in public so people can learn from it. Where, as the great Elon James puts it, people can Have A Seat and do some thinking rather than talking.

Likewise, on other social justice sites, the focus is often not the people with privilege who want to comment on how something makes them feel, but the people actually experiencing marginalisation who want to discuss their experiences, who want to work in solidarity, who want to discuss ways to fight the institutional systems that surround and ensnare us. And who want to be able to have that conversation in a public venue to add to the resources available.

Which means, yeah, I often decline to publish comments not necessarily because I think they are actively offensive or there is something specifically wrong with them, but because they don’t add to a conversation in a meaningful way and bring the focus of the conversation back on to people with privilege. There are plenty of spaces where those people can have those conversations, and they are welcome to have them, but I don’t necessarily want to host them or be responsible for curating them. I especially am not interested in entertaining ‘devil’s advocate’ arguments, because I find them deeply offensive and they seem to be a favourite little trick among some privileged commenters on the Internet.

The thing about the devil’s advocate is that people appear to misunderstand its function, and primarily seem to want to use it as an excuse to stealthily advance oppressive views. They triumphantly advance some sort of hypothetical situation and expect me to entertain it as a serious ‘argument,’ a contribution to the discussion, when their input was neither asked for nor desired. They are talking in hypotheticals about the lived experience of other people who may be attempting to participate in a comment thread, and they seem to want some sort of praise for it, for creating, in effect, an unsafe space while attempting to cloak themselves in ‘just wanting to spark discussion.’

When I enter a thread where a ‘devil’s advocate’ (invariably nondisabled) is suggesting that we entertain a discussion on whether we should kill disabled babies because they’ll be a burden later in life, for example, that’s a sign that the thread is unsafe for me. It’s not a thread I want to read, it’s not a thread I want to comment on. It’s certainly not a thread I would host. Yet, a lot of social justice sites do end up hosting threads like this, because they feel an obligation to entertain all views, to give everyone a right to speak.

As Flavia puts it:

For many commenters, discussing oppression is an intellectual exercise. So, they leave comments without even considering that for many people these are not ‘intellectually stimulating debates’ but real, daily experiences. This is particularly notable in those who like to play ‘devils advocate’ and claim they do so because they find the ensuing debate ‘fascinating’. What is fascinating for them, is painful and harmful for a whole lot of people.

Everyone needs to moderate comments in the way that works best for them (and I’d note that each of us at Tiger Beatdown moderates slightly differently and has different curatorial goals), but it’s telling that there continues to be a widespread belief that all ‘reasonable’ comments should be entertained. As Flavia puts it, though, ‘Any point of view that actively seeks to alienate, oppress or bully someone does not deserve to be exposed.’ And she’s right. These are not reasonable comments. They are comments that make spaces unsafe and interfere with functional conversation.

These decisions are, as Sady pointed out when we discussed this issue, purely subjective. Sometimes we make mistakes; we delete comments that are totally fine because something about them just rubs us the wrong way or we didn’t read closely or we think a question wasn’t being asked with good intentions in mind. There’s sometimes internal disagreement about how to read a comments; one of us may find it offensive while others don’t see it, which illustrates how subjective moderating can be. Sometimes we’re logging in to moderate from the gate at the airport and we’re skimming fast to try and get the comments queue cleared and some hasty and less than ideal decisions happen. Sometimes that results in inadvertently suppressing conversation or closing down a potential avenue of discussion. Ultimately, judgement calls sometimes result in errors in judgment and missed opportunities.

Erring on the side of caution isn’t 100% successful 100% of the time.

As moderators, as curators, especially as people who sometimes host discussions about groups which we are not a part of (I am not Muslim, for example), it is critical to make commenting threads places where actual productive conversation can occur. And that means taking responsibility for their contents, choosing to create a space where people feel comfortable participating. That means carefully reading and considering comments, just like letters to the editor, and deciding which to publish. Yes, it is work. It is a lot harder to read and approve comments than to let most things through, to not moderate at all, or to wait for people to complain before taking action. But it results in a space where people can feel like they are actually wanted in the conversation.

This idea makes some people uncomfortable; sites that heavily moderate are criticised for doing so. However, I’m actually quite comfortable with making privileged people uncomfortable, because my job isn’t to comfort them. My job is to facilitate a space where people can participate safely in a discussion and know that the chances of being marginalised, dismissed, attacked, and abused are greatly reduced because there’s a responsible person at the helm looking out for them. That doesn’t mean I always succeed, but I owe it to people to try.


  1. Renee wrote:

    Yes, okay, this is good in general. I’d like to say though, and perhaps this doesn’t cut across your intentions as much as my reading of your post seems to suggest, but if one’s objective is inclusivity and safer spaces, it shouldn’t really be limited to just those threads you think a given demographic might be interested in. Why focus on making a thread about All-American Muslim safer if you don’t necessarily take pains the rest of the time to make Muslim readers feel safe? Maybe a thread about Lowe’s islamophobia will draw extra attention from the Muslim community right now thanks to search engines and whatnot, but I think it’s a mistake to assume you don’t have regular readers for whom safety is’t *always* a concern.

    For example, I’m trans and I read a lot of feminist blogs (including this one) on a daily basis. I may not always comment, but when the urge hits me (and especially when it’s something that would require me to talk about trans stuff,), my decision will hinge not on how the current comment thread is trending, but on the blog’s history regarding trans issues. If the blog is a place where the author or commenters are allowed to express cissexist views without challenge, I’m not going to feel safe participating no matter how good the current post and its ensuing comment field appear to be.

    Point being, we’re all a whole lot more than any single marginalization and there’s no reason to assume this (or any) feminist blog only appeals to when those things are being talked about. But even when it isn’t, our safety is still important and necessary.

    Monday, December 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  2. s.e. smith wrote:

    Yes, absolutely, Renee! That should have been made crystal clear in this post and it wasn’t: The obligation to create safe(r) spaces extends to ALL threads, not just those on specific subjects, because the goal is to make people feel as welcome as possible at all times. Inclusivity means that people should be able to safely navigate any thread as a reader, commenter, or both without having to worry about encountering hatred, and many blogs absolutely fall down on that account.

    I stressed the necessity of being careful when you are talking about groups you do not belong to in this piece because it’s a problem I see a lot, where people intending to work in solidarity are shocked and surprised when it backfires on them because they tolerated hate speech in their comments—and when people are not surprised to see that hate speech because it’s a problem in comments on other threads on the same site, indicating a lack of desire on the moderator’s part to welcome members of that community.

    Monday, December 19, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  3. Renee wrote:


    I was at another site recently – I’ll just say it, it was Pandagon – and Amanda had written a post that was of special interest to trans women. And after leaving a couple comments, I also thanked her for taking some steps to use less cissexist language, saying something to the effect “it’s efforts like these that make Pandagon a more accessible and safe place for trans people.”

    The very next comment, or maybe it was two down, was this: “Keep in mind that Amanda has never marketed this blog as a ‘safe space’ for people who might have problems ‘accessing’ it over their personal sensitivities.”

    And I was like, sensitivities, really? Scare quotes? And why, especially in feminist spaces, are non-safety and non-accessibility considered features, to the extent that they require defending even in the midst of the friendliest of discourses? Fortunately the rest of the commenters at Pandagon had more or less dealt with the situation before I even saw it, but it still left me a little puzzled. I get that conversations aren’t always going to be easy, but safety isn’t anathema to that.

    So yeah, I definitely appreciate a post like this. It’s nice to know where Tiger Beatdown is coming from philosophically.

    Monday, December 19, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  4. ECraigMT wrote:

    So, are you screening out comments that are actively hateful, or comments that do not come from members of the group being discussed? Those are two completely different things.

    It is true, as you write, that “newspapers are not violating free speech rights when they decline to publish letters to the editor.”

    However, newspapers are also upfront about their selective criteria (the New York Times, for example, informs readers that their editorials have a only a small chance of being published).

    Tiger Beatdown has a “Post a Comment” box at the end of every post. This box says nothing about requiring commenters to be from a certain group (for example, the disabled) in order to be allowed to comment.

    I mean, of course the caregivers and parents were mad at you! They probably spent a long time composing comments without knowing that their voices were unwelcome.

    If you are going to screen based on the identity of the commenter (which you have every right to do), you really ought to be up front about it so that people don’t waste their time commenting when they are not welcome. It is misleading to have a “Post a Comment” invitation at the end when no such invitation is being extended.

    Monday, December 19, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Permalink
  5. @ECraigMT where does it say anything about identity?!

    Since I am one of the moderators here, I’ll illustrate with an example. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about racism in The Netherlands that got a lot of media attention. In turn, this attracted a fair share of commenters. We had a number of White Dutch people who commented to say that we were wrong. That the entire premise of the piece was wrong. These were not hateful comments necessarily, just challenging the fact that there is institutionalized racism in the country. Then we got another fair share of White Dutch people who also commented saying that they noticed the same thing, that yes they knew about the experiences of PoC, etc. Guess whose comments got deleted? And in both cases it had nothing to do with the identity of the commenters but with a moral stance if you will, of supporting the people who were airing their grievances. To put it in other terms, this is about privilege denying and not about one’s identity.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 5:28 am | Permalink
  6. elainemarie wrote:

    I am not sure where I stand on this. Rude comments should not be tolerated, but many good comments are deleted also. Hi tech sites seem to allow more dialogue.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  7. We are not a high tech site. We discuss human interactions and human emotions. That makes all the difference.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  8. smhll wrote:

    I agree with you about keeping the comment threads curated. I see so many trolls that clearly aren’t smarter than a fifth grader, and what they keep repeating are some knee jerk arguments that they can’t be argued out of. I have seen fascinating topics drop down to that level from the presence of one persistent troll. I love being able to read thoughtful arguments from many points of view. But I like keeping the same old shit off of the threads so that on topic stuff of some depth can be said.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  9. I’m always surprised at the idea that there is such a thing as a “good comment” free of a particular context. Good for what? Is it advancing the discussion? That depends on what the discussion is aiming for, the kind of thing which may be jointly negotiated by the participants but which may reasonably designated by the host. Is it sharing important information? That surely depends on what the people in the conversation (including the hosts) already know, and on what they’re trying to find out.

    If one wants to follow the thoughts in a conversation in a direction that does not fit with the parameters set by the hosts, it turns out that the technological barrier to doing so elsewhere on the internet (say, by starting one’s own blog, or posting stuff on one’s Facebook page, or what have you) is pretty darned low.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  10. Josh wrote:

    (I hope this isn’t tl;dr or overly repetitious)

    @ elainemarie

    I’ve noticed that a lot of tech sites are basically boy’s clubs. They tend to skew to the demographic of middle-to-upper-class, white, straight, cis males – most of whom lack much in the way of education about how people outside of their group might see things. Maybe this already belabors the point that Flavia made in response and these two articles have also made, but more than ever the necessity to have safe spaces strikes me as important.

    Recently, I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that sometimes a commenter will not listen to a reasonable argument (what SMHLL gets at), maybe due to the backfire effect (a kind of cognitive bias) or maye because they’re a troll. When that’s the case, they become a walking derail and engaging them becomes a huge distraction from the topic being discussed (and there is often an automatic response to try and argue with them, so they’re generally engaged if their comment is allowed).

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  11. OtherBecky wrote:

    I really appreciate the hard work all the mods put into keeping this space safe and the discussions productive. I hadn’t thought much about the latter part of that, honestly, but it makes sense.

    Ages ago on Shapely Prose, Snarky’s Machine really changed my approach to commenting by pointing out, several times and in several contexts, that not all thoughts need to be shared. Even thoughts that aren’t offensive are sometimes better kept to oneself. So now, I always do a final check before hitting “submit” — am I saying this just so other people will know what I think? Or am I actively participating in a conversation? If it’s the former, I delete it. (At least, if I consciously believe it to be the former; I probably miss a bunch.)

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  12. Ponytime wrote:

    @ otherbecky

    Yeah, I do this too – I often type out a comment and then delete it after reading it over. Sometimes it’s important for someone to think out loud, or in writing, about something they just read. However, it doesn’t necessarily help the discussion to post everyone’s out loud thoughts. I appreciate the moderation on this site and it has inspired me to be a lot more thoughtful about what to actually post. Unlike a lot of other sites, where I skim the comments really quickly because they are likely to just anger me needlessly, I feel like I can actually read each one here and follow a conversation.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  13. KittyWrangler wrote:

    @Renee Yes, I remember raising an eyebrow at that exact comment, which I thought was out of place there. I love the comment space on that site because it’s more… boisterous, I guess, than comment sections which frequently offer “((hugs)) if you want them”– which are absolutely wonderful but do not really appeal to me personally. But it made me wonder, where is the comfortable space between Safe Space and a space that’s even passively alienating or bullying? While I do enjoy an atmosphere where commenters occasionally duke it out between differing viewpoints I really do wonder if even the intelligent discussion in such a space is too alienating or harsh to be decent.
    I hate to think of all the hateful comments the mods get at TBD and am really grateful to them for putting in the hard work of moderating. When I was first getting into feminism, in an online space, anyway, and things like “cis” and “Nice Guy” were brand new for me TBD comment sections were approachable at the same time that truly interesting discussion happened. I don’t know how y’all manage that.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  14. Linds wrote:

    @Ponytime “Unlike a lot of other sites, where I skim the comments really quickly because they are likely to just anger me needlessly, I feel like I can actually read each one here and follow a conversation.”

    Totally agree, and this is one of my favourite things about TBD. There are so many spaces on the internet where I feel like I’m treading water, desperately trying to keep an important and relevant discussion from turning into a privileged whinefest. Here, the discussions actually work, and I feel like I can examine varying viewpoints without having to arm the witty sarcastic takedown cannon just in order to be heard without being abused.

    I figure that if someone with as much privilege as me (white, middle-class, not disabled, cis) can feel silenced so often, this sort of moderation is clearly really appropriate to this space, and probably the only way we can possibly hear the viewpoints of less privileged people.

    Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink
  15. Angie unduplicated wrote:

    She who owns the blog makes the rules. It’s about agency. Simple enough for Jeff Foxworthy to understand. If you want different rules, go to someone who has them. To me, the content is worth the occasional paper cut.

    Friday, December 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  16. Dom wrote:

    I agree that derails are irritating and discourage discussion instead of promoting it. When you see 900 comments somewhere and 80 per cent of them advance puerile inanities, it’s a disincentive to participate. It’s also dismayingly easy to predict what type of avalanche is likely to follow your input.

    Saturday, December 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink
  17. aravind wrote:

    I’m just going to echo what’s already been said – I really appreciate the work the mods on this site do. This is one of the few sites where I actually read the comments with pleasure. Elsewhere, it’s like steeling yourself for a plunge into snowmelt water.

    Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink
  18. Jamie wrote:

    Most comment boards are dominated by people who believe that their stale, bigoted nonsense is a fresh and daring challenge to some imaginary liberal orthodoxy. I’m glad you guys moderate them away, though I can sort of hear them anyhow.

    Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Permalink