How Not To Moderate

This site is not popular. Moderating it is easier than moderating other blogs. I expect that will always be true. However, even if I don’t need to do it, I do know how to moderate effectively. Today I’m going to discuss a bit of how not to.

To start, I’m going to quote a disturbing statement from a moderator:

Something I should have added to my post was that there’s also an element of democracy in blog moderation. The recent frogmarching comment is an example of this.

This seems exactly wrong. We don’t vote on whether or not a person should get arrested. Whether or not a rule was broken is not a matter of democracy. Whether or not a comment should be moderated should depend upon that comment, not how people feel about that comment. Anything else just means you’ll allow (some) abuse to happen until people complain about it. Similarly:

I am not always consistent in my moderation but I feel that I have logical reasons for this, most of the time anyway. Sometimes I’m just having a bad day.

No! Having a bad day is not an excuse to moderate differently. Two people posting the same comment should be treated the same way. One should not be moderated while the other isn’t simply because of the moods a moderator might be in.

Not only is that horrible on principle, it’s just begging for abuse. If a moderator’s mood is allowed to determine (even some) moderation decisions, anyone the moderator dislikes is at risk of being treated unfairly. That’s ridiculous.

My reasons are as follows: Calling someone you are having a discussion with an idiot is not going to foster a good debate and my role is to foster the debate. Calling someone you are not having a discussion with an idiot, but who might read what you have said, is also counterproductive. But a person completely unrelated to climate change discussions probably won’t read the comment and so I am more likely to let it stand in these cases.

What the…? In what world is it better to insult a person who can’t defend themselves than a person who can? What kind of debate is this supposed to foster? How civil can you expect people to be when you say it’s okay to insult people as long as you do it behind their back?

I don’t get the logic of that at all. Everything about these statements seems not only wrong, but exactly backwards. Moderation should not be subjective. It should not depend upon moods or whims. It should not depend upon indiscernible and inconsistent standards. All of these things beg for abuse so much it is practically impossible for the resulting moderation not to be biased.

Moderation is actually quite easy. All you have to do is pick clear rules then stick to them. For example, if you don’t want incivility from name-calling, ban name-calling. It’s that easy. People will know what is and is not allowed, and if the decision is enforced, they’ll abide by it. And because there’s a clear standard, moderation decisions will be easier, requiring less time and thought.

Of course, people are fallible. Moderation cannot be perfect. Having an ideal solution doesn’t magically solve everything. However, it does give us a good target to strive for and a clear standard by which we can be judged. That’s what matters most.

It’s certainly far better than blithely saying people can’t possibly know what to expect from a moderator.



  1. Brandon: I have a more extreme version of How Not To Moderate. You are involved in that one, at Jason Box’s website. He was critical of your paper on Greenland ice melt, as it did not have 2010 data, as you may recall.

    I asked him if he would also critisize Santer and Hansen for similar “sins”. He eventually put me in moderation hell, but I did figure out how to bypass it, andsupply him the references he had asked for. He was trying to make me look ridiculous, by asking for references, and not allowing me to post the reference. i also asked if putting in 2010 data would change the results of the paper.

    Apparently he was unable to erase individual posts once published, so he ended up deleting the entire article and all the replies.

    I,of course, saved a copy as pdf, if you want a keepsake. Email me if you want a copy.

  2. Brandon:

    Anything else just means you’ll allow (some) abuse to happen until people complain about it.

    That does happen in practice on many blogs of course. It’s how the denizens of a blog signal to outsiders that they are not welcome unless they can learn the secret handshakes.

    I agree with the need to develop coherent rules for moderation that prevent abuse by the moderators. I suppose for a blog that started small, like TTIP, this issue just kind of “creeps up on you”. You want to encourage the people you’d like to see there to participate and “make it fun” for them, so a certain amount of pie throwing is tolerated. But you’d like to see the occasional “meaty” thread where substantive issues get addressed.

    Judith Curry attempts to strike a balance by tagging threads as technical versus non-technical (pie-throwing contests). Unfortunately, until she starts moderating the serial abusers on that blog, her blog is essentially unapproachable. I think this disruptive behavior is the intent of some of the participants. Others are just clueless that they are being disruptive (that’s the most positive reading anyway).

    Take a post by Nick on McIntyre and Gaspe… is it really necessary for so many posts from willard on whether Mann “insinuates” or not. Who the hell even cares??? But it killed the thread.

    My best examples of moderation abuse comes from RealClimate. I think their moderation policy is counter-productive and undermines their credibility. And it has to rank up at the top for pure capriciousness.

  3. Memory is obviously not a robust item anymore. I reread that Jason Box posting, and it was Knappenberger, not Shollenberger…


  4. Les Johnson, I’m glad you caught that. I was just typing a response to tell you I had absolutely no idea what you were talking about.

    Carrick, I agree. One thing I wish more bloggers would do is just use communication to influence how people comment. You don’t have to edit or delete comments to make people behave differently. You can just tell people you don’t approve of how they’re behaving. Most of the time that’s just as effective.

    By the way, I edited your comment to close the blockquote tag. I don’t like inserting text into comments so I thought I’d point that out here.

  5. Thanks for fixing the hanging tag.

    I certainly think warning people before moderating them is a better scheme, if your goal is to have good reader participation.

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