I’ve noticed in the last six to nine months a marked increase in new folks showing up in comments who don’t look, for want of a better word, organic. No, I don’t mean Berkeley-Bikrenstock-wearing-save-the-whales-and-wolves-and-frogs-granolaheads. I mean people who found the blog out of curiosity and decided to pipe up versus ones who look to be here strictly to pursue a narrow agenda.
Why don’t I think this change is random? First, this pronounced change happened during a period when blog traffic has increased only gradually. If I had had a sudden uptick in volume, it might be accompanied by a sudden shift in reader mix, but that does not appear to be the cause. Second, there’s a frequent occurrence of a particular type of new commentor: typically hews to very standard industry (or conservative, when I wander into purely political territory) talking points, enters the thread early, and tries to dominate conversation (as is particularly persistent). Needless to say, there are variations in this profile: some spout a lot of what looks like information (much of the time wrong or cherrypicked, but sometimes useful), while others just get louder and more abusive when they get opposition.
While there have been increasing numbers of reports of political groups and firms like HB Gary (of Glenn Greenwald/Wikileaks fame) hiring people to infiltrate blogs as a way of influencing opinion, I suspect this type is only a small minority, at most, of these argumentative posters. I suspect someone bitched about an NC post on a chatboard they frequent and they took it upon themselves to try to reeducate out readership.
The conundrum is that I don’t want to stop debate; in fact, lively but civilized discussions make for a vibrant comment section. But bullies or people who engage in broken record suck the air supply out of the conversation
Now using the Ritholtz rules, I could get rid of suspicious-looking newbies on any one of a number of grounds he relies upon, including his platypus rule:
This may be a free country, but The Big Picture is my personal fiefdom. I rule over all as benevolent dictator. I will ban anyone whom I choose from posting comments — usually, for a damned good reason, but on rare occasions, for the exact same reason God created the platypus: because I feel like it.
I’m not as interventionist as Barry. He likes a manicured French garden (think Versailles) while I like a more natural looking English style garden (think the northern half of Central Park). Nevertheless, gardens demand some minding or they become overrun with weeds. I prefer to put people in doubt in moderation (that means I screen and approve comments; given my weird hours, that can happen quickly or with a very big lag) and cases that are pretty clear cut get banned (neo-Nazi and racist comments are no-brainers, as well as abusiveness or persisting in other types of bad behavior after getting a warning).
But some of his standards are pretty moderate and the loudmouths frequently run afoul of them:
Publish too many comments on a given post (3 or 4 relevant comments out of 30 are fine, 10 out of 30 is excessive). It takes me ~10 seconds to un-publish 10 comments. If you find yourself publishing way too many comments, consider this: This humble blog is my forum for expressing my ideas. Get your own damned blog.
Per the French v. English garden, I very very rarely delete a non-spam comment (link whoring, which consists of putting a URL in the comment or in the URL line, along with general uselessness or obnoxiousness, greatly increase the odds that you will be one of those rare exceptions).
I’ve been adhering to a posture formalized nicely by our Andrew (it is a bit humbling how facile these theoretical mathematicians are in articulating rule sets):
I support you banning people who act like industry plants. The tricky part is coming up with reasonable criteria for doing so without slipping into banning people who have different points of view.
It is actually a positive thing to have people with pro-industry views comment. There are bank people who might have valid points to make; sometimes people who criticize the banks make weak or overly broad arguments, and it is good to flush out other views. All of this is true EVEN IF the person making the argument is a plant.
However, once weak arguments are brought up and your readers take them apart with chainsaws, you can clearly spot plants because they stop acting like human beings. They instead repeat the same messages as before, alternating with attempts to use terms like “socialism” in order to intimidate people. If they have made the arguments they are capable of making and are reduced to trying to clog traffic on the site, they have served their purpose and should be banned.
These criteria identify X and Y [two commentors on a recent post] as plants.
Absolutely hilarious is the whining by Y about how banning Ray makes it “feel like North Korea in here.” Don’t they believe in private property? Since when is your site a public good that they should be able to occupy at will?
So in simpler terms, if you act like a plant, you will soon enough be treated like one and be rooted out. You’ve been warned!