New Comment Voting Feature at Opinio Juris

by Roger Alford

Readers will note that today Opinio Juris has incorporated a new comment feature that allows our readers to help regulate the quality of comments. The comment rating feature allows readers to vote “Yea” or “Nay” to any comment that is posted. After a certain number of negative votes are cast to a comment (we are still testing the precise number), the comment will be hidden from view. The comment will not be deleted, only hidden. Anyone who wishes to read the comment can still do so, but it will require an affirmative step of clicking on the comment to maximize the text. This is a middle path between our previous approach of completely unfiltered comments, and the other extreme of censoring inappropriate material.

We should emphasize that a negative comment does not mean that you disagree with the post, but rather that you think the comment violates standards of good conduct. In other words, negative votes are appropriate if the comment is unlawful, obscene, defamatory, libelous, threatening, pornographic, harassing, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive, or otherwise disruptive to civil debate on the blog.

We are a diverse group at Opinio Juris, and we have always welcomed opposing viewpoints. What we do not welcome is uncivil discourse. We hope that this middle path will serve to maintain the remarkably vibrant, healthy and civil discourse that is such a wonderful feature of Opinio Juris discussions. The success of this approach depends on our readers helping us maintain high quality discussion by voting down inappropriate comments.

I should emphasize that we are simply testing this feature. If we find in due course that it does not strike the appropriate balance, we will modify or eliminate the comment voting feature. Please let us know your thoughts either by commenting below or emailing us.

UPDATE: The fourth comment in the comment thread provides an example of what occurs when a sufficient number of readers vote down a comment.

UPDATE: Several comments have asked about the purpose of a Yea vote. The intention of the Yea vote is to allow readers to challenge Nay voters. A comment will only be hidden if there is a sufficient number of Nay votes and if there is a disproportionate number of Nay votes to Yea votes.

40 Responses

  1. Excellent plan.

  2. I’m glad you specified the rules for nay and yay voting – I for one would have just assumed it was a means of conveying dis/approval on the merits.

    As it is I think it is a great idea.

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  5. I’m not sure what to think about this but I’m inclined to believe that Opinio Juris bloggers should individually handle their own moderation. I’m all in favor of standards for civil dialogue but leaving it to readers to vote, say, on what is defamatory or libelous, strikes me as unwise. If I criticize Zionist ideology of one kind or another will some readers think it of a piece with anti-Semitism and thus ethnically offensive, as is often the case? And “obscene?”–I suppose we’ll know it when we read it….

    Well, it is an experiment, and I have nothing in principle against that.

  6. Is there a function to the “Yea” vote at this point? The original post reads as though reaching X number of “Nay” votes hides the comment, not that the number of “Nay” votes exceeds the number of “Yea” votes by X. Is this accurate?

    Edit: I don’t know if it’s feasible, but it might also be considered to prohibit comment writers from voting on their own comments (after all, if the vote is whether or not someone exceeded the bounds of civility, few people are going to believe their own post violated those standards, and even fewer would be willing to admit it.)

  7. It would be a type of audience ratings! No? Egadddd! Pierre Bourdieau would groan. On the other hand, this new scheme might be bring out my Monty Python side. Ahem! 

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  9. Can we extend this concept to the original posts?

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  11. OK, it seems someone thought my comment was “unlawful, obscene, defamatory, libelous, threatening, pornographic, harassing, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive, or otherwise disruptive to civil debate on [this]blog”–that’s a bit frightening. And it appears representative: votes are being used to simply approve or disapprove of comments.

  12. Wow!  I was going to predict a post by Gittings of Nazi-like tactics and accustations of war crimes, but already too late. 

    Then again, the topic could be on ancient horticulture and such a comment could be predicted.   He is incapable of being parodied.

    And it goes without saying that “free speech” is not an issue here – OJ is not the government, and it is free to set up its own rules for comments.

  13. Ryan,

    You beat me to it.  Charles’ understanding of free speech is no better than his understanding of IHL.


    I agree with everything you have to say about the new system.  I am willing to give it a try, because my co-bloggers want to see if it works, but I am personally opposed to a “community rules” filter.


    No. 🙂

  14. Charles,

    And, of course, you just make our point when you write, without seemingly any shame, “I mean gee whiz, you were all willing to listen to Dick Cheney lie in order to murder thousands of innocent people without so much as peep of disapproval.”  How anyone who reads this blog regularly could write that is simply beyond me — and writing such a ridiculous statement proves to me, the person on this blog who has most often defended you and who is probably closest to you politically, that you have absolutely no interest in reasoned dialogue.

  15. Someone mentioned this somewhere, I think, but I wonder if the “yea” feature confuses the issue on whether one approves the comment or is addressing the civility issue.  I wonder if simply a ‘nay’ button would be better given that the purpose is to flag personal attacks, etc., comments … all of them are negative qualities, so it’s not as if there is something positive to vote for unless one is thinking it’s content.

  16. Do make sure that posts are visible to the user, even if voted below the visibility threshhold.

    To do otherwise opens up the possibility the post didn’t go through, the blog author removed it anonymously, etc.  In any case, the author of the post needs to know his post is not visible due to user feedback, while still being able to see it himself.

  17. It is an interesting effort to structure this space.  Other blogs have gone to not allowing comments space by some authors making it essentially a one way space for some of the blog owners.  Given what goes for comment (see Sotomayor discussions) I am not sure anymore what civility is in the United States.

  18. Go for it!

  19. In response to Kenneth,

    That’s what I thought at first (about simply having a ‘nay’ option), but then there is no way to counter the ‘nays’ if one truly thinks the post is appropriate.

    What you have now, though, with ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ and people weighing in in response to substantive content, who miss the entire point of the ‘yea’ ‘nay’ function, is a fiasco. You wanted to try and keep a certain respectability to this site, and instead you’ve lowered it immeasurably. If you want to drive serious people away, you’re going in the right direction.

    I don’t understand why you don’t simply edit inappropriate posts. Those who say that this measure is somehow curtailing expression are mistaken; they are free to post wherever they like on the web – this isn’t the only forum to vent. Otherwise, if you’re intent on keeping it open to all, then simply don’t lower yourselves by responding to invective and the like.

    A final point, however, is this: if respectability and seriousness is the objective, then surely a couple of the contributors, who occasionally post overtly political and even ‘snarky’ jabs and points, should think carefully about what kind of blog they want. Julian Ku’s smug posts about Obama, for instance, simply attract the kind of comments you’re trying to avoid. (Indeed, it seems I’ve just fallen into the trap.)

  20. There are a lot of helpful responses here, and bear in mind this is an experiment and work-in-progress.  Okay, so as David suggests, the choices are at this point:  (a) nay-and-yea; (b) nay; (c) OJ bloggers do active moderating.  And a suggestion, rewriting slightly, that commenters in part take their cue from us bloggers.  

    Let me suggest a couple of more possibilities:
    (c) each OJ poster moderate his or her own comments; (d) any blogger at OJ who has the time or inclination moderate anyone’s comments; (e) allow OJ bloggers to close their posts to comments; (f) provide for OJ bloggers on a consensus basis to ban certain commenters.  There are a couple of other possibilities, and certain of these are specific to the OJ bloggers in how to divide up responsibilities, but that’s what crosses my mind so far.  I’m not endorsing anything, just trying to lay things out.  What I am committed to is some form of comment moderation, whatever that might be.
  21. Thanks for the feedback so far, everyone.  I, for one, am of two minds about the Yea/Nay function but I do think it is worth at least testing out.

    The thing about it that is most interesting to me is how this is a sort of microcosm of the broader arguments of the role of norms in the absence of an Austinian monarch.  (Yes, I am going to make a ridiculous IL theory analogy here.) It is an attempt at community policing but it also gives the community as a whole a say as to what is or is not appropriate. Some may call this “mob censorship” others may call it participatory norm-setting.

    This also becomes a case as to whether or not community policing can help with the internalization of norms. As we’ve discussed in the international law context, if norms become largely internalized then enforcement measuires become largely unneccessary. Will that be the case here? We’ll see.

    In the end, I feel less invested in whether we keep the yea/nay function itself as opposed to what this may (or may not) say about the ability to have a sort of Ellicksonian “order without law” (at least in the Austinian monarch sense of law).

    Worse comes to worst, we’ll ditch all the communal policing/norm socialization stuff and get back to being all Austinian on the posts and edit/delete the ones we the Security Council… er, I mean permanent bloggers… find objectionable.

    Either way, I think this is pretty interesting.

  22. One caveat I would mention with respect to letting each OJ blogger moderate their own comments is that it may not go far enough by itself. If one or two bloggers choose not to moderate, or don’t feel they have the time to do so, or some variation thereof, it seems unlikely to me to cure the problem of serious readers ceasing to visit the site or comment. I doubt most folk would want to take the trouble to sort through which bloggers do and don’t moderate comments to decide which posts might be worth reading, even if it were fairly easy to tell which ones are which.

    Personally, I’m not so fond of the yea-nay system either; I’d rather see some combination of options d-e-f.

  23. The yeas and nays can be gamed – allowing individual users to vote multiple times on the same comment – by anyone who understands how certain features on web browsers work.  I have just verified this.  I’m willing to bet that the technically-oriented among us, certainly including those employed in computer-related fields, have already figured it out. 

    In my view, the fact that it can be gamed makes the feature worthless.  Having “nays” alone might possibly work better if the goal is actually to hide comments deemed less useful.  Unfortunately, this too could be spoiled by a single tech-savvy individual who repeatedly votes “nay” on comments he disfavors.

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  25. Oh golly, as we get theoretical, I suppose we should add that the OJ universe of commenters is too small to really function in the way that community self-governance typically means on the social networking web.  A single individual counts for too much; voting mechanisms rely on large enough cohorts to make it a genuine mass.  Which is odd, because typically the problem with democracy is that bigger becomes the enemy of better – smaller democratic communities are able to operate more effectively democratically than large ones, as Larry Diamond and the Journal of Democracy have pointed out in many articles.  Although it is also true that a democracy that gets too small tends to convert into some other social form, as the demos devolves into some more basic social structure … that should derail practical decision-making at OJ for a while!

  26. Is it possible to provide three options: like/dislike/flag as inappropriate?

    Flag as inappropriate could auto-minimise comments after, say, 5 flags, and the like/dislike options should concentrate people on what each button actually means.

    As Nathan makes clear, however, the only way to make this work is with logins, so that you can identify abusive flaggers as well as abusive commentators. I hate logins, personally, and find them a significant barrier to ‘joining’ a new site, but nonetheless nearly every site I comment on or contribute to has them, and by remembering the password single-computer users can make them basically invisible.

    Also, OJ surely has sufficiently ‘exclusive’ content that 99% of commenters will find a once-off login worth their trouble.

  27. Thanks for the comment, Ken. Your point is thought-provoking. Ultimately, I don’t think there is a large/small dilemma in the way that you set it out.  I think large groups and small groups function best for different types of problem solving and that the task here (community norm setting) may actually work in either a large or small group. (Though I’m not sure about this.)

    To begin, I think that very large groups are optimal for certain types of fact-finding and self-correcting behavior especially when there is an aspect of hypothesis- or truth-testing (think: Wikipedia). Smaller groups are desirable for complex decision-making. Thus, in the latter example direct democracy works best in small groups and republicanism (which is basically a means to turn a large group back into a small group) is preferable after the group grows to a a certain size.

    But here we have something that is neither objective truth-seeking (wikipedia) nor complex governance, but rather group norm-setting and “rough justice” enforcement.  Isn’t that a bit like the “primitive” system of international law (or certain smaller tribal societies)?  One issue for us would be how many OJ readers take part in voting yea or nay. We have thousands of readers but, likely, very few who will vote on comments. That means we would have a relatively small, self selected, group of norm-makers and a larger group of norm-takers.  Once again, I think that tracks with alot of primitive social structures (and, as you know, by primitive I just mean “relatively young, ill-defined.”)

    However, here there is another feedback loop: if the small, self-selected group of initial norm-makers does a job that doesn’t seem to comport with the interests of the larger group of readers, that may incentivize some of the previously passive norm-takers to begin voting to change the norm of what is or is not an acceptable comment.

    I don’t think the massively networked decision-making of larger web-community is is the analogy for what we are doing. Rather, I think the analogy may be in the other direction: that of the small (but expanding) tribe or community of states.

  28. I have never reported a violation or disapproved of a comment, when such a feature has been available. So it’s highly unlikely that I am going to NAY any comment, even I can’t stand it.  If this exercise brings out a bit of playfulness in us, I’m all for it because sometimes we take ourselves too seriously. I’m all for lightening up.

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  30. I think the point is that it’s not a matter of getting used to particular commenters’ styles, it is that there is a community standard here, even if a relatively flexible one, and if one doesn’t find it suits, well, there are lots of other places on the big internet where one can say what one likes.  What needs to be got used to is the community standard, not the other way around.  Volokh has a much wilder style, I am seeing, and that’s fine.  So do sites like Kos and plenty of others.  But this is not that kind of a site; there are very good reasons for that, in my view, and certainly confirmed by the emails and messages I’ve received in recent days urging us to enforce basic commenting standards.  But I repeat myself; this has all been said for the last two weeks.

  31. Charles,

    I pointed out a huge error yesterday — that you believe 911 was a legitimate attack.  I guess that one doesn’t count.

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  34. Patrick,

    If we went the route of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ it may turn into a dysfunctional popularity contest. One very fine ezine made the mistake of going that route, imo.

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  36. As a frequent OJ reader (as opposed to contributor) I think this is a worthwhile feature. As some of the posts above have noted, however, ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’ options could be a bit confusing to those unaware of the intent behind them. Most websites use these to indicate agreement/disagreement with the content of the post. It would probably be better to have a single ‘flag as inappropriate or offensive’ option as this is the system most readers will be familiar with. I also suspect that people would exercise more sensible restraint with an ‘inappropriate’ flag than a ‘nay’ flag.

  37. “Flag as inappropriate or offensive” and “Comment is Appropriate” might indeed be better signals. Also, it might be good if the appropriate button can’t be hit until someone has hit the inappropriate button at least once.

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  39. Okie-dokie Prof. Anderson. Hmmmm…which one?


  40. Well I won’t be using either button ever again because I believe in free-speech and honesty, and simply don’t care what liars, hypocrites, criminals, or fools say about me one way or the other.
    The censorship mob is merely confirming everything I’ve said about the neo-fascists and those who persist in treating them as serious legal academics instead of what they really are: murderous political subversives who are unfit to practice law or hold any other position of public trust. They are New-Age Nazis, and that is ALL that they are.
    This charming little episode in petty censorship is just one more indication of how dishonest and silly the legal profession in this country has become. I persist in the belief that all of you people are smarter than this; too bad you aren’t more honest.

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