Secret Mojo Dumbs It Down for You

July 30, 2006

Flip-switch Editing: banning and commenting issues at The Huffington Post

Filed under: blogging,free speech,mediachumps,Politics — secretmojo @ 2:56 am

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on the Huffington Post commenting weirdness. That post is a bit too long (even by my standards); just take a peek at the comments at the bottom if you’re interested.

The Huffington Post has suffered a few scandals since launch. The most notorious was with Dr. Peter Rost, who blew the whistle on a HuffPost technical manager who trolled the comments of Dr. Rost’s blog (he’s moved elsewhere as a result). The other was the piecing together of George Clooney quotes and presenting them as a blog entry (without the disclaimer that they were gathered quotes). Another was to team up with an advertising firm, and allegedly allow them to billboard their commenting system.

All of these actions indicate something a bit deeper going over at HuffPost, but none relate entirely to the commenting/banning problem some users are experiencing.

The Difficulties

First of all, The Huffington Post has a huge backlog of comments (which I believe still continues today) they need to moderate. 15,000 was a number thrown about a while ago. This is not a political issue, but a management or technical issue. I’ve heard gripes about it, but hey, what can you do with limited staff? This may contribute to crazy comments getting through on news posts, while well-thought-out comments get censored on more prominent blogs. But in and of itself, it’s just “birth pangs,” as our illustrious Secretary of State might call it.

Secondly, because of the popularity and slant of the site, HuffPost attracts wingnuts and crazies that troll about, self-promoters who want publicity for their names or sites, or hackers who just want to cause trouble. This is of course an issue with any site that allows comments, and there are many ways to get around this, including account creation and IP logging, which HuffPost implements.

Third, I believe HuffPost wants to maintain civil discourse. They don’t want to be another (at least, I hope not). Trying to balance this with free speech is rather difficult, because arguments can get very heated over there, and stupid people really love the sound of their own voice.

HuffPost’s Solution

Ostensibly, the solution at HuffPost is unbiased moderation, treating comments as real-time “letters to the editor” that must meet certain legal and style requirements for posting. None of these are supposedly “edited” in the sense that a print newspaper would edit them, but are screened for ad hominem attacks and foul language, for example.

“Supposedly,” I said.

“liketodrum” over at DailyKos describes how he could get special treatment:

I was also told that if I wanted to “skip ahead” I could just call my new buddy and he could get my comment expiedated. Now I was not happy to hear that, and I have never taken that up. In fact I would never want to do that. That defeats the whole point of blogging in my opinion.

“whl”, as well, describes how got himself banned forever:

I was banned from there a couple of years ago for flaming a troll who had really screwed up a good post with a sequence of repetitious 2 liners. The assistant troll in control, gunned me down & let the dittohead continue a jihad for many entries.

“Steve53,” who is most interesting to me, brings up frivolous banning:

I used to post there, but now I’m apparently banned.I have not been able to post there for 2 weeks.An e-mail asking for an explanation(it could have been a tech glitch) yielded no response.

I’m a generally polite liberal,not an abusive troll.

Antichrist2” has taken up the cause, and says:

Not only has HuffPost not posted most of my comments, they have now banned me from ever commenting again.

Now, I do not know what they said to get banned/censored. Of course I don’t, because their comments have been whisked into the void. But I do know that they have interesting things to say in general, and now they will never say them on HuffPost.

In my own experience, I submitted a very short comment that linked to this page at Red State Son. In my opinion, it was not abusive. Provocative, maybe, and definitely shocking, but considering that adults read the HuffPost, not at all illegal or vindictive, at least in my interpretation of the comment policy.

So I know for a fact that content matters. Especially on blog, as opposed to news, entries. This is actually okay with me. But the parameters of acceptable content are not delineated on the Comment Policy page, nor are they implemented with any consistency at the site, and it is very possible that you can get permanently banned for no other reason than not knowing the “hidden rules.” So if you do get banned, you will never be told, and you will never know why.

I used to have an RSS feed of the Huffington Post which I browsed daily. Now, however, I rarely go there; the inconsistent comment policy is why. If I feel tempted to dispute something posted, I’m aware that I might just get myself (and all the poor suckers who get my IP after me) banned, and refrain from commenting. Furthermore, as a matter of principle, I don’t go to web sites that a) intimidate me, b) don’t tell me what’s going on, and c) have arbitrary rules.

This could be unfair or paranoid, but it seems I’m supported by other people on this, so I’ll be spending my Web time with the multitudinous other blogs out there, even though I may never comment on them.

July 18, 2006

A tale of sound and fury, as told by idiots

Filed under: free speech,mediachumps,Politics,television — secretmojo @ 2:33 am

Media Matters launched a petition to remove hate-spewing pundits like Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck from the airwaves.

Amongst the signers of the petition were:

“Dem Underground males Are FAGGOTS!!!”

“Keith Olbermann IS GAYYYYY!!!!!!”

“Az Joe says Imprison all Liberals”

“Www Liberals MustDie com”

“Democrat Underground Is for traitors!”

“Sore Loser”

“Adolph Hitler”

[Update: Many of these fake names seem to have been scrubbed from the list, so you may not find them there.]

Can it get any more pathetic than this? Unable to get their perceptive and well-thought out, er, opinions listened to by the mainstream, these bilious boneheads take the time to intrude upon a serious petition and puke out more of what the petition condemns, basically showcasing the effects of Coulter and Morgan, and therefore encouraging more people to sign up in protest (4,000 more after the bigot names petered out).

At first, I thought it was psychosis. But I realized that if that were true, they’d start a petition of their own: “We, the undersigned, call for the murder of all liberal-leaning Americans.”

Making it tangible this way proves not only the absurdity of the threat, but the fantasy image these kinds of people create for themselves. “If I were in a movie, I’d kill these motherfuckers.”

The only conclusion I could come to is that these hate mongers, by power of the Internet, have Virtual Balls, maverick avatars, but couldn’t find their own pair if handed a set of tweezers. When their threats, as a thought experiment, are taken as reality, it becomes clear that every person who does this sort of thing doesn’t really mean it at all, or if they do they hope someone else is brave enough to carry out their villainy—it’s all a sham of sound and fury to conceal their own failures as human beings. Otherwise they’d be arrested and put in jail for terrorist activity.

I don’t know anyone who talks this way in real life—besides shock jocks and vomitary pundits (if you want to call that “real life”). And I haven’t seen the assassination of a liberal yet. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I believe this juvenile behavior is like a high-pitched bark from a toy-sized dog who shakes in fear when the wind picks up. Annoying as hell, but quintessentially pathetic.

Or maybe not.

July 10, 2006

The Huffington Post Gives Me a Hunch

Filed under: blogging,free speech,navel gazing — secretmojo @ 7:15 am

Hunches are delicate things; they emerge from your neural net via billions of connections, gathering data from ostensibly unrelated sources—that time when you smiled at someone else and got fired from your minimum wage job. The silent, blank-stare rumbling during rush hour on a packed El train. Once how, when you asked your girlfriend how she spent her time missing you, the minute creep of a sardonic smile twitched her cheeks. These experiences, along with thousands of others, pull your neurons closer to a concept (new, vague, and nonverbal), then wait in quietus. Wait for the moment when it’s time to recognize. Then it materializes, this hunch, but only as a whisper; hunch-making is not your main job, so these atrophied muscles scream at a faint whisper, as if dying of dehydration.

Hunches are important, because they’re gathered by a brain that’s smarter than you. If you tried to consciously calculate the source of a hunch, you would fail: you simply would not have enough mind to recount the flavor of a thousand different memories spread across time. For all practical purposes, hunches may as well come from nowhere. And as maverick outsiders intruding on the normally linear travel of your mind, they will be ostracized, if you’re not careful.

Because how many times have you been wrong about a person? A movie? A dark shadow? Hunches and prejudice feel much alike: both have little logic, and come from the land of As It Pleases Me. But hunches, unlike prejudice, reveal truth. Not precisely, and definitely with no facts to back it up, but nonetheless tip you off to Truth you daren’t consider before.

Telling the difference between hunch and prejudice is so difficult that hunches nearly always die in the logical fist of your rational mind: “that’s just silly,” you say to yourself. And indeed, it is. This does not make it untrue.

When I do have them, I have good hunches. This is bragging, I know. But if I tell you that my hunches are so-so, what need do they have to come around again? I will admit: the tough part is telling a real hunch from a “feels like” one. Especially when a hunch fits so nicely within my hopes and fears that I am skeptical at the outset, because the hunch comes so well represented it might just call itself “wishful thinking.”

But I am blessed with hunches that are nags. I don’t know why this is. I brush them away from my face, and within hours, they come buzzing by my ear again. Everybody knows the experience of learning a new word, and by that, hearing it ten times in one day. My brain discovers a new hunch, and I will hear it for literally weeks.

You should know that my mind is an alien landscape, a badlands where no hunch should survive. A fourth-dimensional map of a billion unrelated things, seasoned by delusions of grandeur, invented futures, embarrassing pasts, and musings on quarks, lucid dreaming, or telepathy. So to get any thought to return and bother me again is extremely difficult, unless I write it down. Or it’s something rather shameful in my past, which will always nag me.

So when I tell you that I get a hunch, this means that it has developed, marinated, and decided to stick around, despite the chaos up here, and won’t leave me the fuck alone.

Back in 2002, I had myself a hunch. It was about the impending Iraq war. Hunches grow obvious in the greenhouse of time. So my hunch sounds silly now. I don’t even want to mention it, but I will: I suspected the president was selling the war too much. Then, “selling the war” was not in my vocabulary. And all data came from the top down, so no facts and zero countrymen were on my side. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking that this war was not like Afghanistan, because Afghanistan didn’t require months of explanation.

I dismissed my hunch immediately on the basis that many years ago I protested against the first Gulf War. I did this enthusiastically, but I have to admit childishly, because I wanted to be a part of “fixing the world.” So I doubted my 2002 hunch instantly.

Furthermore, by the eve of Gulf War II, I was still not politically vocal by any of my current standards; I was a slouch potato, considered George Bush more “presidential looking” than Gore, and was a nice, gullible target for any politician boisterous and articulate enough to promise grand things.

My hunch had tall odds.

But it nagged and nagged, I eventually bought it, and it was proved right. Whatever you think of the war, surely no one can doubt how forcefully they tried to sell it.

But this is not the hunch that I address today. My Iraq hunch is wind through the trees now. The zeitgeist has changed; I no longer get accused of spitting on the troops for being appalled by the war. My hunch served me, but it’s time for new, smaller hunches I suppose.

No, the hunch I present to you today, totally baseless and without any facts, regards the moderation of Huffington Post comments. Yes it sounds silly; would it be a hunch if it didn’t?

I’ve been a comment junkie over there of late. Primarily because I believe the comment discussion has become dominated by thought-free herd think, and needs a little shaking up, but also because it seems I’m a better commentator than a poster—I think this is because I feel I have more stake in a post than in a comment, so I bind up, but let’s not get into that for now.

My rules for commenting are simple. If I do not have anything new, interesting, or funny (as I see it) to add, I do not comment. When I comment, however, I will try to be as honest with myself as I can. In other words, I give my real opinions, not opinions pre-chewed for public (nor “progressive”) consumption. I do not swear (god, that’s hard to curb), don’t call people names, yet make every attempt to leave a lasting impression. If I disagree with a “progressive,” I make sure that they know I disagree (I have occasionally been mistaken for a right-wing spammer because of this). All in all, between the “christonazi”, “defeatist traitor” and “you’re a crybaby” posts, I think mine stand out as voiced with thought and passion in them. Or so I hope.

Trouble is, I could not comment recently. More accurately: I could comment, but my comment would not appear. This has happened before.

The first time it happened, I felt (here was that hunch coming in) as if I’d said something too saucy. Maybe I put my words in the wrong order, and it was perceived as an attack on HuffPo itself, I thought. So I reread my comment with this perspective, and began noticing every other word as dangerous. Could she take that wrong? Certainly teasing Mr. Hitchens doesn’t qualify as ad hominem, does it? I concluded after this brief session that in fact I’d been entirely insensitive and mean to the blogger, and feared I’d get my IP banned.

The comment appeared later. Apparently the moderators were busy.

But: why the fear? If you read any HuffPo comments, there’s no shortage of disrespectful name-calling or seven-page off-topic spam retaliations, of which my comment was neither. Besides, the site is all about free speech, so it’d be in their interests to allow as many comments through as possible. So it was “silly” that I had this hunch in the first place, right?

Well, I had that hunch hit me again today. I submitted a relatively long comment about the the strategy the Democratic Party should take. No name calling, no swear words, no attack on the author. Just some criticism of talking points.

It didn’t go through. An hour later, I checked; it was as if I didn’t push the button.

So I started freaking again: is it because I had a rather spicy discussion about the Iraq war a day earlier with a Canadian? Is it because I used the verb “b***ch” (asterisks included) in a short comment elsewhere? Could it be because I comment too damn much, and there’s a limit attached to my account? What could it be?

All of it silly. Again, why the HuffPo would champion censorship is beyond me. But the hunch keeps nagging me. I don’t feel this way with any other blog on the planet: I know that if my post doesn’t go through, it’s because of technical difficulties, not because of censorship.

So why the suspicion with the Huffington Post?

I think I can explain. Though only partially; since hunches do million-node work, it’s hard to keep up.

The Huffington Post is a collection of artists, writers, poets, pundits, scientists and generally any smart and successful (and yes, progressive) guy/girl with street cred who’d like to have a blog. Now, in order to get people like David Mamet or Christopher Durang to submit to the idea of slinging their words against a wall to get them pissed on, you must promise civility, respect, and worthiness of the deed. This is where moderators come in. They try to guarantee a culture of dignity in the comments that obviously can’t be achieved by letting the system fly wide open, nor by allowing their sometimes very zealous readers to vote on which comments are decent and which are not. The Huffington Post has decided that humans—specifically, hired moderators—alone can make the decision requiring nuance, perception, and balance.

However, on the comment policy page, the rules to me feel draconian. Perhaps this is just my hunch rearing its head, but a) requiring an account, yet b) banning by IP address reveals an extra level of fear on the HuffPo side, as if they may lose the talent they worked so hard to woo.

Of course, I have no proof. And in fact, my hunch does not say whether or not political censorship is taking place, nor does it tell me that HuffPo deletes those with unfavorable (or in my case, ubiquitous) personalities. But it does whisper that HuffPo is struggling with a comment problem now—for some reason, they’ve removed the “best of” click, which previously allowed you to showcase the good comments by voting for them. My hunch also tells me that those moderating the comments, or those devising the system, have waning patience. Perhaps they truly do risk losing some choice talent because of the silliness of the comments—they certainly risk lowered impressions of the Post itself—, and are tempted to take action to stop this.

I have no doubt that it’s in HuffPo’s interests to screen more vigorously the comments that appear after David Mamet’s blog post than after a news item. My hunch tells me that the crazies seem to come out (or are allowed to come out) more on the external news stories anyway.

Again, I have nothing to back any of this up. But why do I feel like I have to watch what I say, how I phrase it, and who it may tick off at the HuffPo, but nowhere else? Why do I hope for some kind of “flag” in my account that tells me when I’m being abusive, or a page that shows up when I click “submit” that tells me I’ve been banned, so I can find if I’m doing anything wrong? I mean, I don’t know the culture over there; maybe I’m saying insulting things and don’t know it.

And why has this come back to nag me again and again?

So my hunch is, as I distill it: The Huffington Post is internally struggling with a way to tame the comment circus, and will occasionally overreact. They wish to shield their talent from harsh, hateful words, and perhaps some of the talent has voiced a disdain of reading comments to their posts. So moderators have gotten more aggressive, and scrutinize perhaps to the point of seeing something where there is nothing, and temporarily mark an IP for abuse that probably didn’t deserve it.

This atmosphere, through a couple more snafus and the help of stupid people, could change the HuffPo into what Barbelith has turned into, which is a closed community of people who must be invited to participate. I stuck around there for a while, but I would recognize during a discussion some omissions that should have been addressed, but was powerless to contribute without going through a screening processes. Therefore, I read each topic feeling it’d never be fleshed out to my liking; and eventually stopped reading altogether.

It’d be a shame for HuffPo to turn out that way, but it’d be their right. My hunch suspects they may go this way, at least partially, in the future.

Nothing to back this up. Just tellin’ the hunch like it is.

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