Thoughts on the pending relaunch of HeraldTimesOnline.com

Later today, the Herald-Times website is scheduled to launch an updated version, with some significant changes that were described last week. It should be easier to navigate and find content, but the thing that is drawing the most attention is the changes to the comments.

Before I get into the changes, here are a couple I think would be beneficial: First, making comments searchable, both by content and username, would be a great addition. Second, a “preview” option would be very useful, so people can ensure they have their HTML tags entered correctly. (Assuming HTML will still be allowed, and it will not be PHP code or something.) Hopefully, the HTO archives links (for the news articles) will not change.

As for the announced changes, all existing comments are going to be deleted. Removing all of the old comments is silly if it is an intentional policy, as comments are the most popular destination on HTO and there is a half-dozen years of history on comments. If it is a technical issue, that may not be avoidable. The advantage is that some of the sewer filth that was never deleted but should have been will now be erased with everything else.

The biggest change is the possible implementation of “community monitoring.” Herald-Times editor Bob Zaltsberg said that crowd moderation “could lead to removal of comments if enough readers object to them.” That benefits and drawbacks. One benefit is that it could reduce the workload on HTO moderators by allowing crowd-moderation of especially egregious comments.

The problem is that this is something that can easily be abused and because of that I do not think it is going to work if implemented. A coordinated spam-flagging of comments could get comments removed that do not violate HTO policy, and if the H-T keeps the “three strikes and you’re out” policy (posters who have three posts deleted in 14 days are automatically suspended) that could also result in people being wrongfully suspended from comments despite not violating HTO policy.

The most obvious problem is that those who post conservative opinions on social issues (specifically abortion and sexual morality) could be spam-flagged and deleted simply for their opinions being unpopular with most HTO users. Some of my comments have gotten high negative scores, from -50 to -75 or more but were not deleted (despite being reported by whiny trolls) because they did not violate HTO policy about name calling, harassment and so forth . That is something the Herald-Times needs to think about, because crowd moderation could easily ruin HTO comments.

Crowd moderation is a bad idea, especially given the potential for abuse. If it is implemented, only comments removed by HTO moderators should count toward the “three strikes” policy, and there should be an option to restore comments that are wrongfully deleted. Once restored, those comments should be immune from further deletions. It is going to be very interesting to see how the website looks when it launches today and how it will affect comments. It is unfortunate that the Herald-Times will not be using this as an opportunity to require that everyone posts using his or her real name.

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