Commenting on Berkeleyside: A new approach


Media organizations everywhere are wrestling with how to create vibrant, civil online comments sections. Today Berkeleyside launches a new approach. Photo: THOR

Recently, in a New York Times Magazine article about online commenting, writer Michael Erard suggested comments might be “the most obnoxious development of the Web, the wild back alleys where people sound their acid yawps.”

Last month, YouTube took decisive action to clean up its much maligned comments section with an overhaul that uses several factors to determine which posts float to the top of the conversation.

Three weeks ago, Popular Science took what many saw as the drastic step of shutting down its Comment section altogether, explaining that comments can be “bad for science.”

Starting next week, the Sacramento Bee will temporarily drop commenting from its website. “Too many so-called trolls are using the comments to be mean, obscene or just plain rude. Too many readers are turned off by the tone and skipping comments altogether,” wrote Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar. The newspaper is using the hiatus to encourage readers to give them feedback about commenting while they review their system.

What this tells us is that many online media operations are wrestling with how to handle comments sections and the problems they can trigger.

Berkeleyside is not going to shut down its comments section. Far from it. We believe, as does Popular Science ironically, that our commenters play an essential role — offering valuable insights, fostering constructive debate, creating a vibrant forum for civic discourse. The comments are a vital part of Berkeleyside.

However, we, like many news sites, have found that a small minority of commenters are abusing the system, often turning on each other, and marring the experience for others.

We have tried various ways of tackling what can be a very off-putting part of Berkeleyside.

Today, after much deliberation and discussion — both among the Berkeleyside editors and with readers — we are introducing a new Comments Policy. We took great inspiration from the thoughtful folks over at Boing Boing, and have taken up many of their policies verbatim. We’ve pared down and adapted some of the material, but otherwise have drawn from Boing Boing with permission. Briefly put, the policy asks that commenters are courteous, stick to the point, and argue with issues, not with people.

Read our full Comments Policy.

In addition, we recently introduced pre-moderation. This means that an editor needs to approve every comment that comes into Berkeleyside. Since we began doing this we have seen a distinct improvement in the tone and quality of the comments section. Screening comments is not censorship. It will simply, we hope, eliminate the sort of off-topic, offensive, or just plain idiotic comments that add nothing to the conversation and often only have the effect of prompting more of the same.

We hope you support us in our endeavor to let lively, entertaining, educational commenting thrive.

As always, we welcome your comments here. In the future, we will handle all comments on the comments policy and on comment moderation via email (

Would you like a digest of the day’s Berkeley news in your inbox at the end of your working day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

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  • The_Sharkey

    I just want to second the invitation to the BerkeleySnide forum on Reddit.
    I know we disagree frequently, but it would be nice to see you there. So far it’s been fun and I think you’d like it there. Nobody there will get mad at you for “posting too much” or making comments that are “too long.”

  • The_Sharkey

    What action and progress results from sitting around for an hour or two so someone can get up to a podium and call Tom Bates a Republican Nazi? Since when is simple time commitment a direct indicator of quality or worth?

    The argument that commenting at a city council meeting is more valuable than commenting on a forum like this makes a lot of assumptions that aren’t borne out with any evidence.

  • The_Sharkey

    Why ignore the comments about drug companies? Is it because it’s less easy to respond to?

    What are “conventional” morals? Who decides that?
    Morality is not absolute, nor is convention an unchanging monolith.

    It is my opinion based on the events that have unfolded in the comments on this article that what Berkeleyside is doing doesn’t just suppress rude speech. It is apparent to me that it is specifically designed to fundamentally change the kind of discourse that happens here, and to hamper direct debate and discussion of issues.

  • The_Sharkey

    What the say, and what is reality, are not necessarily the same. Through the course of these comments and the way that the moderation/censorship has developed here it is clear to me that their primary goal is to discourage direct debate and discussion. Comments have been censored and deleted simply for replying too directly to other posters (mentioning their name for instance) rather than because of rudeness or incivility.

    The pretense for the change is “an attempt at restoring civility” but the reality is a desire to turn these comments from a discussion forum into a Letters To The Editor section where all comments must relate explicitly to the original article and direct replies to other posters are not allowed.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I didn’t ignore your comments about the drug companies completely. They are part of what I meant by “fraudulent advertising” when I said:

    “I think very few people would say that a laws against yelling fire in a
    crowded theater or laws against fraudulent advertising are censorship,
    because they are meant to protect people physically or financially.”

    Indeed, convention is not an unchanging monolith, and neither is the target of the censors. In ancient Rome, they censors suppressed impiety against the state religion. In the middle ages, they suppressed impiety against the Catholic Church. Today, they suppress impiety against political correctness. I suppose that in King Solomon’s time, they suppressed anyone who questioned polygamy.

    But in any society, censors are those who suppress speech that challenges the dominant religious and moral beliefs of that society. At least, this is how I think the word is commonly used.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Thanks, but I prefer the unmediated format. Would love to have you join the conversation over on reddit.

  • Mbfarrel

    Thanks for the link. BTW, I’m “officially” old, but I don’t have any trouble detecting tone on the internet any more than I do on the printed page.
    One of the things I’ve noticed in achieving my oldness is that many in Berkeley, particularly “progressives” (not you PP,) are tone deaf and have been subjected to a humorectomy as well.

  • guest

    “The argument that commenting at a city council meeting is more valuable than commenting on a forum like this makes a lot of assumptions that aren’t borne out with any evidence.”

    Go and speak on an issue vital to you. You’ll see and feel the difference.

  • guest

    Bside comments – What we’d probably see with the numbers spread:
    3% of comments are by those posting 1-5 times per month –
    “I occasionally visit Bside and see an issue important to me.”

    7% of comments are by those posting 5-20 times per month –
    “I check Bside once a day, often there’s something to comment on.”

    90% of comments are by those posting 100 times or more per month –
    “I live on Bside. I comment, therefore I am.”

    The REAL problem with the comments section (viz. Bside’s growth potential) is not civility, it’s that they come from a few and they’ve gotten predictable and boring. Originally, these volunteer columnists, the Constant Commenters (a “tea” party?), were a welcome change from the PC drivel we’re used to. But their online personas are now way too familiar.

    We rant about the one percent hogging it all. What percent is 12 of 115,403?

  • bgal4

    and somehow I suspect as a Berkeley voter you are more than enthusiastic about keeping in power the same 10 people governing Berkeley for decades.

    tea party speculation, what drivel! if you want to make things more interesting, you can contribute, no one is stopping you.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I am fairly thick-skinned, hardened after years of political debate, but I would like to see the thin-skinned also feel free to comment.

    I think you are generally civil. If everyone were like you, this moderation would not be necessary.

  • Laura Morland

    Just adding my two cents to say that I like the NYTimes model as well. I often read through dozens of enlightening comments on their article, something I cannot do on HuffPost or YouTube, because the vulgar name-calling becomes just too tedious.

    You could, as Bingo suggests, jigger the software to create a Berkelyside Picks” category in sincere imitation….

  • emraguso

    For those interested in a more filtered view of the comments, Disqus does actually offer what it calls a “Best” view — under the first option below the comment-entry box, you should either see “Newest,” “Oldest” or “Best.” Click the small triangle to toggle among the views and see which works best for you. It’s a limited system but “Best” may work better for some than simple chronology.