, a wretched hive of scum and villainy

A few weeks ago, in a post about the soon-to-be-launched site, I suggested that perhaps Tony Dearing, their Director of Content, was a bit naïve when he said publicly that they would be able to control the conversation taking place in the comments section by employing “aggressive moderation.” Well, it looks like Dearing has responded on the placeholder site. Here’s some of what he had to say:

…Our Web advisory panel met for the first time this morning in a community room at the Ann Arbor Public Library to see how our site is developing so far, to ask questions and give us input. We listed the names of our advisory group in an earlier post.

They urged us to take a strong hand in moderating conversation on right from launch. One warned us that the failure to do so could allow our site to degenerate into a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

To avoid that, we should have norms for conversation on the site, clearly enforce those norms, and be transparent about what we’re doing.

That’s interesting, because I talked about our plan to moderate “aggressively” in an earlier post, and that intention was immediately challenged by blogger Mark Maynard. In the spirit of viewer discretion, I should mention that if you follow the link to Maynard’s blog, the comment thread includes an impressive array of vulgarities. Even Maynard was moved to joke that “On second thought, maybe aggressive moderation is a good thing”…

Before I go any further, I’d like to reiterate that I want to be wildly successful. I think that our region needs serious journalism, and I hope, with the loss of the Ann Arbor News, this new entity,, might step into the void and fill that role. (Blogs aren’t journalism, and shouldn’t be seen as such.) My only point in that initial post was to suggest that cultivating a healthy and active online community isn’t as easy as Dearing makes it sound… If you want to foster a real community dialogue, in my opinion, people have to know that they’re being heard, and that, it seems to me, runs counter to aggressive moderation.

In my first post on the matter, I gave two examples. In one case I wondered what they would do in the eventuality that someone left a valid but unfavorable comment about an advertiser. In the other case, I was wondering how they would react when things got heated around a specific, divisive topic, like Israel, or abortion. My point was that, like it or not, they’re going to have to confront some difficult issues. And, yes, I stated that Dearing was naive when he said that he was convinced that they could pull it off with relative ease because he’d talked with someone who had run an online community in the past. Believe it or not, I was trying to be helpful by pointing out that “aggressive moderation,” while it sounds good, isn’t going to be all that easy. (I suggested that they open things up completely and let the chips fall where they may. The community, I suggested, would regulate itself.)

But I suspect they’ll find that out in good time.

Anyway, I just thought that it was funny that they implied that this site of mine – which has run for about 7 years now, gets up to 1,000 individual readers a day, and has only had to erase 3 comments in all that time – by leaving its comments section open, and free of aggressive moderation, is “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

Needless to say, I disagree. I think that we talk about real issues here, and, more importantly, I think we work together to arrive at real, practical solutions. I think that a lot of good has come from this site, and I think a major reason for that is the open posting policy. Within reason, people know that when they post a comment here, that it’ll go up on the site, people will see it, and, in some cases, it will influence the course of the dialogue. Sure, I’ve got a bar, but it’s set incredibly low. And I think that helps more than it hurts. But that’s not why I bring any of this up at the moment. What I have in mind is much more serious… I want to know if any of you would like to take a shot at designing the first official t-shirt. The only rule is that it has to be 3 colors or less and contain the phrase – “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” You don’t even have to include the name of the site, if you don’t want to. I could print that on the inside.

And, for what it’s worth, I think I need an advisory panel too.

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  1. Posted June 21, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    And I know that I already said it in the blog itself, but I do really want to be successful. The more money they make, the more real journalists they’ll be able to bring on, and the better off our region will be… So I don’t want this thread to be full of bashing… I just want them to think through their policy for erasing comments now, before they get started, because I really think that they could catch a ton of shit later on, when people start having their submissions cut.

  2. Mike
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    It’ll be interesting. I occasionally read the comments at mlive and then try to erase them from my brain. Half of them are so crazy, with the same people posting the same stuff all the time, that there really is no good ‘discussion’. R vs L, Down With Obama, blah blah blah comments is all it turns in to.

    I think he’s naive if he thinks it’ll be easy to aggressively moderate it and still form a community or have decent discussions out of it. Really, only time will tell when it’s launched..

  3. Karl
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    What about two giant, hairy balls being shaved, and the falling pubic hairs spell out “Mark Maynard dotcom”?

  4. Carlton Wiggins
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I think it should be a really happy font saying it. And maybe a picture of a unicorn jumping over a rainbow with a kitten on its back.

  5. Posted June 22, 2009 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    You know, vulgarity doesn’t automatically mean “wretched scum and villainy” (and “hive”??) – you can be very polite while being absolutely vile, and you can be vulgar while doing great good. The latter is what I expect here, the vulgarity is just an added funny bonus.

  6. D
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Over the weekend, Edward Vielmetti posted a group of links to opinions and discussions of newspaper comment policies, moderation, etc. See Looks like some good grist for the mill.

    ‘Course there’s always John Scalzi’s comment policy; a model of simplicity, and therefore probably not applicable to and

  7. Joanne
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    People take posting comments to internet newspapers and articles too casually. Too often posts are badly written-grammar, spelling, flow; illogical-off the top of the head without form or structure, ranting; and with vulgarities. And all that aside, many posts do not add to the discussion or provide more content. If these posts were letters to be considered for publication, they would not see the light of day. I think there should be more moderation and editing by hosts, not less.

  8. Andy Ypsilanti
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Hey, I thought we were getting Ypsi shirts with the scum an villainy saying! I guess could be on there to… It’s just that I was looking forward to wearing my “Ypsilanti, a wretched hive of scum and villainy” T-shirt to city council meetings…

  9. Michael Schils
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I believe Tony Dearing is going to have a difficult time maintaining the high bar he wants to set with his “aggressive moderation”. Arbor Update aggressively moderates any threads relating to Israel/Palestine, with the unfortunate result being that sometimes the discussion devolves into a spat of bickering between the “church ladies” over which comment they think the moderator should delete next. As a recent thread showed, when the moderation leaves a heavy footprint, sometimes the moderation itself takes over as the subject for discussion.

    I notice the threads about Israel/Palestine on this site have pretty much been left unmoderated, and they haven’t been spammed into meaninglessness. In that sense, it appears that heavy moderation may create some of its own problem. I agree with the comment that said,

    “The successful blogs are those that welcome input from all directions and create a culture of self-policing, where those who step out of line are chastised by their fellow readers, not by management.”

    The problem with requiring that a comment “adds to the discussion” is that often the determination is influenced by the position the moderator has taken on the issue. Again, I think the Arbor Update thread demonstrated the heavy role the bias of the moderators played in the decisions based on content. Just my (biased) opinion.

    As far as the t-shirt, I prefer the upbeat tone of “An Impressive Array of Vulgarities” to “A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy”. But maybe both phrases could be used front/back.

  10. Posted June 22, 2009 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the pointer, D. That collection was the sum total of an evening lurching between being completely discouraged by every single newspaper’s failed attempts to turn around a comment site, vs. my own personal experience with getting at least as much useful stuff out of comments as I do out of whatever writing I do.

    I was trying to find the quote from The Onion which described their commenting policy (which I think translates into “you are stupid, we don’t post your comments”).

  11. Posted June 22, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Mark, for what it’s worth, the guy who made the reference to a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” was talking about the commenting on MLive. He didn’t imply, and I didn’t mean to imply, that was a reference to your blog. It wasn’t.

    I’m also pretty sure that I never said moderation is easy. Getting it right will probably be one of the more difficult things we do. I spent years taking the approach that the best moderation is little or no moderation, and that works on blogs, but as you say, news sites are different from blogs, and on news sites, even a little moderation goes a long way in making people want to join the conversation rather than driving them away.

    If I made one mistake, it was using the term “aggressive” moderation, when what I should have expressed was a desire for consistent moderation that keeps the conversation something people want to participate in. As Mike says, only time will tell if we get it right.

  12. Ypsitucky Headhunter
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Tony, try not to slip and fall down the stairs while you are back peddling. Also, try not to piss on our community with your new website, or I’ll take an old copy of the Ann Arbor News, roll it up tight, and smack your nose with it…then, I’ll rub your face in the stain until you know better. Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog.

  13. Posted June 22, 2009 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for saying so, Tony, but I’m going to keep on believing this was the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” alluded to by your oversight committee. I know it goes against everything I believe in, but I may have to erase your comment as it doesn’t support the narrative that I’m putting forward…. And, again, I’m not sure what the answer is. I just don’t feel as though aggressively cutting peoples’ comments is a way to build a productive online community. (I believe Michael said it more eloquently above.) It seems better to me to err on the side of free speech, but I know that there’s some risk there. I’ve had terrible troll wars here, but I’ve weathered them, and I think the community has grown stronger as a result… At any rate, thank you for your comment, and I look forward to reading when it launches.

  14. Posted June 22, 2009 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Mark. You’ve said more than once that you wish us success, and I appreciate that. I look forward to your ongoing thoughts after we launch.

    Also, I don’t want to belabor a point, but I also don’t want to create ill will where none was intended. Ed Vielmetti was at that meeting of our advisory group and tweeted live from it. His tweet on the wretched hive reference did identify it as being in regards to “mlive comments.” The person who made the statement was very specific about that.

  15. Posted June 22, 2009 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    To be even more specific, that’s a quote from Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi warning about Mos Eisley

    “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”

    of course, that doesn’t stop them from going onward.

  16. Posted June 22, 2009 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    (oh, and it was Eli Neiburger with that quote)

  17. Posted June 23, 2009 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    One of the things I’ve always liked about this site is the sense of community here. If Tony wants to have his site do as good a job, he needs to build that up. Our Mayor posts here. That says a lot about what works here. If Tony can’t build that kind of trust and respect, than maybe he shouldn’t have commenting on his site at all. Seriously, leave the commenting to the blogs and just present the facts of the news. Novel concept really.

  18. Brackinald Achery
    Posted June 23, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    If we’re all Mos Eisley cantina monsters now, I call Snaggletooth. Blue Snaggletooth.

    I think Robert should be that guy who hangs out with Walrus Man and starts shit.

    Mark can be the haggard bar tender.

  19. Bea Arthur's ghost
    Posted June 23, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    SO, I looked “haggard” did I?!

  20. tommy
    Posted June 23, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Mark – because of your back problems you may not be able to fully twist around and look down, but that tingle you feel back there is Tony D. kissing your ass. He’s got product to sell, an unproven model upon which to sell it, and a staff of how many to moderate the threads?

    Oh that’s right – it will be the 3 or 4 reporters/photographers/editorialists/comment police. Not a formula for success in my opionion. Monitoring comments on features/articles would be the last thing I would concerned with as a Director of Content – I’d start with the quality of the content first, something lacking from the A2 News for a long time.

  21. Jordan Miller
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I was at that meeting, and can second (or is it third?) the fact that the wretched hive of scum and villainy is definitely mlive.
    The fact that comments will be moderated was, in fact, a selling point for me in terms of agreeing to write for I had a terrible time on mlive with people writing nasty comments about my looks and wardrobe choices, rather than saying anything about the actual work that I had done. Frankly, that doesn’t happen as much on your site because, well, most of your readers want to be in the cool Mark Maynard club. And I understand. You are both dashing and debonair.
    I don’t want comments on anything that I write to be moderated for actual viewpoint or content, but if someone posts a link for a plastic surgeon (this actually happened to me on mlive), I appreciate that it will be taken down.
    Plus, I would add that, unlike the News/mlive, is allowing its writers to respond and interact with readers and commenters.
    So, for the first time in my professional career, I can publicly tell that Radio Free UBU guy to bring it on. FREEDOM!

  22. Posted June 27, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Let’s not forget, Jordan, there was also a psychopath on my site that gave you a hard time. I don’t recall anyone here suggesting that you get plastic surgery, though. That is maybe a bit much. Still, though, I wouldn’t have removed it. I probably would have, however, stood up for you and challenged the guy to expose himself. I haven’t spent a lot of time on M-Live, but, from what I’ve seen, it’s not that they’re allowing bad comments to go up, but that they aren’t engaged in the conversation. I think when there isn’t any give-and-take, you get people putting up what’s essentially cyber graffiti. Anyway, that’s my take on it. And, for what it’s worth, I don’t think most of the folks who leave comments here are people who want to be in any “cool Mark Maynard club.” As neat as that would be, I think most people leave comments here because there isn’t any other place to engage. And thanks for the “dashing and debonair” line. I know you’re making fun of me, but it’s much nicer than posting the number of a plastic surgeon…

  23. Greedo
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Okay, then. Bring on the villainy.
    Where is Lando Calrissian anyway?

  24. Jordan Miller
    Posted June 28, 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Oh no! I wasn’t making fun of you. Just being vaguely sarcastic without a nasty agenda. I thought we’d been internet friends for long enough that we could do that sort of thing.
    And that does illustrate a point, that the internet, because of a lack of tone of voice and facial expression, is also a forum ripe for misunderstandings. Which plays into what you and I both said about the idea of give and take. I feel much more comfortable having comments when I know that I can respond to them, as opposed to just being thrown to the cyber wolves.
    You make a good point, about this being a forum for people to engage. But you have to admit that you do have more readers who want to be on your side than readers who just want to randomly attack you because you have no way of saying anything back. That can be pretty scary.

  25. Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    You should leave your comments via YouTube, so we can see your expressions and respond accordingly.

    And, for what it’s worth, I know you weren’t making fun of me… You’re too smart to do something like that.

  26. Jordan Miller
    Posted June 29, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Was that a thinly veiled threat, Maynard?
    Because I know where you live. Well, I know you live in Ypsilanti, and it’s not that big.

  27. Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Fascinating to see what’s going on here, and how similar it is to larger communities, and those that revolve and evolve around a product.
    I’d recommend collaborating with those who have gone through this in the past, to learn best practices etc. Not having read back through the threads of where this originated, what I most advise is posting and remaining consistent with community guidelines.

    +1 for a t-shirt Mark, I’d like to rep it in the Bay Area!

5 Trackbacks

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    […] had another entry in our new Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy t-shirt design competition. This one comes from Shadow Art Fair alumni Brian Walline… If you have ideas, please send […]

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  3. By My thoughts on the death of on September 4, 2013 at 10:58 pm

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