Deleting meta-commentary without just silencing pile-on victims? January 13, 2019 3:37 PM   Subscribe

I discovered the metacommentary deletion policy under less than great circumstances. Can we talk about how to enforce that policy with a little less collateral damage? Maybe by better documentation, or user education?

I had a bad experience recently on AskMe. As one of the mods later speculated over email[1], I described an unprovoked assault that didn't really make sense, so people tried to make sense of it by assuming that I had provoked it somehow. Not that it makes me feel any better, but I can believe that reasonable people got there in good faith.

What bothers me is what happened when I posted a clarification with a comment at the end that I thought people were unjustifiably assuming the worst of me. That comment was deleted as metacommentary, and with it my clarification.

The mods later explained over email that we have two blanket policies: any comment containing negative metacommentary will be deleted, and comments are always deleted wholesale, never redacted. While I see how these policies are individually useful, I hadn't known either of them previously, and I'm still unable to find any mention of them by searching the FAQ or the wiki.

So from my perspective at the time, I had sixty people telling me I was to blame, many of them due to a clear misunderstanding of the situation. It felt natural and in many contexts would have been appropriate to say so. When the mods then turned up to delete my comment for metacommentary, that just increased my feeling of getting it from all sides.

To be more specific, it feels very much like tone policing in the way a facially neutral rule about how and where to speak had the effect of removing what was mostly a substantive and permitted contribution.

So I'm here to ask: I don't object to the metacommentary deletion policy, nor to the wholesale deletion policy, but what else can we do so that we can enforce those policies with less collateral damage?

Two ideas:

1. Document these policies. The mods treat these as bright-line rules, and are happy to say so over email. (And someone must have known about these rules, because it was a user flag that got the mods looking at my comment.) Can we put them somewhere public, so that I don't have to email the mods after the fact to learn about them?

2. Is there any pro-active user education we can do so that people know that they're expected to turn to the mods rather than responding directly if they feel that a thread is turning against them undeservedly? That is not the norm on most of the internet. Honestly, it sounds like a better practice than most of the internet has, but it is not what people unfamiliar with the norms of this site would expect.

(3. Increase mod resources s.t. people need less knowledge of the system to avail themselves of it. I was told after the fact that had a mod been following my thread earlier, they would have been able to intervene earlier. I'm guessing this one is a non-starter for budgetary reasons, outside the megathreads, but I'll put it out there just for the confirmation.)

I'd ideally like to avoid making this MeTa a referendum on my specific case. I'm not looking for an apology or exoneration. I feel like I've discovered a sharp corner in the user experience and I'd like to focus discussion on padding that a little.

[1] I wouldn't usually publish a private correspondence like this, but mods speaking as mods seem like fair game and anyway they will review this MeTa before it goes live.
posted by meaty shoe puppet to Etiquette/Policy at 3:37 PM (32 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

First up, I agree that this is gonna be more useful as a discussion of general moderation practice and documentation and user education than as a review of that thread, but I do want to say that Ask was kind of a frustrating mess and I'm sympathetic about the weird circumstances in which to first encounter new details of moderation policy.

1. Document these policies.

As far as documentation: there's a couple of mentions in the FAQ of stuff related to these issues, but reviewing it I agree that it's not as clear as possible on these specific questions.

Why was my MetaFilter comment deleted? mentions the metacommentary issue though it's worded more specifically about "comments about moderation"; when that entry was written I think that was more primarily the issue, but in practice we aim for metacommentary more generally including talking about how MetaFilter is perceived to work (or think), how a thread itself is going, what a poster thinks people should or should not be doing, etc.

Are posts or comments edited by mods? covers the fact that we don't edit comments for content, though it doesn't elaborate on e.g. the implication that that means will delete rather than trim a problematic comment.

I'll give both of those entries a look with an eye toward amending them a bit.

More generally with the FAQ, though, there's a tension between wanting to usefully cover frequent issues in that documentation and wanting not to grow it to the point where it's hard to use and hard to maintain; we have managed to revisit and revise the FAQ in bits and pieces over the years but a thorough revision of the whole thing remains a big To Do item. Amending and modernizing the specifics and examples to be more consistent with 2019 MeFi vs. 2009 or 2004 MeFi would be one of the big gains there, but at that there's always going to be a tradeoff of lots of specificity vs. keeping the size manageable, so it's likely there will always be little details and unlikelier cases that get resolved through email conversation with the mods rather than preemptively in the FAQ. (The difficulty of striking that balance and of managing/revising all that existing content is part of why we haven't gotten a thorough revision done already; it's a big project.)

Similarly we have some guidance in the startup materials for new users, but that's something that is on the slate for revision and potential expansion. At that, there's still that tension between wanting folks to come to the site with a basic understanding of how it works but not expecting them to read a 20 page document. We're more likely to outline the basic notion of MeFi as a moderated site, and to encourage folks to reach out to the contact form if they have questions, than to try to nail down all the possible cases where moderation would happen, and how, and why, up front.

2. Is there any pro-active user education we can do so that people know that they're expected to turn to the mods rather than responding directly if they feel that a thread is turning against them undeservedly?

We do try to make that point in MetaTalk discussions, and often in moderation notes or deletion reasons, though see above re: us looking at revising/expanding the documentation available for such stuff. I've also occasionally made "hey, let's review how x works" MetaTalks in the last couple years to revisit some site practice and policy stuff (e.g. flagging) and that's something that I'd like to keep doing for various topics, and for which this general territory of how moderation communication, contact form, etc work would be a potential topic.

3. Increase mod resources s.t. people need less knowledge of the system to avail themselves of it. I was told after the fact that had a mod been following my thread earlier, they would have been able to intervene earlier.

A mod not seeing it sooner is more a matter of chance and timing than anything; adding another body (should the budget permit it, which is a whole other discussion but short answer is we have no reason to expect to be able to) would mean slightly lighter workloads for everybody but wouldn't change the fact that we aren't actively watching most threads until we get some notification—flags, contact form, mefimail—that something is up. There's too much on the site to follow all of it all of the time, so we really depend on user communication on one channel or another to let us know something needs attention. Mostly that works out well, now and then the timing ends up wonky and we only get to something after it's already gone a bit poorly.

By far the best solution we have for that is more and prompter flagging, but that's more of a matter of periodic reminders to the community to use the tools available than of having another set of eyes watching for a lack of heads ups.
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:05 PM on January 13, 2019

The threadsitting entry in the FAQ sort of covers the meta commentary aspect and the comment editing entry the deletion policy but I can imagine that unless you’re reading the FAQs cover to cover, you might not find them. Perhaps there’s some way to reorganize the FAQs a bit for clarity? Alternatively, maybe the MeFiMail reminder you get when your AskMe post goes live could offer a useful link to the AskMe FAQ section. Though not everyone gets those.
posted by Stacey at 4:10 PM on January 13, 2019

I think I may have said this before in MetaTalk, but I wonder if there is a place for a heads'-up when posting an Ask - maybe particularly anonymous ones, or particularly in Human Relations, or particularly for first Askers - reminding people that one may not get the answers one expects or that others may not understand some of your experiences, and that this can be upsetting; and suggesting that if this happens one can contact the mods or flag the answers, rather than responding in-thread?

And / or, change the wording that appears under the posting box. It currently says Note: Ask MetaFilter is as useful as you make it. Please limit comments to answers or help in finding an answer. Wisecracks don't help people find answers. Thanks. Add something about treating people charitably and not piling-on?
posted by paduasoy at 4:25 PM on January 13, 2019 [10 favorites]

Is there any pro-active user education we can do so that people know that they're expected to turn to the mods rather than responding directly if they feel that a thread is turning against them undeservedly?

Would it be possible to have a guidance note on the Ask question-posting page suggesting people contact the mods directly if they have issues with how a thread is going, with a link to the FAQ about threadsitting/metacommentary?

I hear you. I’ve posted questions where people came up with all kinds of imagined backstories and answered questions I didn’t ask based on those, but I’ve learned if I use the contact form then a mod will be aware of the issue and keep an eye on the thread. Last time it happened I know a particularly unhelpful response was deleted because I saw it appear, and without me having to do anything it was gone on my next refresh because I’d already raised the thread with the mods. That felt really nice in a “they have my back on this” way. But yeah, a specific way to let people know in advance to take that tack would be helpful.
posted by billiebee at 4:27 PM on January 13, 2019 [7 favorites]

I really should preview more
posted by billiebee at 4:28 PM on January 13, 2019

Put a little extra guidance in the automatic messages from robot Cortex about the new question? I read those thoroughly when I started asking questions because I wanted to do things right.
posted by sacchan at 4:52 PM on January 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

it feels very much like tone policing in the way a facially neutral rule about how and where to speak had the effect of removing what was mostly a substantive and permitted contribution.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but this seems like the opposite of tone policing which is content policing. I know it stings to feel like people are misunderstanding a thing you thought was clear, but it's a very internet-person thing to feel like everyone is against you and it's necessary for you to set the record straight by explaining things again. And by "you" I don't mean you personally (I do not know what thread you are talking about and will not go look) but the general all-of-us here. And, really, there are ways you can do this that usually won't get deleted and then there are ways you can do this which will get deleted. Usually a single clarification if it's YOUR thread is okay. Sometimes many of them are. In someone else's thread though, it's usually not okay. So, hey, it's definitely not a great feeling to get something deleted, especially when you're feeling set upon in a thread already. But turning this into a "we need more mods" thing is really a big ask for what is basically a hurt feeling. Sometimes we need to sit with bad feelings personally so that the generally good feelings of the community can continue. It's a tough message, but one that I think can be useful.
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 7:04 PM on January 13, 2019 [17 favorites]

this seems like the opposite of tone policing which is content policing

I may be using these words differently than you, but if I had to guess at these terms I would say I was being policed for content if the mods disagreed with my metacommentary, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The objection was that I put my metacommentary in the wrong place. Also, that this one paragraph of misplaced metacommentary tainted the preceding paragraphs of factual response to someone who said, "Maybe I'm visualizing the position wrong," and then indeed said something wrong. So that does have the form over substance feel of tone policing.

Am I explaining that clearly?

I would also like to point out that I'm not trying to argue that there was the intention to police tone, only that a couple of reasonable policies plus some absent documentation interacted to produce something which can feel like tone policing. I'm hoping we can avoid both actual tone policing and unnecessarily giving the appearance of tone policing.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 7:46 PM on January 13, 2019

That's still not tone policing. That's rules lawyering and it's all splitting hairs.

I'm sorry you had a bad experience. I'm sorry you did not know you could not argue back and forth with answerers about their assumptions. I feel that the having the issues covered in the FAQ and explained when metacommentary is deleted is fine. But I also think adding a #4 "You will not be permitted to threadsit, so please consider your wording carefully" to the ask a question page would be fine.

I think it's a general problem with human relations or "explain this weird interaction I did not get" questions that Askers are going to feel attacked. I don't think adding lengthy mod policy explanations is going to help that.
posted by crush at 8:00 PM on January 13, 2019 [11 favorites]

I think...the thing is, the rules are not there to prevent people from ever making a mistake or having a comment deleted.

They're there to try to minimize that, for sure. But really, the moderation is present at least in part to create and maintain/enforce the community norms.

So maybe instead of thinking of it like "my comment was deleted and that is Bad, and I need to know how to avoid it Always," you could approach it like "huh, now I know that metacommentary isn't a thing, the process of learning is working."

I get that the thread was difficult for you already and it was a weird thread if it's the one I think it was. But also weirdly the question you were grappling with in that thread is very similar, which is kind of what general rule can you apply so that you don't have to deal with an unexpected reaction. And I guess my answer remains you really can't, you kind of have to roll with some of the ups and downs.

There will never be a perfectly expressed FAQ or a set of mods who can fix everything right away.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:15 PM on January 13, 2019 [15 favorites]

I really like all of paduasoy's ideas. A warning - especially for human relations - I think is honestly warranted. First time users get absolutely mauled when they lack the syntax and awareness of how to frame. It drives people that could otherwise be good community members away.

Likewise, a reminder to, you know, not be a projecting know-it-all and to generally avoid extreme pronunciations could be helpful - hell, it wouldn't be harmful.

This all being said, I also think we should all collectively be more sanguine about having comments deleted. I do totally understand the sting of having what you feel is a totally justified and deserving comment removed without fuss - but I think it's good to remember that it's not a judgment on your comment, usually. It's about keeping the site running smoothly, minimising conflict and escalation. This can be mean righteous comments are deleted for the sake of site harmony, and our comments - however important they can feel - don't actually matter very much, in the scheme of things.

I've been round here for a little while now, and when I even notice a comment of mine is deleted, I try to shrug my shoulders and move on. Dwelling on it does me, my contributions here, and probably the community, no good ultimately.
posted by smoke at 12:21 AM on January 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

I generally agree with the current practice of not notifying users when their comments are deleted, but I think that in this case - where the Asker is clarifying a question that apparently needed some clarification - it might be better to reach out with a message explaining the deletion and containing the text of the deleted comment, so that the user can repost the non-problematic bits.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:27 AM on January 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

The justification given for not notifying users when their comments are deleted is that to do otherwise would increase the load on the mods. This is the other side of that trade-off, or at least one example of it.

Sorry you got burned meaty-shoe-puppet. Ask can be rough sometimes, especially when people start critiquing a straw version of the asker based on assumptions that aren't justified by the question text but spring instead from their own past experiences.
posted by pharm at 5:39 AM on January 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

In addition to the in-thread note from us about the deletion, OP wanted further explanation and contacted us (which is exactly the thing to do), and we had several emails back and forth explaining the situation, involving three different moderators over different shifts, so the problem wasn't that OP wasn't aware in the moment and didn't get feedback, but that they would like to have already been aware, pre-commenting, and wonders how we can help the no-metacommentary guideline be more obvious.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:31 AM on January 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

Thanks for the extra information taz - hunting the ask in question down to check specifics seemed like the wrong thing to do.
posted by pharm at 6:37 AM on January 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, that this one paragraph of misplaced metacommentary tainted the preceding paragraphs of factual response to someone who said, "Maybe I'm visualizing the position wrong," and then indeed said something wrong. So that does have the form over substance feel of tone policing.

Am I explaining that clearly?

You are. However that is still content. Tone would be something like "The mods didn't like how you said something."

In this case you basically added an "I'm disappointed in everyone" to the end of a follow-up comment, when people disagreed with your take on a social situation which is something that's pretty much never okay for AskMe. The fact that you were doing this with a sock puppet account (i.e. not one that is known well to the community) in a question thread that was about calibrating responses to social situations edges it just a little more towards a comment that is going to be a problem. Like, if you had posted that thread anonymously and then emailed your comment to a mod for a follow-up and included that bit, they would have probably dropped you a line back saying "Hey, the follow-up is fine but basically insulting people who are trying to help you is not going to fly"

In short, AskMe is a free resource for the community to ask questions and receive free advice. Posters are sort of expected to take the good and try to ignore the bad. Obviously that's not always possible but that is the goal state. In a situation where I feel like I am being misunderstood by literally everyone, it's usually because I am missing something or in a bad headspace, not that everyone else is clueless or can't read the words I am typing. I feel like there is an iterative learn-through-example process that mostly happens between AskMe, MeTa and the FAQ which is why the mods often prefer to have these conversations in public (so that others can learn from them) and not just back and forth over email.

Again, I know this all stings, but I feel like this is mostly the system working as it's supposed to.
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 8:57 AM on January 14, 2019 [17 favorites]

I don't want to re-legislate the Ask that prompted this Meta, but I would like to say it was a hot mess of assumptions and over-explanations that seemed to confirm assumptions. This Meta is in a very similar spirit to the original Ask, although it's going better. The asker wants to know how to avoid essentially unavoidable situations in both this question and the original Ask, and "don't worry about it" didn't seem to be an acceptable answer in either.

I think this is more of a being-in-the-world problem than a fix-with-more-rules problem, and I say that with absolutely no judgment or malice or wishing this Meta didn't exist. Longer FAQs won't solve this, and clearly posted subway behavior rules wouldn't have solved the original Ask.
posted by donnagirl at 9:05 AM on January 14, 2019 [18 favorites]

Sometimes on Metafilter you cross a line. That doesn't make you a bad person or that the thing you had to say isn't valid. It's just that those words in that place at that time didn't work.

Not only does it happen to the best of us, it also happens to me.
posted by East14thTaco at 7:45 PM on January 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

I can certainly endorse documentation being as clear as possible, but at least one aspect of this is something I think I inferred straightforwardly rather than being explicit. If we regularly (or even occasionally) redacted comments then █████ ██ ██ ██████ ███████ all over the place?
posted by XMLicious at 7:13 AM on January 15, 2019

Possibly a tangent, which is ironic: I hear the factor of causing the mods more work. I don't want to do that. As someone who has probably had more comments deleted than posted at this point, I know I'm screwing up and want to do better. Otherwise I don't understand how exactly I've failed, and I either cause the mods more grief every time I comment, or I button. Which is fine and probably the best course of action, but I'd like to try to improve. One more try.

Where is a good place to learn the 201-level rules?
posted by cage and aquarium at 7:32 AM on January 15, 2019

Drop us a note at the contact form if you have questions about specific things or about deletions. That's the best way to have a conversation with the mods - that form will email all of us, so you'll reach whichever person is on duty, and we can get back to you in longer form and with more individualized advice or suggestions.

Often deletions are in some larger context that might be hard to see, and we're happy to explain that stuff out of the main channel. Just as an example, sometimes a person can have a topic that's sitting one way in their mind, but when they come to discuss it on the site, their way of coming at that topic just happens to run up against some community history or a hot button issue or piece of rhetoric. The person might not be doing anything wrong, they're not breaking a "rule", but they're walking into a firestorm without realizing it, and we'll often delete if we anticipate that happening.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:49 AM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

The mods have never been anything but polite and straightforward when I've asked them why something I've posted was deleted. I haven't always agreed with the deletions, but that isn't the point. It's not my house.

Come at it with the idea that you want to learn the house rules and you'll get what you're looking for.
posted by East14thTaco at 8:17 AM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

(also cage and aquarium, just in case it's helpful to know the number, I checked and you've only had 4 comments deleted. You're ok.)
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:28 AM on January 15, 2019

Huh, still not a great ratio by any stretch, but not as high as I thought.

It sounds like there's not a way to avoid causing work for the mods / raising a stink privately, which I want to avoid (oh goodness, I would never contact a mod directly, after what I've read about moderating and how hard it is. You all have enough fires to put out.)

So, fair enough. Sounds like you just kind of have to know what to say and what not to. I'll just try to say less overall, and hope I am an asshole less often.

Thanks for your help!
posted by cage and aquarium at 8:52 AM on January 15, 2019

If we regularly (or even occasionally) redacted comments then █████ ██ ██ ██████ ███████ all over the place?

For what it's worth, I interpreted "redacted" somewhat less aesthetically literally, as in just editing a problem-causing bit of a comment out in a notionally non-disruptive way. It wouldn't be obvious that something had been quietly edited out if it was successfully quietly edited out, so if you're coming to the site with the assumption that that's how the internet moderates, you wouldn't see any evidence to the contrary because there...wouldn't be anything to see to the contrary!

Which is why we're explicit about not doing that whenever the question comes up.

Also I'm kinda delighted by those italicized blackout bar characters in the quote, now that I look at the comment preview.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:04 AM on January 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yours aren't italicised for me but these are, and they are indeed delightful.
If we regularly (or even occasionally) redacted comments then ⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️ ⬛️⬛️ ⬛️⬛️ ⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️ ⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️⬛️ all over the place?
posted by unliteral at 7:35 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

That’s funny, now I’m on my phone the opposite is true.
posted by unliteral at 12:47 AM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

cage and aquarium: I'll just try to say less overall, and hope I am an asshole less often.

For what it's worth: I've never read one of your comments and thought 'Wow, they're being an asshole'.
I have, on the other hand, thought 'Wow, I hope they're okay.'
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:59 AM on January 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

I wonder if there is something of a feedback loop here - if comments from an OP that the situation has been misunderstood and they feel bad are deleted, then new posters who look through previous AskMes with similar types of emotionally loaded questions will only see OP feedback where the OP feels that the people answering have fully grokked the situation and given them helpful answers. This is not to argue against the deletion policy, just why some people might have particularly raw/suprised reactions when this happens.
posted by Vortisaur at 4:12 AM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's possible that there's a feedback loop but in this case there was a mod note, and I often see mod notes in Ask saying "hey, ask is not for back-and-forth," so I don't agree that it's that opaque.

I think I'm just having a GenX moment but let me provide a 3-point recovery plan for having a single comment deleted for too much back-and-forth. (This is different than a pattern of interaction.) This was inspired by the recent loss of my immortal prose in a cranky moment in the Instant Pot thread:

1. Go to Spotify, Apple Music, or more ethical streaming media of your choice, and find some Tori Amos. Play Little Earthquakes at top volume.

2. Lie down in savasana pose or sit cross legged and prepare for meditation. With lovingkindness, visualize yourself at the very top of your chosen profession or artistic field. Imagine your mentor or your favourite interviewer or talk show host asking you at what precise moment you were inspired to create/discover/whatever your literally world-changing Life Work. And then, taking deep, rhythmic breaths, script your answer beginning "it was one day when I was on a site called MetaFilter, much less famous than I humbly find myself to be, and I brought my full genius attention to crafting a comment. was deleted."

3. Once you have your meditation fully in mind, go work out, preferably some kind of activity where you get to hit things or bounce a lot.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:51 AM on January 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

I was one of the people being argumentative in that thread, and I think I had the last comment before meaty-shoe-puppet's response got deleted. (I am bad at AskMeFi -- my internet habits are from more arguey places.) At the time, I felt bad about the deletion because it gave me the last word without m-s-p getting to respond. I don't know if there's a generalizeable rule there, but in that specific case, I think if his comment was deleted, it would have felt more equitable if mine (and I don't remember if there were other comments he was responding to as well) were also deleted.

Maybe, where the thing that's being stopped is a multisided argument rather than bad behavior from one side, deleting the last contribution from both (or all) sides might be a good idea?
posted by LizardBreath at 11:10 AM on January 16, 2019

That's also a really important point for Answerers to remember (and something that gets brought up often in MetaTalk: try to temper your responses with the understanding that the Asker can't threadsit and respond constantly. Maybe if you question the Asker's assumption or if your response requires the Asker to question a basic assumption, maybe, you don't have a good answer. Or maybe you should be more delicate in offering your opinion.

But again, i think there is only so much "before you post, These Are Rules of Posting" that--as a community--we can really offer in any given situation.
posted by crush at 1:19 PM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

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