Should Offensive Comments Be Deleted Or Edited?

Further to my posting about HP blogger David Gee removing another comment from his blog, here’s a reply to an email I sent him requesting comment:

My May 10 blog posting summarizes my personal opinion on blog censorship well. I stated the following: “Comments, whether positive or negative, are all fair game as the blogsphere resoundingly reminded me last week. Spam, off-topic, or defamatory comments are not appropriate and I reserve the right to remove them. That’s also fair game.” As such, I did pull this blog comment which included foul language. I believe we have the right to remove offensive posts. I would also draw your attention to the coverage this activity received in Slashdot as there is plenty of healthy debate around what’s “acceptable” and what’s not when posted to a corporate blog.

That said, I also believe that we should not be editing incoming comments (ie, remove the foul language), but instead we have the right to remove them per the criteria above. I can only imagine the feedback I’d receive if I started editing comments.

This approach has some merit. But I still have some problems with David’s answers which to my perhaps oversensitive ears have a little too much polish to them to have the authentic feel of a one-person, unfiltered blogger. Or as David puts it: “My blog is my own and I keep it pure by delivering my own unfiltered point of view.” This raises more questions than it answers about corporate blogging, and, to be fair, David is by far the least egregious example of why it doesn’t often work.

Let’s parse again. “Comments, whether positive or negative, are all fair game.” Good. True. “Spam, off-topic or defamatory comments are not appropriate and I reserve the right to remove them.” Hmmm. David before only referred to Spam or defamatory comments, not off-topic, so something is being slipped in here. Should off-topic comments be removed? In a corporate world, off-topic comments may seem to be, as he puts it, ‘fair game’ for removal. It’s like someone talking about something irrelevant in a meeting. He or she would soon be hushed (unless she was the boss.) In the blogosphere, I’m not so sure.

Of course, in a perfect world everyone would stay on-topic. But if they did, Slashdot would be a really boring place to visit, as would most blogs. And who is to decide what is off-topic and what isn’t?

David says, ‘As such, I did pull this blog comment which included foul language. I believe we have the right to remove offensive posts.’ No one likes foul language, but is deletion the only reponse? David points in his post to the BusinessWeek blog post about the topic, in which Heather Green writes the following:

So, we moderate because the magazine doesn’t want to risk that even one or two of the postings on this site ends up being pornographic, racist, libelous, or hateful. If we run into those, it’s likely that we will email the person who sent it and ask them if they want to rephrase. But we don’t delete critical comments, as you have seen.

I think that’s a fair and good solution. And, given that HP blogs require registration before comments are made, HP are in a good position to go back to the poster and seek a rephrase.

All this feeds my sneaking suspicion that a lot of corporations — and the individuals who ‘officially’ blog for them — see blogs as a marketing tool in the traditional form. The evidence is there: Registration before being allowed to comment. No email address for the blogger (I reached David through HP’s Singapore PR division). Lots of on-message stuff in the blog, lots of talk of passion and having lots to say. All true. But that’s not just what blogging is about. Being a corporate blogger means opening a window on your company, and expecting a bit of a bumpy ride. To many people you’re not an individual, you’re a representative of the company. You may not like what you hear in your comments, but you’re duty bound to represent the company and handle customers as you would expect to be handled yourself as a customer. Deleting a comment because you don’t like the way it’s expressed is a bit like ejecting a customer from the store because they seem a little agitated.

David’s area is management software, so elsewhere he could reasonably argue that any comment from a reader that’s not about management software is off-topic. But that’s not, in my view, how corporate blogging works, at least in these early days. Corporate blogs are not just about getting the message out. They’re about getting messages in. David has learned one part of the lesson by reinstating the first comment that he deleted. By deleting the second, and not seeing the problems with that, he’s failed to learn the second: That every reader is a customer, and not everything a customer says may be agreeable.

HP Blogger Deletes Another Customer Comment

A few days ago I wrote about HP’s censoring, and then uncensoring, of a comment to its blog. The removal of the comment caused a furore and led to the HP blogger, David Gee, apologising and acknowledging the good learning experience:

This was a good learning experience for us and we strive to maintain honest and open communication with our customers. If we are going to use blogging as a legitimate connection between us and our customers, we need to choose either to be in all the way or out. We choose to be in. We want to hear from you.

Kudos to them, but I couldn’t help noticing they’ve done it again. As I pointed out in the previous post, another customer had posted an even more outspoken comment, as follows:

I think you are a bastard if you delete posts like that. We have freedom of speech in this country and if you dont like it, THAN MOVE!

Wanna know what I think of HP??? I think HP is the worst computer company ever to exist! They lie. I got lied to 5 times over the phone during a series of technical support calls.They told me that if they sent the fixed product to me and it wasnt “really fixed”, that they would issue a refund. But you know what they did? They replaced (and deleted all of my data) the hard drive!! The problem was the internal WIFI card that I did not want to spend $50 buying a new one!

This Country is a democracy, and if you dont like it, than move!

-Casey S Posted by AngryHPCustomer#9999999991 on May 8, 2005 1:09:49 AM PDT

When I wrote the earlier post on Monday, Asian time, that post was still there. Two days on, I’ve looked hard, but I can no longer find it. Seven hours after AngryHPCustomer Casey S posted his comment, David Gee posted this:

Thanks for all the feedback and commentary here, in Slashdot and by Dan Gillmor. There’s a lot of constructive opinion which I for one greatly appreciate, and we’ll try and keep the spam and defamatory entries sidelined so we can focus on the discussion at hand.

I’m guessing Gee judged Casey S’ comments to be defamatory rather than spam. But are they? Well he does call David Gee a bastard, but he does make it conditional on him deleting posts such as the one the post is discussing. So I’m not sure how defamatory that is. Casey S’ post does contain some spelling errors, but it also contains what appears to be some legitimate feedback on HP’s customer service, albeit expressed in insufficient detail for HP to pursue directly.

But there’s a bigger point here. David Gee admitted messing up on the first deletion. That’s good. This second one is more tricky. But blogging, and taking comments, is not just about constructive opinion expressed politely. ‘Honest and open communication’ means just that. It means allowing all sorts to express their views, however poorly they may do so. Offensive comments that have no bearing whatsoever on the subject should be removed; offensive comments that do have some bearing on the discussion should either have their offensive wording removed (offensive being the comments about David Gee’s illegitimacy, not the assessment of HP as ‘the worst company ever to exist’), or the post removed and an explanation as to why put in its place. To do neither, and just remove without ceremony or explanation the post on a topic entitled ‘Taking It On The Chin’, ends up distorting the comment record and making a mistake little different to removing the earlier comment.

To parse David Gee’s subsequent comment more deeply: Lumping ‘spam and defamatory entries’ together is somewhat disingenuous, since it appears to put CaseyS’ comments in the same bucket as comment spam. Which it clearly is not. The word ‘sidelined’ to me sounds like a euphemism for ‘deleted’ or ‘erased’, since I can no longer find any record of CaseyS’ post. To talk about doing this to ‘focus on the discussion at hand’ sounds to me like steering a debate in the direction one wants, which is not what comments on blogs are about. Lastly, I’d suggest that CaseyS’ comments, though distasteful to some and not as coherent or directly relevant as others on the page, do refer to the ‘discussion at hand’, namely censoring blogs. Indeed, by removing the comment, David Gee has made CaseyS’ comments directly relevant to the ‘discussion at hand’.

In short, blog censorship is a tricky business and I’d urge HP not to indulge in it unless it really has to. Removing comment spam and comments that are clearly unrelated to the topic in hand is a no-brainer; they are no use to readers of the blog. But anything else is censorship, however disagreeable it may be to read. Casey S, however badly expressed his comments were, had a point. He is a customer, apparently, with a complaint. He should be heard, and his complaint should be investigated. He should not be erased without an explanation. HP — and other big companies embracing this new medium — have only just begun its learning experience.

(I’m going to send a note to David Gee and ask for his comments, which I’ll post here later.)