I don't know why, but this year I really have a strong sense of gratitude for all that I have been given in this life. Much of what I am grateful for, like my wife and family, has been there for a long time, so I think the difference is that this year I have a little bit of breathing space or distance. For the first time in a very long time, I am not in the middle of trying to report a news story or to finish writing a book. I've produced four books, each in one year, but the one I am working on now will take several years, and that makes a huge difference in quality of life for me and those around me.
Some things I know about moderating conversations in virtual space:
1. There can be no ongoing discourse without some degree of moderation, if only to kill off the hardcore trolls. It takes rather more moderation than that to create a complex, nuanced, civil discourse. If you want that to happen, you have to give of yourself. Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting that your front yard will automatically turn itself into a garden.
2. Once you have a well-established online conversation space, with enough regulars to explain the local mores to newcomers, they'll do a lot of the policing themselves.
3. You own the space. You host the conversation. You don't own the community. Respect their needs. For instance, if you're going away for a while, don't shut down your comment area. Give them an open thread to play with, so they'll still be there when you get back.
4. Message persistence rewards people who write good comments.
5. Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system.
6. Civil speech and impassioned speech are not opposed and mutually exclusive sets. Being interesting trumps any amount of conventional politeness.
7. Things to cherish: Your regulars. A sense of community. Real expertise. Genuine engagement with the subject under discussion. Outstanding performances. Helping others. Cooperation in maintenance of a good conversation. Taking the time to teach newbies the ropes.
All these things should be rewarded with your attention and praise. And if you get a particularly good comment, consider adding it to the original post.
8. Grant more lenience to participants who are only part-time jerks, as long as they're valuable the rest of the time.
9. If you judge that a post is offensive, upsetting, or just plain unpleasant, it's important to get rid of it, or at least make it hard to read. Do it as quickly as possible. There's no more useless advice than to tell people to just ignore such things. We can't. We automatically read what falls under our eyes.
10. Another important rule: You can let one jeering, unpleasant jerk hang around for a while, but the minute you get two or more of them egging each other on, they both have to go, and all their recent messages with them. There are others like them prowling the net, looking for just that kind of situation. More of them will turn up, and they'll encourage each other to behave more and more outrageously. Kill them quickly and have no regrets.
11. You can't automate intelligence. In theory, systems like Slashdot's ought to work better than they do. Maintaining a conversation is a task for human beings.
12. Disemvowelling works. Consider it.
13. If someone you've disemvowelled comes back and behaves, forgive and forget their earlier gaffes. You're acting in the service of civility, not abstract justice.
Meantime, this is the last set of postings til Monday. If you get bored, or tired of Uncle Pete going on about how Dan Snyder ruined the Redskins, read over these guidelines again.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.