As some visitors may have noticed, over the last couple of days I’ve released some new software changes on the website, mostly associated with commenting.
(1) Commenter Authentication
There was a slightly worrisome development last week, namely the case of one or two individuals leaving comments under the names of other, regular commenters. Although the reason was apparently satire, for some time I’d been concerned that this sort of “false-flagging” might become common, endangering the nature of the commenting give-and-take. The heated emotions and occasional feuds between commenters might provide an incentive for the production of comments meant to discredit or embarrass opponents, perhaps eventually driving them away in irritation. This led me to quickly implement a security feature to prevent this.
As everyone knows, the emails required for comment publication are never published and may indeed be entirely fictional, with email@example.com being the sort of thing some people choose to use. However, these hidden emails serve a useful purpose by allowing a commenter to secretly authenticate his name-identity. Now when an individual attempts to leave a comment under a particular name, the system checks that the provided email corresponds to one of those regularly associated with that name, and blocks the comment with a warning message if it does not. This security feature is only provided to reasonably established commenters, individuals who have published at least 10 comments during the previous 30 days. Since some regular commenters tend to use two or three different emails, any of these is considered valid, and the security system is not implemented for the tiny number of regular commenters who simply use different, random emails each time. Except for software bugs, I’d think that 99% of commenters should not have even become aware that this security feature was added.
In effect, regular commenters now have their names reserved for their own personal use. Furthermore, the implementation of this simple name-security system has now allowed me to add some additional features linked to commenter identity.
(2) Agree/Disagree Options for Comments
For the last year or so, there’s been an ongoing debate over the benefits of implementing a simple Like/Dislike option for comments. On balance, the critics have tended to make the stronger case, arguing that any sort of displayed numerical results would simply lead to a greater degree of factionalism and “ideological gang warfare,” with endless efforts to boost positive and negative totals rather than providing useful arguments in the discussion. However, I’ve now tried to implement a system to minimize these risks while providing some of the benefits.
Instead of displaying numerical totals, my approach instead lists the names of individuals who have endorsed or opposed a particular comment, perhaps more useful since the opinion of one smart commenter is worth more than that of a multitude of ignorant ones. Commenters who have saved their names/emails via the “Remember Me” option will now see Agree and Disagree buttons next to each comment, and can immediately register their views by clicking those buttons, circumventing any moderation delay.
However, I’m still somewhat cautious about the positives and negatives of this feature, and have therefore implemented it gingerly, with a number of major restrictions. First, it is a privilege only extended to established commenters, individuals who have published at least 10 comments during the past month; this avoids drawing in a horde of “ringers” who visit only to support or attack a particular commenter. Second, to avoid an endless flurry of ill-considered Likes/Dislikes, I am also currently rationing use of the feature to just once each 24 hours, forcing individuals to carefully pick and choose which comments are worthy of their public opinion. Depending upon how matters, evolve I will certainly consider adjusting these restrictions in the future.
(3) RSS Feeds for Commenters
Over the years, commenters have published tens of millions of words on this website, and comments are often the most interesting aspects of an article’s page. The commenters themselves range from the intelligent and erudite to the deranged and ignorant, with the only point of disagreement being which are which. I’ve therefore now added an RSS Feed for all individual commenters, accessed via the commenter page. For example:
(4) Weekly Emailed Digest
Finally, I’m reactivating the option of a weekly emailed Digest, which I’d discontinued over a year ago. Individuals may subscribe by providing their email in the right hand column of the Home page.
(5) Additional Content
Software enhancements are nice, but content is king, and in the next few weeks I’m hoping to considerably expand the range of the content material published on our webzine.