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Errant ego spammers endanger Engadget solidarity

“Comment and be known”. Sparking a conversation with your readers is the most important thing a writer / blogger can do. But for some, moderating those comments and managing the personalities that use comments for their own personal digital deification can be a major challenge — as both Engadget and myself have learned…

“Comment and be known”. Sparking a conversation with your readers is the most important thing a writer / blogger can do. But for some, moderating those comments and managing the personalities that use comments for their own personal digital deification can be a major challenge — as both Engadget and myself have learned…

Engadget editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky announced his thoughts on blog comments, asking for people to:

“… keep comments clean and comfortable for everyone who wants to join in the discussion — not just the loudest of the bunch.”

I do feel for these guys, because both the writers and the developers are having to waste valuable time conjuring up tools to help normal folks and hinder the the ego spammers.

“Furthermore, we recognize that our comment system isn’t perfect, and we’re working with our developers right now to dramatically change things.”

A very diplomatic, euphemistic way of saying:

“We have some serious ego stroking idiots commenting here and we’re all trying to figure out a way of shutting them up.”

But this is the price we all pay for preserving a certain level of anonymity on the web — a shroud many use to hide behind, a shield from which they fire barbed and malicious comments, safe in the knowledge they will probably never have to answer to anyone for, least of the target of their attacks.

Rather wisely, Joshua uses the article to provide a platform for their FAQs, just to remind everyone what the Engadget house rules are.

Big media, blogging and “walled gardens”

But let’s take a step back for a moment, to a time when blogging was on the threshold of emerging as the means of engaging your readership, which would have been about two years ago. It’s at that point that I stopped writing advice and how-to articles, because the whole thing had come to a point where everything that could have been said about blogging had been said and no more could be added.

What remained was the inertia of pre-blog big media who had subscription models behind which they hid their content. Many understood the value of making the transition to a blog but didn’t quite understand that having a sign-up blockade in front of their articles would stymie the ad hoc commenters like myself.

These “walled gardens” of curated comments ensured harmony, but at the expense of a full discourse, open to everyone. Sure, many of these websites were / are free to join, but you still had to join them none the less — usernames and passwords in tow.

On reflection, I can see how some would prefer it that way, but for the smaller websites, this made little sense and only served to harm them, by limiting their readership. At this time, the Blah, Blah! Technology blog was just coming into its own and comments were still quite prized and sought after.

Today, things are mostly the same, but with a slight difference. I get lots of comments, but seldom are they constructive. So the good comments are still prized, simply because they are so rare.

The rise of the ego blogger — spam, of a different kind

Now, let’s fast forward to the present day. Engadget, confining their comments and community behind a sign-in system, have come to a conclusion that I find regrettable but ultimately inevitable. Egotism is rife in the blogosphere and for many like Engadge and Blah, Blah! Technology are just fare game — for the ego commenter, much like the ego blogger, it is perfectly acceptable to rise above the very crowd of people you’re denigrating. In fact, for most of them, it’s the only way they can rise above this crowd because they lack the talent to do so from their own abilities.

It’s a bizarre irony really, because the very people they’re insulting are also the only people who’re likely to pay attention to them. So in a very real sense, the scope of their credibility is self-limited. Thankfully.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. How so? Often, the only real difference between the technology writer and the tech’ enthusiast is time — the former are often paid to write while the latter are too busy making technology work. Other than that, they are mostly on an intellectual level footing. So who are the exceptions to this rule?

… and what rises often floats

Here I’m thinking about Perez Hilton, a man who feeds off the misfortunes of others, someone who cuts celebrities and then he, along with his crowd-sourced critics, mock them as they bleed. There is no such intellectual barrier to entry for the readership when it comes to celeb’ gossip. All are welcome.

Sadly, there are many like him, rising up and floating on top of the brown froth into which certain amongst us often must walk through, on our way to better venues on the web.

Back in late 2007, I predicted how Google’s search algorithm would come under immense pressure from social media:

“Instead of ‘Googling’ for something, we find stuff being sent to us as emails from friends, in our profiles, in a friends’ lists of favourites, or any number of user-generated websites, ‘blogs, RSS feeds, Social Networks and Social Media portals.

While we’re busying ourselves voting and commenting on this stuff, we’re not using Google’s search algorithm, and we’re not clicking on Sponsored Links, either.”

While not entirely surprising, the article attracted the unwanted attentions of the ego bloggers, who certainly weren’t going to let any sound theory they’d not thought of themselves survive long enough for others to read.

The electronic ego strokers

Despite the clarity of my article, and the fact that my prediction has, to some extent, come to pass (look at Google’s unimpressive and very late attempt at incorporating realtime search into their search results, as a perfectly illustrative example) the barrage of mostly idiotic and self-promotional ego spam continued. In the end, I pulled the plug in the comments for the article and issued a statement explaining why.

The wastrels of the world wide web

And then there are the spammers, who really don’t get it, still. Having read some of their comments to my articles, they are replying to the topic (which indicates they’re not automated messages), some of which are sound and cogent arguments, let down only by the author using links to porno websites and on-line casinos, attached to blatantly on-theme names like Lesbian Lovers or Big Mack’s Black Jack. What a total waste.

A choice

All of which brings us to the present day, at a point where I’m left with a stark decision to make. I now know I can’t continue with the current commenting system I have in place here. And if what Engadget has is no deterrent, then I may well just shut comments down all together. Either way, it’s going to be a challenging decision to make…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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