The exhibition House of Oracles closed here at the Walker a few weeks ago (it opened at Mass MoCA March 18). The exhibition was generally well received by local and national press and also generated several lengthy blog posts on the Visual Arts Blog. One, titled The Herpetology of Huang, sparked an impassioned string of comments that exposed our blog’s potential to amplify negative publicity. Since this is a concern for many people starting blogs and a point we are going to address in our workshop later this week, I thought I’d outline how we dealt with it and what we are doing going forward.
The issue under discussion was animals used in the exhibition. While there were several live and dead animals shown in the gallery, one work in particular, Theater of the World, acted as a lightning rod for attention. Theater of the World contains animals that for the most part coexist peacefully, although crickets do get eaten. Phillipe Vergne, chief curator at the Walker, said in an interview with Amy Carlson Gustafson of the Pioneer Press:
It’s a community living together … The piece raises a lot of sociological questions. There’s morbid fascination. There’s no reason to hide that it is a difficult piece.
Some genuine differences of opinion showed up as a flurry of upset comments on our blog. I’m not trying to open that topic back up here, but I would like to discuss the discussion itself. Most people in any organization are sensitive to bad publicity and when we made our website open for public feedback we were prepared to receive some negative responses. Preparations were made for proper care of the animals, the process was documented, and the staff was ready to explain that process, but it was hard to know what to expect. This was the first time we had such a potentially controversial show in the galleries while our blogs were up. We do want open, constructive conversations on our blogs, and disagreements are certainly welcome and expected, but that doesn’t mean we wanted to host a belligerent flame war on our site. The little tuft of comments about Theater of the World couldn’t be called a flame war, but it did show how much of our time and technical resources might get consumed by a rampant comment string. We’ve been thinking it over and we have some general advice for any organization facing this problem now or deciding how to deal with it in the future.
The first step is the most obvious: be aware of the discussion. There are several people on the Walker staff who subscribe to an RSS feed for every comment posted on any of our blogs. So if a string of comments pop up, any one of us can start thinking about how or if to respond.
Second, don’t put your foot in your mouth, and don’t get into a fight. It can be tempting to fire off a fast reply on your blog, but keep in mind a lot of people could potentially read this later (even years later) and your reply is as much for them as it is for the person behind the comment that pissed you off. Any way you handle it, remember the people commenting on your site are not risking their reputation with an angry comment, but anyone signing for the Walker could be held accountable, by the blog-reading public if by no one else.
If a string of comments gets rolling, don’t feel like you have to respond to every single one. You can let several comments accumulate and respond en masse. That tends to seem less argumentative and it takes less time. A few complete responses are more informative than dozens of one liners.
You can turn off comments. We currently turn off comments after a post is a few months old. This is helpful not only to stop people from trolling old posts but if your site ever gets exposed to comment spam (say if your CAPTCHA gets hacked) then at least only a few months of posts get polluted. In truth it can take a lot of staff time to monitor and respond to comments on several years of posts so it’s good to work ahead on that one.
Keep your spam filters up to date. Most blog software allows you to keep a blacklist of terms that will automatically get marked as spam. Since installing the Walker blogs we’ve been constantly updating that list with satisfactory results. But keeping up with the spam requires someone to constantly monitor the messages that get though and adjust the list so that can be a drag on a groups work flow. When we searched for an answer we found Akismet, a collaborative filtering service that actually came with our WordPress install. We’ve been using it for several weeks and have been thrilled with the results.
Many popular blogs turn off comments altogether because it can slow a system down so much; others, afraid of creating bad press for themselves perhaps or being wary of allowing vulgar or obscene words to have space on their web server, do not allow general commenting. The text below was quoted from the Eye Level blog.
Lively discussions and different opinions are encouraged. Questionable language, off-topic comments, and flames will either be edited or deleted. Comments are moderated and will not appear on Eye Level until they have been approved.
Moderating all comments is something we discussed when the Walker Blogs went live. We decided against it because we thought it would slow down any conversations.
In answer to the question posed in this articles title I’d say if you take steps to address concerned comments reasonably any string of comments on your blog can be viewed as a success. We look at it as a chance to prove that the Walker is open minded and democratic enough respond to concerns from anyone.