Can $5 Improve Reader Comments?

On the Web site thatsaspicymeatball, you can view the latest comments from MetaFilter (which requires a one-time, $5 membership fee to post a comment) and YouTube (free) side by side.

The site’s creator, Bertrand, uses Yahoo Pipes to retrieve comments from the most recent posts on both sites and displays them on one page, which is updated every hour or so.

Here’s how a poster from each site expresses disagreement:


And here’s where we diverge, as we have from the get-go …


yeah you’re dumb you expect me to shut up because you tell me to? ha yeah sure

And as a comparison, the Huffington Post (no membership fee to comment):

… I forgive your comments, because it is based on ignorance. Here are the facts.

Bertrand’s comparisons leave him wondering what drives the quality of a Web site’s comments: is it the membership fee, the age or demographics of the posters, or the level of comment moderation? (YouTube has virtually none, while MetaFilter has very little.)

Maybe the answer lies in what motivates readers to comment in the first place.

(Hat tip: Paul K.)


NB - I am user member #16,946 on MeFi. I signed up near 2003, when membership was still free, and before there were moderators. (the site started in 1999) So almost 17,000 people were around having educated conversations before any of those alleged crowd control measures were in place. That culture is why I signed up.

Josh Millard

Absolutely; as I said above, the existince of an established userbase with a sense of the culture and mores of the the community is a big part of the stability of e.g. Metafilter as compared to a more driveby, comments-as-afterthought situation.

To be clear, though, there certainly was moderation in the first few years of the site; it was solely Matt doing all the work, but the site did not run itself nor was it free from administrative intervetion on his part at the comment and the thread level. That he established a model of light-touch approach to moderation is a big part of the administrative slice of mefi culture, and a good thing.


I check YouTube comments when I want to know what song is playing or whether anybody knows if this is for real. They're not awful, there are just way too many of them. Same as here -- I usually don't read the comments here before I post or come back to see if anyone answered me.


Last time I checked, Metafilter also had a policy that registrations were held for seven days before you could post anything. Which definitely cuts down on the drivebys.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Josh Millard is right. Aside from basic site hygiene maneuvers like staving off idiotic drive-bys and banning intransigent trolls, the biggest determinant of signal-to-noise ratio is the existence and quality of the site's culture, its community norms, and the emergence of a population of long-term users.

Site culture jells early, and is hard to change thereafter. A forum needs a lot of initial tending if a good culture is going to form. Once it's there, the simple fact that it exists will do a lot to configure the behavior and expectations of newbies coming in. You'll also get a lot of the day-to-day maintenance being done by regulars who have a sense of investment in the site.

What you can't do is lay down a set of rules at the start, exercise no other guidance, and complain when a predictable fraction of your users misbehave. (I'm looking at you, Washington Post.) Some trolls can't help being trolls. Others like being trolls. Either way, no rule set ever created is going to make them behave.

What kicks in then is Gresham's Law of Forums: trolls don't mind hanging out in well-run and well-behaved forums; but civil, well-behaved commenters won't hang around on a forum full of trolls -- and it doesn't take many trolls to fill a forum. The bad participants will start driving the good ones out, and the fence-sitter participants will feel encouraged to misbehave because they see the hardcore trolls getting away with it.

There is no substitute for knowledgeable human attention.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Community manager,
Editor & moderator,


carl anderson

just saw your new ad-best journalists write for the times-ya like jason blair? keep up the slanted good work!