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I've been out of the office for a few days and one of the first things brought to my attention upon my arrival this afternoon was the comments section on our site.

Yes. The comments section.

So what was the problem? Comments left on a story about a local business that had a fire early this morning. The comments got so bad the entire comment thread for that story was shut down. The section was closed before I came in, but I did read a few of the comments which were removed. They weren't very nice. Not being able to comment on the fire story, a blog was then posted about the fire and once again it was a free-for-all in the comments section. Many comments reflected anger over the comments that were deleted, but other comments went back again to bashing the establishment affected by the fire.

So what was the big deal? Why can't people express their opinions about a business? Isn't this a free country? Is the Vicad getting free quesadillas each time we remove a comment or something?

The problem was that some of the comments were just plain mean. Some comments expressed sadness that the fire had not completely destroyed the restaurant. Really? Seriously? Don't get me wrong, I've experienced bad service at some places in my time, but never would I wish destruction to a place.

I really don't think the ones who posted such comments were serious about wishing the place would burn down. At least I hope not, I like to think the best of people. Perhaps some of our commenters use this forum as a stress-reliever. (That's me being optimistic.)

However, that said, we don't allow for such comments that are hateful in nature, mean or nasty. That is the reason why the comments were closed on the fire story, and why the blog was taken down. For a full listing of our online guidelines go here: Victoria Advocate user policy.

When it comes to the comments on our site, we like the way the St. Louis Post Dispatch has set up their commenting guidelines. One of their guidelines uses what is called the Living Room Rule. This rule, adapted from blogger Shel Israel, which I have taken directly from StLouis.com states:
If you come into our home and behave rudely to a guest, we'll ask you to stop. If you continue, we'll ask you to leave. Basically, the living room rule means that you should behave as if you're in our living room. Don't monopolize the conversation.

Their second and third guidelines state:
2. Pretend your mom is in the room. Messages containing intentionally misleading or false information, defamatory content, threats, verbal abuse, harassment, obscenity or personal information about other individuals are not allowed. And that includes avatars. Offensive avatars will be deleted.

3. Remember, everyone here is a person, just like you. Treat them as you'd want to be treated.


That last guideline is one we seem to forget online. Maybe it's because we are behind our keyboards and screens, and that name with the tiny picture next to a comment means nothing to us. But behind that username is a real person, and the people in our stories are real people, with feelings. No one likes to get called names to their face, why would they like it online? And why would we allow those comments on our site?

I'm not saying we all have to hold hands and sing folk songs in here. We report on things that are not all nice and warm and fuzzy, so of course people are going to have opinions and disagree with each other on certain topics. We aren't going to agree on everything. This world is not perfect and neither are we.

But is it too difficult to be civil to each other, not only in real life, but online too?

We're not here to censor, but when comments break our rules, they will be removed. We also don't have someone who reads all the comments before they are posted, nor do we have a person dedicated to reading all comments. For this reason we ask members of our online community to report comments they see in violation of our policy. Once a comment is reported, an e-mail is sent to the staff members moderating our Web site, the reported comment is reviewed and removed if necessary.

True, the comments section can be abused, but they can also be a valuable resource to many. We have received various news tips, as well as comments letting us know when we've posted incorrect information. We've also seen the comments section turn into a place where condolences were posted during times of tragedy, or when congratulations were left during happy times. It's not always perfect, but with your help it can be better.

See you online.

(And no, we don't get free quesadillas.)

And please, don't flame me, bro.