Comment behaviour: How far is too far?

by Mathew on November 18, 2009 · 94 comments

Updated:

Kurt Greenbaum has apologized for overreacting in his original response to this incident, although he doesn’t explicitly say that he is sorry for calling the school and indirectly causing someone to lose their job.

As someone whose job involves thinking about our social-media policies and our approach to comment behaviour, I’m always looking at what other newspapers and media outlets are doing, and today I came across a case that crossed a line — for me, at least — in terms of how to deal with problem commenters. It involved a vulgar comment made by a user at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website, and the response by the site’s director of social media, Kurt Greenbaum.

According to Greenbaum’s blog post (which was mirrored on his personal blog), someone posted a comment on a story in which they used a colloquial or slang term for female genitalia. It was deleted, but then was reposted. Greenbaum says he noticed that the comment alert from WordPress showed that it came from a nearby school. So Greenbaum called the school, and they asked him to send them the email with the comment, which he apparently did. About six hours later, he says, the school called and said that an employee had been confronted and that he had resigned.

Am I the only one who thinks that doing this goes way beyond the normal course of editorial behaviour? I’ve been moderating blog comments and story comments for several years now, both as a blogger and as the Globe and Mail’s social-media editor (or Communities Editor, as we call the job), and there is no way that I would contact someone’s workplace about a comment unless they had done something extremely egregious — such as making death threats, or repeatedly making abusive comments.

We’ve had hundreds or even thousands of such comments, most of which are much worse than the one Greenbaum is talking about, and I have never contacted someone’s workplace, even when it was obvious that the person in question worked for the federal government.

I know I’m not the only one to see Greenbaum’s behaviour as over-the-top, because a number of people agreed with me on Twitter when I asked the same question, and just as many or more took the social-media editor to task in the comments on his blog post. One commenter said:

“You guys don’t like moderating so you call his work and get him fired. Nice. Happy holidays.”

to which Greenbaum replied:

“Yeah, you caught me! I made him log on to his computer at work, visit STLtoday.com’s Talk of the Day, read the item, type a vulgarity and hit the “submit” key. Interesting perspective. Thanks for your contribution.”

Other readers said:

“What an abuse of power, Mr. Greenbaum!!! So is the Post Dispatch now a Gestapo Agent? What a sick and terrible thing you did to this employee in an economy where he probably doesn’t stand a chance in getting another job! I recommend that YOU get fired for abuse of power!!!!! See how YOU feel!!!”

and

“YOU are the director of social media? tools to be leveraged to get businesses closer to their customers? what an awful story and it’s even more embarassing that you squawk about it after the fact. the lesson is: be careful StlToday website visitors – never know when a bored employee will pursue some bizarre investigation that could cost you your job.”

and Greenbaum replies:

“Defend the guy who posted the vulgarity all you want. I’m not regulating someone’s thought. He can think whatever he wants. I’m moderating our boards. Follow our guidelines and this won’t be a problem for any of you. Remember, I said it was a school, right? It could have been a student. I didn’t know who it was. I just thought the school might like to know about it. I sleep fine at night.”

What do you think of what Greenbaum did in this case? Did he overstep his bounds as the moderator of the St. Louis Today site, or do you think he was justified in what he did? Let me know in the comments.

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