I hate the idea of a comment policy. The regular readers are all intelligent enough to make any policy redundant. The tiny minority who are delusional enough to cause a problem wouldn’t seriously stop to read any comment policy anyway. But occasionally a perfectly good comment will either disappear or fail to appear. Here’s why.
I’ve been busy recently. Hopefully you’ll see the fruits of some of that work shortly, but it means I haven’t had time to write much here. One of the side-effects is that I get email pointing to something that I should blog about from a few people. For example an artefact has turned up somewhere which is really dodgy. I’d guess there’s some sort of illegal activity in its sale, but I don’t have the time to research where. Now if I had a forum I could leave it and half-a-dozen other people could have been talking about this on site. One problem though is libel.
If you’re running an auction house, Ponsonby’s for the sake of argument. If you routinely sell unprovenanced antiquities then you really rely on your reputation. You don’t need people pointing out that a large number of Puglian vases you sell are likely to have been illegally excavated from Italy (up to 95% of such vases according to one estimate). Nor do you need people highlighting that there’s a cottage industry in producing fake Mycenaean figurines. Basically, the biggest guarantee that this stuff is a sound investment is your word and your reputation.
If someone blogs on Puglian vases generally, that’s a problem but reacting to it is a bad idea because it drags your name into an argument about sleaze. If it’s documented that you’ve handled stolen goods and a blogger mentions this it’s still a bad idea to legally respond — you’d be reported on widely for legal threats over something which is obviously true. You’d eventually silence the blogger, because the blogger wouldn’t be able to afford to defend the case, but you’d be slaughtering your own reputation in the process. So a forum would be a place where you could discuss this and help reduce the value of illicit antiquities without damaging the market for legal artefacts. But there’s a problem when you start discussing motive.
Sooner or later someone will point out that Ponsonby’s routinely handles illicit material. It’s entirely human to speculate that if a new undocumented Puglian vase turns up, Ponsonby’s know it’s probably been excavated by organised crime. That’s human, reasonable and actionable. At that point you’re assigning guilt to Ponsonby’s and damaging their reputation by saying they’re knowingly engaging in criminal action by fencing stolen goods. Now they have a case worth winning, because when they win it will be clearing them of criminal activity and enhancing their reputation — ironically making them very attractive to anyone else who wants to launder artefacts.
That’s why I don’t have a forum. Someone acting sensibly and reasonably would eventually put me in a position where I’d have to start deleting comments because I’d be held legally accountable for whatever snookums538 posted on the site. It might seem like paranoid, but it’s justified paranoia.
For example Martin Schøyen has some incantation bowls from the Middle East. David Gill and Sam Hardy both mentioned a debate in the House of Lords earlier this week. An investigation has stated they were probably illegally removed from Iraq despite being, in a very real and legal sense, the property of Mr Martin Schøyen. I’ve blogged in the past about how much these are very much Martin Schøyen’s property. In fact he has my sympathy as the fact that the investigation into the origins of these bowls was suppressed, by persons unknown, could lead someone to mistakenly think something a bit dodgy is going on. It’s definitely not. I know Mr Schøyen is a fine upstanding citizen because when I emailed asking for a copy of the report he didn’t reply — thus keeping to this out of court settlement.
I sent the email after getting a comment from a publicist for the Schøyen Collection. I wrote a blog post which made it clear the bowls were 100% legally the property of Martin Schøyen. I linked to a newspaper article which made it clear that Mr Schøyen had done nothing wrong in any way because the bowls were entirely and unquestionably legally his. The comment, first after the post, might not be quite as positive as mine, but it shows that even on a minor blog art collectors take their reputations very seriously. But what would happen if someone posted something libellous as a comment? This is why I use comment moderation, currently via Disqus.
Comment moderation is essential for a blog as anyone who’s run one will tell you. For every comment by a real person, there’s about four by automated systems. These can come in storms. For example a post about the British Chiropractic Association has recently had at least 250 spamming attempts in the past twenty-four hours. Without some form of spamguard I’d be getting swamped by junk comments. Not all of these comments are going to be GET P0RN HER3!!!!!!!. Some will attempt to look normal. If your computer gets whitelisted then it bypasses a lot of checks. Laura’s comment “Do you really want to know why this is a terrible idea? Ask an immunologist.” has given me some problems. It could be genuine and immunologists might be opposed to extrasolar astronomy. However the non-sequitur suggests someone hasn’t read the article, so it could be an attempt by a spam computer to pass as normal. Allowing the comment to stand marks out a security hole in this site and maybe that’s why the number of spam attempts has rocketed. I’ve contacted the email associated with the comment asking if it’s genuine and got no reply. That’s why I’m deleting it. Another common feature if spam posts is that they have a lot of links. There’s often good reason to include links in comments, you’d want to point to some other information maybe. But because of spammers Disqus counts the links and deletes. Anything above two links is probably going to be deleted.
I don’t like doing that because if someone’s taken the effort to type something in then that’s kind of them. It’s clear I don’t agree with Scott Monahan. I’ve never known a department with a ‘departmental grant writer’, but maybe they do things differently in America. I accept that there’s always going to be someone who knows where Atlantis is, or who really settled the Americas. If they want to share that enthusiasm that’s great, just so long as they don’t think I’m obliged to take them seriously. Besides the great thing about taking comments from people who disagree with you is that occasionally you learn something.
If your comment doesn’t appear here, it’s quite possible it’s down to some reason that’s not your fault. If I’ve pointed you here that’s all you need to know. This is why, especially if I like your comments, I recommend setting up your own weblog. So why bring this up now? Well I’ve been visited by one of the special people on the internet.