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Weekend reading: A new comment policy to promote on-topic discussion

Weekend reading: A new comment policy to promote on-topic discussion post image

Fair warning! This long article involves comment etiquette and moderation on Monevator. Yawn! Most of you don’t comment, and many don’t read comments. You can safely ignore it.

Fun fact: You are reading the oldest investing blog in the UK, according to a new directory from Rockstar Finance.

We kicked off back in 2007. This was before the financial crisis and in a very different world where bankers were still assumed to be masters of money, UK politics was thought to have moved decisively leftwards – and the overwhelming majority of Britons, including the professionals, believed it was best to invest your money with active funds.

Younger readers might be surprised to hear that last one. But as Tadas Viskanta pointed out this week, it’s only recently that indexing has become to the masses the sort of no-brainer that even Homer Simpson would slap his head with a “Doh!”

Passive investors used to be the outsiders. Statistically, index funds still represent a minority in terms of funds invested, even in the US. But the momentum – and the mind share – is clear.

I’m proud of the small part we’ve played in this revolution in the UK.

However it also presents a problem for a multi-hued site like Monevator.

The last war

It’s many years now since I found myself battling persistent commenters – borderline trolls, really – endlessly repeating that the market was overvalued and that passive investors were going to be toast because they didn’t use cyclically-adjusted investing methods to allocate capital.

Or else that this, that, or the other active fund managed to beat the market over the past 10 years, and so the whole passive investing superiority thing was a myth.

Eventually I had to ban two of these individuals. I even removed a bunch of archived comments from one, when I decided he was partly hitting the site repeatedly for self-publicity.

Their comments were misleading, dangerous, and they rarely seemed to read the articles, or acknowledge the caveats. Worse, they ignored explanations from myself or @TA. They just repeated the same stuff the next time we posted.

Enough was enough.

People often cry “censorship!” when you delete comments. But you don’t labour away at a website to try to inform others year after year, only to see it derailed by 20-second quips from random strangers.

I have seen numerous sites ruined by an anything goes approach to discussion. And the comment sections of the mainstream papers are essentially unreadable. Indeed from my perspective, the UK made a foolish choice last year and the US a substantially more ludicrous one partly because of unmediated opinion and often incorrect information relentlessly propagated on the Internet.

So my site, my rules. Hence I’ve always been happy to censor, to try to foster a sustainable and informed community. (Writing long-winded articles strewn with multi-syllable words sets the bar high for trolls, too!)

26,459 comments and counting

If you leave aside the political discussions – which reliably bring out racists, xenophobes, and the abusive – I’ve not actually chosen to delete many comments over the years.

There is a constant flow of spam or similar that is both automatically and manually blocked from ever making it onto the site.

Back when it comes to comments from readers, back out Brexit and the aforementioned trolls and you’re probably talking just four or five deleted comments a month.

But it’s still a fair bit of work. There are now over 26,000 comments on this site, and I’ve read at least 25,000 of them. All new commenters need to be manually approved, as do comments with certain other traits. On top of that I check into the active comments five or six times a day to see how things are progressing.

The reward has been a very high standard of discussion by any measure. Articles like the broker table have particularly benefited from consistent reader input. But readers often say they find nuggets in other feedback, too.

Sure, it’s not perfect. There’s the reader who until recently has griped within minutes of every new article for more than five years. Another patronizing fellow who is so irritating that – true fact – he has prompted three or four others to email asking me to implement a ‘block this person’ feature.

Also I have a pretty good memory (and obviously a proprietorial interest) which means I remember things some regulars say better than they do.

All of which means that I know I seem to fly off the handle at some seemingly innocuous comments sometimes. You’d have to have read the previous 26,469 comments to know why!

By and by though we’ve rubbed along – with one glaring and growing exception.

Active angst

This takes me back to the start of the article. You see, the persecuted have become the persecutors, from my perspective as someone who has a wide (fanatic) interest in all kinds of investing.

And who invests actively, unlike my co-blogger TA.

Final quick bit of history. We used to always post our passive articles on a Tuesday, and more active or off-the-wall articles on a Thursday. But with The Accumulator spending so much time writing his book these past two years, that routine has been blurred.

This probably hasn’t helped what’s increasingly frustrating to me, which is – to paraphrase – that whenever we post anything that isn’t “buy a global tracker fund” we get a barrage of comments saying “buy a global tracker fund.”

Things came to a head on Thursday, when The Greybeard shared his thoughts on using investment trusts instead of income-generating ETFs to provide a retirement income. His previous articles have explained why he prefers to focus on natural yield to selling down capital. This one was about the mechanics.

We have debated why many times on his previous articles. Most non-fundamentalists can see it comes down to personal choice. The article was not claiming that income investment trusts were preferable to passive funds for all investors, or total return index beaters or anything like that.

It was taking as granted the notion – as I say, debated before and widely understood in the financial world – that many people prefer a hands-off approach to income in their older years, if they can afford it. It’s something I intend to do. And it was exploring the options.

Well, out came the fundamentalist arguments, for the nth time. That anything but selling capital was irrational or stupid. Worse, even when I politely asked people to desist, they kept coming.

Even when the author of the article pointed out they were attacking a straw man. And even when I asked again!

My memory doesn’t help here. As I say, I know in several cases exactly the same people have derailed the last few times we tried to explore this topic, too.

You might say “so what?” But you perhaps do not have experience of moderating discussion on the Internet. Repeating the same point of view over again crowds out any on-topic or nuanced discussion. And this is what happened again.

It’s tricky, because unlike the active-championing trolls of yesteryear, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the views being expressed. Nor are the people anything like abusive – they are trying to be constructive, I know that. The regulars involved are smart and well-informed.

But their comments were still unhelpful – on THAT post – from my point of view of trying to have a vibrant site that discusses all aspects of investing.

I say potato, you say passive investing

Several years ago I suggested to The Accumulator that we might make Monevator passive-only, as that was clearly where we’d established a foothold and where the need was greatest.

Surprisingly to me, he urged we kept things as they were. Besides my own clear interest in other stuff, he said he found the active articles interesting – it wasn’t like they were saying “buy this winning fund and double your money!” – and he thought a passive-only site would be dull and stagnant.

I decided he was right. As an aside, one of the reasons the regulars are notable is because most people come to Monevator, learn about indexing, buy their ETFs or LifeStrategy or whanot, and then disappear. (Thinking about it, that probably explains why those who return seem the most determined wing of passive investors.)

Anyway we didn’t go passive-only. Yet I still curbed my own active output, despite requests to do otherwise. I never really write about shares here any more, for example, and only rarely about collective vehicles or active strategies. The cognitive dissonance for the site and for readers, and the resulting comments isn’t very fruitful. (A reader asked me the other day why I don’t write about my own active investing in more detail. Gallows humour, I presume).

However the comments on Thursday’s post was a camel and straw situation.

Perhaps the site shouldn’t have different kinds of content on it for different readers, but it does. And there’s no point doing so if one group is going to repeatedly jam up conversation about the points raised with their own – tangential at best – perspectives.

I mean, virtually every article I’ve ever written about active investing includes a prominent pointer to our passive archives! This site is 75% passive, and clearly and regularly says that’s the best first port of call for nearly everyone. That’s good enough for me.

Off-topic? Then out it goes

So starting this week or next – when I hope to resume our series on dividend investing from my old friend The Analyst – I am going to delete comments on Thursday posts that I deem off-topic.

In time I hope to find a plug-in that will simplify letting readers know why the comment has been deleted. But I haven’t had time to explore this yet, and so it’s just going to be a nuking.

I’ve tried engaging and requesting and it doesn’t work.

This move will only directly affect the approximately 0.05% of readers who comment. But it will also affect those who read the comments, both positively and negatively.

Specifically it will definitely involve deleting stuff that isn’t technically incorrect, but which in my opinion is off-topic.

An analogy would be if a camping magazine saw its articles followed up every time by comments extolling the virtues of living in a house. Sure, houses are great. But it was an article about camping.

I know this isn’t ideal, and as I say this is a very different problem from the trolling or whatnot you get online. I like nearly all the readers who would have been affected by this new deleting policy on The Greybeard post.

But I have to try something. And so apologies in advance then for any feathers ruffled.

Have a good weekend!

From the blogs

Making good use of the things that we find…

Passive investing

Active investing

Other articles

Product of the week: The first products have been cleared for the new Innovative Finance ISA, some offering returns of 12%. As The Guardian asks, what’s the catch? Risks, my dear boy, risks.

Mainstream media money

Some links are Google search results – in PC/desktop view these enable you to click through to read the piece without being a paid subscriber of that site.1

Passive investing

  • Warren Buffett is encouraging more passive investing – Bloomberg
  • It’s probably a bad idea to sell stocks because you fear Trump – New York Times
  • Keep calm and stay invested [Search result]FT
  • Research Affiliates tool shows what Smart Beta is overvalued [Interactive]R.A.
  • …and Rob Arnott says you’ll be sorry for ignoring Smart Beta warnings – Bloomberg

Active investing

  • Dutch high-speed trader hasn’t lost money in ETFs since 2014 – Bloomberg
  • Unilever rejects $143bn Kraft Heinz takeover bid [Search result]FT
  • Emerging market ETFs and the jaws of death [Search result]FT
  • 2017 ISA tips: How to achieve a 5% income – Telegraph

A word from a broker

Other stuff worth reading

  • Pension savers urged to be vigilant on exit fees [Search result]FT
  • We should keep the buy-to-let tax hike. It might be working – ThisIsMoney
  • You share a marriage, but do you share financial secrets? [Search result]FT
  • Even after price rises, traveling to shop in US or Europe doesn’t add up – Guardian
  • Bank offers to repay first-time buyer stamp duty. Good deal? – Telegraph
  • Becoming Warren Buffett [Documentary]HBO / YouTube
  • What French revolutionaries learned about new currencies [Podcast]Bloomberg
  • Bill Gates would tax robots – Quartz
  • Wikipedia is dying a death of a thousand cuts – Boing Boing

Book of the week: 13-year old investor Maya Peterson was recently asked by Google to talk to its investor group. Pretty cool. Sadly the Google lecture is not online, but you can watch what’s essentially the same talk on her blog. Maya and her father have also written a book about investing – A Very Long Hill – which costs just £2.65 on Amazon. Friend of Monevator Todd Wenning says: “Anyone interested in teaching today’s youth about investing should grab a copy.”

Like these links? Subscribe to get them every week!

  1. Note some articles can only be accessed through the search results if you’re using PC/desktop view (from mobile/tablet view they bring up the firewall/subscription page). To circumvent, switch your mobile browser to use the desktop view. On Chrome for Android: press the menu button followed by “Request Desktop Site”. []

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{ 60 comments… add one }
  • 51 Malcolm Beaton February 22, 2017, 10:17 am

    Hi-can I endorse all the appreciative comments and and add mine!
    Now a passive investor of some years but I only came to that position through my active investing trials and tribulations
    I came to realise that I was not very good at it. Wayne Buffet and Charlie Munger I am not!
    All investing however is a continual learning process.It is such an interesting subject especially if you have “skin in the game”
    Even passive investors have to keep on top of their investments-asset allocation,costs etc
    Reading constantly around the subject of investing-active/passive keeps me sharp.
    Reading fine blogs like this does the buisness
    I remember getting out of Equitable Life intact through a Motley Fool blog-sadly no longer with us
    This Blog fills a critical role keeping us up to the mark and well informed
    Especially important now as more of us do our own finances/ investing
    Keep up the good work-we need you!

  • 52 Malcolm Beaton February 22, 2017, 10:57 am

    Apologies-Warren Buffet!

  • 53 Al February 23, 2017, 10:22 am

    Imagine that you notice that Monevator is no longer appearing in Google searches. Eventually, after receiving nothing but automated responses to your increasingly indignant enquiries, a fan of Monevator (and an employee of Google), contacts you privately to tell you that she knows why your posts have been removed. In short, your views on passive investment are devaluing Google’s active investments; your content is costing the business money. And so, with the implementation of their new algorithm (‘Putins-a-Penguin’), your site is no longer ranked. It is futile complaining, she says: Pichai’s mantra is “I run it; I call it.” And, what’s more, ultimately he argues that this in the best interests of users: because without investments, Google cannot run; and without Google, “they’d be stuck with Yahoo!”

    My thinly-vailed parable highlights a few issues raised by your post.

    1. Ownership. In one sense, of course, the website belongs to the owner and the owner gets to call the shots (within the boundaries of what is lawful). However, on the other hand, there is a sense in which websites belong to the readers. As the comments of your Monevator readers highlight, the blog is a fixture of their reading week; they feel affection and attachment to it; it is like a member of their family (some might say their only friend); others have invested hours of their otherwise meaningless lives posting hundreds of comments. Does this give them rights? Legally, Copyright Law recognises that authorship does confer rights, unless this is waved. Morally, the sense of injustice that you might feel if Google removed your listing, would also suggest there is a moral case to be made: one might feel that Google has in some sense profited from your work (no one reads Google as an end in itself) and is therefore accountable or at least responsible to you as the producer of quality blog content. It also purports to provide users with a service and not just exist for its own benefit, like Monevator.

    2. Freedom. Some of the comments on your post highlight a common underlying, erroneous belief about the internet: that it is a democratic space (or at least more democratic than previous media forms). Of course it is the case that the internet allows consumers to become publishers – we can (and enthusiastically do) share our ignorance on Monevator. But websites are subject to rules, be that at the hands of an automated bot or an old school flesh-and-blood moderator, like The Investor. They can be more easily censored compared to previous forms. Information is commonly prioritised according to what is popular and pays, rather than what is necessarily true. Some would therefore argue that the internet has its own internal dynamics that often actually stifles important contrarian truths. For, as it was said by Michael Polanyi (the philosopher and scientist) in the face of the threat of communist totalitarianism, freedom is very important for both science and art, because freedom is a necessary condition for creativity. And, of course, it is those creative, contrarian gadflies that cause Copernican revolutions, including shifts from active to passive investing.

    3. Transparency & Consistency. The democratic façade of the internet also raises the issue of transparency. It is often not clear what editorial or algorithmic filters are applied to the information we read online. Google is notoriously secretive about such things; Monevator is thankfully not so cagey. But will future blog-dippers stumble upon this post and realise how their interactions are being selectively edited, before spending precious time investing in comments that maybe deleted? There is also an issue of consistency. I am sure that most would agree that abuse and spam negatively affects the reading experience (although spammers might argue that it is a valuable investment stream that we should try!); some would see the value of deleting ‘annoying’ posts (as long as it is not them); but if the moral principle of selection is utilitarian, reader usability, then (and forgive the cheeky challenge) why not also delete the obsequious posts that praise Monevator. These are also off-topic and prevent the flow of discussion, even if they benefit the authors’ sense of self-worth and reduce their counselling bill (I also love you guys, BTW).

    I didn’t set out to write a essay or sermon, and forgive me if I have repeated what others have said (I tend to avert my eyes when confronted by bare-faced backslapping, whether in the comments section of blogs or the basements of Russian Saunas). But may I use this (limited) democratic space to make the following pleas to you fine gentlemen.

    i. Allow the contrarians to keep posting (rather than delete their comments), even though they are irritating. I think it is better to answer objections once, and then refer back to previous comments with a link, as you have been doing. Patience in the face of objection could actually be a wise investment and result in Monevator being at the vanguard of the next investment revolution (‘Catatonic Investing’?) with all the financial rewards.

    ii. Be as hard on the Praisers as the Pests, they also affect the reading experience. Maybe you could invest in a bot that emails such well-intentioned people to thank them for their kind words and suggest that they make a donation to your retirement fund as they have benefited so much (that will soon stop them)!

    iii. Continue to be transparent in your editorial policy. What about having a brief statement with a link to your editorial policy in your comment section, along with your current investment disclaimer link?

    One of the things that I have appreciated about you chaps is that you do read and graciously respond to your readers’ comments (as I discovered the first and last time that I posted, which resulted in you changing in your linking strategy). Thanks again.

    Much love to you, and all Global Tracker Lovers

  • 54 The Investor February 23, 2017, 12:58 pm

    @Al — Thanks for your extensive comments and thoughts, which I’m going to reply to more briefly because, well, there’s only one of me. 🙂

    As a precocious user of Internet newsgroups since before there was the World Wide Web, I recognize these sentiments. Unfortunately the experiment has failed, at least on the current outing, IMHO, and democratizing comment and access to all without restraint has, in my personal opinion, created a sh*tstorm of which irritating people on investment blogs are the least of it. I’d turn off comments here before I stopped moderating them. In fact I’d turn off the blog before I stopped moderating them!

    I have journalist friends and their rule is simply to never read below the article line — on their own articles or others. That’s where the general level of conversation on the Internet has got us.

    All that said, your use of the word “contrarians” might mean we’re at cross-purposes. I haven’t got a problem with intelligent, reasoned, and on-topic differing views. I certainly don’t delete those on-sight, and I’m not proposing to. (Your own comment here is a case in point! 🙂 )

    And I would also stress again deletion is not commonplace. I’ve just done some sums, and leaving aside the oceans of spam auto-rebuffed I would estimate far fewer than 0.02% of comments submitted have been manually deleted. In most of those cases, a few hardcore people knew what they were doing, and their comments ramp the numbers up.

    What I have a problem with — besides general rudeness, racism, whatever — is off-topic comments that derail on-topic conversation, futile repetition, spammy-style comments, people who want to just say something without apparently reading the article or noting its caveats, and errors that I have to either let stand and confuse other people or correct (or delete). The more recent contentious stuff like (a) active investors endlessly bemoaning passive or (b) vice-versa in posts about say (a) getting the lowest fees or (b) investment trusts for income, it doesn’t add value. But I’m not speedy to actually delete and usually semi-successfully get by with a desist request (last week being a notable exception).

    Anyway, that’s where the moderation happens.

    As for deleting nice comments, ha ha, you must be joking. 🙂 The reason Monevator is still extant is because, as I said above, people have never been so vocally nice about anything else I’ve done. We don’t do it for the money/business, which long ago undershot even my pessimistic assumptions. It turns out creating a blog with inaccessible post-graduate level writing (according to online tools) that encourages smart people not to waste their money on nonsense, and to invest in tracker funds then go off and do something else instead — it’s not great for business. Who knew? As the kids say.

    So while it does these days make enough money to justify the time, it doesn’t to justify the effort. What does justify the effort is the feeling that people are getting lots of value out of it, and I’m all for them telling me every day, twice if possible. (Traffic figures are irrelevant, every day sites like this lose more time and visits to others promising we won’t believe what this celebrity looks like after her latest plastic surgery, etc).

    Besides, I’m human and proud of it, and the nasty comments and emails need offsetting. (You know how losses are twice as painful as gains, right?) Just recently I’ve separately been called a traitor, told to go to Europe if I love it so much, told to go to Syria if I love it so much, accused of a “dummy spit” whatever that is, and urged to seek counseling because I’m having a nervous breakdown. And things are quiet at the moment! 🙂

    I’m grateful people come here to read, and that they share our stuff. There are plenty of constructive and useful comments, too.

    But my blog, and it’s a benign dictatorship.

  • 55 Al February 23, 2017, 6:19 pm

    @Investor – Thanks for your response.

    I agree!

    Total Internet freedom doesn’t work for precisely the reasons that you state. Paradoxically, to flourish, I think freedom of expression requires limiting structures (like moderation); and implementing those structures is costly (like taking time, effort, and even suffering abuse).

    The interesting question is where one draws lines. I think it is good for bloggers to be transparent about this judgement, as you have been.

    What prompted my post was my impression that you were tightening up your editorial policy; whereas I felt your practice, in the past, had produced (unusually) good content with robust, and mainly helpful, debate in the comments section.

    I have actually found helpful some of your interactions with ‘irritating’ posts – I dip in-and-out of the blog so haven’t necessarily read the same comment hundreds of times like you, and therefore I read your response with interest and, often, a smile! Tangents have also sometimes given me some good leads; Gold is found in slurry.

    So really I was saying, “Monevator’s good; I hope you keep it as it is.”

    Having said all that, if I were subjected to the abuse that you mention, I would probably want to draw some new lines in the sand – that is very unpleasant. Also Monevator is your site, and I would be the first to raise a glass to you publishing content as you wish – and to you getting all the good wishes that hard work deserves!

    My light-hearted pokes about ownership and consistency were not a personal criticism and reveal more about my interest in Internet ethics. It is important area of discussion – but not to be had here!

    Thanks again.

  • 56 PC February 24, 2017, 10:57 am
  • 57 Al February 25, 2017, 10:26 am

    @PC. Google would no doubt have us believe that their programme is the solution to our commenting problems! But Artificial Intelligence is a long way off being able to make the subtle judgments that The Investor lists above. And if one’s principle is “my blog, my rules” (which I would defend, with caveats), one might not want the cold, hard consistency of a computer making judgements – it might delete The Praisers, as well as The Pests! Dictatorships are unaccountable and inconsistent by nature because of their ultimate commitment to the capricious ‘self’ (and which dictator doesn’t view their rule as benign?). That is why the American Fathers insisted that freedom requires not just good structures but also virtuous citizens and leaders. And I am sure Donald Trump would be the first to argue that the same principle should be applied to the media, including to the contributors of Monevator. And I would agree!

  • 58 PC February 25, 2017, 11:19 am

    Well yes, I’m pretty skeptical .. you only need to look at some of the Kaggle competitions to see how hard this sort of thing is – for example https://www.kaggle.com/c/sentiment-analysis-on-movie-reviews

  • 59 PC March 3, 2017, 10:00 am

    I quite like this idea – pass a quiz to comment ..

  • 60 The Investor March 3, 2017, 1:59 pm

    @PC — Hah, that’s awesome.

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