Last week, The New York Times published an article about the “bruising workplace” at Amazon. I didn’t think much of it because it seemed to only show part of the picture. It’s not hard to find a collection of people with alleged horror stories about a big company. You can find a bunch of people I’ve banned from my communities or kicked off of my staff that will regale you with tales of what a terrible human being I am.

I would be open to applying for a job at Amazon. I eyed this one, but I am not a “game industry veteran,” despite my passion for gaming. I’m a big Amazon fan, as I’ve made abundantly clear. I’m a long-term shareholder. Disclosures aside, I have been critical of them before. But for those reasons, I enjoyed reading the rebuttal written by Nick Ciubotariu, an Amazon employee. I even shared it on my social media profiles.

However, there is at least one thing he got wrong, in my opinion, and it is this quote, which was included as an update to his post:

“I tried to post it in the comments section of the New York Times article. I’m sad, but not surprised, to say it was moderated out.” (The emphasis was Ciubotariu’s, not mine).

The Sinister Comment Moderators

There is an implication here, that The New York Times comment moderators acted improperly. You can take that impropriety to be censorship, to be bias, to be in on some conspiracy against Amazon, where they aligned with editorial to silence Ciubotariu. You can take it a million ways, but at core, the premise is that his comment was removed when it shouldn’t have been and something is fishy.

When I read that, I immediately believed it to be incorrect. My guess was that what he posted was not a rebuttal, but a link to his write-up. While some of us might refer to this as “relevant content,” I’d simply refer to it as comment spam.

The reason I made that guess was because I’ve spent several hours talking with Bassey Etim, who heads comment moderation at the Times, privately and publicly. I led a panel that featured him at SXSW this year, that was about comment moderation.

I think very highly of Bassey. He’s a smart guy. The Times community desk – the team responsible comment moderation – is a separate entity from the people who write and publish content for the Times. Based upon my interactions with Bassey, I am confident that the Times moderation strategy is sound – and in the fact that there is no nefarious plan. They have published standards, and they apply them.

The Pot and the Kettle

In his piece, Ciubotariu suggests that the authors of The New York Times sought to “find ex-employees with anecdotal stories that fit in with [their] bias.” I would argue that is exactly what he did when he included those two sentences about comment moderation in his post. To infer a lack of integrity at the Times community desk, on the basis of one comment, is an anecdotal story that fits the desired narrative (corruption and bias).

What Really Happened

Bassey published a response to Ciubotariu, confirming what I had guessed was the case. “That comment was rejected because all it contained was a link to your LinkedIn post,” he wrote. “We require that Times comments contain text, not just links to outside sites, unless the comment is in reply to an informational request from another commenter.”

In the comments of Bassey’s response, Ciubotariu published a private email conversation he had with Bassey. I found Ciubotariu’s messages to Bassey to be curt and sarcastic. Putting that aside, the meat of his response was that he wrote 3 sentences, then posted the link. Bassey them quoted his actual comment, which was:

“My response to the article. I wonder whether it will make the comment wall.”

Two sentences, neither of which is a comment on the story, followed by the link. For Bassey and team, I have to believe this was pretty much a no-brainer removal, as it would be for many comment moderators. While some comment sections might allow it, that is no justification. Different communities have different social norms and policies.

The Explicit No

After Bassey (correctly) mentioned that the rejected comment didn’t include any remarks about the story itself, Ciubotariu argued that the two sentences were “text” and, therefore, should have met the standard Bassey explained when he said that comments should “contain text, not just links to outside sites.”

That’s a problematic mindset. That’s the mindset that looks at a list of bad words that aren’t allowed, sees that one word isn’t mentioned on it, and assumes that word is fine. It’s apparent that Bassey was saying that you need to actually comment on the story itself, not just use their comment section as a way to generate traffic for your blog.

But if you read Bassey’s sentence as black and white, devoid of context, then you can argue that any text included in a comment makes that comment OK. Following that logic, you could simply write the alphabet, include a link to your blog and call it a day. That’s “text” after all. If you want to read Bassey’s message that way.

When a Comment is a Comment

Thankfully, we are able to see context and even if Ciubotariu thinks he didn’t violate the letter of that policy, he violated the spirit. “… I don’t think expecting that a comment contain a comment is something controversial or that needs to be spelled out for most folks in exquisite detail,” Bassey said in a separate conversation in the comments of the post.

I think that it would be useful if the Times had this spelled out more explicitly in their comments policy, both to be clearer and because it makes it easy for Bassey and team to say, “look, there it is.” That said, there is a limit to how much it could be defined. Comment policies and community guidelines must be clear enough to provide some basic guidance, but also leave enough room for interpretation.

To Bassey’s point, it tends to be accepted that posting a link to your work uninvited, especially if all that you are posting is the link, is frowned upon in most online establishments. There is, more of less, an expectation that comments will be actual comments related to a story. Trackbacks are still a thing on many blogs, but trackbacks are not comments.

The Moderators Are Alright

Why is a comment removed? The majority of reasons will be spelled out, but not all. That’s OK, and it doesn’t mean that the fix is in. To assume otherwise is to assume bad faith. When you do that, most of the time, you assume wrong. There are bad moderators out there, there are moderators who are moderating as a personal vendetta. But they are the exception.

I’ve moderated content for 17 years, I’ve managed more than a hundred moderators, worked with hundreds and spent time with even more. Putting aside the rare exceptions, the moderators aren’t out to get you. They aren’t trying to silence you. They are just moderating.

Why was your comment removed? Look to Occam’s razor. The fewer assumptions made, the better.