When writing for the web, it's gratifying to find that my readers have engaged with what I've had to say. That's why I offer the comments facility, in the (usually vain) hope that my posts will spark intelligent debate. Looking back over my œuvre, however, it appears that the longest comment threads have absolutely nothing to do with my sparkling wit and insight.
The two most commented-upon posts in my archives are the lyrics to Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please and a piece entitled The World's Strongest Boy. The former has attracted fans of the not-particularly-amusing BBC sitcom, who seem to think that I have something to do with the production, and that the release of series DVDs is in my gift. (It also spawned a peculiar, if explicable, pastiche on the comments of this post.) The latter seems to result from a high Google ranking for some televisual cause célèbre, and is remarkable in how offensive people can be for no apparent reason. Of course, the classic How to be rich and famous comment thread remains the grandaddy of them all.
Even at their most offensive, I find that these posts can serve as a form of unintentional social comment (my favourite being the comment that I, as a European, am ignorant, because the story is "all over the news"—carefully overlooking the four-month gap between my post and the comment, and the predisposition of British news towards real stories) and I let them stand. Nobody is harmed by leaving these comments on the web, and I see no need to censor them. Likewise, though I can't think of any examples, if someone were to leave a comment that was off-topic or critical of me, I would let it stand.
Which brings me to my present dilemma. On an otherwise unremarkable post, there has spawned a long, vitriolic argument over the first commenter's character. This seems to result from that page ranking highly on Google for searches on the commenter's name. A quirk of the Internet, I presumed, and I moderated the comments. The comments weren't spam, weren't obscene, and weren't harming me in any way. Indeed, the initial commenter took the opportunity to have right of reply, which brings us up to date (with the exception of a handy legal definition from Neil).
So I got a—very courteous—e-mail from the person involved, asking me to remove the critical comments from that post. Never before have I censored the comments on this blog, and never did I hope that I would have to. Though now it seems that somebody's reputation may be being harmed, and that is clearly unfair. So what do I do?
- Leave the comments as they are, as a principled stand for free speech?
- Remove only the critical comments, as requested, with the chance that the comments might start appearing again?
- Remove the entire thread, with the aim that this would end the whole affair?
- Something else?
I don't like posting metacontent here, but I'm genuinely confused as to what I should do in this case. I do have a strong belief in free speech, yet I would not want to be in the position where my reputation was harmed by what somebody had written on another website. Your suggestions, then, are especially welcome. And, if the person involved is reading this, I'd appreciate your input as well—I'll decide what to do by Wednesday, 27th April, at the latest.