Proposal for Dealing with Off-Topic Comments

offtopicYesterday there was a spirited discussion here on the Vanguard about a long-standing challenge that the Vanguard faces . . .  how best to handle reader-submitted comments that are tangentially related to the published article. Tangential comments are not bad in their own right, but they often do sidetrack discussion of the article’s topic. I would like to propose a solution to that problem, and hope that readers will comment on that proposed solution here.

A simple straightforward solution to the off-topic issue is that when a reader sees an article that s/he believes is only addressing a selected portion of a larger “whole” picture, and feels that it is important to make a “tangential” point that fleshes out that whole picture, then I suggest that s/he submit an e-mail to David Greenwald containing the additional points so that he can post an article under the e-mail sender’s byline that runs side-by-side with the original story. For example, I think a very interesting parallel article for Mayor Krovoza’s thoughts on “long-term, environmentally sustainable economic cores for Davis” could have been submitted by Michael Harrington as follows:

In a Vanguard article submitted today, Mayor Krovoza writes about using city funds to ramp up business, for the general economic well being of the city population, AND to increase sales tax revenue.

All that development the Mayor is talking about could be good, or very bad, for Davis. Look at Woodland: its Main Steet and most of the downtown businesses are destroyed by the exterior malls that the CC has approved.

I think we should always be looking to cut the city’s waste whenever considering how to use city money to ramp up sales tax to increase the city’s budget. You cannot separate the two, and to do so is intellectually bankrupt.

All of you know I have my checklist of waste and pork and simply bad spending, and if the City agrees with my list, and makes the changes, you are going to see an immediate and dramatic shift in the budget outlook, and the City will have more money to spend on business development in town.

Cut the pork; spend some of the savings on business development.

I Hate to rain on the parade, but I am still hoping Mr. DT Bizman or the Mayor or Ken Hiatt will tell me how much retail square footage does it take to generate one dollar of sales tax into the city’s coffers?

Then, calculate how much pork and waste and bad spending is going on in the city, total it up, and then calculate the amount of building you would have to do of retail space to earn the city the money it is throwing away?

Evan as recently as two weeks ago, the CC led by the Mayor and city staff where a hari away from throwing another million into the sands for the Woodland JPA project, which as nearly zero chance of making it through the Davis ballot box system if the CC ever actually got to recommending it to the Davis voters.

How about that $97K/month we are still spending on those bonds for the Parking Garage to Nowhere?

How about the 4th crew member on the fire crews?

How about the $30K or so a month we are enriching the city attorney and colleagues with for her creating the DACHA debacle?

Or, the CC’s attempt less than a year ago to throw over $250 million of our rate money at a Taj Mahal of a water project that had Davis buying 4x more water than needed?

Or, getting ready to throw up to $600K at a green business consultant. Why not convene a local task force, have some public discussions, make our own list, and do it? All for low cost.

Or, refusing to properly fund the DDBA so it can design programs to increase business? (I was at that CC meeting months ago where the DDBA was forced to beg for dollars … it was embarrassing.)

Or …. add your own item to the long list.

The City simply has to change the mindset of spending like there is no tomorrow. So far, I have not seen evidence of that. Sadly.

As a Vanguard reader, I would have seen that as a good article in and of itself . . . and running side-by-side with the original article, it would produce two simultaneous, focused comments streams that would both be better for their focus . . . and when taken together will flesh out the whole picture (as the author sees it) very well.

The obvious drawback to this suggestion is that it is easy to submit a quick comment, but takes a little bit more time to transform that quick comment into an article that has enough substance to stand up beside the original article.  However, I think that even for the submitter, the extra effort expended will result in a much deeper discussion of the issues that Davis and Yolo County face . . . and a much more valuable Vanguard.

About The Author

Matt Williams has been a resident of Davis/El Macero since 1998. Matt is a past member of the City's Utilities Commission, as well as a former Chair of the Finance and Budget Commission (FBC), former member of the Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC), former member of the Broadband Advisory Task Force (BATF), as well as Treasurer of Davis Community Network (DCN). He is a past Treasurer of the Senior Citizens of Davis, and past member of the Finance Committee of the Davis Art Center, the Editorial Board of the Davis Vanguard, Yolo County's South Davis General Plan Citizens Advisory Committee, the Davis School District's 7-11 Committee for Nugget Fields, the Yolo County Health Council and the City of Davis Water Advisory Committee and Natural Resources Commission. His undergraduate degree is from Cornell University and his MBA is from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He spent over 30 years planning, developing, delivering and leading bottom-line focused strategies in the management of healthcare practice, healthcare finance, and healthcare technology, as well municipal finance.

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  1. Phil Coleman

    Tangential and off-topic comments in response to an article need to be analyzed from a different perspective. Most are deliberate and calculated. It’s a common practice in the debate and journalism world, and known as “deflection.”

    Picture an article or comment to an article that is thoughtful and telling in its presentation, summary, and conclusion. A reader who holds an opposite view of the topic is unable to effectively respond to the reasoned presentation, but nonetheless feels the compulsive need to say something.

    So the responder “moves the target” to an area where a counter-attack is more promising. Usually, it takes the form of a personal attack using innuendo and rumor as fuel. Another practice is to take a macro or micro view to create confusion on the point of focus. Or the author is assailed for a previous action that has nothing to do with the topic at hand (e.g. Jim Stevens).

    Frankly, I can’t see where this proposal can be implemented without creating an even bigger problem, of fairness, balance, and First Amendment cries of “censorship.” Instead, why don’t we just rely on the good judgment of the vast majority of the readership–who have a brain–and can easily filter and ignore these shabby techniques to deflect.

  2. Matt Williams

    medwoman, in two words . . . visibility and participation.

    David would have the option at their disposal to decide that a submission doesn’t quite rise to the level of a side-by-side article, and in that case would send an e-mail back to the author letting them know that “in its present form” the submission can be a thread in the Bulletin Board, but it needs more substance in order to be published as an article. The author would have the option to add more, or simply tell David to publish it as a new thread in the Bulletin Board. That way, the quality of articles published on the Vanguard front page will be kept at a high level.

    Many (most) Vanguard readers know about the Bulletin Board, but even for regular readers like you (and me), what is the relative proportion of your visits to the Vanguard front page vs. visits to the Bulletin Board?

    Why are visibility and participation important? The Vanguard started out as “David’s Blog” but more and more it has become much more than that. People come to the Vanguard to inform themselves. The statistics page shows that there are 105 registered users for the Vanguard in total, and 10 of them are actively online right now . . . along with 602 guests. That means 602 people who choose not to post, nonetheless see the Vanguard as an important source of community information. An article that appears on the front page will be visible to those 602 people . . . and the many, many additional “guests” who aren’t logged on right now, but will be at some other part of the day.

    Some of those guests may well chose to register and join the discussion. Some of them may even choose to submit articles of their own. If that happens, then the Vanguard will have taken important additional steps forward as a vehicle for community involvement and informed community decision making.

  3. Matt Williams

    Both Davis Enophile’s and Phil Coleman’s points are well taken. There is no silver bullet for this problem. The key is to come up with a solution that reinforces the positives and minimizes the disruption. Both their suggestions may actually do that better than the one I have proposed.

    They also point out that different people come to the Vanguard for different reasons.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    Matt: I’m not sure exactly what those statistics mean. There are just under 1400 profiles that have been registered on this site. Over the last 30 days, 20 people posted 87% of the comments on this site. That is the statistic I would like to see changed.

  5. Mark West


    I find that the comments are often times more valuable than the original article and the fact that sometimes the comment stream heads off onto a related tangent is one of the more attractive and valuable aspects of the site. The problem is not the related tangents, but when a discussion is hijacked by repetitive comments on an unrelated topic, turning the discussion into a recitation on someone’s pet peeve. The simple answer is to move the repetitive posts to the bulletin board and direct further discussion there. Any further posts on that ‘off’ topic can then be deleted from the comments section. More work for the moderator, but a more workable solution as well.

  6. concernedcitizen

    Mark, I like your thoughts. It’s the “hijacking by repetitive comments” that’s most disconcerting. I as community member, I want David’s efforts w/ the Vanguard to continue development in breadth and depth… this includes comments by posters. Mark’s proposal seems to honor both readers as well as the posters. I like it!

    If those who do post (the 20 that posted 87% of the comments) would like more people to actively participate in the conversations, then creating the right environment for that to happen is essential. As it stands now, there is only a small group of people joining in the discussion. I believe this can change, and I would like to see it change. A first step is to get a handle on the hijacking of conversation. I’m sure there are other steps that can be taken as well, but this would be a good first action.

  7. medwoman

    “I’m not sure exactly what those statistics mean. There are just under 1400 profiles that have been registered on this site. Over the last 30 days, 20 people posted 87% of the comments on this site. That is the statistic I would like to see changed”

    I very much agree with this sentiment. And in the hopes of playing a very small role in changing that statistic I would like to offer one woman’s top reasons for joining the discussion on the Vanguard. I came to the party late having joined the discussion about a year ago.and have found:

    1) It’s fun !
    2) Reading other’s comments and preparing a response helps me clarify my own thoughts about many topics.
    3) It has provided me with a new appreciation for the differences in the ways different aspects of our community are valued by others.
    4) It has tremendously increased my knowledge of local political and community processes and controversies.
    5) I have met many interesting people representing many different viewpoints through my engagement with the Vanguard.
    6) To all who have started to comment, and then held back, please join us. I guarantee that each of us has a unique perspective to share and each can be of value. I was hesitant at first because I am no writer and I was a little embarrassed about my inevitable grammatical errors and lack of computer skills. Fear not, for the most part, the Vanguard is a warm and welcoming venue for your comments even if you have forgotten the difference between an adjective an an adverb ( thanks to Rich for his forbearance with my early attempts).

  8. concernedcitizen

    Btw @Michael Harrington, not everything has to be combative. Matt and others aren’t saying your comments are aren’t valuable, they are simply discussing method and process. I’d like to see you, should you respond, to help us think through a method & process that would provide a space for you to continue raising points without repetition on every thread. I believe that is all people are asking.

  9. Don Shor

    Modified slightly from my post on the thread Matt is referring to:

    Almost anything could be considered tangentially related to the topic of any thread. Unfortunately, that is how threads get sidetracked. If your point is tangential and not direct, [i]please try to make it brief and try not to repeat things that have been addressed elsewhere in detail[/i] on the Vanguard. We probably don’t need a long list of examples. We don’t need the details of past problems that have already been posted. [i]You could provide a link back to a previous forum thread (bookmark them for future reference).[/i] Or you could start a topic at the Bulletin Board and provide a link to that. That helps keep the forum focused.

    If you have a detailed answer that isn’t directly related to the thread topic, I urge you to submit that to David Greenwald for a separate thread. It will be more effective that way, and won’t sidetrack the thread.

    Examples that prompted this discussion: DACHA, firefighter staffing, the water project, etc., are not directly pertinent to the topic of how the city council is going to make a road map about economic development going forward. When I ask that you stay on-topic, I’m trying to get you to re-focus the conversation.

  10. David Thompson

    I thank Matt for offerring solutions.

    I find myself agreeing in general with Mark West’s comments. In terms of yesterday I presume the intent is that everyone would hope that the next iteration of thinking about economic development will lead to answers and action. I applaud that effort.

    However, having participated in and witnessed many efforts at economic development in town I wished to share my own experiences. There are reasons why few of the efforts have made progress. My take on why they have failed or been so difficult is just one version. Most people having sufferred through other efforts are unwilling to speak to the topic for fear of recrimination. But there are indeed stories for people to share that might shape how we go about trying new initiatives.

    I too am often grateful for people who bring up tangental topics because they tell me of other topics I may not have considered that are relevant to the issue. A wider net catches more fish and more types of fish and as a result we are allowed a more diversified catch.

    David Thompson, Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation

  11. Frankly

    This is about where Rusty49 and I start posting stuff blaming liberals.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist. =

    Seriously though (because that WAS a joke… mostly), I am possibly one the worst offenders for sliding off topic. I am long-winded… too long-winded much of the time. So, not only do I contribute to moving off topic, but I fill the page with off topic thoughts.

    A few ideas:

    – Set the bar a bit higher for what is deternined to be off topic (supporting Mark West’s comment that many times tangental comments are related and more interesting than the previous direction of the blog conversation). Note that if the goal is to get more people to post, then you don’t want to set too narrow of a requirement for what they can or should post. I am guessing that new people having some motivation to post are a bit intimidated by the experienced regulars.

    – Gentle reminders from the moderator. My suggestion for this is to send the reminder to the poster’s registered email. I think when folks feel like they are scolded in public, they get a bit enraged.

    – Move off topic posts to the bulletin board. One question about this, when a post is moved, can it easily be replaced with a note that says “post moved to “bla bla bla”. However, keep in mind that deleting and moving posts can also cause posters to get a bit enraged. I go back to my first suggestion to set the bar higher.

    – All of us should welcome newcomers for their first few posts… before we start piling on!

    My last idea is something that may not be available on the Vanguard blog platform, but add some type of community scoring mechanism that can motivate posters to contribute good content. For example a “like”, or “on topic” button. Have a counter.

  12. David Thompson

    Dear Jeff Boone:

    I almost always read every word you write as I have just done. I may not agree with all you say but I am grateful for your perspective.

    I have never thought to myself that you are off topic.

    I see the Vanguard as a way of having a group conversation about community related topics started by David but completed by others.

    David Thompson

  13. SODA

    I for one find the multiple copying previous quotes and giving feedback disconcerting. Suggest posters try to be more concise and take less room, maybe bc I am often on my iPhone 🙂

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