The ethics of syndicating comments using WebMentions

This blog uses WebMention technology. If you write an article on your website and mention one of my blog posts, I get a notification. That notification can then be published as a comment. It usually looks something like this:

Screenshot of a comment showing that someone mentioned my post on their blog.

This means readers of my post can see where it has been mentioned around the web. They can read your article after reading mine. Nice!

I've also set up a "bridge" service which looks for people posting comments about my work on social media. For example, if you post a link to my blog on Twitter - or reply to someone who has shared a link - I get a notification. That means if I think it is an interesting comment, I can publish it in the comment section. It usually looks something like this:

Screenshot showing some comments. One has the Mastodon Logo, the other has the Twitter Logo.

This means readers of my post can see your Twitter or Mastodon comments. They're identified by the logo. Users can go to Twitter or Mastodon to reply to you. Nice!

Everyone is one big happy family, no matter where on the web you are.

Or so I thought. There are a few drawbacks with this system.

I didn't write that!

I had one reader complain that someone else was impersonating them in the comments of my posts. It wasn't immediately clear to them that I'd syndicated their comment and reposted it. After that, I added the Twitter logo to make it a bit more obvious. But many people still find it unintuitive that content can be replicated outside of its original publication.

I deleted that!

I had another reader who automatically deletes their Tweets every month. My blog retains a copy of their Tweets because it doesn't check for deletions. This might be against the user's wishes - especially if they had posted something inappropriate. Twitter doesn't send a "deleted" notification to services which have stored Tweets - and it would be impractical to periodically check every single Tweet I have stored. The reader was ambivalent about whether they should be kept on my blog.

I'm not that person any more!

One of the comments was a person who had changed their name & Twitter avatar. Understandably, they weren't happy about still being referred to by their deadname on my site. Again, neither Twitter nor the bridging service notifies me when a user changes their name or avatar. Naturally I deleted the comments when they contacted me.

An overly aggressive person was furious that I'd copied their © content onto my blog without permission. Personally, I thought that adding their 7 word reply was covered by fair-dealing, but I didn't fancy pissing them off. So I deleted it. If I'd embedded directly from Twitter it would have been fair game - but some people feel there's a material difference between embedding and copying.

Now what?

This is a complicated problem. I want to see what people are writing in public about my posts. I also want to direct people to the conversations which are happening elsewhere on the web. But people - quite rightly - might not want their content permanently stored by my site.

So I think I have a few options.

  1. Do nothing. My site; my rules. If you don't want me to grab your hot takes, don't post them in public. (Feels a bit rude, TBQH.)
  2. Be reactive. If someone asks me to remove their content, do so. (But, of course, how will they know I've made a copy?)
  3. Stop syndicating comments. (I don't wanna!)
  4. Replace the verbatim comments with a link saying "Fred mentioned this article on Twitter" . (A bit of a disruptive experience for readers.)
  5. Use oEmbed to capture the user's comment and dynamically load it from the 3rd party site. That would update automatically if the user changes their name or deleted the comment. (A massive faff to set up.)

What do you think I should do?

19 thoughts on “The ethics of syndicating comments using WebMentions

  1. @Edent what value do you find in having comments in the first place? I’ve considered doing something like this but it’s never seemed worth it to me.

  2. says:

    @Edent This is fascinating. I have no idea what the answer is. I think I might be one of the people whose deleted tweets have been retained on your site, and I remain ambivalent, but I think that's mostly because it is you. It definitely revealed to me a weakness in my Twitter deletion system, which, I realise, is more a "suppress from the timeline" system.

  3. @Edent I'd go with option 2, which seems to be what you're doing already.I think the solution should focus on building awareness for the consequences of publicly posting something.Of course your viral hot take might end up in a news story! It's okay if that bothers you, but then we need to talk about preventative measures. Auto-deleting your tweets/toots is simply not enough.But yeah, if someone asks you to delete their comment from your blog, just do it. Anything else is rude.

  4. says:

    If it were my blog I'd mostly go with option 1, and only exercise option 2 if there's a good reason for doing so. (I'd be sympathetic to request to change/remove reference to a deadname, and if it was clear that someone's account had been hacked, but the other examples you cite range from impractical (deleted Tweet) to bonkers (copyright).)

    And oEmbed, quite apart from the faff required to implement, would have the side-effect of having sundry social network's stuff poking into your website — possibly jarring, definitely a concern if said network is off the snoopy or security-bug-ignoring kind. (Which, unfortunately, means the majority of social networks.)

  5. says:

    @Edent I'm reading and I haven't done anything to indicate I wouldn't be happy about web mentions, e.g. opted out of search engine indexing, so it seems ethical enough. I guess it also depends on who's doing the syndication- using oEmbed on a private blog might be over the top but it seems reasonable to expect commercial sites to have tighter controls.
    The ethics of syndicating comments using WebMentions

  6. says:

    @Edent Interesting question.I'd be inclined to argue your current approach (option number 2) is correct.It's not that different, in principle, to taking a screenshot of the tweet/toot and using that: few object to that.The issue of misattribution is an interesting one, but you're not automatically publishing comments, so your manual review should catch the most obvious

  7. says:

    @b @Edent The value of comments is the same value as replys on the fediverse: conversation. Posting on a blog and syndicating to other services allows a wider reach than any individual service while giving the poster a single place to converse.

  8. You bring very good points on how ethical it may be to syndicate comments through Webmentions. I personally have been doing option (2), so I remove comments if someone asks me. I’ve only had that happen once, but my follower base is much smaller! If it becomes a very frequent thing, it may be much harder to manage.

  9. I’m effectively doing 02 on my site, although I’m prepared to do 03 if that becomes a real problem. When in doubt, I default to 01, of course; I do accept mentions of deletes and honour them automatically, and if the platform you’re commenting on doesn’t send these mention, you shouldn’t have used that platform. I know it’s rude, but TBH I’m sick and tired of the infantility people approach their public speech with.
    05 is a thing I would absolutely love to do, and will do as soon as the legislation changes. As it is now, I can be held accountable for what my website shows to a reader, and embedding something that can be changed without me knowing, resulting in legal actions against me, is not exactly what I keep my website for.

  10. says:

    I’ve simply stopped backfeeding (Mastodon or Twitter) comments.
    When someone actually sends me a webmention, though, I’ll likely show it—in full if it’s short enough, or a brief snippet and link back to their post.
    If my site supported ActivityPub and someone replied to one of my posts using Mastodon (or a similar service), I’d probably do the same.
    In both cases, honoring updates/deletes seems like the right thing to do.

  11. Not an answer to the dilemma, though I generally take the position of keeping everything unless someone asks me to take it down or that I might know that it’s been otherwise deleted. Often I choose not to delete my copy, but simply make it private and only viewable to me.
    On the deadnaming and related issues, it would be interesting to create a webmention mechanism for the h-card portions so that users might update these across networks. To some extent Automattic’s Gravatar system does this in a centralized manner, but it would be interesting to see it separately. Certainly not as big an issue as deadnaming, but there’s a similar problem on some platforms like Twitter where people will change their display name regularly for either holidays, or lately because they’re indicating they’d rather be found on Mastodon or other websites.
    The webmention spec does contain details for both editing/deleting content and resending webmentions to edit and/or remove the original. Ideally this would be more broadly adopted and used in the future to eliminate the need for making these choices by leaving the choice up to the original publisher.
    Beyond this, often on platforms that don’t have character limits (Reddit for example), I’ll post at the bottom of my syndicated copy of content that it was originally published on my site (along with the permalink) and explicitly state that I aggregate the replies from various locations which also helps to let people know that they might find addition context or conversation at the original post should they be interested. Doing this on Twitter, Mastodon, et al. is much harder due to space requirements obviously.
    While most responses I send would fall under fair use for copying, I also have a Creative Commons license on my text in an effort to help others feel more comfortable with having copies of my content on their sites.
    Another ethical layer to this is interactions between sites which both have webmentions enabled. To some extent this creates an implicit bi-directional relationship which says, I’m aware that this sort of communication exists and approve of your parsing and displaying my responses.
    The public norms and ethics in this area will undoubtedly evolve over time, so it’s also worth revisiting and re-evaluating the issue over time.

  12. says:

    A while back I added a mode to webmention.js specifically so that I could show reply mentions as just being reactions that happened to have embedded text, rather than making them first-class conversational citizens on my site. I mostly did that because I personally didn't care for the way that long reply threads ended up looking, but it has the end effect of it just being a link with preview-popup text that goes to the original response, and it feels like a very nice middle ground.

    I do definitely prefer people to comment natively on my site's comment system for a number of reasons, though, particularly because I really don't want people making public webmention-replies to my private/restricted entries.

  13. Ivan says:

    Be reactive. If someone asks me to remove their content, do so. (But, of course, how will they know I've made a copy?)

    That would be very nice. The rest of the Internet may have made a copy anyway, and may only mark things as deleted instead of actually removing the data.

    Use oEmbed to capture the user's comment and dynamically load it from the 3rd party site.

    In addition to being a muff to set up, third-party dynamic content has privacy implications that the comment section currently doesn't have.

  14. Mr Andrew Fielding says:

    In response to your question at the end of option 2 (How do they know that I've made a copy?) is there any future in either adding a short description above the share buttons that "this is what I might do" OR a twitterbot / mastodonbot / "whatever other network you may get mentions on bot" that mentions them and replies to their share with a "Thanks for sharing your comment - I've added it as a comment to my site".

    It doesn't really help if they change their mind much later on, but at least it gives them an opportunity at that moment to ask you to remove it.

    That said, if every blog chose to do this, Twitter would become a useless garbage heap of repli....oh. Nevermind.

  15. says:

    I've been considering adding a form that allows me to process removals in a semi-automated fashion. This is something worth documenting on the IndieWeb wiki and adding a flow for.

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