November 30, 2009

The Broken Window Theory

The "Broken Window Theory" says that windows are more likely to be broken if one is already broken. From the original article "Broken Windows" by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

The theory is that people are more likely to do something bad if someone did it before them. For example, cleaning up graffiti as soon as it happened supposedly lead to a huge decrease in crime in NYC.

This works with comments and message boards, too. If a post is offensive or badly written, delete it. Having only thought out and civil comments will lead to more thought out and civil comments.

There is a lot of criticism of the Broken Window Theory. However, look at comments on various sites. You will never see a YouTube-like comment on a site like Hacker News, and you will have a hard time finding a thought-provoking message anywhere on YouTube.

Expectations of quality are set by previous comments, and it is important to consistently maintain a high standard.

So, free speech be damned. Delete offending comments, or risk having the quality of your sites' comments go downhill.

About Gregory Koberger

I'm a freelance developer and designer, formerly of Mozilla. I talk a lot about web development, technology and user experience — sometimes on my blog but mostly on Twitter.

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