When I told my friend Marcus, who edits a major magazine, that I’d signed on at a blogging site, he shook his head. “OK, but the first thing you better do is to uncheck the box that says ‘Allow Comments.’”
“What do you mean?” I protested. “That’s the beauty of the blogging. Instantaneous feedback. A direct connection with your readers. I can’t wait for the comments.”
He didn’t say anything, but gave me a look that showed that he found my naivete both endearing, but at the same time a little pathetic.
Now, eighty blogs later, I have learned through the comments thread that I can’t write, can’t think, and am so woolly-minded and stupid I probably have the attendant at the home tie my shoes. I now know that I am a Neanderthal, brute and all round big meanie. I am also, according to my commenters: A wife beater, homosexual, child pornographer, and possibly should be looked at for an unsolved murder or two. Not to mention the fact that, as a Communist/Muslim/Jew/Athiest/Fascist, I am single-handedly bringing about the demise of this great nation we all love.
I have learned that commenters can tell from a single line in a single blog exactly how much I know or don’t know about politics, psychology, climate science, economics, history and mathematics. What took the professors at two institutions a battery of tests over six years to discern, my commenters can intuit from a single exclamation mark.
What I seldom know though, is what commenters actually thought of my arguments. Do they agree that liberals are too passive? That gun control is a lost battle? That Germany has done a good job of moving on from the horrors of World War II? That Rick Perry is unsuited to be President? That the current wave of anti-secularism is just part of a cyclical pattern in U.S. history? Were they impressed that I predicted the GOP nomination process almost exactly months before it began? Do they agree with my thesis that Romney is too flawed a candidate to win? We know none of that, but we do know that I am a retarded necrophiliac.
The truth is, it is great that you read my stuff and comment, and it’s absolutely fabulous that it provokes a strong enough reaction that take time to respond. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
But once you decide to comment, you have become a participant in the discussion. And just like a face-to-face conversation, there are certain rules that will make the conversation more civil and productive.
- Attack the blog, not the blogger. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas, good minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” I know the frustration when someone says something that is particularly stupid, and that the automatic and immediate reaction is to discredit the source. I have yelled “You fucking moron” at more than one talking head on TV. I get it. But rise above it. Attacking the blogger makes him or her defensive and usually causes them to stop reading the comment. Also, if you make the attack personal at the end of the day, we still don’t really know the most important thing: What do you think about what he or she is saying?
- Remember that it’s group conversation, not a 1-2-1. That is, make your case with enough clarity and detail that other readers can engage.
- Dial it back a bit. Hey, we all exaggerate to make a point. The Internet is like cable TV, a medium of loud voices. However, one tool writers use (see Dave Barry) is to bury an outrageous comment among banal ones. It makes the barbed comment pop more, and also it makes it more palatable. Commenters often want to make their point sharply, which is great, but a single sharp line or sequence of lines with no packaging around it can come across as shrill or even unhinged. You may like curry powder, but not enough to eat a spoonful by itself.
- Use facts, not just emotion, to support your argument. One trick we used to use in consulting was never to say “I feel,” but always “I think.” People find facts and numbers more compelling than unbridled outrage. Yes, over-the-top emotion works on reality TV and even in some fiction, but not in commentary and counter-commentary.
- Don’t make shit up. Use facts, but use true facts. No, Texas really does not have the right to secede. We went through all that once, remember? And it didn’t turn out well for the secessionists. No, every fact Rush puts out is not true or they wouldn’t let him say it on the radio. No, the second amendment doesn’t say anything about assault rifles. No, the Bible didn’t say “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” or many of the other things people say it did. As a rule of thumb, if you heard it on Fox or read it on a Tea Party website, it is at best partially true. In this age of Google and Wikipedia, there’s not much excuse for not checking facts here and there.
- Edit. When you read something that is so simple and clear that it looks like the author just ripped it off without even trying, you’re reading something that has been edited a dozen times. Writing is hard. Almost no one can just throw out a clear and thoughtful comment off the top of his or her head. Once you’ve written it, try to read it as a reader will. Check it for clarity, consistency, linearity of thought, cohesiveness, etc, etc. All that stuff you learned in eleventh grade English. I don’t care about grammar, but when I get a comment that is just a messy soup of disconnected ideas, I often don’t respond to it because I can’t sort out what to respond to. Everybody’s writing starts out as a mess, and it is editing that makes it better.
- Move the conversation forward. Because you are joining a conversation, not just driving by at ninety and yelling an insult out the car window. If you don’t know what the author meant, ask him or her. Put out positive alternatives. Don’t just say the idea sucks, offer up one that doesn’t. Don’t just repeat that I am an idiot. Dozens of commenters before you have already pretty much nailed that. Engage. I care enough about it I spent four hours writing this darn blog. You care enough you spent ten minutes reading it and commenting on it. Let’s talk about this.
So there it is. All of us want comments. We have spent hours writing a thousand word piece to get a single idea across. We want to know what you think. Sometimes we know we are on thin ground logically. Help us think this through. Tell us when we are wrong. Your reaction is our only reward for putting ourselves out there.
But do it in a way that we and your fellow readers and commenters can use.