Internet/Telecom/Social Media

How to be a five-star commenter

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.



8 replies »

  1. Aptly, comically right

    As a weekly blogger for over two years, I could not agree with your logical, rational and adult proposals, every one an intellectual and moral winner. But alas, talking about not writing to the choir: almost no blogger attends to one’s argument. It is that rare bird who even concedes you have an argument, let alone one worthy of his poison pen. Second, when you don’t use a real name, you don’t have to use a real brain either, a kind of rough freedom — and idiotic comments come from idiotic nicknames. Were half the bloggers interested in all that boring, adult stuff you recommend, they’d never touch our golden prose with a pole.

    The whole point for a good percentage of online foul mouths, whether trolls, imbeciles or those with drastically unresolved rage complexes, is to be able to dump bad vibes, disguised they think in the most clever writing, on a stranger who cannot show up at their door and ask, “So, how’s therapy doing? Off your pills? And why take your shit out on me.”

    I just left Smirking Chimp because a few morons fascinated with the ridicule of Becker-pecker were undeterred by any declaration by the web owner that civilized discourse does require a few rules, and that enough abuse will drive good writers from yucky sites. Alas, I have never found a misfit or creep on Scholars and Rogues.

  2. “…almost exactly months…” That doesn’t make sense, I think you forgot a number there or something, therefore this post is worthless. Just Kidding!

    I’m a good mind that enjoys reading great minds but, because of my limitations, rarely has anything to add to the conversation. I like a good discussion, even a heated one, but I hate going to read comments and there’s 437 idiot comments and 3 thought provoking ones.

    Sometimes it is difficult to make your point strong enough without exaggerating, or (for me) using an over-the-top sarcastic comment. I guess the thing to remember is that the written word, if clearly written, can come across a lot stronger than spoken words.

  3. Good points. Scholars and Rogues always good, thought-provoking writing. Enjoy the variety. And thanks for the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, knew it but didn’t know where it came from.

  4. God, could you be more demanding? Me, me, me, it’s all about what you want. What about what I want? What if I want to just take out my frustration about my real life on some stranger who is obviously beneath me? Maybe you have time to edit your posts for clarity, but some of us have a life!!! 🙂

    I think a nice chunk of the internet flame wars could be solved by people understanding the power of using the word “one” instead of “you”. The number of times I’ve seen a thread degenerate into “why are you attacking me???” because someone took a general response as personally directed.

    A lot of things could be solved by sites having human moderators who are not the authors. The sites without moderators are just awful.

  5. Great addition, Lara Amber, though frankly, you (or one) seemed a bit too much on point. Why should non-professionals have to cleanse their copy? It’s a free world, after all. I think using real names would be a good start.

    My point about Smirking Chimp exactly: a site without a moderator, even basic three lines of what defines abuse and won’t be tolerated, descends into linguistic limbo, if not chaos, quicker than you can mouse your button. Button your mouse? Click your rage away?

  6. The blogosphere and Twitterverse offer therapeutic release for a certain kind of rageaholic. In the everyday world, anti-social behavior may incur sanctions; in the virtual world, not so much—especially if the webmaster takes a Deist approach to his/her creation, floating indifferently above the clashes below.

    As Mr. Becker points out, the anonymity conferred by “creative” usernames also guarantees that one can sniper targets from the grassy knolls of a string without fear of reprisal. Catch me if you can!

    When semi-feral types unleash their ids into your—one’s?—well-tended garden of prose, how to respond? Hand them a baggie to clean up the mess or sigh and do the job yourself? Regal indifference or a good, sharp rap on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper (that quaint old-media artifact)?

    Years ago, Roger Ebert set a standard of wit and civility for such exchanges, albeit in the context of print rather than pixels.

    In 2003, Ebert wrote a scathing review of Vincent Gallo’s (truly awful) film The Brown Bunny. Gallo responded by calling Ebert “a fat pig with the physique of a slave trader” and putting a curse on him that would result in colon cancer.

    Ebert’s response (channeling Churchill): “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny.”

    He later added, “I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than ‘The Brown Bunny.’”

    This only seemed to send the already unhinged Mr. Gallo into further paroxysms of anger, hissing and flailing uncontrollably. Recognizing the depth of the pathology on display, Ebert wrote, “I hope Mr. Gallo feels better soon.” Then he walked quietly away from the mayhem, dignity intact.

  7. Countless blog commenters prove Frank Zappa’s theory that stupidity, not hydrogen, is the most plentiful element in the universe.

  8. “I am a retarded necrophiliac.” Yes, but you’re our retarded necrophiliac.