Responding to "How to Be a Good Commenter"

John Scalzi, at his Whatever blog, wrote a very interesting piece called How to Be a Good Commenter. In the main, I agree with his points, though I do have somewhat different priorities.

1. Do I actually have anything to say?… A comment is not meant to be an upvote, downvote or a “like.” It’s meant to be an addition to, and complementary to (but not necessarily complimentary of) the original post.

Well, yes, but… I go to a lot of ABC Wednesday posts, and they’ve posted a picture of a flower, or a waterfall, and if I like it, I might indicate its beauty. And I don’t mind, frankly, an essentially “like” comment to what I write; beats indifference. Maybe I want to thank someone for doing something I can’t do, or say something I wish I had said; I want to affirm the creator for his or her efforts. That noted, I do try to abide by the complementary notion. I think the fear of this first rule creates a lot of lurkers, who may visit a page but never say anything.

2. Is what I have to say actually on topic?

Now that I DO care about. I’ve found that some commenters are like campaigning politicians who can, and will, take any issue and mold it into a point from their stump speech, regardless of relevance.

3. Does what I write actually stay on topic?… if you make a perfunctory wave at the subject and then immediately use it as a jumping-off point for your own particular set of hobby horses, then you’re also making the thread suck.

This doesn’t happen on THIS blog, but I’ve seen the phenomenon on my Times Union blog, and indeed on most newspaper or magazine-related blogs. The is particularly vulnerable to these trolls.

4. If I’m making an argument, do I actually know how to make an argument?… I will at the very least point you in the direction of this list of logical fallacies, for you to peruse and consider. I will also say that in my experience the single most common bad argument is the assumption that one’s personal experience is universal rather than intensely personal and anecdotal.

I love personal anecdotes, but only when it ISN’T used as proof. Gotten that at the TU blog too.

5. If I’m making assertions, can what I say be backed up by actual fact?

I suppose the problem here is that the world seems armed with contradictory theories masked as “facts.” If I express concern about global warming or belief in evolution, I’ll find people who will find assertions to the contrary. Which is why some issues become not worth fighting over; the facts are out there, if one wants to look.

6. If I’m refuting an assertion made by others, can what I say be backed up by fact?… refutation without substantiation is not refutation at all; it’s just adding to the noise.

Totally agree with that.

7. Am I approaching this subject like a thoughtful human being, or like a particularly stupid fan?… Look, everyone has their biases and inclinations and favorites, and that’s fine. This doesn’t mean you won’t come across as a brainless plumper for your side when you, in fact, plump brainlessly for them in a comment.

Don’t experience this much. Then again, I don’t write that much about sports.

8. Am I being an asshole to others? Yes, I know you think you’re being clever when you are being snide and sarcastic about that other commenter, or about the original poster. I would remind you what the failure mode of clever is. Also, being a complete prick to others in a comment thread is an easy tell to those others that you can’t make a sufficient argument on any other ground than personal abuse. Which is not a good thing for you.

If this were a ranked list – and it may be, I’m not sure – this would be #1 or at worst, #2. The lack of civility on some pages doesn’t just concern me in the moment; it makes me worry about us as a species.

9. Do I want to have a conversation or do I want to win the thread? Some people have to be right, and can’t abide when others don’t recognize their fundamental right to be right, and will thus keep making attempts to be right long after it is clear to every other person that the conversation is going nowhere and the remaining participants are simply being tiresome.

A perfectly good example of that phenomenon is a short post I wrote for the Getting There blog on the Times Union, Lunatic SUV driver harassing cyclists. I thought it was pretty self-evident that the driver was engaging in anti-social behavior. Silly me. The comment that struck me the most was this: “Sharing the road or not it’s a lose lose if you ever get tangled up with a car. That’s the risk bikers WANT AND TAKE.” The first part IS true, but that bicyclists WANT to take that risk is absurd. I never even bothered to comment at all, as I had outraged readers willing to carry on that task.

10. Do I know when I’m done? I’m not saying you should enter each comment thread with an exit strategy, but on the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt.

As I tend to be conflict averse, I tend to avoid this particular problem. The worse case of me having to come back to a topic was actually on a Facebook posting in which I noted that there were government people opposed to the art display Piss Christ, and I had to go find proof of this, twice. I remember the controversy, and my need to prove it made me a tad cranky.

I like this comment to Scalzi’s piece. I’ve seen it before, and it continues to be valid.
T — Is it TRUE?
H — is it HELPFUL?
I — is it INSPIRING?
N — is it NECESSARY?
K — is it KIND?

0 thoughts on “Responding to "How to Be a Good Commenter"”

  1. Oh, “kind!!” How quaint…
    Seriously, the lack of civility in public discourse reminds me of the U.S./Soviet Arms Race; NO ONE is willing to be the first to stand down. I think it’s because we have become a culture of well-trained consumers, and the immediate emotional satisfaction of reactivity takes priority over all other considerations.
    Wonder how the Grown Ups are doing..?


  2. This was a post that certainly made me THINK, at least about my own commenting habits and the blogs I visit. I can’t recall the last time I came across any seriously angry disagreements. I suppose that is because I don’t tend to visit blogs that are subject specific, like politics or sport. I prefer those who write about their broad experience of life and while I might poke some gentle fun at times, I only do this if I know the author will take it in good part.

    But these rules would be ideal for people who comment on news sites!


  3. Great acronym. Everyone should use it as a guide. I’ve been fortunate to only have had one idiot commenter on any of my posts. We had a difference of opinion on the existence of God. He was less than polite.


  4. (*Sniff*) I feel like… you’re talking to ME, Roger (sound of nose blowing.)

    My biggest problem as a commenter is a subset of item #8, a carryover from my verbal life. I like to toss out jokes that I consider very clever and humorous, but all too often are received or perceived as insults and I end up being tagged as a troll. I suppose the solution is to stop being clever, but that would make me duller than I already am. (Self deprecating humor, another lame habit that comes off poorly.)


  5. There in lies the problem Dan, no one can see your face or hear your voice to know you’re just kidding unless you add (stage directions I believe they’re called). Is it any wonder our kids are beating each other up with the advent of text messages?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s