Putting Our Hot Heads Together
Issue № 265

Putting Our Hot Heads Together

The author of an online article recently told me that he didn’t want to write a piece about two schools of thought in a specific niche within the web standards world. “It would be a bloodbath,” he said. A bloodbath. I don’t disagree. Rev up your iMac, boot up Bootcamp, set your CSS reset, strap on your nine millimeter handgun—it’s just another day at work in the web world. A website was redesigned not too long ago, and from the ensuing discussion about a typeface, you would have thought small animals had been tortured during the making of that site.

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All but the sweetest of us have said something in a web discussion that was—intentionally or not—demeaning, sarcastic, flippant, or discourse-crushing. I admit it: guilty as charged. Some of us have ugly motivations, posing as experts by acting superior to others, stirring up controversy to get attention, or perhaps being mean-spirited because our mothers decided we’d be bottle-fed. More often, our contributions are inspired by a higher goal: a heartfelt drive for a better web. Even then, however, our passionate responses to others too often sound like whines, jabs, sour grapes, and one-upmanship. We, too, become responsible for the pervasive sense that the web standards world is one long, soul-draining argument.

How can we move beyond this? How can we transform discussion sections on major sites and online magazines from shooting ranges into arenas of collaboration?

It’s not just about playing nice#section2

Despite the overwrought nature of some of our online conversations, there is, indeed, something important at stake. The great phenomenon of our times, this global network of voices and places and missions is something you and I have the power to shape. What a privilege. As fast as the web races forward, it’s clearly still in its infancy. We have time to make it grander than it is, and that better web is likelier to arrive through open doors, not those slammed shut.

This isn’t a call for netiquette, though that’s a good start. Nearly everyone knows those rules, though some of us still don’t realize that in public venues, the scratching of private itches is often best left at home, or at least behind locked doors with the shades down. The point, if we want to make a positive difference, isn’t to turn into frighteningly polite and passive Stepford Web Wives. Comment sections can offer opportunities for productive discussion, if we’d only learn to make a habit of collaborating, rather than colliding.

The venues are in place for the most rockin’ show on earth#section3

Challenging yet cooperative discourse may be most essential—and fruitful—at online magazines and long-running community sites. Conferences are energizing and sometimes brilliant, but just a thin slice of the web world has the means to attend them. Many blogs and forums, even those created by the celebrities among us, come and go, or just wither like the neighborhood pothead’s vegetable garden. A blog, too, is something distinctly owned; as consistently informative or inspiring as it may be, it’s the author’s party and he can cry if he wants to, or even close his comment section. Social apps may be as open-invitation as a high school kegger when Mom and Dad are out of town, but too many pop up overnight like dandelions only to blow away as people tire of them. Others have staying power, but their focus is often on personalities or tasks, not major web issues.

However, a few online magazines and long-running sites have become the archives and libraries of both the debates that make a difference and the verbal fistfights that just leave us wounded. Even with the waxing and waning of blogs, some magazines and sites still wax just fine. They are our community’s gathering places, and anyone who knows the language in which the articles are written is able to attend—even if most of us are invisible, silent guests. Nearly all of us are equally able to participate, and the back-and-forth can happen quickly, all the way ‘round the world.

Despite the warlike tendencies of otherwise peacenik geeks, despite the snide, dismissive remarks, the bickering, and the well-aimed why-didn’t-you’s, we have good reason to bring our best ideas to these publications. The readership is large and loyal and reputations are made at the most respected ones. The articles aren’t shoot-from-the-hip, rapid-fire bursts of ideas; they are arduously crafted and vetted; they are expected to be substantive and worthy of comment.

Seek the higher way, Grasshopper#section4

An author sweats through an article, polishing each point until it’s publication-ready. Authors, bombastic or self-deprecating, visit the site again and again, hoping they won’t be greeted by either scathing, snobby remarks or the agonizing echo of an empty discussion section. They deserve a bit of applause for walking onstage and stepping into the hot spotlight, while we read from the comfort of our safe little cubicles or cozy recliners.

Even when we disagree with the author, we don’t need to take the directly opposing view—even if the author is cruisin’ for a bruisin’. Like taco drive-ins and 401K programs, arguments in online magazines offer more than two choices. We can go for the prize behind Door Number Three: the Great Idea or small suggestion that actually moves the conversation forward, that clarifies or sharpens the points in the article and suggests an even better way—one that transcends two bitterly different views. It’s here, at the juncture of opposing opinions and a third alternative, or a fourth, that we may come closer to a truth that improves one corner of the web.

Armed with a collaborative spirit, we don’t need to shrink back from potential bloodbaths. We can tackle weightier ethical issues, technical snags, unsupported boasts, and discover where the web is immature and pouty and needs a good spanking (or a “time out,” if that’s more to your liking). We can explore what is really happening with women on the web, examine those sharp-edged HTML subjects without being cut, and set about establishing best practices for virtually every step we take in building a website. (Will our jobs even exist in five years? What “rules” do we follow—and then pass on to others—when they are only appropriate in certain circumstances? What the hell should we do with Flash? Are we going to use VHS or Betamax?)

Ignoring the inevitable grumps, trolls, and people who’ve got some sort of wedgie problem goin’ on, we can eagerly and repeatedly return to an ongoing discussion and be entertained, challenged, or inspired by the reactions to the comments we’ve made. That’s why these sections are optimistically called “discussion area,” or “care to comment?” rather than “Hit and Run Zone.” Make a thoughtful comment, read it twice before clicking submit, do a little coding or creating, Twitter your latest nom nom nom or canhaz? (if you must), then ease on down to the discussion section for another go-round.

Axing the argue-net#section5

If we view discussion areas as a new tool, and enter with a new attitude—seeing one another not as adversaries but as allies with a common goal— we can achieve so much more. If more of us are thinking “What can I contribute?” instead of “Did I like this article?” the entire conversation is transformed.

Remember to floss#section6

The first steps are simple—funny how we so often neglect them. But, like flossing, good habits, however mundane, make for a healthier future.

  • Consider the comment section to be a place of relationships—even with the people you don’t know. For example, if you got out of hand, return and apologize. You’ll only look better for it.
  • Don’t be a but head. “Interesting point, but…” can turn a potential work session into an argument. Tone of voice is essential in any discussion. Humor, too, must be handled with care. We all crave more wit, but snarky bites.
  • Authors may omit significant resources; add important ones yourself, regardless of which side they support. Be wary, though, of advertising your own product.
  • Ask the author questions about areas not fully covered in the article. Her answers may expose the really juicy parts of the issue.
  • Pose a question to the entire group, if it helps us move forward.
  • Read carefully before you comment. Nicholas Carr points out, in “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” that we aren’t reading as deeply or critically as we once did, due to the Internet’s ADHD-inducing qualities. (I cringe recalling the time I commented on an issue that an author had already addressed in his very first paragraph.)
  • Simply share your own experience—yes, even if you are a newbie. Believe it or not, this adds weight to the discussion and can provide new angles that leave the experts tilting their heads to the side like puzzled puppies.
  • Don’t search for vulnerable targets, for unintentional flubs in the article. A highhanded “I find it so ironic that you would….” doesn’t inform any of us about the issue and merely reveals things about your personality that even your own Mom doesn’t like.
  • Remember that the article is about the subject, not about the author’s website(s). We don’t know what invisible disabilities, family crises, employer demands, and other life events have affected an author’s sites. We only know the merit of the author’s piece.  I’ve yet to see a critique of an author’s markup (on a site not covered in the article) add something of real value to a comment section.
  • Help bring a discussion back on track. An argument can send us chugging off to Chattanooga while the neglected article was about New York.
  • Authors, your readers expect a dialogue with you in the comment section. Show up frequently to interact, set the tone, or shepherd the discussion back home. Don’t be too concerned about defending yourself against nasty people. They are self-indicting.

The cool kids’ table#section7

The real challenge is to move beyond basics to something much more fruitful, communal and, at times, visionary. The best brainstorms require a sense of being on the same side—and of the freedom to go to the very edge and even topple over it without fear of losing the respect of our peers. Let’s give each other that freedom—and let’s use it, and not hold back. If we were sitting with friends at a conference (or barroom) table, what exciting places could we take the discussion? What could we achieve? How can we inspire each other? Here are a few ideas; please chime in with your own.

  • Before disagreeing with people, tell them where you agree, and that you can see how they’d reach that conclusion. Then explain why you have come to your differing conclusion. This gives them some insight into your line of reasoning and may lead to a reply that opens your eyes—or theirs—to new possibilities.
  • Graciously ask the other people in the discussion section to clarify or expand their comments, even if you disagree with them.
  • Say, “I’ve never really been that keen on that approach; tell me more about how you handle this snag I encounter when I try your method.”
  • Write to someone else in the discussion section offline, and work together on a solution to a problem or an even more exciting challenge for the group and bring it back to the comments section together.
  • Build on the author’s viewpoint and use it as a taking-off point for a deeper discussion of the issue, or a list of imaginative ideas of your own. Certainly you can do this at your own blog—the web is built on hyperlinks, of course—but many of us won’t follow you back to your nest. Think “community” as often as you can.
  • Offer your own solution to a technical problem and ask people to critique yours and improve it, right there in the discussion section of the magazine.
  • If the article begs for practical examples, rather than complaining, create your own examples and bring them back to blow our minds.

True, there will be times when someone needs to just say straight out that the author’s premise has no merit. But, as with the world’s most dangerous question, “Do I look fat in these pants?” it’s the very carefully chosen reply, given in the right spirit, that brings the best reward at the end of the day. Find a way to make your point, while moving us forward.

Your enthusiastic comments—whether said in agreement or not—may even encourage more people to submit their own articles (or comments) to one of the web magazines or communities, improving the quality of what we read. Some brilliant thinkers among us, some great talents, and some just plain old nice people have been leaving comments that earn their keep, that are as worthy of being read as the article itself.

Think, too, of the hundreds of people who don’t comment or write articles because they don’t want to be subject to sarcastic barbs. They have something to throw into the mix, yet hesitate, wondering if they’ll be called a fool. This isn’t Thunderdome, folks; it’s a magazine. When someone enters, offer them a cushion and a cool drink, and gently coax them to reveal more of their thoughts. Why not?

Somewhere over our collective rainbow#section8

View a comment section as a brainstorming session or potential goldmine of creative exchanges, rather than your chance to choose between being a fanboy or a brawler. Purposefully interacting in the discussion section, rather than just reacting, doesn’t just broaden your horizons. People are watching—oh, so many people—from across the web, the world, and from businesses. Some may ask you to write articles or books. Some may hire you, collaborate with you, or even visit your site and purchase something through one of your cleverly disguised text ads. Offer us something sparkly and you may have followers all the way to the end of the rainbow, where great opportunities await. Even better, offer us something intriguing, inspiring, or mind-bending; offer it in the spirit of collaboration, and we’ll follow you to a better web.

About the Author


Carolyn Wood is a writer, editor, and content strategist working through her company pixelingo and with top designers and developers in the web standards world. An ALA editorial staffer too busy to finish her unwebsite, she still finds time to make her to-won’t list every day.

41 Reader Comments

  1. No, only joking. A really good read, and on a theme I can wholeheartedly get behind! Comment pages often reek of missed opportunities – my particular pet hate is the four or five identical posts by authors who haven’t even _thought_ to read the existing comments.

    That said, as someone whose interests include video games, I still find the web community to be a much friendlier and more accepting place than the rest of the internet – “guerilla validation”:http://jeffcroft.com/blog/2008/feb/24/your-markup-validator/ aside…

  2. I try to make sure that I never reply to a discussion immediately after reading it, ingesting the topic and thinking about it as I go about my daily business. This usually allows me to reply with clarity and with the oh so important suggestion to bring the discussion forward (as you wrote in the article).
    In my opinion the reason why discussions on the web breakdown in to slanging matches very often is because of misunderstanding, usually borne out of the disparity of knowledge level between writer and reader. I’m not trying to advocate elitism, but we all work at different levels in a very large industry and it’s obvious that someone who has been working in the industry for 5-10 years has a completely different outlook to a university graduate.
    I’d really like to see a web where replies to blogs/forums had to be in a format worthy of the article, a properly constructed argument that shows that the respondent has understanding of the case in point and can offer valuable personal insight. So often it is obvious that the article or blog post hasn’t even been read properly. This is really an ideal world situation, but a little closer to this would be really helpful.

  3. Wonderful piece, Carolyn. Now, instead of just praising you for a thoughtful, engaging article, I’m supposed to ‘contribute to the discussion’, right?

    I’ve read many comment guideline documents in the past: from small pointers on blogs, to large, carefully crafted corporate mandates on user participation. This article is, without doubt, the most approachable guide to interacting with a wider audience in a comments section. Not only from the position of the simple guidelines, but in explaining *why* thoughtful participation is so valuable.

    Everyone who runs a comment section, or forum, with a set of participation guidelines, needs to read them, then read this, then re-write theirs. It’s that simple. Don’t just explain what you should do, but why. The bar has been officially raised.

    Oh, hang on, that was a compliment again wasn’t it? Damn comment guidelines.

  4. »If more of us are thinking “What can I contribute?”? instead of “Did I like this article?”? the entire conversation is transformed.« — this is what really got me. One of these oh too simple statements carrying oh so much wisdom. Thank you for this, Carolyn.

    Would be perfect to adapt ALA’s comment section to this, changing the »Was it good for you, too?«!

  5. Lately I attended a course on “transactional analysis”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transactional_analysis and I think your article points out some fundamental aspects of it. At the root of clear communication is our ability to understand a message without being distracted by the form it takes — not only on the web, that is — and reply with a message formulated with the appropriate tone and words.

    The value you bring to the conversation is directly related to how you can empathize with your reader’s comments and build upon it. As Drew I also try to think about it for a while before giving an answer and this is valid for communications that happen “in real life” as well.

    bq. Some may hire you, collaborate with you, or even visit your site and purchase something through one of your cleverly *disguised text ads*

    Nicely said 🙂 Very good read, thanks a lot.

  6. Very nice read. I wonder what these places are that you write about. Of course they are specific for different subjects, but it would be nice to get a few suggestions – on different issues, just to get a feel of the more continueus (sp? actual word? obviously I’m not a native) part of the web.

    (I’ve been reading ALA om and off for at least five years, this is actually the first time I wanted to comment/ask something)

  7. “Despite the overwrought nature of some of our online conversations, there is, indeed, something important at stake. The great phenomenon of our times, this global network of voices and places and missions is something you and I have the power to shape. What a privilege. As fast as the web races forward, it’s clearly still in its infancy. We have time to make it grander than it is, and that better web is likelier to arrive through open doors, not those slammed shut.” – In it something is…some pride

  8. Carolyn – this was really great, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while.

    The hairs on the back of my neck raised a little when I read this line:

    bq. If more of us are thinking “What can I contribute?”? instead of “Did I like this article?”? the entire conversation is transformed.

    That, to me, is the big takeaway here, and I only hope that that simple phrase can guide more of us in our interactions online. Thanks so much for a great start to the day!

  9. @andi Ha, yes, you made me laugh, waking up this morning to the first comment title “Interesting article, but…” You’re right, too, that my article focuses to a great degree on discussions between people in the web standards world, and that there are all sorts of wild things going on elsewhere on the web, often intentionally so. For me, you said it all with the phrase “missed opportunities.”

    @Drew Excellent points. I know I usually hit the reply button much too quickly. It doesn’t occur to me to go away and think as I’m working and then return to leave my first comment. Love that suggestion, for people at every level of experience and education.

    @Mark Ha! Yes, you’ve broken all the rules now. But, seriously, that’s something I’d never thought of before—really looking, at individual blogs or company sites, for better ways to encourage better commenting. (Thank you for your kind words, too.)

    @Julia Thank you! I don’t know about changing Was It Good For You, Too, since I’m a sucker for witty phrases that get my attention, but you’ve reminded me to remind everyone to read through ALA’s style guide, in the Contribute section. This is not self-congratulatory, because I had nothing to do with its creation. I don’t know if Mr. Zeldman or Erin Kissane wrote it, but you’ll find wonderful writing there. This brings back Mark Boulton’s point, in a way. There are a lot of areas of sites that could be so much better, couldn’t they? Style guides, intros to comment sections, privacy pages, About pages (Erin Kissane wrote a great piece on that), contact pages, and many more.

  10. Here at work we are in the midst of bitter discussions around internal development standards. Having read Getting to Yes, has really helped our team. Here is a small excerpt:

    “In 1964 an American father and his twelve-year-old son were enjoying a beautiful Saturday in Hyde Park, London, playing catch with a Frisbee. Few in England had seen a Frisbee at that time and a small group of strollers gathered to watch this strange sport. Finally, one Homburg-clad Britisher came over to the father: “Sorry to bother you. Been watching you a quarter of an hour. Who’s winning?”?

    In most instances to ask a negotiator, “Who’s winning?”? is as inappropriate as to ask who’s winning a marriage. If you ask that question about your marriage, you have already lost the more important negotiation — the one about what kind of game to play, about the way you deal with each other and your shared and differing interests.” , Roger Fisher, The Harvard Negotiation Project

  11. Lovely article, Carolyn, and so eloquently put. I think in many ways, your article also touches on the importance of proper critical thinking and how to convey that through comments on the web. Essentially, I think the most important part is the emphasis on conversation, instead of monologues. Like you mentioned, an author should help encourage good feedback and not be a stranger in their own comment section.

    Also, in light of the New York Times article about trolls, there will be some people out there simply meant to hurt others for no logical reason and those types should also be categorically ignored by all.

  12. I’ll second Drew’s statement regarding misunderstandings being at the root of most web violence. I’d even go further to say that misunderstandings are at the heart of ALL violence in any context.

    In my mind a misunderstanding occurs when when one assigns a different meaning to words/actions than the author/actor intended. This can happen as Drew stated when parties have different levels of knowledge on the topic at hand. Or take Andi Farr’s pet peeve about folks not reading well before they reply. This be a misunderstanding in the amount of effort each party expects one to make when engaging in the conversation. Even people who understand whats expected in a given forum, grok the given thread and act purely out of malice probably have a basic misunderstanding of social interaction.

    In these situations a lot of people react violently out of fear and frustration that they’ll never be rid of “these blasted idiots!”.

    Drew’s suggestion to take a break and ponder your response is something I’ve been working on for quite a while in all aspects of my life and has helped me to (frequently, but not always) focus my energy into productive contribution instead of disruptive wrath.

    One thing I do during this time that has yielded good results is to give the person with whom I disagree the benefit of the doubt. I’ll spend Drew’s recommended break searching for the context within which their words/actions/tone are correct or appropriate. This is my implementation of Cathy’s first rule for joining the cool kids’ table: “Before disagreeing with people, tell them where you agree”. If I can’t imagine a way in which they could possibly have felt justified, or I can only imagine that they acted out of malice I just don’t respond and chalk it up to my lack of imagination. If I feel that I need to respond to them I put effort into taking this possible context into account and ask if I’m on track. This has served well to turn down the heat on tempers that are about to boil over.

    One place where this has made a huge impact on my mental well being and the safety of others is when driving in heavy traffic. Whereas I used to be more prone to becoming angered by perceived slights on the road and possibly reacting in kind, I am now more likely to manufacture a plausible reason (not excuse) for another driver’s misbehavior and empathize with their plight. It’s easier to let it slide when someone cuts you off if you decide that it’s probably because they’re in a hurry to help a family member that is in danger. Now instead of screaming an insult at their rear bumper I’ll usually offer words of encouragement hoping that their children are alright.

    One unfortunate side effect is that instead of frustration at the number of idiots on the road, I now feel sadness that there are so many people who’s houses are on fire 😉

  13. @Regis @Daniel Yes, our attitude as we read is so important. If I assume someone is on my side, in the larger sense, and that we’re after the same ultimate goals, then I’m less likely to go in swinging, more likely to ask questions before fighting, and the results are dramatically different.

    My husband and I refer to it as “evil motivations.” Did I just say such-and-such to him using the same, even tone that I’d use with the neighbor, or did I assume that his motivation for saying what he just said to me was motivated by something “evil,” in which case I’m going to lash out with a defense or an attack. And around we could go, never knowing quite how it started. Didn’t do it when we were first in love; back then if something sounded odd, we’d be more likely to say, “Really? What do you mean?” rather than leaping to conclusions. Empathy would get us a lot further in many areas of life, including the web. Did someone say they preferred Firefox to Safari because they are a snob and they think I’m inferior? Or do they just prefer Firefox, and possibly have some very good reasons. I’d be wise to stop and listen.

    And, as Daniel addresses, sometimes specific decisions need to be made, but often we don’t need a winner, we just need to work together for a common good. We don’t need to make that dazzling zinger that hits home and achieves nothing. Great quote and good older book to take another look at. Thank you.

    @t sr Welcome to commenting at ALA! I hope you join other discussions, as well. As far as “places” are concerned, I was speaking very generally about magazines and major sites in the web standards world. I haven’t singled out any particular place, but rather, the fact that we could get a lot more out of many conversations on the web. I’d like to see us be more inventive, collaborative, and congenial.

  14. They always come with such perfect timing!

    I had just been talking with a less web-savvy friend of mine of the differences in commenting behavior on different websites. And like it’s already been said here, I try to add something to the conversation, rather than just saying “first” and the like.

    I believe that less anonymity furthers the quality of the conversation in comments, which can easily be seen by comparing Digg or YouTube comments with, say, this thread.

    @Drew I’ve now followed your example by waiting a whole day, or night actually, before replying. Which is fine for A List Apart, because it’s somewhere I regularly return too. But often I’ll find myself somewhere interesting by following random links, and chances are then a lot higher that I won’t return to this particular site. Also having just read through a whole article and a couple of pages of comments, my brain seems to have everything a lot fresher in memory, and thus easier to talk about.

    @Ben and @Carolyn Applying these nice-behavior techniques to real life is gonna be my most valuable lesson from this. I’ve always wondered what it is with cars that makes the drivers change into such idiots, myself included. Feeling sorry for all these people’s burning houses is an awesome idea! And I’m looking forward to using the “Really? What does she mean?” thing with my girlfriend. It hasn’t been necessary so far, but it’s pretty ignorant to think it will never happen. A third place this happens ALL the time in the real world is with clients. I’m confident it’ll only be good for business to show more empathy with the ‘idiot’ client who wants those 5 different fonts per page. Which reminds me, I’ve got some CSS updates to do now.

  15. From my experience with forums addressing not so web-savvy users, the most important lesson learned is: Many people don’t realize that the whole world will be able to read their postings. And even if they know about this fact they still think “who would care to read this posting anyway?”. Result: Their comments are nasty, insulting and destructive (at least sometimes 😉

    The trick that solved the problem (well, almost) for my forums is: I require the full, real name of each user as their public user name. As soon as the users have to post under their real name, and not as “nastygirl123”, they much better recognize the impact and importance of what they’re doing. It works pretty well for my forums.

    Of course I can’t make sure they really, really use their real names instead of “Paul Miller” or “John Smith”; but that’s another story.

    ps: I can’t hesitate saying “thank you” for this wonderful article!

  16. Great article, Carolyn. As an author I often find that some users seem to read content almost with a vendetta. They’re just waiting to find a mistake so they can point it out. It’s not just “Did I like this article?”?, but “What’s wrong in this article?” And, of course, if you make a mistake you must be an idiot!

    One thing that I often encounter in one community in particular is people taking things out of context. It’s as if they’re just looking for you to use the wrong word and then they jump on you. A related problem I find is people jumping to conclusions. You try to be succict on the web. You don’t want to make people read more than they need to. But if you refrain to thoroughly cover your point of view then some people will fill in the blanks and accuse you of things you didn’t mean to say.

    Problems like this, and others you bring up in the article, make it much more difficult to write. I often put off topics because I feel like I need to cover all my bases, to provide less fodder for these jerks. By the time I get time to finish the aritcle the conversation is out of date. My site suffers because I’m not able to publish content as often as I’d like to.

  17. I find it disappointing that most of the comments on this article here are not contributing (is that a contribution?). I prefer to read flames between highly motivated and convinced commenters, since it shows me different points of view. Am I detecting some well-hidden fear of saying _anything_ inappropriate?!?

    On the other hand, if all anyone wants to say here is “good job” then perhaps the comments box is just not the right feature, and a rating feature should be used.

    As to the idea of “sending a private message”, as said the web is a fast paced environment. The box is right there, why not type it in there? And where’s that contact form again?

    Perhaps an idea is to invent a new netiquette for this: put ‘private’ as the first line of your comment, and the moderator knows not to put the comment online. Of course that is only to be used on moderated blogs/sites, but there are many. Others could have a ‘send to author’ button right next to the ‘submit comment’ button.

    People are hard to educate through text. Learn from the way traffic is organized: traffic lights, signals, lines, policemen, road blocks, and… roads, so you stay on them.

  18. The article has been out a few days, so it may be too late to bring this up, but I’d love to hear examples of great brainstorming in comment sections, or more ideas for fostering it. For example, I remember seeing an article once in response to which Paul Goode took the author’s ideas and within his comment just started brainstorming ideas. Very creative.

  19. @Ben Thanks for commenting. (Thanks to everyone, by the way, for taking the time to make such thoughtful comments). I agree to an extent about misunderstandings. You have some very insightful examples, and I love the connection with being on the road, and the tendency to have a mind full of road rage. My version of your example is, “maybe the woman in in labor and they are on the way to the hospital!” or “Maybe they are racing to find a bathroom!” 🙂 But, it takes effort. My natural tendency is to just react.

    Sometimes, though, I do think there are differences that are more than misunderstandings and are based on absolutely contradictory perspectives. I’ve tried, in this article, to say, “okay, now what?” How can we behave in more positive ways when that happens, and how can we move to something even better than what either side is thinking? That takes a lot of thought and is, admittedly, a high goal. That’s the most exciting interaction to read, I think.

    @Eystein Yes, bringing this line of thinking to the sphere of client work—well, there’s a perennial problem, that’s for sure. Even more complicated as we sort out questions for ourselves like what are constraints and what are unreasonable requests, and all of that. I’ve seen some brilliant articles on that subject. Jeff Croft is one, Andy Rutledge another, and Jeffrey Zeldman has spoken on the subject, among others. Something we all constantly cope with.

    @Franz, you zeroed in on something I neglected in my article: the cost that comes with the freedom of anonymity on the web. Absolutely!

  20. Apologies if my title isn’t as textually delectable as others, but my point stands, and as I use profanity in this instance not to degrade but to show emphasis as I soooo love to, I say again… Carolyn Wood, you’ve texticulated something great here! Well Done!!!

  21. One of the comments to your inspiring article inspired me to change the comment form on my own blog. It no longer says ‘post a comment.’ It now says ‘what can you contribute?’ I’ll be interested to see if this produces any change in the tone or quality of comments.

  22. As I wrote about this article on my blog, one of the reasons that the change in focus that Carolyn recommends transforms the conversation is that “like and dislike” are judgments. By their nature, judgments are personal… and as such tend to lead to an emotional response.

    I’m not trying to be Rousseau, but I believe a lot of conversation – not just conversation online – could benefit from a dash of reason before a kick from the gut. But as @Lea notes, critical thinking skills are required. And how well are those skills “taught”?

    @Carolyn – I moderate a politics forum. Ugh. I’ve tried a variety of ways to move participants from shouting matches and sniping to reasoned but spirited discussion, without a great deal of success, I might add. Well, sniping is down, but so is traffic. Members complain that I want to have a “tea party” when politics is a “wrestling match.” I disagree, but haven’t been convincing. I’m going to let this article sink in a bit and then see how I can (a) change our posting guidelines and (b) change how I make suggestions to participants.

    @Ben … I “learned” in my late 20s that my reaction to traffic said more about me than about other drivers … in that I “heard” this at a conference and went “wow!” However, it was a decade or two later before I learned it again … and then I was able to actually act on the knowledge. Rather than the letting other drivers “make me angry” … I finally learned that I am in power. I am the mistress of my emotions.

    So when I cringe at a barb in comments on a post I’ve made, I ask myself, “what’s really going on here” before I post a response. In that, I’m kinda like @Drew … I try not to respond in haste. But I rarely wait 24 hours! But if I do respond in haste (hey, I’m human), I try to follow the advice here: when you’re wrong or acting hot-headed, apologize.

  23. … not being a jerk?

    The article is very particular, laudably, about how commenting on the Web can be entered into in a positive way (I especially appreciate the advice to blog writers as to how to deal with commenters). However, this is essentially simple stuff (that not enough people adhere to, albeit). Even the expectation that a commenter read the article in question carefully and allow it to mull around is far too prescriptive, really. The model for commenting on blogs etc is fundamentally schizophrenic (does it comprise a multi-headed conversation or is it a set of virginal comments on the original article?) and broken – this is essentially a design issue. If I haven’t given a blog entry much especial time or thought, yet make a perfectly positive, constructive comment in the context of the conversation (didn’t mean all that alliteration!), it’s not my fault that someone else, or even the blogger themself, might then opine that I’m not playing ball. I’m a user, trying to “kick ass” as Kathy Sierra would put it, and you’ve got to try and help me, remember?

    I have plans for how to improve the situation, and remove the ego projection that seems to comprise the base material of 90% of online commentary. Anyone who’s interested in talking about how one might go about slaying that particular dragon, do drop me a line! (Clue: threaded comments are, indeed, a hellish as you think they are.)

  24. @ Douglas Thanks for your comments. I tried to emphasize that I was talking particularly about magazine and organizational sites, rather than blogs, and also that my first list of pointers was just the basics and that I wanted to suggest that we go beyond the basics.

    Thus, my second list, and call for more ideas for the second list that take us beyond not being a jerk to actually collaborating or getting somewhere more important. As I said, the first list was just the basics. Yes, you are right. That list reminds us not to be jerks, even in unintended ways. I needed to cover those before moving on in the article, since so many of us ignore the basics.

    Writing about individual blogs would be difficult, since each one is unique, and the author has the right to do anything he wants….and will reap whatever responses he earns from his choices. If you can develop plans for improving the situation for magazines and community sites and/or blogs, that would be wonderful!

  25. In the spirit of productive discourse:

    @Michiel (#17) – I like that idea of a split between actual commentary/discussion and the “good job” type of comments that dilute the value of an article’s comment section. Rather than a rating, though, how about two different ‘piles’ of comments; one a list of thanks (so the commenters still get to leave their name and URL), and the other a list of longer comments? (Not an original idea, I borrowed it from the mininova.org torrent site.)

  26. One thing this article didn’t address for me (unless my mid-morning skim reading let me down…) is how to encourage this kind of commenting in the first place. A few months back I spent quite a while hacking up a commenting system for my site, integrated with our forum so a comment on a news story starts a thread in our forum with a link to the story in question. I took time to tie it into pages and try to spark off discussion, and despite a largeish userbase (30K unique visitors/month) nobody uses the damn thing. How can we persuade apathetic users to get involved?

  27. @Matthew I’m not keen on ratings, either, but on discourse or at least ideas. However, most of the responders here have not only said positive things, but also included ideas or their experience. They don’t look like they’ve included a comment in order to sort of advertise their name and URL (though that may not be what you were implying). If people have something to say, even if it’s positive 🙂 I say, let’s hear them out. If a topic strikes a chord, it’s helpful for us to know that, and good for people who want to be able to say more than “i liked it” to have the freedom to express themselves. But, give it a whirl over in your neck of the woods. It might serve you well, and I’d be interested to see the results. Reducing the number or length of positive comments was not the purpose of this article. 🙂 By the way, for those who might still be visiting this discussion section, Matthew Pennell is a frequent commenter on blogs and at magazines, and while not one of us is perfect, he often leaves comments that show some depth. Keep an eye out for his.

    @Matt Funny you should say that. A few months ago I asked someone to write an article on that very subject, or something close to it. It will be great to get your input when we raise that topic. I completely agree that it’s a concern for many people, and really discouraging when things aren’t working.

  28. @Carolyn: I wasn’t referring specifically to magazine-style sites like ALA, more thinking of personal blogs or top-ten style lists where there are a large proportion of “hey, great” comments that don’t add anything to the discussion. Separating out those from the constructive entries would make consuming that content easier.

  29. @Matthew Now I see what you mean. Since the article was specifically not about blogs, my mind focussed in that direction. Yes! I’ve seen blogs with literally 100 comments or more, most of which say, “Cool!” or something along those lines. In that case, it’s just one long list of uninformative affirmations. Combining methods of commenting within one blog—well, it would be challenging to explain it really clearly in only a few words, since you wouldn’t want to encourage people to just give a rating, let’s say, rather than add a good, juicy comment, but it would be very welcome at some of the places that you’ve mentioned. Another path to take would simply to trying to find a way to elicit more from people in their comments than “Fanboy here!” Er, not so simple. 🙂 Thanks for the clarification.

  30. I some what understand people starting to flame at each other. Some times one needs to express his frustration. In forums it may would help trying to isolate the flaming from the discussion by offering a “offical flaming area” as well as obligating moderators to move flame entries into that special area.

    Another idea: Let people rate entries as flames (the opposite of rate them as good). I guess people would like that since it would give them an opportunity to express their frustration while providing a filtering possiblity to the others at the same time.

    (Sorry for my english skills. I’m not natively speaking english)

  31. Ad hominem arguments usually stink. And they are doubly treacherous in an online forum where you can’t look someone in the eye, gauge their body language, none of that.
    But that said, there are many occasions when it’s perfectly appropriate to voice an opinion about the motives, intentions, and credibility of those with whom you are interacting.
    Judges and juries do this thousands of times every day all over the world and it is both a pertinent and crucial that they do so.
    If someone has a hidden agenda, or is being duplicitous, they should be called out on it. Pure and simple.

  32. @Richard You raise a good question, particularly for forums and blogs, where the rules of the game are determined by the people who run them. My article’s focus isn’t on forums or blogs (though I believe that both would benefit from many of the ideas in the article), but rather on online magazines and, really, the few of them that take pains to “vet” articles. So, credibility is rarely an issue.

    Motives and intentions seem beside the point to me for the type of articles I discuss. The thing to judge is the article itself and its issue. My advice is to stay focussed on the issue and move it forward, rather than getting sidetracked trying to determine the motivations or intentions of other people in the discussion area. Attorneys, judges and juries have an entire trial to present cases, pro and con, to determine, among other things, motive. Cases built purely on motive are usually called circumstantial. Too, the the purpose of a trial is usually that there is good reason to believe that someone has done something wrong, and our goal is to figure out who. That’s not the purpose of a magazine article, and I’ve tried to point out that when we take trail-like adversarial positions, the result is usually unproductive for everyone involved. If you think an article author is duplicitous, in that their article is a case of plagiarism, your best bet is simply to contact the editors of the magazine (providing proof, of course).

    In discussing an article’s issue, what does it matter what the other person’s motive is? What matters is the quality of his or her point about the issue being discussed. As for how to respond to people in the discussion area for a well-vetted article, if you think they are duplicitous or have a hidden agenda? I would have three answers to that: 1) If you think they are duplicitous or have a hidden agenda (and it would be extremely unusual for us to know that for a fact), react only to what they’ve said about the issue. Discuss the value of the point they make, pro or con. I see no reason to comment on them personally. 2) If they are, indeed, duplicitous or have a hidden agenda, such as throwing off or destroying the discussion, they are likely a troll, in which case, those of us with a great deal of experience on the web know that the best course is simply to ignore or delete the comment. Engaging them in discussion is almost never fruitful and only helps them succeed in attempts to throw us off course. 3) If they are simply wrong about a point, and you now that for sure, I addressed that in my article, right after the “Cool Kid’s Table” list. Say what you have to say as graciously as possible. Be open to the idea that _you_ might be the one who is wrong, so that you are still able to continue the dialogue. I have found that even in the sometimes wild and virtually endless forum discussions that I think you are talking about, refusing to be thrown off course or sucked in often starts with firmly refusing to make it personal. As I say to the authors in my article, don’t be too concerned about nasty people. They are self-indicting. Is my article a cure-all for problems in the discussion sections of high-quality magazines (or other places online, as well)? Absolutely not. Impossible. It’s simply a reminder for those who have slipped into bad habits (most of us, at one time or another) and a call for more collaboration. When we’re discussing articles about CSS, JavaScript, IA, Content, PHP, Design, and other subjects related to creating websites (and my article was specifically about the web standards world) in public, I see little reason to get personal. Discussing other issues in other areas of the web, which may be more likely to touch on, say, moral, political, or personal issues, may call for the “calling out” you suggest. I still suggest it be done with civility.

  33. @Frederic Thank you for commenting. Most of us are usually very impressed by people who enter a discussion that isn’t in their first language!

    While online forums aren’t really the focus of my article, your comment about rating flamers had me smiling. I believe that 37signals puts dunce caps next to people who seem to be trolls. Although you idea of rating comments as flames is very imaginative, somehow I think that rating flames would just encourage more flaming. Your idea of moving flames to another area in forums (not magazine articles) might actually work. 🙂 I believe that simply venting frustration is probably best to do in emails to friends, in very small private discussion lists where everyone agrees that the list is for venting, in non-personal Twitters, or in our own blogs, etc. Of course, stating our frustration about a subject in an article is fine, if we aren’t personal about it, and we aren’t venting—that’s my opinion, anyway.

  34. Please excuse the typos I just discovered in my last two replies. 🙂 I’m supposed to be on vacation this week, and apparently my spelling is on vacation, too.

  35. I was a bit taken aback to show up on ALA and find an article about a subject I had just covered in a rant on my own “blog”:http://goteama.com/fwiw/articles/19/a-diatribe-or-maybe-just-a-tribe from a different perspective.

    I work in film as well as on the web, and I have been really dismayed by the lack of substantive that goes on around films, particularly independent projects. There seem to be many folks who love film out there who are deeply concerned with ridding cinema of anyone who is not yet a perfect craftsman, noob or not.

    On the whole I have found that the web community is a bit more tolerant of noobs, and experimentation. This medium really allows people to articulate what works and does not about any product in as much or little detail as they like, yet those thoughts are rarely presented as a way to open discussion. Only a way to stick one’s tongue out, finger up and turn the cold shoulder to the rest of the community.

    This was a fantastic article (certainly more coherent than mine) and will hopefully lead to some new ideas in this area. Maybe all of us web heads can come up with a new interface to make commenting more collaborative and less bellicose.

  36. That’s a great article, thank’s for taking the time to write it, it really changes the perception I had about comments section on a website.

  37. Carolyn, it’s been said better and with fewer words, but this is a terrific piece, one with equal parts head and heart in it. So thank you for that.

    I thought readers might be interested in a slide deck NY-based agency Bond Art & Science (disclosure: we’re collegial but share no working relationship) made public this week around braving and engaging the commentariat. It’s here:


  38. One of the greatest tragedies of the internet is Craigslist’s Rants & Raves, which blew a good thing by allowing users to censor content by flagging it. What was once a brilliant board full of crazed vitriol, unabashed bigotry, and occasional moments of inspired brilliance is now mostly about the unabashed bigotry (and Sox/Cubs fans posting a lot of penis pictures while calling each other “gay” here in Chicago). Nobody wants to open the obviously racist posts (or the baseball posts with pictures attached) so they never get flagged. But if you say something smart or incisive enough to piss somebody off they’ll flag that stuff into oblivion.

    You have to allow for some blowing off of steam, I think. When I get my forums up and running, I expect I’ll have one completely anonymous 18+ section that lets people blow their tops and get stuff off of their chests with the one rule being that you don’t get to attack individuals.

    When you give users too much control of anything, you provide nothing.

  39. @Erik Sure, build as many forums and blogs as you’d like. The “rules” or lack of rules at each is up to the person or group who builds them, as I said in my article. If you’d like them to be places where people blow off steam, that’s up to you. I agree with you (if I understand one of your points correctly) that unmonitored anonymous rating systems can end up as free-for-alls that yield absolutely no information. Good point.

    My article, however, clearly was on a different topic: Sites where carefully crafted, vetted articles are written for people who make websites, and they offer an opportunity to collaborate (even when that means cordially disagreeing). My point was that blowing off steam in these specific places gets us nowhere, doesn’t garner any respect for the “steamer” (in fact, they almost always embarrass themselves), and is a missed opportunity.

  40. Granted this article was written a few months ago, but someone suggested it in another comment area. Great piece. To often do I visit someone’s article on how to do something on the web, a new trick, new technology, new way to do things and people come in like they are the Masters of the Web and just criticize the author or people who right meaningful comments about the article. Like I say in many articles, no one forces them to read the article. It is the web, you can choose another site to go to.
    I really liked this article because it brings to light so many things that people do all over the web. With the comments section open to all opinions there seems to be people who like to start a slugfest and offer no real substance on how to improve something. Case in point is this article

    where the author offers a new way to do something and people come swooping in like the Web police or villans and start bashing the article and offer no ideas of their own to show how something could be different or how they would do it. Just how they think it is pointless, it sucks, or some other bash they can think of.
    Great stuff. Love the articles on this site. Very top notch.
    Thank you!

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