Comments on Putting Our Hot Heads Together

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  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”: aside…

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  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.

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  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.

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  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?«!

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  5. Lately I attended a course on “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.

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  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)

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  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

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  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!

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  9. 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

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  10. 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.

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  11. 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 ;)

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  12. 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.

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  13. 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!

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  14. 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.

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  15. 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.

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  16. I am apparently so used to typing my name in the first field I didn’t even notice it was named ‘message title’


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  17. 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!!!

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  18. 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.

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  19. 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.

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  20. ... 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.)

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  21. 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 torrent site.)

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  22. 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?

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  23. @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.

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  24. 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)

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  25. 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.

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  26. 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”: 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.

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  27. 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.

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  28. 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:

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  29. 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.

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  30. 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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  31. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.