How to Be a Good Commenter

One of the things I’m proud of here at Whatever is that the comment threads are usually actually worth reading, which is not always something you get with a site that has as many readers as this one does. Some of this is down to my moderation of the site, and my frequent malleting of trolls/idiots/assbags, but much of it is also down the generally high standard of commenter here. I do a lot less malleting than I might have to, because the people who frequent here do a fine job at being good commenters.

And I hear you say: Why, I would like to be a good commenter too! Not just here, but in other places where commenting occurs online! Well, of course you do. You’re a fine upstanding human being, not some feculent jackass with a keyboard, an internet connection and a blistering sense of personal inferiority that is indistinguishable from common sociopathy.

So for you, I have ten questions to ask yourself before you press the “post comment” button. Yes, ten is a lot. No one said being a good commenter was easy. But the good news is that the more you’re a good commenter, the less you’ll actually have to think about being one before you type. It becomes a habit, basically. So keep at it.

Here are your questions:

1. Do I actually have anything to say? Meaning, does what you post in the comments boil down to anything other than “yes, this,” or “WRONG AGAIN,” or even worse, “who cares”? 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. If your comment is not adding value, you need to ask whether you need to write it, and, alternately, why anyone should be bothered to read it. On a personal note, I find these sort of contentless comments especially irritating when the poster is expressing indifference; the sort of twit who goes out of his way to say “::yawn::” in a comment is the sort I want first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

2. Is what I have to say actually on topic? What is the subject of the original post? That’s also the subject of the comment thread, as is, to some extent, the manner in which the writer approached the subject. If you’re dropping in a comment that’s not about these things, then you’re likely working to make the comment thread suck. Likewise, if as a commenter you’re responding to a comment from someone else that’s not on topic to the original post, you’re also helping to make the comment thread suck. On a busy blog or site, there will be many opportunities to talk about many different subjects. You don’t have to talk about them in the wrong place.

3. Does what I write actually stay on topic? As a corollary to point two, 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 is a prime derailing maneuver, which I like to dub “The Libertarian Dismount,” given the frequency with which members of that political tribe employ it — e.g., “It’s a shame that so many people are opposed to same-sex marriage, but this is just why government has no place legislating relationships between people, and why in a perfect society government steps away and blah blah blahdee blah blah.” If you can’t write a comment that isn’t ultimately a segue into topics you feel are important, ask yourself why everything has to be about you.

4. If I’m making an argument, do I actually know how to make an argument? This I believe: Most people really can’t argue their way out of a paper bag. It’s not their fault; it’s not as if, in the US at least, we spend a lot of time training people in rhetoric. Be that as it may, if you are making an argument in a comment, it will help if the argument you’re making is structurally sound. It’s not my job to teach you the basics of rhetoric, but 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. Sorry, folks: you are probably not actually the living avatar of What Everyone Believes and Knows.

5. If I’m making assertions, can what I say be backed up by actual fact? I know you believe what you believe, and that’s nice for you, but if you want me or others to believe what you believe, then I’d like to see the data, please. Otherwise I’m just going to assume you are talking out of your ass, and I suspect most other people will make a similar assumption. The nice thing about the Internet is that facts, backed up by trustworthy sources — complete with references and methodologies! — are reasonably easy to find and link to. Wikipedia drives me up a wall sometimes, but the one undeniably good thing it’s done is to train a generation of nerds to ask: “[citation, please]”. As the obvious corollary:

6. If I’m refuting an assertion made by others, can what I say be backed up by fact? Because often comment threads are filled with the sounds of refutation. However, refutation without substantiation is not refutation at all; it’s just adding to the noise. Don’t add to the noise. Noise is easy. Be better than mere noise.

7. Am I approaching this subject like a thoughtful human being, or like a particularly stupid fan? I originally wrote “stupid sports fan,” but that was being unfair to sports fans, who are no more likely to be stupid and irrational about their favorite sports team than gadget fans are to be irrational about their favorite bit of tech or media fans their favorite series of books/shows/movies, or politics fans to be about their favorite ideology. The problem is when these sort of folks descend on a thread and get all rah-rah for their “team,” whatever that team is, and things get dreary and sad, fast. 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. If your comment boils down to “WOOOO GO TEAM [insert person/thing here] HELLS YEAH” then, again, you’re the problem with the comment thread, not anyone else.

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. Now, it’s also important to note that not everyone starts off being an asshole to others — commenters can begin responding to each other politely and then as things go on become more and more frustrated and exasperated until one or both (or more! Because comment threads aren’t always or even usually one-on-one discussions) go Full Asshole. So it’s worth keeping a tab on things. Two things here: One, assume good will on the part of others when talking to them; two, just because the other guy goes Full Asshole doesn’t mean you have to follow his shining example.

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. When you get two or more of those people in the same thread, well, the result can be grim. I’m not saying that you are one of those people who absolutely has to be right, but, if you would, look at this. Does that cartoon resemble you? Be honest, now. If it does, then there’s a pretty good chance you have to be right, and you have to win the comment thread. Which, to be blunt, makes you a bit of a bore to have a conversation with, and means that there’s ultimately a really good chance you’ll eventually end up being an asshole to someone because you can’t let it go. Don’t be that guy.

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. It’s okay not to make a lifetime commitment to a comment thread. Likewise: If you’re having a conversation in a comment thread that’s going nowhere, it’s okay to admit it and get out. Letting the other dude have the last word will not mean you have Lost the Internets; really, quite the opposite, in fact. Similarly, if you find a comment thread is making you angry or sick or pissed off, walk away. If you find that the reason you’re still in a comment thread is to thump on someone else, go get some air. If the thread has stopped being fun and started to be something like work, seriously, man, what the hell are you doing? Go away. It’s a comment thread. In short, know when to say when, and if you don’t know, then pick a number of responses that you are going to allow yourself in a thread (five, maybe?) and then stick to it. And finally, if you announce you’re leaving a comment thread, leave and don’t come back. No one likes a bad faith flouncing.

Got it? Then comment away.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jay Kristoff

Is there anything new to say in the worlds(s) of steampunk? Perhaps, if you look beyond the usual settings and suspect. For Stormdancer, author Jay Kristoff broadened his horizons and listened to his dreams. this is what he came up with.


“Telepathic samurai girls and griffins in a Japanese-inspired steampunk dystopia.”

That mouthful is my elevator-pitch reply when people ask me to sum up my debut novel Stormdancer. It took me a year to get it that concise. I hang my head in shame.

It was a dream that started it all. I was in the process of querying my first novel, and meeting the kind of success fluffy bunnies meet when querying moving cars with their faces. In the midst of this blizzard of boiler-plate rejection letters, I dreamed about a boy trying to teach a griffin to fly in a field of dying grass.

This boy was yelling at the top of his voice, but the griffin’s wings were broken and it couldn’t get airborne no matter how masterfully the kid swore (friends who read too much into dreams have said the boy was me, and the griffin was my novel – flawed to the bone). I was looking for an idea for my next book, and the image lodged in my head.

But an image doesn’t make a novel – or if it does, it’ll be a gorram short one. Hardly the kind you’ll buy a castle next to Jo Rowling’s with. So the little boy became a teenaged girl who, instead of shouting into the griffin’s ears, could shout into his mind. The field of grass became a field of blood-red flowers, choking the life out of everything around them. And instead of the griffin’s wings being broken, they’d been taken away from him. By bastards. That’s how Stormdancer was born.

Stormdancer’s setting is a nation teetering on the edge of ruin. Shima is an imperium built on the backs of fantastical technologies – sky-ships and motor-rickshaw and thunder-rail, defended by Iron Samurai in lumbering suits of power armor. But the engines that drive the empire are ever thirsty, and Shima is being slowly consumed by the very technologies that once made it great. Fields of blood lotus flowers are cultivated for the fuel that drives their machines, but that same flower is killing the earth and everything on it. The magical beasts of legend are dead or gone, the air is choked with toxins, and a blast-furnace sun burns in a scarlet sky. When I first pictured the islands in my head, I imagined a high-speed collision between the epic settings of feudal Japan and the fictions of Verne, Moore and Gibson, smudged with a handful of soot and burned motor oil.

I wanted to take steampunk’s corsetry and rose-colored goggles and wide-eyed enthusiasm for the wondrous machine and make it ugly. Make the machine the enemy. Tell a story about a people so hopelessly dependent upon their technology that they couldn’t pull back from the brink, despite the awful truth that their technology was killing them. To me, that seemed a truth not so far from our own, and a sandbox worth playing in. As for the cultural touchstone, steampunk Victorian England had been done, and done well. But the world during Victorian times was an amazing place, and as far as I could see, not many folks had drawn inspiration from one of the most incredible cultures of the day – the Tokugawa Shōgunate of 19th century Japan.

Imagine it: Steam-powered samurai. Flying maru. Chainsaw katanas.

Steampunkery aside, and at its heart, Stormdancer is a book about an unlikely friendship between two even more unlikely characters – a girl with the ability to speak telepathically to animals in a country where animal life is virtually extinct, and the last griffin left alive. I wanted to write an epic adventure, full of battles and betrayals and chainsaw katana fights, with a kick-ass heroine who didn’t need to choose a boy by which to define herself. I wanted to collide epic fantasy with steampunk and see where it took me. But more than that, I wanted to write a book with heart; a book about a friendship that bloomed despite all obstacles. A bond that would grow to become a thing of legend in this nation on the edge of ruin – a friendship that challenged the might of an empire.

But it all started with a dream, and my life has felt a little like a dream since I first found out it was getting published. So, if you’re considering giving some of your time to this absurd little dream of mine, you have my heartfelt thanks.


Stormdancer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.



Hey! I Don’t Have to Pay Income Tax!

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.

— Mitt Romney, at a fundraiser.

Okay, I’m confused. I’m an Obama supporter, have been for a nice long time now, and have never seriously considered voting for anyone else for president in the current election cycle — and yet yesterday I also sent in a big fat check to cover my estimated quarterly tax assessment, something I had to do because as a freelance writer, the federal, state and local governments think I’m not smart enough to pay my entire tax indebtedness in a single go. I also have private health insurance, a mortgage through a private lender, and pay for my own groceries.

Have I been doing this wrong the whole time?

Because I’m not gonna lie to you: man, if being an Obama supporter means you don’t have to pay income tax, well, sign me up. Because that would be sweet. I pay a metric crap ton of taxes — almost certainly more, as a percentage of my income, than ol’ Romney does, so more the fool me — and if all it takes to get out of them is voting for B. Hussein Obama, then that’s just fine with me. Honestly, if that’s actually the deal, and Romney is not just pulling a bunch of nonsense straight out of his ass, then I’m not surprised conservatives aren’t planning to sweep Obama to a 49-state landslide. Isn’t the holy grail of modern day conservatism never paying taxes for anything ever? You can do it! In one simple step! And, apparently, get a government-issue tub of cheese while you’re at it. Which just makes it sweeter (or, well, cheesier, anyway).

The converse of this is that as someone who actually pays taxes and doesn’t expect the government to pay his mortgage, I may be obliged to vote for Romney. But, yeah, that’s so not going to happen. So: No income taxes for me. And free housing! Hey, look, I don’t make the rules, here. I’m just doing what Mitt Romney tells me. You have a problem with this, you take it up with him.

I can’t wait to try out this logic on my IRS man! I see no possible way that this plan could ever fail. And if it does, then I will go to the federal pen — where I will get government-subsidized food, shelter and medical care, and won’t pay income tax! See. Mitt Romney was right all along.

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