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.