A little while back, I was exchanging some emails with a fellow-writer about the art of commenting on posts, and trying to build a real relationship with our readers.
While it’s easy to comment on a post – all you do is type something and press ‘submit’ – actually commenting in a thoughtful way which is not just about massaging your own ego or ‘being seen to comment’ is actually way, way harder.
Like so many of the things internet-connected, it’s an iron fist hidden in a velvet glove, and a ‘wrong’ comment can you leave you feeling really ucky for days, both if you’re on the receiving end of it, but also, if you’re the one dishing it out.
So, how can we really navigate the maze of commenting on other people’s posts, or maybe on other people’s comments to things we ourselves have written? After pondering on the subject for a while, this is what I came up with:
1) Leave your ego at the door
If you are only commenting to one-up someone else, or to demonstrate that you are so much cleverer / clued-in / better / more intelligent than they are– then stuff a rag in it and keep your mouth shut. Those types of comments just put other people’s backs up, and give an ucky taste to the whole proceedings.
Similarly, if you are writing posts but can’t bear for people to disagree with you, or to point out some uncomfortable home truths about your writing publically, then disable your comments function now. Yes, many internet commentators use the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a walnut today, and often express themselves very coarsely. But, that’s the curse of the age: no-one knows how to debate ideas politely without getting into personal insults today.
The only way this ability is going to return is if some stalwart writers can tolerate a bit of abuse as the price of starting to teach the next generation that there is a better way of expressing themselves.
The more you can leave your ego at the door, the more a healthy debate will start to flourish around your writing. That doesn’t mean you can’t challenge people who disagree, or that you should only write fake nice comments. Be real, be direct, be forceful, if you have to – but do it like a humble, considerate mensch who is trying to get to the truth, and not just trying to come off as a loudmouth control-freak, or know-it-all.
2) Don’t slander other people
Don’t make negative comments about other people. Full stop. You can criticize ideas, you can criticize actions, you can even criticize organisations and other ‘faceless’ institutions. But don’t slag off other people.
3) Have someone else re-read your comment or post before posting up
Now, I’m a hypocrite for writing this, as I usually don’t do that. What usually happens is that after the event, my husband will read something and mildly raise an eyebrow if it’s a bit ‘off’, and I’ll know to go and reconsider it. OR, if it’s really ‘off’, then usually one of my readers will blast me in the comments section – and then again, I have to go and reconsider it.
And even then, usually it will stay up. But not always.
Good writers respond to readers' feedback, even when it's not what they want to hear, and accepting you may actually be wrong is a key part of art of commenting.
4) If you’re going to slaughter a sacred cow, be prepared for a strong reaction
A few months’ ago, I wrote an ill-advised piece about Jews and money. The topic is highly charged at the best of times, and needs handling with a lot of sensitivity. Often, I can pull that stuff off OK, but this time, I really couldn’t. What I wrote was more an expression of my inner frustration with having to deal with some extremely bent people as opposed to a useful discussion about the pitfalls of excessive materialism.
So, I was rightly blasted by a couple of irate readers, and after talking to God about it, I realized the right thing to do was to pull the piece.
But then sometimes, the opposite occurs. Sometimes, I’ll write something that gets roundly criticized in the comments section, and the nature of the criticism itself shows me I’m actually on the right track.
Whichever way it splits, if you want to write about sensitive topics, be prepared for strong reactions and try not to take them personally. The point of sparking a debate is that people will tell you what they really feel about a subject, and very few of us are developed enough spiritually to genuinely enjoy the process of having our assumptions challenged.
If you are challenging your readers’ most cherished beliefs, or basic guiding assumptions, they will defend them robustly – and you have to respect that, give them the ability to express what they need to say, and then respond to the ideas they are pushing back with without trying to verbally decapitate them.
This is often really hard! But learning how do this is really fundamental to the art of handling comments appropriately. (And when I’ve really managed it, I’ll let you know.)
5) Define your redlines and police them strongly
Yes, you want to comment and have commentators. Yes, you want to dialogue and share ideas. But there’s a lot of flat-out weirdos and psychos out there, and especially if you’re enabling anonymous commenting, they will come flooding out of the skirting with profanity, personal attacks and brain-dead criticisms that say far more about their own, tortured, state of mind than the ideas you’re actually trying to discuss.
So, be clear what your redlines are, and police them accordingly. On my blog, for example, I won’t tolerate lashon hara; I also won’t tolerate profanity; and I won’t tolerate any comments that bash orthodox Judaism or the Torah. (But to be clear, while I won’t post up any comments that contain the first two, I will sometimes post comments that contain the last one, simply so I can rebut it publically. That’s part of the art of commenting.)
If you don’t want comments from certain types, be ruthless with your delete button. Sooner or later, they will get the picture. But again, if you want to initiate a genuine debate with your readers, be prepared for them to disagree with you, even strongly. If you can’t hack that, be honest and disable your comments function.
6) Don’t always try to have the last word
You don’t always have to come out looking like the ‘winner’ in the comments section. At least sometimes, let your readers’ comments stand unrebutted and unchallenged. Thank them for pointing things out you haven’t thought about, or didn’t know. Appreciate the time and effort they are taking to try to interact and share their knowledge with you and your audience.
If you like what they are sharing, encourage them to give you more of the same in the future.
As much as you can, step out of the limelight, and let the other person’s point stand alone.
7) Don’t respond to comments (or write blogposts….) when you’re in a bad mood
The last few weeks, I’ve been having a lot of stress and my patience levels have reduced as a result. This is not a good state of mind to be commenting or writing in, and I’ve noticed recently that I’ve been much more ‘snippy’ and aggressive in some of my responses than usual.
I’ve tried to take some time off to rectify this problem, and it’s helped a little. But I can still see that when I’m in a mood like this, it’s frequently better to keep mum than to comment, write or respond from a place of grumpiness and anger.
There’s enough negativity out there already, we writers don’t need to pointlessly add to it.
8) Be real
Being real means it’s ok to admit you were wrong, that you make mistakes, that you sometimes act (or write…) like a jerk. That’s OK. Nobody’s perfect, and the internet will bring out every bad character trait you have, and magnify it a million times.
If you write something misjudged, or incorrect, or just plain bad and wrong, apologise, ask for it to be deleted if necessary and move on. Readers will respond to your real flaws much more than they will to your fake piety – but only if you ‘fess up and stop pretending to be perfect.
9) Focus on adding value
Whatever you write, try to make the focus on the other, not just on yourself. How is what you’re writing helping someone else, or making them feel a little happier about things? How is your comment building the world? How is your input opening up the debate, or sharing new information that other people didn’t know before?
If it’s not doing any of those things, and really adding some value for at least one other person out there, then silence could be more golden.
10) Go with the flow
The last thing to say sounds a little counter-intuitive, given all that has come before, but don’t get too caught up with trying to write the perfect comment or post. Accept that try as you might, you will sometimes say something dumb, or inconsidered, or wrong or ucky. Minimising those occasions is part of the art of commenting, but completely eradicating them will only happen if you hang up your pen (or keyboard….).
If you make one duffo comment for every nine useful ones, continue.
If your ratio is no-where near that good, then keep practicising until it gets better, and use this blog post as a checklist to see how you can keep improving on your commenting abilities. If your goal is really to add value, debate honestly, learn new things and help other people, you will get there in the end, so don’t sweat the small mistakes you’re inevitably going to make along the way.
But, if your goal is to make other people feel bad, browbeat everyone with your own loud opinions and shut-down the discussion – then you probably won’t get there. It’s a self-fulfilling kind of thing.
So go with the flow, enjoy yourself, be real, and most of all – don’t be scared to try to interact with other people and new ideas.
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