One of the most fascinating things about writing professionally on the Internet for nearly a decade now is the progression of “commenting” that has evolved alongside the blogosphere.
I was first introduced to the whole concept of online “conversations” during my early days on Internet forums. If you’ve ever spent any time on forums, then you know that the conversations can get very heated and very personal very fast.
One unfortunate part of forums was the forum “troll” – the person that would jump into the middle of a forum conversation for the sole purpose of creating discord and conflict. Usually, they would post some kind of “flame” – hateful or mean comments about someone – in some strange effort to strike a nerve and inflame the emotions of those taking part in the thread.
Once I migrated away from forums and into the world of blogging, I realized that even though the dynamics of the conversation are different, Internet trolls were still present. However, what I learned about these individuals is that often they don’t really even realize that what they are doing is wrong. It isn’t so much what they are saying, but how they go about saying it.
As James recently described, there are many things bloggers do to encourage blog comments, but usually what most bloggers hope for is the sort of constructive and intelligent feedback that Joshua recently described. Unfortunately, that isn’t always what bloggers get.
How To NOT Comment Like an Internet Troll
Having grown up in a household that was often filled with lively debate, I never took well to trolls. Friends and colleagues would advise me to “never feed the trolls,” but I would inevitably get sucked into a flame war in an effort to expose the idiocy of this hateful individual.
Alas, such an effort never ended well. Both sides of the conversation turn emotional, and everyone involved loses sight of the original topic at hand. All of that simply because one comment was written in such a way that came across wrong. That is the danger of the Internet, and it is the minefield that we call the “comment area” on blogs scattered throughout the Internet.
So what are some ways that you can post your opinion or your criticisms without coming across like a hateful troll? Let me describe a few techniques from the perspective of a long-term online writer.
Making Personal Attacks
I’m not sure what it is about some people that read blogs and think that they have some sort of right to attack authors with comments like “you’re stupid“, or “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever read!” Whenever I would respond to such comments with some kind of counter-attack, the troll would always act shocked and offended.
It’s almost as though some people feel entitled to be cruel, like they’re at a restaurant, ordering food off the menu, and that the server (us bloggers) are supposed to just take any and all abuse without responding in kind.
The truth is, that’s kind of how things are. In my early days of blogging here, I certainly would respond in kind, and of course get a bit of a talking-to with our editor-in-chief afterwards. It didn’t take long working as a blogger to realize that ultimately you need to have thicker skin than most people.
On the other hand, if you want to come across as a thoughtful, considerate and valuable reader with useful insight, avoiding personal insults of any kind is a mature and intelligent way to comment. Or, go ahead and call the writer stupid – and you’ll join the ranks of the many other trolls that have come before you.
Nitpicking Instead Of Focusing On The Topic At Hand
So many times I’ve received an array of comments after some articles, with both positive and critical statement providing a really cool mix of perspectives and opinions. Through the years, I’ve really come to value those perspectives, even when they differ from the original viewpoints I might have expressed in an article.
Often, it can be something as simple as a reader pointing out how the way that I’ve set up some technical project could be simplified with a few very minor changes. Those critiques are invaluable – not only to me, but to all other readers that come along and read those comments.
But then, there’s the person that I’ve come to call the “Nit-Picker”. You’ve written over 1,000 words, describing how to do some task in great detail, and then someone comes along and points out some minor, irrelevant error that you’ve made. It’s almost as though some people sift through tech blog articles, hoping to discover a “gotcha!” mistake. It might be pointing out some very minute technical error, or something as mundane as pointing out a grammar mistake.
Maybe pointing out insignificant errors is a way to boost one’s own ego, or some people just feel the need to knock those high-and-mighty tech bloggers down a notch or two. Whatever the motive is – it makes the person posting the comment look like a total troll.
Failing To Empathize With The Vulnerability Of The Artist
One way to look at commenting on a blog is to imagine that you’re standing at an art gallery, with the artist that created the painting standing right beside you. How likely are you to immediately blurt out, “Wow, this painting really sucks!” when you’ve got the person that poured their heart and soul into that artwork standing within earshot?
Just blurting out a one-liner like, “Wow, this app is the worst thing I’ve ever seen!” without providing any explanation whatsoever is impersonal, immature, and everyone that comes along and reads it later will recognize it as troll-like behavior. That isn’t to say that you were wrong – but it’s all in the delivery.
Any good artist values criticism, and the best criticism comes in a delicate and gentle manner that takes into account the fact that when an artist puts their work out there into the public, there is a degree of vulnerability they are subjecting themselves to. Understanding and empathizing with that vulnerability will keep you miles outside of the “troll” zone.
Acting Like A Know-It-All
This is a tough one, because as technical bloggers in general, we can sometimes come across as a know-it-all ourselves. So, to recommend that anyone posting a comment should avoid coming across as a know-it-all can perhaps be hypocritical. For example, in telling you the best ways to avoid coming across as a troll with comments, aren’t I acting like a know-it-all? Sort of – but not really.
You see, if you can back up something you know with past experience or with data, then please do post what you know. That’s really what the comment area is for. The real problem comes when people post that doing this-or-that is “so simple a 5 year old could do it“, yet they provide no evidence to support the claim that they themselves really know how to do it.
That isn’t to say that readers won’t have better ways of doing things. As I mentioned previously, I’ve learned a great deal from some of the people that have commented on my tech articles – whether it was a cool coding shortcut, or a software app that could accomplish everything I just laid out in a fraction of the time. I love those comments. Most bloggers do, because they help all of us – bloggers and readers alike – learn together how to do things better.
The problem comes when the troll points out that the method described in the article is stupid, but offers no alternative of their own. Or they say that a much simpler and easier alternative exists, without telling anyone what that alternative might be! If you’re going to take the time to comment that a method or application isn’t good enough, then take those extra few minutes to explain a better alternative. Otherwise, you will most certainly come across to everyone as just another Internet troll.
I hope in offering these four points of advice, that I don’t come across as a troll! It’s something that’s very easy to do on the Internet, in these text-based mediums where the tone of our voice and our true intentions don’t always come across very well.
With that said, I would love to hear from other bloggers out there. What has been your experience with trolls? Do you think that many people that troll are doing so unintentionally? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.