Revisiting Blog Comments & Community Building

boo frickety hoo/jean keir

This post was originally published in July of 2009 as “Hit and Run Comments” after a hiatus from the blog sent the spam comments through the roof. Today felt like a good time to repost it after I got a comment written in all caps that I honestly could not tell whether it was spam or not. My inclination is to think the comment was a poorly worded and often off-base diatribe (like their assertion that a reference to  “complicating patriarchy” was about how women are better than men but was actually praise for the previous comment makers ability to point to how male privilege is complicated by other oppressions, like race) that definitely constituted a “hit and run” comment. While this comment prompted today’s re-post due to its lack of coherence, all caps scream fest, and violation of several blog rules, it was not alone in violating one or more basic community standards here at the blog.

This blog is not a message board or a social network site, it is an intellectual community that dwells in the realms of pop culture, social justice movements,  and academe. As such there are certain expectations about how people will communicate with one another here, ie even though people who are semi or completely coherent will often be given the benefit of the doubt on knowing the rules (even tho they are posted) foul language, name-calling, personal attacks, and derails are generally not welcome. Rather than top down hypocrisy where netiquette only applies to non-blog authors, you can expect things from me as well like: consistency and engagement. You can trust that I will never encourage a “pile on” in the comments or spew a series of untruths or foul language at you because you disagree with me all the while maintaining that such behavior on your part is unprofessional and offensive and will not be tolerated. This doesn’t mean I won’t disagree with you or point to our disconnects or even that some times I won’t get frustrated with what you are saying, but it does mean I see the comment section as a conversation in which I am as accountable to you as you are to the community established here.

The idea is basic: everyone should feel comfortable speaking here, including disagreeing with me or anyone else,  but no one should feel comfortable demeaning or degrading anyone else or their identities in this space.

The rules are applied to everyone equally. So whether I agree with you or not, I will remind you of the blog rules if you violate them.

And finally,  while I have been fairly lax with the blog this year, I have worked very hard over the last 4 years on this and the previous blog site. I do not get paid to do this blog nor have I taken advantage of offers to be interviewed or be a guest speaker based on material on this blog, so no book deals and spots on talk shows are forthcoming. That means, when you come and spam my blog with advertisement for your products, no matter what those products may be, you are taking advantage of my labor so that you do not have to pay for your advertising with your labor or your money. If you want me to review products, contact me and I will consider it but I will never approve a blatant advertisement for product thinly disguised as a comment.

So here is the repost on basic netiquette on this blog with an added #6. Take some time to think about how your experience of the internet might be different if you engaged others from a place of respect and radical love instead of “hit and run” or “pile on” and how, if you are a blogger, you can work to make your space a model of respect and radical love as well.

…“hit and run” comments, where someone comes by to spew hate and then disappears into the interwebs without even waiting to see what happens, waste the energy of everyone involved. They don’t foster conversation, b/c 9 times out of 10 the person isn’t there to talk to, and they deliberately try to upset a community and derail a discussion. Unlike trolls, like those who lurked waiting for their comments to show up and be responded to, hit and runners are spewing rapid fire hate in the hopes of hitting as many people as possible before moving on to the next heavily populated area. Yet both groups discourage people from talking here b/c they create a sense of fear. Fear that conversation will degenerate into hate speech, that people responding will be sanctioned (b/c I don’t allow flame wars here even if one or more sides are right), and/or people less confident in their own grasp of the issues worry that they will be equally sanctioned if they talk. Meaning, when I approve and respond to hit and run comments, I help those people silence my regular readers. I am no longer willing to do that.

So if you are one of our 1,000 or so visitors here are some basic guidelines to participating in the conversation. YOU DO NOT NEED A COLLEGE DEGREE OR A FACULTY POSITION TO PARTICIPATE HERE AND NO ONE WILL JUDGE YOU IF YOU DON’T SPEAK ACADEMESE OR MAKE LITERARY OR HISTORICAL REFERENCES.

  1. consider the community in which you are speaking – if you take time out to learn about the blog you are on (read some posts and comment sections before talking yourself) you will be able to determine whether or not this is a place where you want to participate . While some people thrive on abusing others, participating on a blog that has similar interests to your own or discusses issues you are trying to become more informed about can actually become an important part of your intellectual and social virtual network.
  2. read the post before commenting – this is a longstanding rule here and I repeat it regularly, particularly in controversial posts. If something rubs you the wrong way, and it likely will, if you plan to comment READ THE WHOLE THING FIRST. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the time you get to the end, but even if you don’t, it will keep you from making accusations or contributing information that are contradicted by the part of the post you didn’t read. It will also give you a better understanding of the issues covered so that you can be an ongoing participant in the conversation and not just a single issue speaker.
  3. try to add something to the conversation – I like hearing “great post” as much as the next writer/thinker, but what makes a community is bouncing ideas off of each other. Pointing to new info or raising questions or otherwise expanding the issues makes it easier to engage in a conversation where all of us are learning and thinking together. (This doesn’t mean that if all you have to say is “you’re so smart” you should be silent, we all do it, but the more you participate in a way people can bounce off of, the more likely people will engage you on the blog and want to follow to your blog.)
  4. think of yourself as a community member – if someone knocked on your door, insulted you, and then invited you over for dinner at their house, would you go or recommend them to someone else? probably not. On the other hand, if someone comes by your home or business and holds conversations with you occasionally, you are more likely to visit their business or accept their dinner invitation and encourage others to do so. Blogging is the same way. If you really want new readers and hits for your blog, you need to be a part of the blogging community which means talking to people not just saying “hey nice blog. here’s mine [link]” and never coming back. The same goes for “rude comments.” we all have bad days and we all snark once in a while, but if all you are contributing is snark it probably isn’t helpful for you or anyone else. An example that is specific to this blog: I have a particular disability that manifests on this blog as grammatical errors. I invite everyone who participates here to make corrections as a result b/c I don’t always have time to go back thru and edit (I revisit posts over about a week trying to catch everything) but when people say snotty things like “umm learn to spell, it’s P-E-O-P-L-E not ppeole” not only is it rude, in my case it is also ableism. I have several posts and comments addressing the “grammar issues” on this blog and thanking people who catch things, so it something you can and would know if you became familiar with the blog before commenting.
  5. Don’t expect people to caretake for you – if you are new to discussions about oppression, the quickest way to make people think you are disingenuous is to preface your comments with how “scared you are of [fill in id]” or “how hard it is to talk to people who are [fill in id]” or close your comments by saying “please don’t hate on me” or spew stuff you know has been called offensive in the past and say “I know people think I’m offensive but please be gentle with me if you disagree”. Calling people scary, or angry, or any other stereotype of an entire group of people before speaking is like slapping them in the face and then saying “can we talk.” Saying things you know other people have already identified as problematic repeatedly in the past and then asking people to be “kind” when talking to you, is like repeatedly parking underneath a no parking sign and then asking the police officer not to write you a ticket, or taking the fact that he doess it anyway as proof that their out to get you. Everybody gets anxious some times, but part of talking across difference competently, is being willing to make mistakes and take responsibility for them when you do.
  6. asked and answered – If you have asked a question that has already been answered in the post or in comments directed to you, your comment is likely a derail whether you think so or not. In other words, instead of taking what has already been said to represent the views on the blog or by other comment makers, you are redirecting the conversation to old ground. If you really have a question, this is not a big deal, but if your ultimate goal is to say “I don’t believe you”, “you’re a liar”, or simply get bogged down in minutiae you are not contributing to the conversations and sooner or later you and everyone else knows it. On this blog, I will answer your question once and if I think trying to derail, I will likely let you know but any additional attempts to cover the same ground will likely get deleted or responded to with “asked and answered” or “don’t feed the trolls.” If you really don’t get this, ask yourself this question “why am I asking this question? Have I asked it before? Do I think I am going to get a new answer by asking it again?”
  7. don’t cheat or be cheap – if you are advertising an actual business, film, or product, you would never go to someone else’s hard built business and plaster their windows with your advertisements, leaving a comment on someone’s blog that says “interesting post. by the way I was wondering if you would tell people about [product]” is the same thing. When you do that on posts that are completely unrelated to your product, you come across as not only cheap but also offensive.  If your products are related to the blog, most blog owners will be more than happy to review your books, films, activism, organizations, etc. if you just ask. Send them an email or leave a comment on their contact page asking them to review your material. They may say no, but if you just bomb their blog with your advert not only will they delete you, many will ban you for good. (this is for actual human beings who do this; obviously bots are a different story).
  8. Always link back and credit your sources – if you take information off a blog, cite it. Blogs are intellectual property and when you don’t cite you are stealing. People do find out about it and many have now committed to calling people out publicly and by name. I have often encouraged people to invest in e-discovery law b/c it keeps you from having to track others and when legal action has to be taken, you can do it swiftly, openly, and with the best results. Many bloggers with the funds to have legal representation are taking this route as blogs become the go to places for information. For some, who have more complex relationships, these issues are settled behind the scenes. I had a well-read, well-linked blog, prior to this one that I closed b/c of stealing by a particular blogger who, as I predicted, recently closed her blog after slowing down her posts since she no longer had me as a pipeline.  When she closed her blog, my point was made. Behind the scenes shouldn’t make you think you are off the hook just b/c someone doesn’t call you out publicly. And don’t think that it does not change the way people who know what you have done view you as an intellectual, writer, and/or artist as a result. When you steal, whether called on it publicly or privately, it is ultimately yourself you cheat. The only way to become a good writer is to find and trust your voice and then use it. The only way to become a great one is to have people talking back to you, rooting for you, so you can sharpen your ideas and your skills. Neither of these things can happen when you steal.
  9. check your stuff at the door – you can’t agree with everyone on everything. Somethings are worth critiquing and somethings are not. Learn to walk away, it will make your life easier and your participation somewhere more productive. The latter is especially important when you do have a critique that is hard for others to hear, b/c they are more likely to hear it and engage you.
  10. take long comments to your own blog – If you are wordy like me, it is especially important to think about how much you are talking and when you have crossed the line from comment to essay. Look at other people’s comments to assess what the comment threshold is on any blog and try to follow the rule of staying on point and contributing. If it starts to turn into an essay, leave a smaller comment and then write your own blog post. You can always come back and leave a trackback saying that you were inspired to write your own post. Trackbacks are always appreciated, unless you are openly trashing the other blog.
  11. Assume the best of others on the blog – people make mistakes, their learning curves and exposure to issues vary widely, and written communication is often interpreted in multiple differing ways that may or may not accurately reflect the comment makers intent. If you talk to them the way you would want to be talked to in their place, you might get burned or you might actually have an engaging conversation. A lot has been written lately about the differences in communication people engage in on the internet and its impact on various causes and communities. While some people feel any kindness is a sign of “care taking for the oppressor”, I tend to believe talking to people the way you would like to be talked to is quite a bit different than being an apologist. When someone has proven themselves to be untrustworthy (over a period of time or thru the use of slurs) then you can write them off, but doing so on first encounter makes you look just as bad and can help derail an entire discussion. Sometimes, you may even find the way you interpreted something is completely off if you bother to engage rather than shut down. For a really good example of engaging disparate seeming opinions from a place of respect, check out historiann. She snarks back with the best of them, but she also takes a really even handed and engaged tone with people who have misinterpreted her posts or whose comments she disagrees with but who have made compelling points. Ultimately, if you seem like an approachable and open person, more people will talk to you and welcome your presence, and you’ll get more traffic to your own blog.
  12. Know the technology – if you are making a comment pay attention to whether or not the comments are on approval and/or if the blog owner is away. Many times people accuse blog owners of censoring them when they have comments on approval or have gone on vacation and so approval takes longer to happen than normal. Many blog owners don’t approve comments from people who get increasingly belligerent and accusatory while waiting even if they would have initially. Also, using one of the examples from the start of this post, if your comments are not showing up, pretending to be someone else and asking where they are is not going to fool any blog owner with comments on approval b/c if they have not had a chance to approve them, you certainly would not have seen them unless you wrote them. (A caution to blog owners – IPs can be misleading. During the summer months, we have several people staying at our home at any given time who all use the same router for service, that means they have the same IP but are not the same person. When I was staying with Dean GQ, we also had some young ones trying to get back on their feet who were cyberstalking – mostly just logging on a drooling, I hope – colleagues of ours they had found on myspace. we didn’t know anything about it; long time readers no doubt remember I posted a public admonishment of the wee ones on the blog when we figured it out but was too embarassed to say anything to my colleagues’ faces. So an IP is a good start point but may not be enough.)
  13. always leave a link back to your own blog – wordpress has a new feature that let’s you leave comments without leaving your own blog that has basically stopped the link back option, so make sure you log out before leaving comments on a wordpress blog. (I am still remembering this myself.) For most blogs, you have the opportunity to add a link back when you fill out your name. This is the easiest way to encourage others to read your blog and to let people know a little bit about you when you are participating elsewhere.

Other people have written some pretty helpful posts on blog etiquette:

  • Gay Prof has a list of things that are considered troll behavior – I’d just add that some things are blog specific. here you are welcome to process “out loud” and leave longer comments, elsewhere there are twitter like limits on the length of comments tolerated. Some kinds of communication are ok at some places and not at others, but you can solve this by following the “read’ and “know where you are” rules.
  • Historiann deals specifically with activist or “identity based” blogs and people who disagree with them – while I am a lot more lax here, I do think her comments about how your behavior is interpreted is a warning to everyone who is tempted to lash out at other comment makers or blog owners
  • Phil @ Make it Great Guy has a list specific to social networking – ie using blogging and social networks to grow your business or social career – most of his points do not apply to the discussion in this post. However his pts 1-2 and 4 apply to every kind of comment, including the type of blog commenting the rest of us are discussing. And I also like that he makes some reference to blog owner’s responsibility to their community. I would add to those points:
  1. Assume the best of your comment makers or other bloggers until they give actual evidence of being “wrong” – This especially applies to those ppl you intend to contact or encourage to participate on your blog b/c nobody responds well to accusations or derision especially when they are innocent. Assuming the best  is the surest way to avoid misunderstandings and encourage increased social networking. Remember the example of the real life colleague I had who responded to a conversation about an organization whose parent org we both belong to by dismissing the blog, blogging, and me as the blog author? I still view him and ppl associated with that organization with suspicion and have expressed concern about their applications for positions at pov u based on his behavior.
  2. Never assume that you know who you are talking to – People may think they know who they are talking to, but without actual confirmation, you may never really know. Google lies, as I have mentioned before, I know at least 5 people who have been listed as blog authors for blogs they have posted a guest article on as little as once. IPs lie – I use a proxy that says I am in a specific city that I am nowhere near but that I designated as my home city on the program I use b/c I visit the area a lot. You can usually tell someone is using a traditional proxy by looking at the place that says proxy server on most IP look up programs, which for me usually lists as “none or highly encrypted” FYI – mine is “highly encrypted.” Others list as “proxy server in use”  or simply a list of zeros for the IP. Another way to tell you are dealing with a proxy: if the IP changes periodically or often. There are also certain cities that are usually goto places for proxy servers, like Denton TX, since there are real people from these places, they are also hard to tell a part.
  3. Going off on people is generally a bad idea unless the conflict is fully online – no one reading knows you have a prior relationship with the person you are yelling @, even if the person has identified, and will likely be weighing your responses as much as the trolls comments, especially if those comments seem mild in comparison.  I have actually gotten emails from colleagues linking to public conflicts where the information being spewed or the reaction does not line up to the relationship or lack thereof the person appears to have with the speaker. I’ve been astounded by the level of anger, the language used, or simply the dismissiveness. In one case a friend who actually had the power to make funding decisions on another person’s research was being openly ridiculed by the latter b/c she had clearly assumed it was someone else.
  4. Never assume that the current relationship you have with someone will be the same one in the future – Both I and another editor I know have actually been asked to review articles for publication by people who were rude to us online in the past. I’m happy to say we are both professionals and we did not hold that against those authors, but I have been editing journals long enough to know that is not always the case.  As Historiann points out in her post, being rude or dismissive on the internet can also impact your employment prospects in your chosen field. You can safely bet that at least one person on any hiring committee is familiar enough with blogging and social network sites and their archives, to find you and scroll through some of your comments or behaviors.
  5. Don’t out people or otherwise sit back and egg on a flame war or other humiliation – even if you are right and the other person is a super-duper-troll, when you do this it sends two messages: 1. it’s ok to flame people on your blog and 2. it is not safe to speak on your blog without being an “insider.” Flame wars and continuous snark bring in the stats and up your blogs cache but they also have real lasting impact on how your blog is perceived as an open or closed system of communication. When you allow people to be humiliated, you not only drive away trolls, you drive away people who might actually be on the same page with you intellectually or politically but are uninterested in relating in an environment that disciplines and punishes beyond what is necessary. For activist bloggers this can be a huge loss, for academic ones it can mean loss of respect for either you or the targeted person on a scale that is ultimately unwarranted by the conflict. Everybody blogs for different reasons, but if the only people who speak at your spot are friends and known colleagues, or disagreement leads to collective beat downs by the faithful, you might want to think about whether the space you have created is one that challenges you as a thinker, writer, artist, activist, etc. (And no that doesn’t mean you have to wait for the trolls to overrun the place, there are other ways to deal with trolls. When I got my degree in history so long ago, my mentor said “Historians know that if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t enter public record, nobody remembers it, and then its gone. What power we have.” cue delete button or ignoring as if the troll is not there.) If you add to this rules against flame wars or public calls to treat people with respect that you enforce selectively, you pretty much lose all credibility with people when conflict arises.

In closing, I’d note that I have been guilty of many of these things myself. We all have our off days and we all have those moments when we wish we had stopped and thought something thru before speaking. This is why on this blog we have a first time “no harm no foul” rule that lets most comments through as legitimate contributions to the conversation. I want to believe, despite growing evidence, that people really do want to engage each other on the internet not just re-establish existing hierarchies with them at the top or hit and run.

Ultimately, to borrow a metaphor from Historiann, this blog is an extension of my home and just as you would not act out in someone else’s home I expect that you will not do so here. I think of this blog more like a veranda in the sense that anyone and everyone can pass by and say whatever they like, but when they come under the shade they are both safe and expected to respect the safety of others. So grab some lemonaide and chat away or if you prefer real time convo, as many of my readers do, you can find me on twitter.

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One thought on “Revisiting Blog Comments & Community Building

  1. Thank you for this; I will probably adopt it when I have enough comments from strangers.

    Not only do I cite source; I try to cite source of source. I have to try that trackback stuff. It didn’t make any sense last year, so I haven’t used it.

    Be well.

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