God Bless Gracious Commenters

God Bless Gracious Commenters July 25, 2010

Friends and colleagues who leave comments here, consider this a little love note, prompted by things I’ve seen happening on several other sites today.

Conversing on an online discussion board is a tricky art.Everybody knows that it’s difficult to know how their words are going to be perceived.

And it’s very easy, behind the glass barrier, to throw out words without concern about how the reader will feel on the other end.

I’ve often been shocked and dismayed at how my own contributions in online discussion have led to misunderstanding. And at times I’ve been provoked into arguments that I’m not proud of.  I’m learning to strive to prevent that from happening, although I still stumble from time to time.

In the history of this blog, I’ve only ever had to ban two readers from commenting, due to the disrespectful quality of their replies. Pretty astounding, actually, considering how many contributors I’ve encountered on other blogs who would have been banned from the Comments here in a heartbeat.

When commenters show up for little more than making corrections or brushing off what others have said, well, that persuades me that they’re at the table to produce something other than a welcoming discussion. No matter how knowledgeable or interesting their posts, they’re valuing their own contributions over the quality of the community’s conversation. Lately, I’ve become suspicious of a couple of Hollywood bloggers who, despite their often useful reports, put on quite a show of enmity and furious debate. I’m beginning to think they’ve actually conspired to do this as a way of attracting attention to themselves and each other. If I’m wrong on that count, well… either way, it’s sad.

I don’t mind debate, but disrespect does not encourage debate. It encourages mudslinging. And it discourages “lurkers” from mustering the courage to participate. There are a few blogs where I rarely ever dare comment, because I feel that many of the foul-mouthed participants are just predators, waiting for a sign of weakness, so they can show off their cleverness or cool-points by slamming down somebody else. You may not think what someone else said is right or relevant, but please, proceed with caution and grace.

I hope that LookingCloser.org seems like a welcoming place to you.

Some people may say, “Hey, some people are jerks. Grow a thicker skin.” I understand that — and I admire the thick-skinned. But they’re welcome to go host their own Fight Club. I like conversation, not contention. And I just don’t have the time or emotional resources to wrestle cantankerous commenters all day. I like round tables that are welcoming, not off-putting. I’m not in this to prove anything or score points for my ego. When an online conversation thrives based on trust and a mutual respect, it’s a wonderful thing.

There are ways to correct someone with grace. And it’s almost always best to preface a correction or a difference of opinion with an admission that this is “just your humble opinion” or “I may be wrong, but” … or something to prevent the statement from sounding condescending or arrogant.

I don’t mind being corrected, but I’m always grateful when someone points out an accident or a typo via email, or “offstage,” so I can correct it quickly without the Comments thread getting sidetracked. (Making a typo is embarrassing; having a whole conversation flower around that typo is both counterproductive and groan-inducing. In my enthusiasm and haste, I post mistakes all the time, and I’m always grateful for gracious corrections, especially when they’re offstage, so they don’t sidetrack the discussion.)

I’m grateful that most of the folks who comment on this blog are very well-behaved, humble, and even helpful.

So I’m asking you: If you were going to draw up a simple list of guidelines for blog comments, a simple list of prompts to encourage civility and make a place seem welcoming… what would you suggest?

And if you ever see a comment here that seems disrespectful, don’t hesitate to *email* me about it. Sometimes in my hurry to approve contributions, I might miss the poison in somebody’s response.

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  • Julio

    Thanks for fostering an environment that’s been pretty effective at encouraging such discussion so far!

    I think Rick Ro. hit upon the most common mistake of contentious posters. Primarily, you are most likely not going to “win” or “convert” someone to your point of view through an online forum. So don’t fight like you can. Respect while dissenting is key.

  • It’s curious to see how forum culture develops on larger sites. There’s always the potential of an anarchy of bad behavior from posters when said behavior goes unchecked. It becomes a conformist, pile-on, insult-o-thon. Forums like IMDb, or the Ain’t-it-Cool-News talkbacks are near unreadable because of this chain-reaction of bad vibes. So, I guess it’s contingent upon the admins, or web-masters, to set a good example of civil discourse, and weed out the bad eggs that will always cause trouble, regardless. You do a great job of that here, Jeffrey, so I have no real suggestions. This place is a peaceful respite from the noisy internet. ;)

    Another interesting phenomenon though are the un-civil admins who go on power trips and, as a friend humorously pointed out recently, “banning pogroms” on large forum sites. Some admins are kind of spreading the disease of negativity and lack of consideration themselves. And then there are the types who abuse their power. I know what you mean about certain Hollywood bloggers creating a bad atmosphere by example. I’m constantly pruning my movie or news links to weed out the incessantly negative. Like you, I’m not talking about earnest debate, but all the ad hominem yelling out there. It’s draining. And I’m afraid if I expose myself too much to it, I’ll start imitating it.

  • Respond to the issue at hand, not to someone else. (Over at our film blog we ask people to respond to the film, not to the review or to the responses. There has to be some information value in one’s response, adding something to the review.)

  • Rick Ro.

    Simple guidelines:

    -Treat other opinions with respect. Jesus said the greatest command is to love God and the second greatest command is to love your neighbor as yourself. How can you show love for your neighbor when you don’t treat their opinions with respect? If you want your opinion respected, then show respect for other opinions, even if you don’t agree.

    -All potentially contentious and controversial discussion should be approached with the following in mind:
    a) The discussion is not something that must be won, or “not lost.” It is a discussion. Don’t enter into it “to win.”
    b) Accept that you aren’t in it to change anyone’s viewpoint. You are entering into the discussion to present your viewpoint as best you can, with no regard to how it will be accepted.
    c) Likewise, demand that others in the discussion agree to observe both (a) and (b). If some folks don’t agree with (a) and (b), then be prepared for (d).
    d) Let people know that if they begin using deragotory language or begin getting mean-spirited, they’ll get one warning. If it continues, they’ll be banned from that discussion.