Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 2)

Okay, last time I described why you should comment, as part of supporting the community.  Now let’s talk a bit about what goes into a good comment.  This is a “bundle of tips” post; I welcome additions in the comments.

Part 2: How to Comment Well

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that commenting from time to time is helpful.  That said, don’t comment on everything everybody says — that can quickly get boorish.  Just as the person who comments on nothing isn’t really part of the conversation, the one who can’t stop shooting off his mouth comes across as dominating (and let’s get real, annoying).

Moreover, it breaks down badly if too many people do it — if you have a hundred people responding to every post, it can get overwhelming and impossible to follow the community.  It isn’t unusual for an online community to die because a few people are talking so much that the others, feeling like they can’t get a word in edgewise, simply wander off.

So be moderate in your commenting.  But when you have something to say, speak up, and don’t be afraid.  Be part of the conversation.

If you find yourself making many new points, and going on at length, that may be turning into a new post.  Don’t be afraid of that: remember that there’s a larger conversation going on in the community, and sometimes it’s appropriate to bring things back to the top level as a separate discussion.  (Obviously, this is less meaningful in systems like Twitter, where every post is equal, with less distinction between posts and responses.)  Depending on the system you’re using, sometimes it’s appropriate to both post your message as a comment and as a new post, or to write the new post and write a comment pointing to it.

Tangents are generally fine, so long as you recognize them as such.  The right way to manage tangents varies from system to system — for example, in email it’s typically appropriate to change the subject line to signal the tangent.  In a system with strongly-defined conversations like LiveJournal, a wide tangent is more likely to be time for a new post.  Pay attention to the customs of the medium you’re in.

Watch out for “now I will talk about myself” syndrome, where you use the original post or a previous comment to jump onto a story about your own life experience: that’s okay in moderation (and quite human to compare stories), but can become irritating if carried to excess.  If you talk only about yourself, you may find people laughing behind your back at your self-importance.

Questions make fine comments.  If you don’t entirely understand what was said, or don’t see the logic, or don’t know the context, odds are that others don’t either.  Questions are especially useful when you’re getting your feet wet in the community: people are often sympathetic to questions from newcomers, and it’s a way to make yourself known.  That said, be sure to listen to and heed the answers.  There are few quicker ways to wear out your welcome than to fail to read the FAQ when you’re pointed to it.

“Thank you” is often a fine comment, and too rarely said.  Everybody likes to be thanked, but somehow we often forget to say it online.  Similarly, little comments like “Congratulations” or “Good for you!” are often just the right thing to say.  The little social niceties are just as important online as in the real world, and help to bind the community together.

One unusual comment approach, which I believe I picked up from Siderea, is the “Word” convention.  Sometimes, you don’t really have anything specific to add, but you want to say, “That was absolutely, totally right, and I’m glad you said it”.  Perhaps the best way to express that is the street slang “Word“, and I’ve picked up the habit of sometimes leaving just that as a comment — just that one word.  It’s only appropriate occasionally, but sometimes it’s just the right thing to say.  It’s one of those comments that doesn’t mean much literally, but carries a lot of social meaning in a compact package.

I’ll talk about this more in a future article, but I often find it useful, when I’m either the moderator of a community or the founder of a thread, to think of myself as a host to the others who are talking.  Looked at that way, I usually try to gently prod the conversation along until it seems to be hitting a natural end, contributing to it as appropriate.  That said, I try to be moderate in it — it’s easy to respond so much that you wind up being a bit over-bearing, and actually kill the conversation rather than encouraging it.

What else?  What have you found to be particular pitfalls in commenting, or nice tips for commenting effectively?

Next time: I’ll talk about a couple of kinds of conversation, and how they affect commenting.

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5 Responses to “Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 2)”

  1. Chad Says:

    Thankyou.

    With your permission, I may refer others towards this material, either directly or indirectly. Now that we’re starting a Blog initiative on campus, there may be members of _my_ community that seek deeper understanding.

  2. Monica Says:

    Way back in the dark ages I was involved in an APA, which is sort of like a mailing list on paper. I saw a convention there that seems like it should be useful in electronic conversations too: RAEBNC (read and enjoyed but no comment). I haven’t seen it on LJ, though I do occasionally see (and post) an expanded version along the lines of “I don’t have anything to add but wanted to let you know I enjoyed reading this”. I have this odd contradictory reaction to it: when I receive it I’m happy, and when I post it I wonder if I’ll be seen as wimping out.

  3. Justin Says:

    With your permission, I may refer others towards this material, either directly or indirectly.

    Please do! Part of the point of starting this focused professional blog, separate from my personal one, is that this is intended to be very public. Anyone who is interested in the topic is welcome: I hope to gradually turn this into a destination for folks who care about how conversation works, so that we can have a really vibrant discussion.

    And frankly, I’d love to get some more folks here who I *don’t* know personally. Fond though I am of y’all, we’ve talked enough about this stuff on LJ that there’s a real danger of groupthink. Some outside eyes are likely to challenge our assumptions, and help us understand the subject better.

    So please: spread the word far and wide. Unlike my LJ, I’m actively interested in having this one publicized…

  4. Justin Says:

    I saw a convention there that seems like it should be useful in electronic conversations too: RAEBNC (read and enjoyed but no comment).

    Interesting: sounds like a parallel evolution of the Word protocol. Not really surprising — it’s a very useful concept, so one would expect multiple people to come up with it.

    when I post it I wonder if I’ll be seen as wimping out.

    I can understand that, but I’ve gradually trained myself to not sweat that too much. It’s sometimes useful to express, and there isn’t much reason to waste peoples’ time by saying it wordily.

    Although, now that I think about that, it’s interesting to note that some technologies provide what amounts to explicit support for this, through “rating” mechanisms. Various forum systems allow you to, say, rate a post from 1 to 5 stars, or to tick a simple “This was Useful!” flag. That has some of the same meaning, although I don’t think it carries quite as much weight as an explicit “Word” does.

  5. metahacker Says:

    Just testing whether comments on older posts appear in the RSS feed…

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