Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 3)

Part 3: Not all conversations are created alike

Last time, I gave some tips for effective commenting.  This time, I want to focus on being aware of the purpose of the conversation you’re in.  Conversations have purposes, remember (that’s why it’s one of the keywords in this blog’s subtitle), and the purpose of the conversation makes a big difference in how you should comment.

Here are a few of the major categories of conversation, to start with.

The intellectual discussion is best thought of as a mutual search for Truth, at least at its best.  Everyone is working together to explore a subject, and come to, if not consensus, at least a decent map of the landscape.  (I think of this blog as mainly falling into this category.)

These sorts of discussions are all about calm disagreement and back-and-forth.  It’s okay to debate a bit, but it’s very easy to run things off the tracks.  It’s the beloved conversational form for many geeks, who fancy themselves as being all about matters intellectual.  But it’s very easy to lose sight of the teamwork involved — to decide that you have The One True Answer, and not seriously consider that others may be more correct, or may have information that you don’t.  In particular, as soon as Being Right becomes your goal in the conversation, you’ve stopped helping, and have become the problem instead.

Requests for group opinions are often The More, the Merrier.  These are posts where the original poster is trying to collect lots of information about what people think, on topics as diverse as trying to decide their next hair color, or to figure out where the party should go out to dinner on Thursday.  The difference between these and the search-for-truth category above is that there is usually no “correct” answer here: it’s really *just* about the weight of opinion.

Redundancy can be good in these cases.  Many people dislike writing “me, too” comments, and there’s good reason for this — in most cases, they just add bulk without really helping.  But these kinds of requests are all about the redundancy: they want to know what everybody thinks, not just the first few to respond.  (Although it is sometimes appropriate to respond privately via email, rather than publicly.)

Don’t be afraid to be politely contrarian in these conversations.  They’re prone to a bit of groupthink: if the first few people agree with each other, it often makes everyone else a little abashed about disagreeing.  Puncturing the false consensus early on can avoid mistakes that everyone will regret later.

Personal diary entries are often looking for a bit of sympathy and comfort, especially when someone’s been having a hard time of it.  (Or congratulations if they’re going well.)  Again, redundancy can be good here, and don’t feel you need to say anything terribly deep.

Note the nature of the conversation here.  In these cases of great joy and sadness, the conversation is often mainly emotional in nature.  Sometimes it’s appropriate to offer constructive insights, but often it isn’t.  One of the common online mistakes is to offer helpful advice to someone who really is not in the mood for it.  Listen carefully to what the original speaker is saying, and what they need right now.  Sometimes just two words that let them know that they are heard and cared for is best.

A related matter: in a recent discussion, Monica raised the question of whether it is the original poster’s responsibility to say “Thank you” to the people who offer this emotional support.  I would say that the jury is still out on this — we don’t really have consensus on this, and the true Emily Post of the Web hasn’t come along yet.  But I’ve been gradually leaning towards doing so — if it’s the right thing to do for a physical sympathy card, it’s probably the right thing to do online.

That’s a start, anyway.  What other kinds of conversations are there, and how do their comment threads work?

Next time: I’ll finish off this series with a few thoughts on the future of commenting, and what I see as the likely death of online anonymity.

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4 Responses to “Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 3)”

  1. Chad Says:

    Well. The automatically generated related post is amusing. Or not.

    Regarding the post itself: It’s important to recognize the difference here between the conversation and the post. Posts are often the start of a conversation, but sometimes are simply posts. Commenting is fine, but the ‘me too’ism tends to be left out here for good reason. For example, a post may simply be used to declare some factual content, or to ‘boost the signal’, and draw wider attention to content or information originally broadcast elsewhere. Your post is definitely about the comments and the conversation in the comments, but your categories are also a subset of why people make initial posts, and I wanted to remind myself and others that this isn’t about that. *grin*

  2. Justin Says:

    Good point. The distinction is sometimes subtle, but it’s important to remember, especially as conversations can cross category lines as they evolve. (All the moreso in media that don’t draw sharp lines between specific conversations…)

  3. metahacker Says:

    Cross-pointing another view on this:
    http://robertdfeinman.livejournal.com/40353.html
    (whom we can try to drag over here, too)

  4. Justin Says:

    Yes, quite relevant — thanks for the pointer!

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