Posts Tagged ‘commenting’

Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 4)

August 12, 2008

or, The Future of Commenting and the Death of Anonymity

[My apologies for going silent for a couple of weeks — since so many of my current readers are in the SCA (the mysteriously tech-heavy medieval club that I’m in), I decided to take a break while Pennsic (the SCA’s biggest annual event) floated on by. Now that everyone’s back, it’s time to finish off this series on Commenting, with a guess about where things are going.]

Several weeks ago, I was struck by the article “Post Apocalypse” in Time Magazine. The article is about the way that comment threads on blogs tend to degenerate, and the disconnect between social standards online and off. It’s largely correct in its observations, but stops before making any predictions about how this will all shake out. Okay, I’ll put my head in the noose and venture a guess.

My prediction: purely anonymous commenting will largely go away over the next ten years, because it doesn’t scale up to Internet levels.

The problem is community standards. You put comment capabilities online largely because you want to build communities. (In general, commercial sites want communities because they build stickiness, loyalty, and all that good stuff talked about earlier.) But communities require community standards, and anonymity is poisonous to those.

Anonymity breeds trolls, and it takes only a modest number of trolls to poison a community.   I’ll talk about this at more length later, but suffice it to say, you can’t allow trolls to run amok if you want a healthy online community.  Yes, everyone likes to believe that their little community is all nice and happy and good, and no one would dream of hurting it.  But time and again, I’ve watched those communities self-destruct because they didn’t have the wherewithal to enforce at least basic standards of politeness.

Note that community standards do not necessarily mean Emily Post grade politeness. In some communities, a refined and clever snarkiness is the standard. The classic example of this was the newsgroup talk.bizarre, the better part of 20 years ago now.  In its glory days, t.b was a place where novices feared to tread for fear of getting roasted into embers by the brilliant flames that would result from saying something dumb — but it was damned fun it you knew what you were getting into.

And yet, even t.b eventually self-destructed due to witless trolls.  In this particular case, it wasn’t that they were exceptionally nasty (nasty was part of the t.b social contract), but simply because they didn’t understand that cleverness was crucial to making it the place it was.  The community had no mechanism to enforce its rather refined standards, so it gradually degenerated into fairly uninteresting rants.

So I predict that anonymity is a dying idea online.  Pseudonymity — the ability to define a consistent online persona that is difficult or impossible to relate to your real-world one — will stick around, and probably become far more important.  (And more on that topic later, because it’s a major subject unto itself.) But being able to post anything, any time, with no traceability or consequences is simply too harmful to the social fabric.  Some major systems (such as Facebook) are already pushing hard against the idea, and I expect this trend to continue and grow.

Opinions?  What are some cases where online anonymity is actually useful?  Are there any where well-implemented pseudonymity isn’t as good or better?  I have a strong personal stake in this matter: CommYou doesn’t really support anonymity, and for the moment I’m disinclined for it to ever do so, so I’d be very interested to hear arguments in favor of it…

Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 3)

July 22, 2008

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.

Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 2)

July 18, 2008

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.

Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 1)

July 16, 2008

A recent post by my friend metahacker reminded me of a basic lesson of online conversation: commenting is not only good, it’s essential.  So I’m going to use it as the jumping-off point for my first series of articles.  This will cover a lot of topics, most of which will get more-detailed discussions later.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to talk about comments: why you should comment regularly, how to comment productively, a little on what kinds of comments suit what kinds of conversations, and some thoughts on the future of comment technology.  None of this is exactly rocket science, but I’m going to pull together a bunch of lessons I’ve learned, both on my own and from friends (especially on LiveJournal, that hotbed of geek-think).

I’m going to talk about “comments” as a concept here, but those work very differently from system to system.  For purposes of this discussion, a “comment” is a message you send that is specifically in response to a message that you’ve received.  That might be anything from a threaded reply in LiveJournal, to an “@”-reply in Twitter.  Keep in mind that I’m not just talking about forums here.

Part 1: Why to Comment

Okay, let’s ask the most basic question first: why comment?  It’s not as obvious as it might appear at first glance.  Sure, you comment because you have something to say.  But there’s another aspect of commenting, that’s at least as important: comments are the social glue that holds online communities together.

Any good online community is always engaged in a large-scale “conversation” that crosses over all the individual little chats.  That conversation is mostly social in nature: who knows each other, how they know each other, how they interact, who likes who and why.  This is simply part of being human: when we talk, we are talking with people, and trying to think of it otherwise is delusion.  The social component of any conversation is essential.

From that point of view, it looks kind of weird to just make top-posts and never comment — it’s like being the person in a face-to-face conversation who just sits there and talks about what he wants, without every really engaging with the other people around him.  It’s not quite as bad online (in person, it’s downright boorish), but it still comes across as kind of disconnected.

Keep in mind that, in a face-to-face conversation, there’s a lot of subtle interaction.  We use body language, facial expressions, and little verbal cues to indicate that we’re listening — that we’re part of the conversation, and interested.  Eye contact helps, as do little “uh-huh”s: they may have no semantic value, but they have social weight: they indicate that you’re still engaged.  Online (at least in text media) you have to be more explicit about it — the only way to let the speaker know that you’re listening is to tell them.

Reciprocity also comes into this.  Put simply: the more you comment, the more comments you’re likely to get.  If you comment, people come to think of you as someone to talk to, not just someone to listen to.  There is a close correlation between who you comment to and who comments to you.

Moreover, commenting is how people find each other, and build online relationships.  Not only is the person you’re responding to more likely to seek you out, the people reading the interaction are as well.  There’s a lot of blather nowadays about social networks, but the most important “network” is people finding others who they think are interesting, regardless of the technology they use.  Many online friendships start from reading each others’ comments.

Most importantly: most people like to receive comments.  There’s a real element of “warm fuzzies” here that shouldn’t be discounted.  We’re social animals, and stroking each other a little is very important to any community.

So as it says at the top, comments are social glue — they are essential to turning a bunch of random people online into a community.

Next time: I’ll talk a bit about How to Comment effectively.