Commenting Etiquette

Wednesday, 4 April 2012


I was looking at this photo of Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland yesterday, touched by this moment of captured conversation. I associate these kind of mid-conversation moments with a type of urgency and vibrancy that makes me want to know more. It got me thinking about what kind of conversations I have online. For me, the comment fields of my blog posts are a form of vibrant conversation. I know that realistically though, this is not always the case. I do a lot of research online as part of my job, and I’ve seen some of the best and some of the worst behaviour from people in the comment sections of blogs. I’ve also been blogging since 2008, and the more experience I gain, the more I reflect on what kind of interactions I like. These thoughts have prompted this post.

I’ve read so many opinions about blog commenting, and I feel it’s time I share my own. However, I want to point out that I’m not discussing this issue with the intent of prescribing what kind of comments should appear on my own blog. I understand that people will interact with my blog in various ways, and I don’t expect them to conform to a singular type of commenting style. Despite all the conferences and tips about blogging out there, I don’t really think we can or should formulate rigid rules for blogging as it will kill diversity. But we can maturely talk about blogging and the issues it raises. Ultimately, each blogger has to find their own comfort zone when it comes to comments.

So what kind of things have I been noticing that have sparked this post? Well, apart from the obvious spambot comments and the excessively abusive ones, there are other, more complex issues:

Comment fields used as free advertising spaces: This is a common comment that I get all the time. Usually, this comes with a standard formula of “great blog! Please visit mine”. I know that in most cases, these types of comments don’t mean any real harm. Often, they are written by new bloggers who are honestly just trying to get some much-needed attention for their own blog. But from the blog author’s perspective these types of comments often read as: “I have zero interest in what you’ve just written or posted, please just give me attention”. The best way to get attention is not to scream loudly for it, but to actually interact with someone else’s blog. I sometimes feel a bit used when I get these comments. And incidentally, it’s not necessary to leave your blog address in the comment box as it’s already linked via your profile/name.

There’s another aspect here though: when comment fields aren’t simply used by individuals but by businesses to promote their companies. If I wanted to have advertising on my blog, I would ask to be paid for it. I’m providing my blog content for free. In fact, my blog costs me money sometimes. To see a company opportunistically try to sell their stuff through my free hard work just smacks of exploitation. I never publish these comments as I quite clearly state that my comments are moderated for advertising. There are ways to approach bloggers via email about promoting a certain company without making them feel like they are being used. If you treat bloggers with integrity and respect, they will respond in kind.

Context is key: I’ve been reading some heartfelt posts lately on other blogs. The blog author will literally pour their heart out on a deeply personal topic. And then I scroll down and see a comment on the image used for that post like, “love that image!” Once again, I know these comments don’t mean harm. I get how busy our lives are, how it’s hard to find the time to read posts, and that it’s often easier to just comment on the photo and move on to the next blog. But sometimes I think readers need to step back and consider the blog author’s feelings: if someone is posting about a deeply personal issue, that’s the context for that image. The context of the words is not something that can be easily separated from the post image, and when it is, it feels like the words are treated like they have no meaning or significance.

Sense of entitlement, much? This type of comment truly baffles me. Luckily, I don’t get it often myself, but I have seen it on bigger and more well-known blogs. It’s usually a disproportionately angry comment by someone wondering why the blog author isn’t reading their mind and creating posts that align with their wishes alone. I.e. “it’s all about me! You’re here to entertain and please me!” Um, sorry, but we’re not. Most bloggers provide their content for free and run their blogs on the side while working full-time. They don’t owe anybody anything. Readers don’t have to pay to consume blog content, so it seems really odd to me to see a rise in these types of comments. That’s not constructive criticism or debate, it’s a sense of entitlement.

Derailing tactics: I get this a lot, especially on my feminism posts. It’s a sly form of commenting, where someone tries to steer the topic away into a completely irrelevant area. I’ve also seen it on other blogs. For example, a blog author will post about an issue such as feminism and rape, and some person will comment “but murder is more prevalent” and then quote some (dubious) statistics. That’s not debate either, that’s trying to ignore the specific issues being addressed in the post by derailing the discussion into an area that doesn’t pose any threat to the systems of power being critiqued. These comments are straight from the Derailing for Dummies manual. As any woman blogging about feminism will tell you, this is a common tactic – a way to make “women’s issues” seem less important and less worthy of discussion. But derailing comments are also a common tactic for many other topics discussed on blogs. They contribute nothing to the discussion and they are not a conversation - they are attempts at shutting down conversation.

I do want to finish by saying that the majority of comments I get are great. Some days, they really perk me up and pull me out of a slump. I’ve formed some real friendships through them. I also think this post is as much about me as anyone else, because I’m sure I made some commenting mistakes when I was starting out, and I probably still do. I get that no one is perfect and every comment is subject to misinterpretation. I still want to talk about this though: the good and the bad.


Sarah said...

Another really interesting post, thank you!
You really got me thinking not only about online discussion, but real-life conversation (especially in an academic setting). I used to the type of person who'd say anything, simply to avoid silence, but lately I want to make sure what I say adds to the conversation. These type of "comment pitfalls" could be really useful for me to apply at university during tutorials. I particularly like your depiction of "derailing" tactics, they often slip by unnoticed (which is exactly why they can be so dangerous).
Anyway, that's just some thoughts you sparked. x

hungryandfrozen said...

Firstly, what a beautiful photo - I love the angle, it feels so intimate.

Ah, the people who - always on the posts where I feel like I'm getting personal - just say things like "Looks delish!" I see it a lot on all blogs, I guess it's just one of those things that is going to be part of blog life.

Ugh, derailing - I see that too - although I call it trolling :)

Teresa said...

I couldn't agree more with all of your commenting points. I think the one I get the most is people leaving their url in the comment box.

I love it when people take the time to comment on my blog posts so I always try to extend the same thoughtful courtesy to others. :)

Sarah Rooftops said...

I agree with all of these. I've just recently started getting the random, irrelevant adverts popping up in my comments section and they baffle me; I'm not going to respond to them and the posts are generally so old nobody else is ever going to notice them (not in the few hours it takes me to log in and remove them, anyway). I love that blogs are a way to start a conversation and get to know people all over the world, but there are friendly, polite ways to do that and there is spam. Well said.

ronnie said...

I've been lucky that I've had many more good interactions than bad (or spam!) - and in a couple of cases I've made quite firm 'friends' with folk I've never actually met AND I'd even met a few of these new friends in real life - too nice

one of the things I find myself confused or even a bit sad about is when I have made friends with folk - we exchange bits over a long time... and then.... silence! (its like they/you have fallen off the face of the earth) you wonder 'did I do something to upset them?' (and you review your actions) its just the same as occurs in 'real life' - when you feel snubbed by a mate ('have I committed some dreadful faux pas?')

making/having online friends - usually formed through comment interactions - is one of the things I enjoy most about blogging - I love reading different views, I enjoy slowly getting to know a writers voice.... its worth the occasional disappointment or misunderstanding

(sorry - I'm rambling... something I usually stop myself doing!)

suzie said...

I totally agree about the posts where you spill your guts (sometimes it can be hard to do publicly) and then someone says "great pic!" Arghhh! Also I've noticed there's a 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' mentality often at work. The same kind of comments that lack any real content just circulating around a clique of bloggers. Having said all that, over the years I've made some great friends. I really enjoy interacting this way as I'm often in danger of working in a vacuum.

Monica said...

all great points. i rarely take any too seriously, just delete/ignore them. except derailing - that is something with a risky agenda.

i tend to comment as if the person is in front of me - happy to say what's on my mind and go off on tangents. lol
on more serious posts i will always address the topic. but i guess the difference here is a natural way of commenting/connecting, and someone who is completely disinterested in what you have to say - intention.

Karenina said...

This is very thought provoking! Internet etiquette in general is something that people seem to be in dire need of; all of this presumed anonymity combined with a culture that values ignorance as much as intellect is really adding a lot of fuel to the fire. While I am happy that people can voice unexpected ideas and uncommon opinions, I still wish they would stop and carefully consider how their actions may be affecting others. A good dose of empathy and forethought is badly needed on the part of many commenters.

Great post!

Sophia said...

No matter how someone actually deals with any of the situations above what you're saying it's a helpful and healthy approach to the subject. Each and every point you make coinsides with common sense and sensibility. Of course anyone is subject to mistakes but the important thing is to recognize them as such and try to learn for the next time.

pRiyA said...

Yes, commenting is indeed a form of conversation, but the points you mention here are exactly the same problems I have with conversations too - the clamouring for attention, trying to shift the focus of the subject at hand, the platitudes, inanity, not really listening when the other is pouring her heart out...those who comment in the ways you've mentioned probably do that in conversations too.
Thank you for bringing up yet another relevant subject to mull over Hila. Yours is probably the only blog I ever actually take my time to read and think about what is said.

Accidentalwriter said...

I think commenting on another person's blog is an incredibly challenging thing to do. Have I really understood the issue(s) they've been sharing? Will my comments convey my respect for them and an appreciation of what they have written?
I often take more time to leave a few comments than I have taken to write a poem or to make an observation. This may reflect very poorly on the quality of my posts, however, I hope it is an indication of the importance I place on treating another person's thoughts and beliefs with the respect and dignity they deserve.

rooth said...

I have been guilty of a few of these offenses but my blog typically receives pretty thoughtful and heartfelt comments. That being said, a good comment can require thought and time. So is the better policy to then say nothing at all if you don't have the time to say anything thoughtful?

just jen said...

for me, commenting is the life blood of a blog. I WANT the interaction otherwise why do this publicly? I'd keep a private journal!

but there IS another side to this story and that is the author's responsibility to keep the conversation going. or at the very least acknowledge that a comment has been made.

many a time I have read the post, thought about it, taken time to cement my reaction and feelings towards it, commented only to have it float off into the ether.

and while I understand that the popular blogs might receive hundreds of responses ...though I suspect most are of the "love that image" ilk... shouldn't there be some sort of response? and if not, I can kind of understand the feeling of not being heard that might result in being entitled.

as an aside...had to laugh at your "context is key" point as I got one of those just recently. my initial reaction was wtf?! then realized the commenter had probably only looked at the photo, hadn't read the post and I treated it as the compliment they'd meant.

as always, Hila, a great post!

Stephanie said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I've seen all of these types of comments before on my blog, and all over the blog world. Commenting is tricky sometimes, making sure you understand the tone of the post and making sure you leave a comment that is heartfelt and kind. I don't understand people who leave comments that are mean spirited, or people who leave comments for the sole purpose of gaining traffic and followers for their own blogs. But I have to realize that not everyone created their blogs for the same purpose that I did, it's just hard sometimes when you see less than heartfelt comments.

Sophie said...

What a great and true post, you sum up so many of my thoughts with it. I'm thinking about quoting it on my blog, would that be okay?

Sally said...

I too have been noticing an influx of downright mean comments, especially on bigger blogs, and pointless snide remarks. it makes me sad. Even bloggers who do host ads are not beholden to readers, and harsh commenters should remember that there's more than meets the eye to the blogger's life and feelings!

Comments can be a struggle for me personally because of the misinterpretation that inevitably happens through internet communication...but I'm learning! (And just thought i would mention that your comments are always sweet and brighten my day :)

Bethany said...

All good points, Hila, and you approach the subject so much more tactfully than I ever could. I've started posts like this so many times, usually prompted by something idiotic that someone has said or done in a comment on my blog or someone else's, but I realize my snark and frustration eek from my words in an extremely unflattering and rude way... Bad comments easily irk me in an age when there are so many positive ways to interact with one another!

I switched to Disqus a few months ago because I like that the platform allows readers a chance to use their social media accounts as profiles to leave comments. But what drives me NUTS about is that some people choose not to register their URL with it or their social media accounts, and instead leave their blog URL in the comment... I don't know if they've caught on yet, but I don't publish them when they do it!

Anyway, thanks for delving into this issue thoughtfully and tactfully, and for setting a good example in your actions, not just your blog posts. :)

Blaze said...

I truly like your writing and enjoy the fact that you bring thoughtful blog posts as well as comments. Rude commenters are a pain, but it's worth scuffling through the garbage to find real and encouraging words. :) Thanks Hila! :)

Camila Faria said...

There's a girl (in fact there are a few people who do that) that leaves the exact same comment on all my posts: "I love it, great post". Really? You love everything I post, everything I write about? Very disturbing. I feel sad for her, really, and for everyone else that does that, because they're missing a great oportunity to make a real connection.

T C said...

So true, Hila! agree with you that each blogger has to find their own comfort zone when it comes to comments,but everyone uses the possibilities of blogging as he can. That part of the post 'deep feelings-love the image' made me laugh :)
thank you.

odessa said...

Very true. I always go by the rule that if I don't have anything to contribute or good to say, then I shouldn't comment at all. Most of the time if I find a blog post interesting, I will bookmark it on my Google reader and go back to read it again when I have time to think about what I want to say and add to the conversation.

That said, your blog has always been a great place for me to visit, not only for your posts but also because your readers leave really thoughtful and insightful comments. You have nurtured a wonderful group here, Hila. :)

Accidentalwriter said...

I was thinking about this today Hila and further to my previous remarks, I wanted to make one more observation in relation to the comments people make. And that is - I have read some incredibly thoughtful and profound responses, indicating that those individuals who had left them had given a significant amount of time and emotional investment through the process. On a number of occasions I have been a little disappointed by the lack of acknowledgment these commenters have received from the person who made the original post. For me - quite often the real gems can be found in the comment section.

Baker Martin said...

One of the fallacies I see in this discussion is confusing conversation with communication. Comments are a form of communication but they are not conversation. Just as that intriguing photo shows... conversation is verbal with a very complex nuanced set of signals, including things like tone, pauses, eye-contact (all those things that make so much of our current means of communication including Twitter, Facebook, texting so problematic/meager). A good conversation....lingering around a table with numerous empty glasses and smart friends both old and new...has no equivalent. It's one of the great joys of life. That photo leaves me wistful.

Baker Martin said...

Just another might like a good essay by Meghan Daum titled "Haterade" in the January issue of The Believer.

Sasha said...

Bravo for this post! I've experienced the first 2 myself and I have seen all of these on countless blogs and I'm always left with a not-so-nice feeling. Commenting etiquette isn't written in stone but some things should be thought out a little bit more before some people press the post button.

I realized this comment made me sound kind of snobby. I want to say that I too make mistakes when commenting but I strive not to!

Pinelopi said...

love the photo...haha just kidding! Once more you presented us a more profound view of a simple thing. I really do agree with you. What you remarked would be especially obvious in the case of your blog, that provides its readers with plenty of thoughts to comment on a deeper level. Well said Hila

Linda said...

I appreciate what you are saying about comments. My experience has been that comments add more to the original post or show appreciation for the post, and there are only a smattering of comments that might be critical or are only self-promoting--I think what we get in the blog world largely reflects what goes on in the real world. Not very many people are going to go out of their way to be obnoxious. Many times, I think, we might be obnoxious in daily life, with no intention of being so at all--we were too self-absorbed at the time to think about the effect of what we were saying or doing to those around us.
That said, though, I find this photograph utterly fascinating. I like how she seems impassioned, almost fierce, in what she is saying, but he is not at all put off, has neither physically nor psychologically withdrawn from her. And her body language is the same. To me, it shows deep mutual respect. This is a rare kind of photograph with a couple or two people sharing some kind of intimacy--a dynamic not often captured.
Thanks for this post!

Hila said...

Sarah: I think making comments in tutorial settings can be the hardest thing ever. The dynamics in tutes can be quite complex and hard to navigate, from both a student's and a tutor's perspective.

hungryandfrozen: yes, I see those types of comments all the time too. Like I said, there's nothing essentially 'wrong' with them, but when you've just poured your heart out, it feels like a superficial response. Still, I feel bad for thinking this way sometimes, like I'm being overly judgemental. And you're right, those derailing comments are a form of trolling.

Teresa: me too :) The url in the comment box seems to be quite common - it irinically has the opposite affect of making the blog author not want to visit the site/blog.

Sarah Rooftops: Those random advert ones on old posts are probably by spambots, I get them too, and delete them in the comment moderation phase. There's no way I'm going to allow my blog to be associated with some of the sites these spambots send out, or to allow it to be used for general advertising that I don't choose myself. This is ultimately my space.

Ronnie: I get more good than bad too, and the comments are also one of my favourite things about blogging, because of the relationships I form through them. Sometimes though people just get really busy with their lives, or their love of blogging wears off, which is perfectly understandable. So those relationships die off and I hear silence too. It's okay, and you shouldn't take it personally - there's a host of reasons why this happens and I try not to judge anyone. After all, we don't really know what goes on behind the blog, in the blogger's real day-to-day life.

Suzie: You'll get a lot of bloggers who'll deny that cliques exist in blogging, but I think that's somewhat naive. Blogging reflects real life in some aspects, and cliques are a part of life. But sometimes what appears to be a clique is actually just loyal friendships. There are bloggers who comment on my blog because we've developed a relationship over the years. There's nothing wrong with that, it's loyalty (and I deeply appreciate loyalty). I always try to comment back on the blogs of people who comment on mine, because I think this is common courtesy - if someone has taken the time to read what I have to say, I think it's only fair I do the same for them. But I do agree with you that there's also a lot of superficiality around when it comes to commenting, and I guess that's just part of the diversity - not everyone responds the same.

Hila said...

Monica: That's a good point you make: I sometimes wonder if someone is really derailing or just going off on a tangent because that's how they approach conversation. I can usually spot the obvious derailing comments because as you said, they have a pretty clear agenda, but there are the odd ones that leave me wondering.

Karenina: That's actually the main underlying subtext of this post: sympathy and empathy. If that is cultivated, comments will become more meaningful.

Sophia: I'm glad you think so, I was actually very worried about publishing this post in case I inadvertently hurt someone's feelings myself. I do think it's important to talk about these things though, rather than keeping them to myself.

Priya: Thank you Priya. And I agree with everything you've said. I also think sometimes the tone of my posts (or writing style) makes it seem like I'm seeking attention or wanting comforting platitudes myself, when this isn't the case. What I want is to talk about the subject at hand. I find it strange when my honesty about certain (natural) insecurities is interpreted as a need for vague reassurance. But at the end of the day, people are just being really kind, and I can't fault or criticise that. What blogging has taught me is that while I may not understand some things, it's not always about me and that people will have different reactions to things than I do. That doesn't stop me from stating my own opinion, but it is slowly teaching me to move outside of myself.

Accidentalwriter: I agree with you, I often worry that I haven't fully conveyed what I think about a post when I comment on it. It's hard to make yourself completely understood. And I do understand what you're saying about thoughtful comments that receive no response from the blog author. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt: perhaps they're really busy, perhaps they just don't generally respond to comments - it's their right to run their blog as they see fit. Speaking for myself, I try to respond to each comment, although some weeks I really am just swamped with work and life.

Rooth: from the comments you leave on my blog, I don't think you have - maybe you're being too harsh on yourself? But that's a tough question you've put forth, I'm not sure I have a concrete answer for it. I think you just have to do what you think is best. I don't mean to make it sound like I sit back and judge every single comment I get, I'm raising these issues as an ongoing discussion, not to make people feel bad. I can honestly say that if you just feel like posting a quick comment, that's totally fine with me, and I appreciate that too :)

Hila said...

just jen: you're right, the blog author does share responsibility for the tone of the comments they receive, and I certainly hope I do my fair share of responding to comments with the respect they deserve. However, I also recognise that some blog authors approach blogging differently, and don't feel the need to respond to comments. It's their right, because it's their blog. And yes, I do agree that some of the 'great pic' comments are simply a compliment and should be taken as such. Coming from the perspective of a writer, the words mean as much to me as the images, and when I've spent a long time composing a post about a subject I care about, I can't help but feel a bit disappointed when the comments are about the image alone. Still, that's probably more my problem that the reader's problem - I can't control how people will react to things, so maybe I just need to learn to let it go.

Stephanie: yes, you're so right: not everyone visits or creates their blog with the same intentions. I guess writing this post is a way of making me come to terms with this - I have high expectations, both of myself, and others. I need to stop projecting these expectations onto other people. But, I think it's fair to request courtesy for what I put out there.

Sophie: sure, go ahead, you have my permission.

Sally: they're hard for me too, and I'm definitely not perfect! Which is why I've raised this discussion.

Bethany: I think a lot of people who post their url in the comment box just don't realise that it's spamming, so I forgive them :) Blogger's automatic spam detection however doesn't always forgive them, I've rescued a few comments from there.

Blaze: yes, and the encouraging words are gems.

Camila: I find that sad too - the 'copy and paste, one comment for all' tactic of commenting. It's obviously just to gain traffic, and it has the opposite affect on me - I don't want to visit that site, because I know I'm not going to form any meaningful relationship with that approach.

TC: I hope I didn't make anyone feel bad with that example though!

Odessa: That's such a kind thing to say, thank you! I think the people who stop over on my blog are generally pretty fab too :) And I think our own friendship is an example of what I mean about forming real relationships through blogging, don't you think?

Hila said...

Baker Martin: I have to say that I disagree, I think commenting can be a conversation, when approached with a certain spirit and intent, and when the blog author participates. Granted, it's not a traditional form of conversation that occurs face-to-face, or in 'real time' as in a phone conversation, but it is a form of interacting with somebody. The ways we converse with each other are multiple, and I don't think they are limited to one example anymore. And thank you for suggesting that essay.

Sasha: it doesn't make you sound snobby at all, I think most bloggers would recognise what you're saying, and I agree.

Pinelopi: The flip side of my kind of posts are that admittedly, they require a lot out of a reader. I know they're too long, I know they sometimes deal with difficult subjects, and people's energy and time is limited. It's easier not to deal with me, in short :) I accept that and I have to take responsibility for it. I'll probably never be able to change my blogging style (and I have no desire to either), but perhaps I'll learn to react to comments better.

Linda: You're right, of course. Part of this is me learning to accept this, but there's another side of me that likes to talk about these things (my endless curiosity) and that also feels that respect is something that shouldn't be glossed over. And what you've written on the photo is spot on! It's precisely why I chose this image for this post :)

heleen said...

I'm not that active anymore in the blogging world, but most of these comment-categories do ring familiar to me. I think you voiced your opinion about them in a very humble, yet incisive way - for which I congratulate you. I think you might've opened some "newbies'" (oh god that sounds terribly condescending) eyes to what respectful commenting entails. Yours is always an thought-inducing perspective to read. In fact, I often find myself reflecting on matters you discussed here for weeks after you posted about them.
Anyway, I don't think I updated you on how things ended with that paper I asked your help for? I got a 16/20 for it, and my great marks helped me to obtain a spot at Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin next year! So: thank you, again, from the bottom of my heart! Your pointers helped me a great deal and actually only augmented my interest in feminist issues in Romantic literature. I might pick a thesis topic related to that subject, I'm not sure yet. Ah blah, this comment is all over the place - don't know if that's also one of your frustrations - diffuse comments? Hehe.

ps. Do you happen to be participating in NaPoWriMo this year?

Hila said...

heleen: Thank you, that's really kind of you to say. I think my blog posts often come from me reacting to things around me, and so I don't really like to take full credit for them, if that makes sense. Or maybe it doesn't make that much sense ... never mind.

Anyway, thanks for letting me know how your essay went, and congratulations on your great mark! I'm happy to have helped you. I'd be interested to hear what you decide as a thesis topic so feel free to keep me updated on that. There is so much potential to explore Romanticism and gender, I find that topic very interesting and exciting.

And no, I'm not participating in NaPoWriMo this year. To be honest, finalising everything for my book has taken all the energy from me. I'm still going through the final book proofs now. I have so many other projects put on hold because of that! Maybe next year.

miriam said...

beautiful picture