Dealing with comments is a big issue for all bloggers, but I feel there are a number of aspects that need to be addressed especially for research bloggers who occupy a special position and potentially put their reputation on the line.
Your best enemy/worst friend
Talking to my peers about blogging, one of the most common questions/worries is how to deal with comments. To open up to the world, getting response from just about anyone, can make people very nervous. Not uncommonly, the Internet is seen as a haven for malicious stalkers, troublemakers and trolls – more or less mentally unhinged – spewing hate and abuse everywhere. My colleagues hardly believe me when I say that in my 5 years of blogging I have had to delete barely a dozen comments in total. Most of these were spam mails attempting to get their links posted on as many sites as possible. Only a couple went over the line into abusive language. And I have blogged about DNA, Vikings and nationality, so not completely safe subjects.
Here’s the thing, a blog is not a good place for abusive and offensive people to spew their hate. A blog is controlled by the bloggers who can and will delete any comment they wish. The really troublesome commenters focus on newspaper articles and web forums. Your biggest problem will not be dealing with ugly comments – your biggest problem will be getting any comment at all! Only a small percentage of all readers ever leave a comment, and if you don’t have that many readers to begin with…
Personally I love comments! It was one of the best moments ever when I got my first comment from a reader – and it wasn’t praise. We disagreed over a topic, but actually had a really interesting discussion about it. It’s the comments that make blogging worthwhile in my opinion. Sure, the stats will show me that people are in fact stopping by my blog, but getting a comment means I actually made an impression – whether positively or negatively. Through comments I have found other bloggers and more information. I’ve come into contact with people I would never otherwise have gotten to know.
That’s not to say some comments haven’t been hurtful and difficult to handle. So it’s important to stop and think before you respond.
I had a teacher once who never said “Hello” when you met him in the hallway. Finally a student confronted him and asked why he never did acknowledge our greetings. He looked at her thoroughly perplexed: “I thought it was enough to look!”
No, it’s not enough to look. Netiquette is no different from ordinary etiquette. If someone sends you a greeting, you respond. When I comment on a blog I’d like to see some confirmation that I’m not “talking to myself”. Does the blogger in question treat the comment section as a dumping place or is s/he genuinely interested in other people’s opinions? I return to the blogs where I feel I was met with respect and interest, not the ones where I felt ignored. Even if the comment you get is short and nondescript it could be a good idea to show that you have seen it. And it’s just good manners to thank for a compliment, should you get one. This shows not just the original commenter that you care, but also other non-commenting readers (known as ‘lurkers’).
Attack is not the best defense!
In all likelihood, several commenters will put you in your place. Either because they disagree with you or worse – because they discover mistakes you’ve made (and believe me, you will make mistakes). The gut reaction is to go on the defensive, or even to attack, especially since the commenter will be faceless and probably unknown to you. Researchers tend to treat debates as battle fields, and critics as opponents to be vanquished. The value of this at a seminar can be debated, but on a blog it is absolutely the wrong way to act. Be polite and magnanimous – after all you have the upper hand as this is your territory. Admit your mistakes, it won’t hurt (ok, maybe a little) – if anything, it will make your readers respect and trust you more.
If you wish to stick by your point, explain why but without being condescending or a bully. What if this was a classroom and a student had raised an objection – how would you respond there? Think about the criticism, if there is something of value in it, but don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in and the facts supporting it. Just mind your tone when you respond. Remember that any communication that does not take place eye-to-eye tends to appear harsher than it was intended. Also, I know from personal experience that irony does not come across well – people tend to think you are serious.
Again, remember that you response will be important to other blog readers as well. How you treat a critical commenter will send an incredibly strong message to everyone. If you act like a bully you might win in the short term, but you will lose readers in the long run.
The exception: Trolls
The advice above is meant for commenters who are basically sane and interested in a dialogue. However, there is a group of disturbed and sad people on the Net that seem to get off on creating conflict, strife and bad feelings. It’s their sole reason for commenting. On the web, it’s referred to as ‘trolling’, being a ‘troll’. They may for instance write something along the lines of “this is the worst blog I’ve ever read, you can’t construct an argument and your grammar is atrocious…”. Or they may attack something in general: “Universities are just playgrounds for those who can’t get a real job”, “science has done nothing but added to the misery of the world”, “You’re a racist” etc. This is bait, hoping to get you to respond strongly and vehemently, hopefully others as well. They will follow up with more comments trying to keep the pseudo-debate going – but nowhere constructive.
So how do you deal with a troll? Two ways work best: sunshine and oxygen deprivation. You can either respond in an overly sunny manner, coddling the moron (“So happy you took the time to add your insights on my blog, hope you feel better after sharing”), or calling them out as a troll and let other commenters know they should not respond to the idiot. Or you simply ignore the comment completely. This is generally the best way of dealing with it as long as it is not overly offensive. If it is, just delete it.
If the person becomes a recurring problem there are ways to block the user. Your blog, your rules. Just don’t use the power to delete comments on everyone who disagrees with you, as that will drive everyone away. This power is one reason why trolls generally stay away from blogs, the comment sections under media articles is a much more fertile breeding ground for them. If you don’t fall for their tricks, they usually won’t come back.
Control or trust?
Most blogs allow you to adjust security settings for who can and cannot comment. It may go from demanding that all commentators have registered accounts and only allowing comments to be published after you’ve vetted them, to letting people comment anonymously and dealing with problematic comments afterwards. It’s your choice, and if you are blogging about very sensitive topics like HBTQ-issues or the Israel-Palestine conflict it might be a god idea to have some safeguards in place from the start.
However, my recommendation is to start with no walls at all, and no vetting of comments before they are published. The higher the walls are, the more difficult it will be for you to build a readership in the beginning. It’s better to add safeguards as and when they are needed.
On my blog anyone can comment anonymously. I have at times removed that option when I have had a few annoying commentators. When they have moved on I drop the safety settings again. I very, very rarely have a problem. Blogs allow you to get mail every time someone posts a comment so that you can check if you want to let it remain or not. That way you don’t need to monitor your blog all the time.
You are not legally responsible if someone just posts a criminally offensive comment on your blog, calling for violence, issuing threats or casting severe aspersions on a group of people. You are only responsible if you read it and then let it remain. Just delete it. Again, unless you are a prominent debater on these sensitive issues, chances are you will not have this problem at all.
In Part 5 we will see what you need to do to actually get readers to find you