Caring About Comments
Post from July 2, 2020 (↻ August 7, 2021), filed under Everything Else.
Maybe you’re like me, and comments have begun to mildly scare you. Maybe you’re skeptical about popular discussion culture, too. Maybe you can relate because you, too, have found yourself write something reasonable you care about and a shitstorm broke out that, of all people, was being led by peers and acquaintances you friended online.
And yet you and I love feedback. I, to share my perspective, also really need feedback, and so I even pay for it, which includes everything from running a QA program for this site to hiring professional editors for my indie books.
Comments are feedback. However, ever since the “Web 2.0” heyday of the Social Web, things have changed:
People leave fewer comments.
When people leave comments, the signal-to-noise ratio is increasingly bad. (You know the scavenger hunt of identifying constructive thinking in a YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter comment centithread.)
The discussion culture is increasingly marked by entitlement, intolerance, and aggression.
In many places, for there are of course exceptions, tending to comments has turned into an expensive and sometimes pointless use of time. Reading and responding to, even enabling comments makes less and less sense.
It makes so little sense by now that personally, I rarely enable comments and likewise rarely pay attention to them. As I love and need feedback, that sucks. Maybe this is similar for you.
Make Comments Great Again
What would turn this around?
As authors I think we could do two things:
Invest (even more) into the quality of our content—after all there are always issues in what we produce.
Become (even more) tolerant of intolerance—because we can also not rule out that we may be overly sensitive, and could try to cope better with the peculiarities of the contemporary discourse.
What We Can All Do
There may also be things we could all do, however, as readers, as commenters, as people using the Web—and these things look more realistic and promising:
Question whether we need to say something. Just because we have a view doesn’t mean we need to share it. (Don’t ask me about all the articles and comments I have not written.) I suppose we could come up with better discussion ground rules, too, but I believe it’s fair to suggest to think first.
Put ourselves in the author’s shoes. Empathy is not dead, it rather reflects nicely on us. It’s easy to bow to instinct and judge the other side a monster, but, come on. That’s not just a brutal and violent approach to life, it’s also unfair and shortsighted. It’s easy to misunderstand someone, it’s easy to make a mistake, it’s easy to get carried away. That goes for both sides—if we want others to understand our fuming and flaming, we could try to understand them, too.
Show respect. (The respect we give is the respect we get.) It’s not on us to judge others on a few minutes of their life that we don’t have much knowledge and context for (see the next point). We must not immediately like what others propose—we may well object against it—, but it should all start with respect.
Be humble. We’re probably smart. That doesn’t mean much, however. Here are two things I find particularly important to remember: One, to really tell what another person means, we probably need to get to know that person as well as the whole context. Two, we tend to overestimate ourselves. That’s an awfully bad foundation for everyone to play Holy Person, to criticize, attack, and punish other people.
Err on the kind side. One of the things I’ve liked the most when studying philosophy is the idea of “charitable interpretation”—to read an author and view mistakes and ambiguities favorably. We can do the same with other people, and be nice on them. There are literally thousands of reasons why we may get them wrong. We cannot put that all on them—including ourselves and our sensitivities. Let’s err on the kind side.
Of course, exceptions may “prove” these rules.
❧ This I poured out before renaming the article; it was originally called “Why I Stopped Caring About Comments” and then went far beyond. These are early, spontaneous, authentic thoughts, and I’ll leave the article open for comments until overwhelmed by spam. Machine spam, that is. Apparently I haven’t stopped caring about comments after all.
(This is one of five “lost” articles that I only published in 2021.)
I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have questions or suggestions about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message.
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Perhaps my most comprehensive book: The Web Development Glossary (2020). With explanations and definitions for literally thousands of terms from Web Development and related fields, building on Wikipedia as well as the MDN Web Docs. Available at Apple Books, Kobo, Google Play Books, and Leanpub.