html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: I was right about bloggers and their commenters.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

I was right about bloggers and their commenters.

I haven’t wanted to post here for days, for the same reason I haven’t wanted to read blogs and especially comments for days. With a few exceptions, blogland just seems so harsh and analytical, so determined to punish thoughts or ideas. Why put your stuff out when the return is so consistent? On many of the blogs I read, the dominant mode is antagonistic critique. Such ceaseless critiquing, lots of it obvious, some of it hostile, lots of it prideful, so little of it intended to help the original author. It feels like smart boy jockeying, which is an annoying dynamic, appealing only to smart boys who are temporarily up.

I want people to give authors the benefit of the doubt. When some hot new study comes out, right away you get the same few critiques on lots of sites, the ones that we learned the first quarter of a decent methods class. Potential sampling bias! Sample size too small! Results may not translate! Dude. Any critique that comes to mind within a couple minutes of reading a summary of an article is very likely one of the widely known errors. I assume that tenured professors who spent years on a study that got published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal also thought of those. Seems to me, the choice ought to be to read the paper or to assume that experts who publish peer review papers avoided the clichéd mistakes. At the very least, don’t lead with the trite critiques without a strong reason to think they apply.

Or a couple days back, a usually good blogger I read wrote a careless post. I knew it was dashed off because I read him regularly. It clashed with what I’ve come to think are his views. People pounced on that; his commenters called him out and other bloggers linked and pointed. But why do that shit? He is self-aware and bright. Surely he re-read that piece and cringed. There’s no need to scold him; he knows. Other bloggers linking to that piece and critiquing it? That was cheap. The mistake was obvious and out of character. You got a post from it that you didn’t have to work for. His piece was careless; your piece was cheap. It was weak thought, for one, and graceless, pointing out someone’s patent mistake*. It is fair game, but it turns the game flashy and ugly.

And then! I am so bored of commenters constantly pointing out the obvious counter. If the counter is obvious, assume a bright blogger whose work you respect already thought of it. But Megan, surely we need to critique each others’ work to strengthen the thought involved! But Megan, it is important to state the obvious, because there are people out there repeating and strengthening falsehoods that damage our communal life. We need to combat those! See? Those were obvious and I already thought of them. You (for some small portion of you) were all flexing your fingers, storing those up, getting ready to type to score off me. But that is boring. I thought of those; I often do. Sometimes I don’t type them because it is so tiresome to read those relentlessly qualified posts. (So few people, Hilzoy, Tia, LB, manage to make all those qualifiers read-able.) Sometimes I haven’t thought of them first, and it is really valuable to point them out in the comments. The technique there is to mention them graciously as preparation for better work; modestly pointing out what we all knew, establishing baselines quickly so we can all move beyond the obvious thought. So much nicer than trying to score off the blogger.

I’m tired of reading people picking things and people apart. So much of that is just smartness, swirling around in pointless circles. All that smartness, doing damn near nothing. Certainly not making people feel good. That’s why I think that smartness is such a limited tool. It solves some problems well, I fully understand that. But so much of it makes people, the other commenters, lurkers intimidated out of the conversation, the blogger, feel bad. Considering how little good it does and how much it makes people feel yucky, I think saying nothing is usually an improvement.

*There are loving ways to handle an uncharacteristic mistake, if you think the person needs your help seeing the error. You could send a quiet email, depriving yourself of a post but helping the blogger. If your friend were wearing her shirt inside out (which could happen to anyone, OK?), would you point at her in front of your crowd or would you take her aside and mention it, while telling a funny little story on yourself to cover her embarrassment? Basic manners apply in blogland too.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel for the author. It was particularly bad in that it was an error that had to do with race, which leads to lots of tut-tutting.

I think it's difficult for bloggers for than for other pundits, because silence or lack thereof is interpreted differently by readers. The personal relationships really get readers mad, too. I'm surprised at some of the vehement comments at Unfogged about MM. -K.

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. I like the new tagline. It reminds me of one of my favorite West Wing quotes: "Decisions are made by those who show up." -K.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I haven't been to Unfogged in a while, but I've seen comments against Ms. McArdle elsewhere and I think they are out of line.

And so unnecessary. The blog world feeds on attention. All you have to do is to ignore inane shit (I'm not referring to her blog, which I also don't read so I don't have an opinion about, just the whole concept), which is so civilized and not so think-y.

7:49 PM  
Blogger bobvis said...

Megan, I've begun to sympathize with your point quite a bit recently. *I* have gotten in the habit of pointing to people who make mistakes on my blog as fodder. I try to make a point as well, but it is cheap, and I know it is cheap.

This habit of mine (and perhaps the blogosphere) leads to a case where we tend to argue with our least thoughtful opponents at their worst. It's good to read the blogs of people who disagree with you, but it is much less good if you only pay attention to when they flub.
Another related critique I have is the laziness that people exhibit in critiquing others. I think a lot of people don't really read, but just look for what the position is and presume that the arguments made are the ones they've heard everyone else make before:
- Pro-affirmative-action? Your argument must be Al Sharpton's.
- Pro-nationalized-health care? Your argument must be 1994 Hillary's.
- Pro-environment? Your argument must be 1960s hippies.
- Libertarian? Your argument must be Republican.
and on and on. It prevents a reasonable discussion from occurring.


Oh, the other thought I had was:
I write careless posts all the time and no one links to me. What am I doing wrong?

8:24 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

You (for some small portion of you) were all flexing your fingers, storing those up, getting ready to type to score off me.

(sniffle) Or just trying to (sob) gain your approval by finding something to say! (snnnnnuff)

8:53 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:53 PM  
Blogger shanusmagnus said...

I've been reading this blog for a while, and on a couple of occasions have benefited tremendously by it. Let that be my preface, and, having said that, I have a question that's occurred to me a number of times before, which is this: what do you think you're doing?

I mean that literally, and it's an honest question. Some blogs are people writing things for people who know them to stay up to date on what they're doing and thinking - sort of a watered down virtual community that operates something like a real community would, albeit with more monologues. This is how my own blog works. This is my readership. This is the readership I want.

This doesn't seem to be what you think you're doing, and it's certainly not what you are doing, although maybe that's what you started out doing and it changed along the way. You seem like the sort of person who would have thought carefully about this - a blogging mission statement, of sorts. Maybe you've posted on it already. Maybe you could point me there if you don't feel like answering it again.

The other striking thing, so striking that mentioning it is like providing the punchline of a cliche, is that your attitude is very traditionally feminine. Men, they say, respond to ideas by beating the hell out of them. Those left standing are probably good. It's easy to imagine fallout from this behavior: person a posts something which, between the lines, is a statement about ... god knows what. A yearning to be understood. A desire for more compassion in the world. Person b rides in, reads the lines themselves and not between them, and starts blasting away at flaws in reasoning, or whatever.

The idea that these people aren't engaging in the same communicative act was one of those moments, alluded to in the first paragraph, where this blog has provided real value to my life. You really made that idea ring. Even so, in the "public sphere" one does not normally expect one's words to be interpreted with heavy doses of context and pre-emptive compassion. Somebody says something, makes a point, and the other people respond to it. The more nuanced sort of dialogue you seem to want, where you say X and I re-interpret your X and come out with Y, is generally the domain of the private sphere. If I were having dinner with a friend this is how the conversation would go.

Which brings me back to my original question: do you think you're having dinner with a friend? If so, I think you've written yourself a very tepid sort of tragedy whose ending is foreordained. In other words: I don't think there's any reality where anonymous strangers type at each other in public forums and act like close friends.

I hope this isn't really what you're trying for, for your own sake.

8:53 PM  
Blogger billo said...

I think you're right. But why is that? Why the need to critique?

My two cents is this:

If you blog there's a tendency to become preachy and everyone wants to take you down.

More importantly, those who go to university are trained to critique or break down, ideas. And the wider public culture goes against anything that is merely 'given' ("the muddy centre"). The type of understanding you are talking about, Megan, comes up against this relentless desire to explain and analyse.

Maybe it's just an age thing. Like freshmen intoxicated by a certain narrow idea of cleverness.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

Which brings me back to my original question: do you think you're having dinner with a friend? If so, I think you've written yourself a very tepid sort of tragedy whose ending is foreordained. In other words: I don't think there's any reality where anonymous strangers type at each other in public forums and act like close friends.

This is food for thought. I may be expecting this, and I do get it sometimes from frequent commenters. This leads me to almost forget sometimes that I am in an anonymous public forum, and every now and then I'm shocked by anonymous (or not) hostile driveby comments.

I know that a blog voice isn't a whole person. But nevertheless, there is some personality there, and when it's consistent I feel I know the voice, if not the real person, and may develop some attachment to it. I've had at least one instance where a blog voice I was expecting to be in agreement was hostile, in a way I thought unfair, and I snuffled all weekend about it. Even at the time I realized that was a little crazy of me.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Megan said...


(sniffle) Or just trying to (sob) gain your approval by finding something to say! (snnnnnuff)

But this is strange coming from you, because you absolutely have neat things to say, and I don't usually see you saying the obvious.

I do want to be impressed with people's comments, which also happens lots. I just want people to come in with their harder thoughts, not their first drive-by. And I want them to start that thought from the premise that there was something worthwhile about the original piece, which we are working to improve.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Scott Calvert said...

Might be time to remind you of one of your old sayings from a year or so ago. We (the blog commenters) are not real people. It's mostly true too. I dig your priorities as they come out in this journal largely because your perspective is fresh and I learn things from the way you think. It's great and I'm glad you do it because I benefit from it ;) Truth is that as much as I appreciate the people behind the blogs I read, I save the best of my understanding and compassion for people I actually know in meat-space.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Megan said...


Lots of stuff in your comment, the core of which I should build a post around. But I can answer some of it here.

First, those objections are somewhat but not overwhelmingly about my blog. It is more of a generalized disgust with stuff I've seen around.

What do I think I'm doing? Well, there's been mission creep.

The blog started off as a personal ad, but I started getting embarrassed that that was my whole reputation when I do think about other stuff, you know. And a blog about dating makes people generalize about gender roles, butcept their generalizations are as foreign to me as those New Jersey guys are. So that is both demeaning to men and women and not useful for my dating process.

Then I started posting opinions about how the state works, since that is what I know, and I got sucked into the libertarian debate, which I thought was interested because it was my first time through. Now that it has been a few rounds and nothing has changed, most of the interest is gone. Sadly, I get links for those, which just feed the cycle.

The posts I like best are my posts where I am funny. In real life, you know, I'm all jokey and not taking stuff so seriously in four long paragraphs. You'll have to take my word for that.

I never meant the blog to be a diary, and I work very hard to do more than record the things I do. I try to make each post have a larger point or a joke or a narrative arc. Some posts, not enough of them, simply beam love to the world. I like those ones a lot too, but I don't hit that note often enough.

Recently, I think the blog has been weak. It is now primarily a place to put the thought that keeps me buzzing all the time. And having my thought be relentlessly and predictably negatively critiqued is off-putting. Not because it is too hard or too aggressive. 'Cause it is tedious if the critiques are cheap.

You are right, though, that the mixed message is hard for people to navigate. The blog switches between a few topics: personal (used to be more personal), blogging, water, governance. That is pretty much ME. Some commenters handle that with a lot of grace. Tom and Susan, Kwin, Bob Vis, t_n, LB, Dizzy and Spungen, -K, s, Steven, DaveEB, Dave Balan, Justus, lots. I'll feel bad as soon as I remember all the others I didn't just name. They ARE friends, and they can switch between technical and personal posts, since we think about technical and personal things in our real lives.

Crap. I've lost track of your question. What am I doing? Dunno. It isn't well defined anymore, and I think that shows.

10:15 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Just to let you know, I'm still ruminating the no-compliment policy. I will report back soon.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Report back? Whatever dude. I need to head south and we should chat about it in person, with our other friends around.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

dithers, JRoth, fasolaMatt, Will, CharleyCarp, Francis, IDP...

I should never have started naming names.

11:01 PM  
Blogger jens said...

I was thinking of just saying nothing.

But then I thought, "How strange that such a good blogger seems to have no stomach at all for her milieu!"

While I agree with you that courtesy is appreciated even in the blogosphere, you seem to rate comments on some kind of weird number line, the kind with a zero somewhere in the middle. This is wrong.

Rule #1 is:
"A comment is attention. All attention is good." If someone comments you telling you what an insane evil bitch you are to hold the opinions that you do, this is not QUITE as good as a well-reasoned comment that actually teaches you something, but it should STILL make you perk up and straighten your shoulders with pride, pushing that ample rack we hear about so much forward like some luscious offering....ummm, sorry, got distracted.

Anyway, the correct model for rating is a number-ray, with its origin at -0.01 (yes, a negative value must exist, but only for pure spam completely unrelated to your original post).

Take it the right way, and you'll find this environment a far more cheerful experience. When you see, for example, the eminent McArdle savaged, you won't cringe and think how worthless this must be making her feel. You'll say to yourself: "That's a fan of hers. A disgruntled fan, but a fan nevertheless, somebody who actually CARES what she thinks. How proud she can be."

All this courtesy crap should have NO effect on the originating blogger. The courtesy, reasoning, etc. is all to make you think better of the COMMENTER, and reflects on the blogger hardly at all.

If I bother to use any courtesy and skill in my comments, it is not because I am so full of myself that I think it will actually boost the blogger to which I am commenting (OK, maybe a TINY bit if the blogger REALLY seems to need cheering up - but the opposite does not hold at all, the idea that some off-the-cuff idea of mine would actually DEPRESS the blogger seems just insane) but because I want to bolster my OWN self-esteem by not appearing to be a bonehead.

5:28 AM  
Anonymous D said...

""That's a fan of hers. A disgruntled fan, but a fan nevertheless, somebody who actually CARES what she thinks. How proud she can be." -jens

Dunno, Jens, I don't buy it. There are always trolls of various types, and they write specifically to make people feel bad. They are not fans. On the other hand they almost always have problems with the same stuff, soI'm sure they form a pattern somewhere. The question is, is there enough throughput for a blogger to notice an individuals posting habits.

The interesting dynamic about commenting, IMO is that there is a timeframe where the topic is moving. The first couple of posts move, and most bloggers may only have time/interest to consider the first few. If the bloggere themselves writes a bunch of posts in a day, then you can't step in the same river once because everyone's thought has moved on. If you raise a valid question later, as a commenter, it may get no interest. No-one may be reading that far back. So, there is a reason to post quickly to get thoughts down, and that may reduce quality.

The other things? I usually look at a blog as a person throwing out ideas that have occured to them, and then let other people take up a conversation. That doesn't mean that I assume that the blogger wont react to an attack personally, but that they are curious about what other people think. In that form though, when someone tells you that you're full of it... :shrug: my reply is it's a free world, baby. People don't agree, and that makes life rich, in my eyes. But only if you can cast aside what is personal attack. THAT isn't always easy, esp. when it's you own place. As a commenter, I'm just getting a drink in a bar, I don't have to keep the place clean.

"I don't think there's any reality where anonymous strangers type at each other in public forums and act like close friends." -shanusmagnus

I think that depends entirely on the person commenting, wherein lies the rub. I don't know Megan personally, but there is no blogger I read, that I don't treat AS IF we could be friends. I have met a few people that I have read for years and even become friends with several. That has to do with the idea that THERE IS a person behind the curtain, and THIS IS their place, their writing of what's on their mind. I disagree with them on some things, and agree on others. It doesn't matter, they are a person. Posts don't appear magically out of thin air. On the other hand, if I read someone that I disagree with about everything, then I stop reading them. It doesn't do either one of us any good to argue all the time, and have nothing in common, when we don't have to. When you disagree with someone that much, you aren't likely to persuade them, anymore than they will persuade you.

M asks me to be kind, so I am kind, just because she asked for that. It isn't hard to do that for someone whose brains you dig, and for the commenters they attract.

That said. You remember the bad posts most of all. Everyone having a good time at a luau is easily destroyed by one nasty drunk. That is a very real possibility on an open forum, and there is not that much that can be done, except limiting your audience a lot. Or disallowing anon comments. Since I post from various places, I don't really have a blog account anywhere, so while I still read various blogs that are comment controlled, I probably don't do as much, because I can't exchange ideas with anyone.

Finally, I think a problem that shouldn't be discounted, is the fact that writing in this nature is kind of raw. You have to put more effort and qualification to give writing the edge it needs. When I talk to someone, voice inflection, expression and so forth let both of us know what kind of opinion is being expressed. In writing that is absent, unless you try to make it happen by writing the extra words. If you don't qualify a statement well, you sound like an arrogant ba$tard, when you may have been asking a simple question. That sets the tones for other replys, and that can be a downward spiral.

ps. Megan says no compliments to her, so OK. I will say this though... There are many human beings I like in this world, some I know well, others just to perk up their day with a joke, even if they be a stranger. Happily, unless I really miss my guess, You, Megan are a human, and so... I Like you. Is that affirmative?

7:07 AM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

I know exactly what you mean about the relentless analysis of every statement, especially on a topic that has already been argued to death.

That is why I look forward our cyborg future when we all upload our brains to the Internet. Arguments will become so easy. In that world, we will not have to become emotionally involved or even pay attention when we argue. Somebody will start with a provocative statement, and in response we will simply run subroutine G73D3 to engage them, and then they will run their own subroutine in return. Most arguments will resolve themselves with a predictable interaction of the subroutines. Real involvement will only be necessary on the infrequent occasions when the subroutines reach an impasse.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

I just hope that a plethora of bad commenters don't continue to impact your willing to post! I stopped reading all blog comments a year or two ago because the signal to noise ratio just wasn't worth my time.

I'm a huge believer in open discourses, and I'm glad there are people at least trying to foster these space, but it's too hard to do well consistently. Even just glancing through this thread I see tons of stuff I disagree with strongly, and I could fire off posts pointing our their errors, or how they could have presented their argument in a more conciliatory way, but I think a lot of comments are more interested in getting attention than making an interesting point.

Either way, some of us still lurk and think that your posts are interesting even without (good or bad) comments!

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"All this courtesy crap should have NO effect on the originating blogger." - jens

Should... I think maybe Megan would agree that it SHOULDN'T have an effect, but she clearly stated that it DOES have an effect.

I think part of avoiding the smarmy "smartness" and the more obnoxious critiques is accepting what the blogger stated and challenging the factual components or gently nudging the ideas but not trying to change the underlying emotional responses -- which no reasoned argument will do. Part of the assumed, boring, and not-necessary critiques I see all over these internets are ones that miss the mark. I see the blogger as the one framing the conversation - comments should work within the world the blogger presents.

Here, that's a world where harsh, punishing, overly analytical comments are unhelpful to the original author, and unwelcome. Megan clearly tells us that she does not feel that All Attention Is Good Attention. Telling her she should think that doesn't forward the conversation.

(Sorry to be picking on Jens here, but that comment seems to be exactly the sort of thing that Megan would like to avoid seeing in comments. And yet here it is.)

Also, I think people are MUCH more likely to tell a female blogger to just get over her emotional response to something, and discredit it, than they would be to a male blogger. Can't we all just accept people who who they say they are, and critique the ideas, not the people?

- abl

8:15 AM  
Blogger jens said...

> Megan clearly tells us that she
> does not feel that All Attention Is
> Good Attention. Telling her she
> should think that doesn't forward
> the conversation.

Sorry, but Megan has a MUCH better chance of changing her attitude than she does of moving to a much-better world. I hope.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Yes, Magnus yes at first (I can't read comments longer than 2 paragraphs).

At the risk of stating the obvious, here's my irrelevant opinion: I can't imagine commenting and scathing attention is what you want from the blogosphere. You started this blog as a gamble to increase your chances of finding something you wanted more, no? Do you want to argue for eternity about the finer points of the libertarian state? I always enjoyed your water, bike, frisbee, out on the town posts; I also tend to think any post that mentions libertarians can only be picking a fight with the bottom of the barrel.

I would support you focusing on whatever topics get you laid. Go back to those. No room for scummy critiques, right?

Btw, how bout them pike?


2:19 PM  
Blogger susan said...

Yeah, I also thought about you when I heard the pike story on NPR yesterday. Any thoughts on the issue?

4:23 PM  
Blogger WLM said...

One of the things I like about LiveJournal is the ability to turn off comments when I just don't feel like hearing it from others. The people who read and comment on my blog tend to be polite, but some of them are far more opinionated in their disagreement than their agreement--it irks me when people have little to say in agreement or encouragement, but come out of the woodwork to disagree--and I'm not always in the mood for their lip, so I disable comments. I can't imagine having commenters who feel obligated to be as critical and personal as possible in their disagreement.

6:08 PM  
Blogger WLM said...

Even so, in the "public sphere" one does not normally expect one's words to be interpreted with heavy doses of context and pre-emptive compassion. Somebody says something, makes a point, and the other people respond to it. The more nuanced sort of dialogue you seem to want, where you say X and I re-interpret your X and come out with Y, is generally the domain of the private sphere. If I were having dinner with a friend this is how the conversation would go.

Has anyone thought that maybe, just maybe, the public sphere could use quite a lot more of this kind of humanity? I know I have, and there is nothing wrong with that.

A lot of the world could benefit by being more typically "female". Life need not be dog-eat-dog; that is not the only way to live. It may be the most common way, but it isn't the only way...and not even the healthiest way, in the long run.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'm sorry, hon. I meant to pay attention to what you wrote, but I got all distracted by how pretty Twyla is. I can't tell you how pleased I am to have bicycles commenting on my blog.

6:20 PM  
Anonymous albatross said...


Hardly anyone has blogging as their job. If it's not fun to you, you probably won't do it after awhile. This fact shapes the kind of people who remain bloggers for any length of time.

For awhile now, I've seen some of your posts as pointing out the parts of blogging you don't like, the parts that make this not much fun to you. Requiring affirmative kindness, asking people to stop assuming that online discussions are free for alls with personal nastiness, etc., all tie into this.

In some conversations, what you need is constructive criticism--show me the holes in my idea, here. Explain what I'm missing.

In others, you're trying to get an interesting idea out, and the last thing you need is someone "helping" you by killing it in the crib.

It seems to me that one of the main things about being a good participant in an online discussion, and even a bigger part of an in-person discussion, is figuring out which case you're in.

10:22 AM  
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6:06 PM  

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