Commenting on Comments

5 Jul

Among the many blessings the Worldwide Web has brought us is the Comment section following any article published online. From the New York Times to Haaretz from the lowliest blogger to soaring celebrities, readers get to post their reactions to news, events, opinions, and, yes, commentary everywhere. Editors like to label it “community involvement” or some such nonsense.

That’s what most of it is, too, nonsense.

First, the overwhelming majority of the comments left by readers are anonymous. Or, at websites like Salon, each commentator has a made-up user name that guarantees anonymity to other readers. Some print publications even have begun using anonymous messages left online as submissions to the Letters section of their magazines. Wired magazine sprinkles them amidst missives signed by real people. My former employer Computerworld rarely publishes a letter from writer who has an actual name and job title. Every one is signed by Anonymous.

Second, commentators have trouble staying on topic. They stray this way and that. Single-minded folks will always write about their hot-button topic no matter the subject at hand. Often anonymous writers will get into pissing matches with one another, careening off onto unrelated territory with their invective-charged comments.

Third, there’s the invective itself. Being anonymous, many commentators see little reason to grace their words with an iota of politeness. They rant. They rage. They rip everyone apart. From where they sit, it seems, nothing and no one is worth a smidgeon of respect. To them an insult is a worthy insight.

Finally, there’s the plain ignorance on display. As noted earlier in this blog, professional writers need copyeditors. So, I do not hold it against readers when they post comments rife with typos or wrong subject-verb agreements. That’s why in days gone by a Letters page editor might connect with readers who submitted letters to have them approve an edited item. It’s also why other magazines would proclaim on a Letters page that submissions might be subject to editing for “length and clarity.” But, in so many cases, even a good editor could not make sense of some of the reader responses left online.

All this is not to say I abhor reader reactions to stories and OpEd pieces. Obviously, I read them. But sometimes at the end of a session reading a long string of pointless, mean-spirited, logic-free, and downright dumb comments, I feel as though I have utterly wasted my time. That the only reason I kept reading was to come across a prize example of reader foolishness. It’s as if I am a NASCAR fan, claiming to be enthralled by the roaring cars hurtling past in a blur, when all I am really waiting for is for the cars to crash


2 Responses to “Commenting on Comments”

  1. davidmorgenstern July 5, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    I got a very very angry and dismissive message from a reader about a passive construction in my lede. How on earth did I have a right to live and post when using such a horrible phrasing.

    Now, he was totally right about the copy usage, of course, and there’s little excuse on my part (I was sick and busy and posting in a rush). If I had put on my editor’s hat and reread the piece, perhaps I would have changed it. Or not.

    Sigh. I totally agree with your thought that these readers enjoy the insult. “To them an insult is a worthy insight.”

    But I always thank them for reading, which must infuriate them.

    david m.

    • Mark Everett Hall July 6, 2010 at 6:56 am #

      Thanking insulting readers for reading and being polite is a good approach. Often it can change their tone if they reply again. I think some of reader “outrage” is based on their assumption that they are crying out into a howling wind of noise on the Web and that no one is listening to them. A polite response is often (pleasantly) shocking to them and creates a true conversation, which is the point of Comment sections.

      A reader from Twitter sent me this link about how people disagree in Comments ( He calls it a Disagreement Hierarchy. It’s both amusing and insightful. Alas, there are no comments left behind by readers. 😉

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