J. Max Wilson’s Reactionary Guide to Writing Constructive Comments on the Interwebs


I have often written blog posts that have proved particularly unpopular among some readers. A few years ago I wrote a post that resulted in some significant backlash. After spending too much time engaged in the resulting onslaught of negative comments and attacks, I wrote a manifesto entitled Bite the Wax Tadpole: A Manifesto for Internet Conversation and Debate in which I laid out the parameters for my engagement with commenters. I have no regrets about taking control of my own websites and social pages to cultivate an Internet-space in which I can promote and discuss the things I believe are true and important while still maintaining decent real-life priorities and perspective.

However, in the intervening years I have had plenty of complaints about my, admittedly, heavy-handed comment moderation. I understand how frustrating it can be to write a comment that simply disappears into the black-hole of moderation, never to be seen again. I have not communicated well my expectations for comments or why certain comments are published and others are not.

For some time I have been meaning to write a guide, of sorts, for commenters that will help them successfully navigate the rules of engagement for my web-spaces and participate in constructive discussion.

I am trying to create an environment with a certain tone and level of discourse. The dynamics of moderation are complex. The only way to maintain that environment is to be heavy handed regarding not only what people say, but how they say it.

A lot of Internet discourse seems to be a window into the worst of humanity: profanity, belittling, racism, sexism, &c. are rampant. At times it can seem like the Internet is populated entirely by middle-school-aged bullies. And because internet comments are generally so horrendous, commenters sometimes think that because their own comment is a step above the internet norm that it must be acceptable.

But I want a significantly higher level of discourse than just a notch or two above the internet fever swamps. I expect commenters to make a significant and sincere effort to be polite and respectful.

In a world that thrives on breaking every constraint and for which no controversy is too small to be outraged, it is an act of rebellion to embrace constraint and equanimity.

Here are some of the things that you should keep in mind when submitting comments:

Be polite and respectful

You are playing in somebody else’s sandbox. Be respectful of your hosts as well as other people they allow to participate in their space.

Sometimes moderation is just a matter of politeness. Two comments could make essentially the same point, but one would get blocked and the other posted simply because of the way they are phrased. Often a blocked comment can be rewritten and resubmitted more politely and be published in a more polite form.

I know that when someone has written something that you consider monumentally idiotic, it is easier (and more fun) to mock and dismiss, but regardless of how you feel, you are going to have to rein it in and find a way to express your disagreement in the most polite terms possible. In general that means interacting in a way that treats your interlocutor as generally honest, reasonable, intelligent, and good even if your gut reaction is that they are not.

Don’t be snarky, snide, or sarcastic

One fundamental key when commenting in my space is to excise snark and sarcasm from your comments. The kind of supposedly “playful” snark that wins people praise and social status on other blogs and forums is not generally welcome. Comments are often moderated not because they don’t make a legitimate point but because they make a legitimate point in a snide, snotty manner that tends to degrade the conversation. Many commenters seem so accustomed to a snarky mode of discourse that it is hard for them to even conceive that such a manner might not be welcome. I know this is hard for many people, but if you are going to submit a comment then take the time to re-write it in a non-sarcastic way before hitting submit.

Make one point at a time

I know that you have all kinds of objections. But dumping them all at once into a single comment makes for a terrible discussion. Choose one of your points and express it as succinctly and clearly as you can. Format it for readability using punctuation and proper capitalization, and break it into paragraphs if needed. Then wait for a response before moving on to a new point of discussion.

Don’t dogpile

Another dynamic that plays into moderation is that of piling-on or dogpiling. When a post attracts considerable attention and comments, there is often a tendency for critics to pile-on and flood the post with negative responses. Sometimes these pile-ons come about organically and sometimes they are caused by an active campaign organized by other blogs, email lists, or forums. Despite its many charms, the Internet has a strong tendency toward mobocracy. So sometimes comments are moderated simply because there are too many critical comments to deal with, or because they make the same point that has already been made by another, or because in order to keep the conversation manageable the flood must be controlled. Don’t take it personally.

I know that it is only natural to feel that you can make a point better than the previous commenter. It is also natural to want to add your verbal support to perceived allies or to try to win a discussion by the sheer volume of comments. But if you want to participate in my space you must consciously refrain from commenting if there are already others arguing a similar viewpoint to your own.

When you do comment, even if there aren’t a lot of other commenters, once you have made a point don’t keep pushing it and arguing ad nauseum. Politely express your disagreement, make your point, and then move on.

Contradiction is not an argument

If you disagree with me, don’t submit a comment that consists of nothing but assertions to the contrary. That is merely contradiction. If all you want to do is contradict me, don’t waste your time. Your time would be better spent watching this classic Monty Python sketch:

Don’t pretend to be somebody you are not

I have no problem if you want to comment using a pseudonym. But your comments should represent your real views and ideas. Don’t create a false persona or a fake identity. If you are going to play devil’s advocate, your comment should say so right up front. Be forthright about your point of view. Don’t omit information in order to lead me to believe you are something you are not or to engage me in a manipulative attempt at socratic dialogue. If you are an atheist, or a christian, or a republican, or pro-abortion, or whatever, and it influences your views on the topic at hand, say so.

Don’t play to the public spectators

As I have pointed out in the past, the dynamics of public discussion are often more like a public performance than a real discussion. There are incentives to appear smart, informed, and witty to the largely silent audience that wouldn’t be as strong if we were discussing things privately in person. It isn’t uncommon for comments to be made to win over the audience instead of the post author or the other commenter to whom the comment is ostensibly addressed.

If you comment, I expect you to be sincerely trying to discuss the issue at hand with me or the other commenters. I’m not interested in giving you space to play to my friends and readers; you can do that on your own blog or social site.

Write with constraint

Writing constructive comments takes effort. It means putting conscious constraints on what you write and how you express yourself.

In general, avoid making accusations toward both the author of the post as well as the other commenters. It helps if you go out of your way to employ some positive affirmations to introduce your own objections or additions, as well as constructing your own assertions with provisional language. Don’t get me wrong. You should rigorously defend your point of view. But use that big brain of yours to do it with constraint.

Some useful phrases you should consider making a regular part of your online interactions include:

“I can see what you mean. But I think you may be under-emphasizing…”
“I agree with you that…but another aspect to consider is…”
“That is a fair point. But I think we also have to consider…”
“What you are saying makes sense, but I think you are oversimplifying…”
“Will you clarify what you mean by…?”
“In my experience…”
“I could be mistaken, but it seems to me that…”
“The way I understand it…”
“I may not be communicating as clearly as I want. What I am trying to say is that…”
“Let me think about that a bit and I’ll write a response later.”
“I see what you are saying.”

In addition to avoiding snark and sarcasm, as mentioned earlier– and to obviously avoiding profanity– in general, you should eschew dismissive words and expressions of incredulity such as:

“Give me a break!”
“You can’t expect me to believe…”
“utter nonsense”
“Don’t make me laugh.”
“Bless your heart.”

Of course neither of these is meant to be an exhaustive list, but I’m sure you get the point.

If you are only leaving a comment to express how gobsmacked you are at what has been written, then don’t bother commenting.

Reputation matters

Finally, there are certain people whose comments are almost always rejected simply because they have previously demonstrated enough antagonism, sarcasm, and disrespect that they are not trusted to be able to engage in constructive conversation. It is unfortunate that even their reasonable comments are rejected, but it is a consequence of their previous bad behavior. It takes a serious effort to overcome that reputation, and most in that boat are not interested in putting in the effort it would take to ameliorate the situation.

Be patient with my inconsistencies

Obviously I have often failed to be consistent in moderating comments. It is natural to tend to tolerate a bit more snark from those we perceive as like-minded than we do from critics. That may not be fair, but I think it is pretty understandable when very human people try to balance their real life obligations with online discussion. Sometimes I let things through despite myself. Sometimes a comment makes me smile, and gets through despite falling short of everything I have said here.

If I reject your comment, try rewriting it with the guidelines above in mind. You can even send me a private message through the comment form and ask what I would like you to change.

However, please remember that my time is limited. I have responsibilities with family, church, work, and more. Internet discussion is low on the priority list. Sometimes writing an essay takes up my available time and energy and I don’t have much left over for a lot of discussion. Regardless of whether your comment makes it through moderation, I read each one. I have heard what you have said, even if I do not respond. But I have to be prudent about my priorities, so please forgive me if you don’t get a response. If I don’t have time right away to respond, it is difficult sometimes to get back to it later.

One last thing

I recommend writing your comments in a text file or a word processor and then copy and pasting them into the comment form just so that you have a copy for yourself regardless of whether they are posted on the site.

Thank you for reading.

You are welcome to comment with examples of bad comments and how they could have been re-written to make the same point in a polite, constructive way.

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