How to Comment

Peter Wood

Mark is a connoisseur of comments. Several times a week he emails me articles he has spotted on the Internet which he has tagged with lines such as “Read the one by Zombie.” “#7 nails it.” “Comment #16 is fizziwig at his best.”

I don’t always check—sorry Mark—but when I do, he is usually right. Mark sniffs out the moonshiner who has distilled an idea to mountaintop clarity, or taps the guy whose bank shot always drops the ball neatly into the side pocket. Mark is a Simon Cowell for the commentariat—or at least that segment of it that shares his rightward political convictions.

I disappoint Mark again and again with my reluctance to get in the game. He thinks I could be a contender, one of those who could fill the mason jar with the delectable distillate of the sour mash of mere opinion. Or the guy with the feather touch who could run the table. I’m flattered of course, but I know my limits. And who has the time?

Of course, judging from the phenomenal popularity of Twitter and the blizzards of comments that pile up on blogs, a lot of people have the time. A new folk art has emerged in the Internet Age, an art that has moved as far beyond the cranky letter to the editor as Andy Warhol moved beyond the painters of wild horses at Lascaux. Which is to say, maybe not so far in luminous quality but way, way far in reproducibility, ease of access, and mass distribution.

Because commenting is often anonymous or pseudonymous, practitioners can be freed from many social rules as well as many of their own inhibitions. We all know the results. Boorishness. Bombast. Preening. On some sites, commenting becomes competitive snarling. Sometimes the dynamic in a comment thread consists of people reinforcing one another’s edgier opinions and pushing the discussion towards an extremity that most of the individual participants wouldn’t have reached on their own. Other threads consist of vitriolic exchanges between battled-hardened champions of opposing views.

It can’t be true that nothing comes of this. As an anthropologist, I’d say the rituals serve variously to reinforce tribal identities, either by affirming the sacred truths or by immolation of the symbolic enemy. A collective process is running its course, but it is the kind of process that invites a great deal of free-form individual improvisation. Commenting is a way for individuals to take creative ownership of some of the cultural themes that are abroad at the moment—and to do so in a way that, for the most part, has no practical consequences.

Commenting certainly has a few rules. Most sites block epithets and the grosser forms of profanity, and many filter out the viler forms of personal attack. Beyond that, however, it is an anarchy of opinion in which the greatest penalty is simply to be ignored. The now common device of “liking” a comment gives quiet repudiation to the like-less.

Commenting by its nature is an amateur sport, but it is easy to distinguish those who really do it well from those who only think they do. High schools and colleges are already offering academic credit for blogging and some have argued that blogging is “a necessary vehicle for academic writing.” Surely it is a matter of time (or are we already there?) when English composition instructors will focus their students’ attention on how to craft comments for blogs and to riposte to tweets.

In the spirit of advancing both academic discourse and improving over the usual desultory quality of posted comments, I’d like to offer some suggestions.

Even if you don’t intend to use your name, write your comment as if you were. Ask yourself if you would be embarrassed to see your name attached to what you are about to post. If the answer is yes, should you really post it? Something like “More drool from the fool” probably won’t pass this test.

Say what you have to say once and be prepared to let it go no matter what follows. When someone replies to your comment, “Your logic is faulty, your premise is flawed, your zipper is down,” zip it up.

Don’t speculate about the character of a person whose views you criticize. “You have the morals of a box turtle,” is technically an ad hominem attack and may also expose you as someone with a deficient understanding of herpetology.

Likewise, don’t trade on personal information. “How can you say that after what you told me last night?” is akin to crossing the median and driving head-on into traffic. Don’t go there.

The blogosphere is a rough and tumble place, and it may be futile to advise people to obey the Golden Rule, nonetheless: obey the Golden Rule. If you wouldn’t care for someone to post the comment about you, don’t post it about him.

OMG! Shun Internet initialisms. The Oxford English Dictionary may have added them, but IMHO they are too tired to be of much service in a good comment.

Remember the sensitivity police are a thousand miles away, chasing people who don’t use gender-inclusive pronouns. Out here you are on your own. Don’t imagine you can score any points by declaring that you are shocked or offended.

Avoid unnecessary fuss. Stick to the essentials. “ROFL, you misspelled gawdelpus.”

Likewise, keep to the point of the article you are commenting on. The breed of comment-leavers who habitually attempt to redirect the discussion to their own hobbyhorses are next to the makers of unsolicited sales calls in the fourth circle of hell, where they will be interrupted for eternity for their greedy misappropriation of other peoples’ time.

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