Online Comments: Steps to Bringing the Civility Back


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If you’ve traveled online and social media circles long enough, you’ve probably seen the meme; “Wait a minute, someone is wrong on the Internet. It’s a funny meme, but also one that tugs on the emotions of plenty of folks who may be intellectually or emotionally involved in a specific topic. And of course, the advent of social media platforms and comment systems such as Disqus, means that just about anyone can critique a blog post, article, or book.

ExplainingIn a departure from the usual fare on this blog, I’d like to attempt to answer two key questions: 1) is there an obligation to review and critique content you don’t necessarily support and 2) is there a civil and respectful way to disagree?

Author Nassim Taleb—who is no stranger to critics—believes the best approach to dealing with a blog, article or book you don’t like is to say nothing at all. In a Facebook post, he wrote; “Never write a negative book review. It is a step below badmouthing. A bad book is its own bad review.”

Predictably, there were 100+ comments on his Facebook page, some suggesting negative reviews provided future readers a warning to avoid a time and money waster. A typical response from this camp included; “If I paid money for a book and I took time to read it and I think it’s a bad book, don’t I have a duty, as a reviewer, to say so?”

Others lined up behind Dr. Taleb, suggesting the best course of action is to ignore online content that doesn’t synch with our worldview. This comment was a typical response for this group: “Why play god with someone’s livelihood? Keep your opinions to yourself. Isn’t that a golden rule?”

In terms of online commenting, I believe in some instances we’ve lost the art of civility, especially as we sit behind glowing computer screens without the benefit of seeing how our comments affect others. To substantiate this point, one online editor told me; “I have noticed that people do not behave online as they would in real life. It’s like they forget the words are attached to actual people!”

For those who feel the need to “correct others in their erroneous thinking” (especially in political seasons), might I gently suggest some simple advice?

If you must critique, make sure your comment is valuable and beneficial to the discussion. If you are a subject matter expert, and have a divergent view from the author, present your credentials and your opinion without attacking the author. It’s OK to disagree with an author without calling them out professionally.

Second, take a humble and respectful approach to commenting. Perhaps you are an expert on a specific topic, with more experience than the author. If you disagree with an author’s point of view, suggest alternate resources that might explain the topic differently. Show-off your intelligence and/or experience with a careful and thoughtful response.

Third, remember that content on the internet tends to live forever (and that includes online comments). With hard drives constantly dropping in price, it’s easier than ever for online companies to store and archive content (and comments) in perpetuity. Want to write a scathing comment? Think really hard before you press “submit”. A hurried or rushed emotional/sarcastic comment may affect your personal brand for years to come.

Fourth, Nassim Taleb says that those who critique should have “skin in the game“. If you are going to comment positively or negatively, ensure that your online persona is easily identifiable. Include your full name (no anonymous profiles), website, Linkedin profile, or Gravatar when commenting.

Now, I need your help to further develop these thoughts. It’s also possible you may disagree with some of my conclusions. So let’s kick off the conversation with a few questions:

  • Do you have an obligation to review or critique content that doesn’t fit your experience and/or personal view?
  • If you read a bad book, article, or post, should you warn others about it?
  • Are there instances when it’s OK to critique with an anonymous profile?
  • Outside of the four methods outlined in this article, are there further ways to disagree and/or dialog with an author without getting personal?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Paul Barsch
Fortune 500 marketer Paul Barsch has worked in technology for fifteen years at companies such as Terayon Broadband, BearingPoint Management Consulting, HP Enterprise Services and Teradata. Connect with him on Twitter @paul_a_barsch.


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