Creative Commons License photo credit: Funky Tee

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the quality of the comments left on the things I share online.

There are a lot of different things I am involved in. There is this blog, Bad Boy Blog and my forums. There are the responses to things I share on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, including comments on my writing, both on my accounts and on accounts dedicated to my projects. I co-host the SitePoint Podcast and the Copyright 2.0 Show and I am one half of Patrick and Sean. And there is more.

Comments are open, so I get comments, which is great. I appreciate comments. When no one cares enough to comment or share your stuff, that is when you should be most worried.

I receive good comments and thoughtful comments. But, then there are other types. Certainly spammy comments and comments where someone is just trying to be mean or to hurt my feelings. Between the extremes, however, I’ve identified a few negative trends that stand out to me.

Unqualified Statements

I read many comments online where the commenter is making a statement that they are not qualified to make. They are criticizing someone who is in a position they have never been, dealing with problems they’ll never face. They lack the experience and the perspective and yet, here they are, offering definitive statements. While we are all free to express ourselves, the part of discretion that many lack is in choosing what to comment on and what to say, based on personal experience.

We should not look at online comments as a measurement stick because many of the people who are qualified to comment, who are experienced, are simply too busy. When they do comment, it’;s often on their own site or their own profile, not on someone’s blog or status update. Because of this, on matters where experience is needed to comment, I often find that online comment areas are jaded by a lack of crucial experience. There are some qualified commenters, but their voices are often lost in a sea of noise.

Potentially, everyone has something to contribute, no matter their experience level, as long as they are honest and take the time to consider their perspective and where they are at, experience wise.

People Don’t Read

It is kind of frightening, sometimes, how often people comment on something and their comment demonstrates they haven’t fully read what they are commenting on. I don’t know if reading comprehension is at an all-time low or the internet is just making it more apparent, but either way – it’s bad.

It is commonplace for me to read a comment online and wonder if the person was commenting on a totally different story. People even disagree with articles by making points that were already stated in the article. In other words, they don’t disagree at all – they just think they do.

People Want to Prove Themselves

Regardless of actual disagreement or not, when some people want to build a name for themselves, one of the strategies that I’ve seen employed is to go after someone with a bigger audience than them. Comment on them, disagree with them – and do it in a public fashion, as it is vital that people see it. By association, some will think of them with whoever they are going against and place them on the same level.

Certainly, I have seen people make a coordinated effort of this in various comment sections. But, you also see people do it on their own blogs when they include stuff like “I disagree with Chris Brogan” randomly in a post where they didn’t even need to reference Chris. They could have just stated their opinion. But, no, they want that visual association in people’s minds. “Look at this guy, he’s going against Brogan and he sounds smart, so…”

Someone is Wrong on the Internet

These issues exist. Unqualified comments made by people who lack experience – that some readers of those comments will believe. People commenting on things they didn’t read properly and people looking to make a name for themselves by attempting to take someone else down a peg. All of these things could be responded to in detail. You could correct the unqualified, point out that they didn’t read the comment correctly and tell them what you aren’t really all that different from them. To do so, requires that you carefully read each one and respond thoughtfully, in detail.

This takes time, our most precious commodity. For many individuals, the task is simply impossible. The time does not exist. And for others, even if it is not impossible, to do so requires that they take significant amounts of time away from their work, their writing and their creation of stuff.

I am reminded of a well circulated xkcd comic, titled “Duty Calls.” In it, a character at a computer is asked if they are coming to bed. They say they can’t, they are distracted by something important. What is it? “Someone is wrong on the internet.”

You Don’t Have to Respond to All Online Comments

Which brings us to the point of this post. Part of understanding these comments and not allowing them to either get to you or require you to dedicate your life to responding to them is to accept that they exist and, more importantly, to accept that you don’t have to respond to them all or correct them all. People won’t always understand your art, but they don’t need to. You can spend your life defending your art or you can spend it making art. I had to remind myself about this recently and that is one of the reasons I was inspired to write this post.

Because of the second issue I mentioned, some may read this post and think I am saying to ignore commenters or that I don’t like comments. Neither of those things is true. I like comments and what I am saying is to be selective in how you spend your time and make sure that you are spending it on worthwhile things that will have the greatest impact. When I talk about responding in this article, I mean full, thought out responses. Not acknowledgement. You can acknowledge people in 5-10 seconds and I’ll sometimes simply acknowledge people to thank them for commenting, even if I think what they are saying is crazy or they didn’t read what I wrote in the first place.

But, part of allowing comments, maintaining your sanity and continuing to make good art is the necessity to accept that people will have conversations about that art, sometimes based on ill-conceived notions, and you don’t need to be a part of every conversation. No one is that entitled to your time. However, when it comes to those who strike you, those that bring up thoughtful points, those that add value and those you appreciate, respond to as many as you can.