It shouldn't require a research programme to work out whether the kind of negativity trumpeted on the web is likely to put people off taking part in online discussion. That's a real shame, because it means that those people are missing out on the benefits (to themselves) of blogging, and the rest of us are missing out on learning from them.
I've written this article as a response to a new Twitter follower who, in reply to my question "Do you have a blog?", said "I've always been a bit fearful of pushback/negative comments. Do you have any tips for a nervous first-time blogger?
Before getting into that, I mentioned the benefits of blogging. If you're not sure what they are, have a look at 7 reasons educators should blog, and Seven reasons teachers should blog by Steve Wheeler.
Right, here are my suggestions for dealing with negative comments.
Come up with a commenting policy, and link to it at the end of every post
It's your blog, so you get to decide which comments are acceptable and which aren't. When I allowed commenting (I no longer do so: more on that in a moment), I had a pretty strict definition of what I regarded as acceptable. (See How I deal with spam comments.)
In order to avoid horrible comments or automatically-generated spam, make sure moderation is enabled. However, I have to say at this point that going too far in attempting to keep out the bots can put people off. On several occasions I have wanted to leave a comment on someone's blog, but after going through almost every hoop imaginable short of providing a DNA sample I simply gave up.
Don't respond to trolls
I define a troll pretty loosely: basically, anyone who calls me an idiot (or worse) instead of engaging in a fruitful and respectful discussion has no place on my blog. If you can block such people, do so. I've done that in forums, without warning.
The way I look at it is this: if I invited you into my home for a cup of tea and a discussion, and you started to hurl abuse at me, belittle me, or even threaten me, I'd ask you to leave. I wouldn't have a debate with you about whether I want you to stay.
My advice on this, which I think is generally accepted is: never feed the trolls.
Build your online presence and reputation
This takes time and effort, but it's a good thing to do in my opinion for the following reason: if people start making negative comments about you on the web, those comments might start showing up in search results on your name. So taking the time to engage in good discussions on Twitter, other people's blogs as a guest blogger, Linked-in, and by frequently writing articles on your own blog is a good strategy I think.
Respond to comments in a timely manner
If people are taking the time to comment on your blog and have a discussion with you, then try to answer them quickly. I was terrible at this to be honest, because I always had too much work on. See my article on this: No comment.
This is the option I went for after many years of allowing comments on my blog (with moderation), for two reasons.
First, I got sick of having to waste time trawling through and deleting spam comments, and wasting time trying to decide whether or not a comment was spam.
Secondly, I got sick of people calling me an idiot. You know, perhaps I am an idiot, but (a) I don't need to be told that: you can keep your opinion to yourself in that regard; (b) I think any discussion should focus on the ideas and not the person: if you wouldn't call a child in your class an idiot because you disagree with her, why do so outside the classroom?; (c), in my experience the people who hurl insults always do so anonymously: I like to know who I'm conversing with; and (d) I didn't see why I should have those kind of comments residing on my property.
Here's the thing: if someone wishes to comment genuinely on something I've written, and if they feel really strongly enough, then they can either start a discussion on Twitter, join a Facebook group and discuss it there, or start their own blog and write an article in response.
See also my article Web 2.0 for rookies: commenting, because it has a few rules for etiquette, and a couple of really good links about feeding the trolls.
There will always be people who want to put you down. And in my own experience, and in the experience of everyone I've read about who has been on the receiving end of horrible comments, the more successful you are the more likely it is that people will attack you. So in a perverse sort of way, it's a compliment. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
Bottom line: if you let the possibility of negative comments put you off blogging (or contributing to online discussions in any other way), then you've allowed the nutters and nasties to win.
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