What is a “good” comment anyway?
I wrote a post a while ago listing all the bad commenting habits that I dislike the most. Around the same time, a blogger who I know on Facebook said (writing on FB, not on his blog) that he’s been disappointed with the quality of comments on his blog. I think this is probably a common problem. A select few blogs seem to garner very good comments. Steven Landburg’s blog The Big Questions has the very highest quality comments section of any blog I read. Scott Alexander’s blog Slate Star Codex also has a great comments section. I don’t go to Less Wrong very often, but it’s about as high-quality as Slate Star Codex. Econlog is also near the top of the list, which I believe is due to some thorough (sometimes overzealous) moderating. Marginal Revolution would benefit from more active moderating, but it does manage to attract a lot of good comments (if you can perform the task of filtering out the bad ones yourself). But even in these stand-out comment sections, the average comment is still pretty bad and probably not worth reading, let alone responding to. There are always people veering a little too far off topic, or behaving rudely to the other commenters, or making bad arguments, or carelessly misreading the original post.
So I got to thinking: You’re posting controversial ideas on the internet and inviting anonymous readers to comment? What could possibly go right? I thought it would be helpful to write a companion piece to my Bad Comments list. These are the ways that a comment thread can actually go right.
1) Correcting a material fact in someone’s argument. Be careful about this one. The correction should be an unambiguous *correction*. If there are dueling studies or conflicting data sources or something, it’s not helpful to say, “You’re wrong, replace your facts with my facts and you’ll be right.” Also, tame the urge to think that facts somehow speak for themselves. All facts require some kind of interpretation in the form of an argument. But if someone is unambiguously mistaken on a point of fact, they might actually appreciate and thank you for the correction. It sounds crazy, but I’ve seen it happen.
2) Filling in some important but neglected background. This is similar to 1), but far more ambiguous. If someone, say, quotes the wrong number for annual gun deaths in the US, it’s trivial to look that up and correct it. It’s slightly more of a judgment call to say, “…but really we’re talking about homicides and accidents, not suicides. Also, the recent trends are relevant here…” Sometimes people get their facts right but the context wrong, so if you can fill in the relevant context that can be useful for the other denizens of the comments section. Judgment is obviously necessary here. Someone might take “filling in context” as a carte blanc to expound upon an alternative worldview for several paragraphs. Don’t be that guy.
3) Pointing out a logical flaw in someone’s argument. By this I mean literally, pedantically correcting a logical error and nothing more. Like, “Whoops, you misused modus ponens. Your argument appears to be ‘If A then B. B. Therefore A.’” Don’t add any snark or berate the author. These things happen. You do them, too. Just make a quick correction and move on. You might even politely suggest that the conclusion is still true, just for reasons other than the argument offered. Try, when you can, to *directly* address the argument given. Many comments ignore the argument offered while supplying some orthogonal argument for why the conclusion can’t be right. Whenever possible, directly address the argument offered. (Here is a good example of what I'm talking about.)
4) Identify the locus of your disagreement and fixate on that. I have seen far too many comment threads escalate into full-blown flame wars without anyone even specifying what they were claiming. The very good comment threads are the ones in which the commenters stay focused on a particular point of disagreement.
5) Praise should be specific. No “F***-yeah!”s or “F***-ing A man!” I don’t think anyone wants a bunch of cheerleaders in their comments section. Excessive fist-pumping and high-fiving in the comments section can deter skeptical commenters, exactly the kind that the blogger needs to hear from. Say specifically what you liked and what you thought was a new or useful idea. Try to give the author good fodder for another post. If possible, suggest ways to make a strong post even stronger. If a post has you thinking "F*** yeah! Preach it!" then you should be actively looking for something wrong with it, because it's possible your emotions have gotten the better of you.
6) “You might want to read this…” If you have similar interests, it might be useful to suggest reading materials. Books, articles, movies, etc. Of course a quick article is more likely to actually be read than a book. Your recommendation might be appreciated. The standard is going to be much higher for suggesting literature critical or contrary to someone’s worldview. If I’m an anarcho-capitalist who reads a lot of economic arguments for anarcho-capitalism (David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Pete Leeson), I may want to know if there’s an obscure author I have missed (Bruce Benson for example). On the other hand, such a person won’t voraciously read works written by socialists hoping to stumble on a rare nugget of truth. In the second case, if you can identify the best argued, best articulated short-ish work for a skeptic to read, your knowledge may be appreciated.
There are so many ways for comments to go wrong and so few ways for them to go right. Basically, if you’re going to leave an approving comment do so without “piling on” or excessive fist-pumping. And if you’re leaving a critical comment stay on topic, state your criticism clearly and succinctly. Don’t be a dick about it, don’t veer off topic, and don’t impugn the motives of the person you are “correcting.” I have wasted countless hours arguing with people who exhibit poor comment hygiene. It hasn’t all been a complete waste and I did learn some important lessons from some of these exchanges. But many of them could have and should have been completely avoided.
Another thought occurred to me while writing this. Most of what happens on the internet doesn’t get captured in the comments section. Most of it happens in our minds without leaving a visible trace. If there is a well-written, thoughtful article, most of its readers will simply absorb its content without commentary, perhaps stowing it away in their heads for future reference, or perhaps forgetting about the post itself while still absorbing its lesson. If we’re talking about a blog post, most of the push-back will be from unthoughtful people who simply can’t swallow the conclusion. Maybe my blogger-friend was mistaken to be disappointed by his comments section. The loudest, most impulsive, least reflective individuals are the ones most likely to fire off a comment, so the comments section is a very biased sample of reactions to any given post. (Ever see a comment start with "long time lurker, first time commenter"? Just realize that most of your readers are forever lurkers, but the quality of their thoughts is probably as high as or higher than that of your average commenter.) If you could somehow sample the very private thoughts of your readers, it just might restore your faith in humanity.