To the Next Person Who Leaves a Comment
14 things to remember while sitting in the peanut gallery.
As a professional writer for nearly three decades, I’ve been trained to accept criticism (and occasionally, death threats) from unappreciative readers.
When I first started blogging in 2008, Bridget, my first Time Out editor, warned me about them. She said I should be prepared to hear from readers mostly when they have something not-so-nice to say.
But don’t let it bring you down, she cautioned (the Neil Young-via-Annie Lennox reference is actually mine). As in my days as a music critic for People magazine, when readers regularly lashed out at me via typed and handwritten letters for negatively reviewing the likes of R. Kelly and Mary Chapin Carpenter, it would be a mistake to gauge the cumulative response to my work on my “hate mail.”
I received some of the harshest comments of my blogging career in 2010 when I wondered who possibly could be watching NCIS in my “Pump Up the Volume” column on the now-defunct True/Slant website. Readers have also questioned the soundness of my judgment as a black man over things I’ve written about Usher, Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé.
As much as I would love to be adored by all, the liveliest comment sections are the ones featuring wildly dissenting opinions. So dear peanut gallery: Keep them coming. Proceed at my own risk. But remember: Despite my training, I still have thin skin, and, to quote Chrissie Hynde of Pretenders, I’m only human on the inside.
Before you press “Send” in a fit of righteous indignation, here are some things to consider.
1. If you have something nice to say, lead with it.
It eases the potential sting of criticism and will likely make the critiqued more receptive to it. Alas, there will always be regular commenters — and Facebook friends — who communicate best (and only) when they’re being contrarian, dismissive, or snarky. If you must, keep this in mind: Bitter lime may complement a shot of tequila, but a spoonful of sugar still helps the medicine go down. (Oh, and in related news: Not every point of view needs a devil’s advocate!)
2. Speaking of snark, on second thought, it’s fun when it’s diva vs. diva on daytime soaps, but snark really has no place in respectful discourse.
Writers are people, too. (And so are actors and musicians.) Remember that when you decide to go for the kill on message boards. The words you read online weren’t cobbled together by elves in the middle of the night. They were written by living, breathing human beings with feelings, so why not consider them?
Nobody wants to be snarked at — or dismissed, or verbally assaulted — after spending hours, if not days, or weeks, on an essay. Easy does it. I won’t take it personally if you don’t make it personal. Attack the opinion, not the person expressing it.
I’m no longer on Twitter, but the last time I checked (circa February of last year), an op-ed required a lot more blood, sweat, tears, dedication, and time than a 140-or-whatever-character tweet.
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3. Don’t comment until you’ve read the article.
In op-eds and personal essays, the headline doesn’t always tell the whole story. I’m a huge fan of irony and the question-mark title, so sometimes what I imply in my headlines is the opposite of what I say in my articles.
Also, if you are going to zero in on a single sentence and latch onto it like a dog with a bone, don’t pretend that it exists in a vacuum. Context is everything, and blog posts are typically more than one sentence long.
4. Everyone is entitled to a rigorous defense — even writers.
So don’t lose your shit when the writer you’ve just slammed and shamed loses his or her shit and gives as good as he or she just got.
The beauty of online journalism and one of the main reasons (aside from its immediacy) that, in my opinion, it’s killing print journalism is that it’s so interactive. Journalism is no longer a one-way conversation where writers get to pontificate and readers have to listen up and shut up — at least until snail mail delivers their letters to the editor.
I like to think of myself as an agenda setter. Once I do my part, it becomes a dialogue, with comments from the audience being integral to the conversation — and sometimes as interesting as the story!
I generally try to stay out of the fray, but when I do, it won’t be just to express gratitude for a compliment. I might get as loud and catty as the person to whom I’m responding. It’s not about my being hyper-sensitive (though I certainly am that). It’s about my inclination to fight ire with ire. Hey, nobody’s perfect — especially not writers.
Sometimes my ideas evolve over the course of healthy comment-section debate. I might end up making a great point that I hadn’t considered while writing the article, or I might learn something new, or I might change my mind entirely. That’s my prerogative. (Thank you, Bobby Brown.)
5. Don’t expect the best of Somerset Maugham for free!
I actually stole that dead-A-lister reference from an episode of The Golden Girls (Thank you, Sophia Petrillo!). The content on most blogs is made available to the public at no cost, so don’t click on it with an “Entertain me!” look on your bitchiest resting face. If you don’t like what you read on one blog, you are free to move on to another one — for free.
6. Remember: Most bloggers are not being paid for their work.
So commenting, “I can’t believe [Insert blog name here] is paying you the big bucks to craft such drivel,” will only remind us that we’re toiling away for low-to-no pay for the dishonor of being abused by someone who doesn’t even have the guts to reveal his or her true identity.
7. Don’t put words into someone else’s mouth.
A reader once took me to task for saying that Grindr was not created as a hook-up app when, in fact, I didn’t offer any creation theory at all. His exact words: “The article writer stated that he didn’t think Grindr was intended as a hookup App, that is factually wrong…. Ask the designer.”
The actual words of “the article writer”: “I’ve been told by sex suitors on Grindr to take my search for something more than Mr. Right Now elsewhere because Grindr is for hooking up only. What a curious conclusion to draw about an app that bans public nudity and sexual explicitness in profiles! I remind them that Grindr can be whatever you want it to be. After all, I have friends who met their boyfriends there.”
The reader went on to call the article writer’s clarification of his own words “irrelevant.” Sometimes there’s no reasoning with someone holding an axe who is determined to grind it.
8. Stay on topic.
If I don’t like Joe Rapper’s latest album, tell me why you do, but don’t make your dissenting opinion a treatise on racism among music critics. For all you know, I might be black, which brings me to my next point…
9. Don’t make assumptions about people you don’t know.
Just because I write an article about dating younger guys and mention meeting one of my younger ex-boyfriends in a nightclub, doesn’t mean that I only date younger guys or that my social life revolves around nightclubs.
And just because I regularly write about my misadventures on Grindr doesn’t mean I don’t have a life off Grindr. Does anyone want to read about the long run I took through Bucharest two Saturday mornings ago or all the day-to-day minutiae that people share in Facebook status updates? That stuff may get dozens of “likes” on Facebook, but I don’t know a digital editor who would give it the time of day.
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10. Check your facts.
The reader who found fault in my comments about Grindr may have been right when he pointed out that Grindr’s nudity ban is the direct result of Apple’s edict (however, with Grindr as its enforcer, the ban remains Grindr’s), but his entire argument fell apart when he wrote, “Grindr is designed as a hookup App, just ask it’s [sic] designer.” If that were so, why did Grindr’s designer include a “Looking for” section in which “Chat,” “Friends,” “Networking” and “Relationship” are offered as options?
11. Read a post/comment at least twice before you launch your attack/counterattack.
Someone on Daytime Confidential (the only blog on which I regularly comment) once blasted me for something I posted in defense of the person who berated me. Several other posters pointed out what he would have figured out for himself had he not been so blinded by his rage over the other poster’s comments against him that he didn’t bother to reread what I had written before striking.
12. And pot, before you meet kettle, reread your own words, too.
I’ve rarely been accused of doing anything — like getting defensive — that the accuser wasn’t guilty of doing one comment earlier.
13. Be willing to admit you were wrong.
An apology will never go out of style. Shockingly, the poster above, the one I’d defended only to be told to “fuck off” in return, never bothered to say, “I’m sorry.”
I once wrote an Adam Lambert blog post in which I owned the error of my rash judgment in a previous Adam Lambert blog post and acknowledged the respectful way in which Lambert’s fans had disagreed with me. At the end of the day (and the article), we all want to treated kindly — you know, like we’re human on the inside.
14. If you think you can do it better, then be my guest.
And don’t forget to duck when the peanut gallery starts pelting you with shells.