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How to Deal with Weird or Nasty Reader Comments
When to dive in and when to walk away
Back in the mid-1990s when I launched my first site on the World Wide Web, I was so thrilled! The input came via email, because I didn’t know how to code a comment functionality into the site. And wow, were these people thoughtful. The comments were often from moms and dads, telling me how much they enjoyed sharing my science stories with their kids (there weren’t a lot of science publications to choose from!).
I wrote back to every single person who had taken the time and effort to send a comment. I was so proud of the comments, I hand-coded the best of them onto the site, in an op-ed-like section called Reader Feedback.
It was the glory days of the internet. Crude in the raw sense of the word, but mean people and angry jerks had not yet infected my corner of it. I was not on the radar of any trolls or bots, if such things even existed.
Things quickly devolved, as the WWW got bigger and commenting got easier and social media led people to say shit they’d never say to another human in person. I got into a few online arguments with readers who were just awful. And it made me feel just awful. Thoughtful comments continued to roll in, too, but you had to paw through more and more drivel and nastiness to find the good stuff.
It wasn’t long before I realized a) I don’t have time to reply to every comment on all my stories and b) I don’t have any desire to engage with trolls, idiots or assholes.
So when one of the writers I work with on Medium asked the following question recently, I had answers ready:
“What is the best way to manage weird comments? I usually clap for most comments and sometimes respond directly, but some are a little weird and even creepy (not in a stalkerish way, but more in terms of latent emotional instability). I have generally not clapped or responded to those comments. But I don't want to alienate someone by not responding — I just don't want to encourage them further. If you have any advice for us, that would be great.”
Medium has a robust community of readers and writers. When a story takes off, it’s common to see several if not dozens of comments and hundreds or thousands of claps (the equivalent of a thumbs-up). When a story really soars, the comments can become overwhelming — and that’s a wonderful thing. Hopefully, we writers find the time to treat them all appropriately, with the gratitude, helpfulness and equanimity most commenters deserve.
Interacting with readers is important to making you accessible and growing your profile. But don’t feel obligated to acknowledge the weird or the spammy, nor the rather pointless one-word comments like “agree!”
It’s wise to have some general guidelines to keep yourself out of trouble and to help you deal with the stress that comes with being textually attacked.
So here’s my approach, developed and redeveloped over the course of three decades:
I like to reward thoughtful comments with claps and/or replies. I clap more often than I reply, because not every comment begs a reply. I generally don’t reply unless I have something to add—you won’t often catch me replying “thanks” or “interesting!”
(Important aside: If a commenter points out a typo, an error or a legitimate hole in your story, make a fix and thank them profusely. No-brainer.)
When I find a comment boring, uninspiring, irrelevant or otherwise non-plussy, I cast my vote on it by just letting it sit there.
What about spam and vitriol?
Depending on where you publish, you may or may not be able to do much about the nasty comments.
Medium lets writers mark comments as spam when so deserved, and to simultaneously block a commenter and remove the comment. I take advantage of these features on any comment that is clearly spam (like product promotions, or “look at me” comments with links/urls unrelated to the story).
Sometimes I go to the commenter’s page to see if they seem human. If they just joined Medium and posted 52 stories in the last three days, I mark them as spam. If they’re commenting incoherently or trying to promote themselves by summarizing what they just read, I ignore them at best — the summarizing tactic has exploded of late, and it’s either spam or bots or people who are just desperately seeking attention in a wrongheaded way. When in doubt, I just leave the comment alone.
If your publication or publishing platform doesn’t have these features, I hope there’s at least some way to report the spam to the editor or publisher.
Then there are the really nasty comments. If you write about nutrition, you’re apt to get a lot of them. Likewise if you go against just about any conventional wisdom or step on someone’s toes that they’ve dipped into anecdotal experience. It’s important, IMO, not to respond negatively to intense negativity (i.e. vitriol or nastiness). Options include:
Let the comment be. A strong and well-curated community will tend to ignore it, too, and sometimes other commenters will weigh in to set the angry person straight. Your best bet can be to simply avoid the fracas.
Thank the commenter for their view, if you honestly are glad to have been exposed to it and it’s not totally insane. Keep your reaction brief, frank and not condescending.
Let them know you see their side of things but didn’t go into it for X, Y or Z reason. If I can say so genuinely, I will sometimes add something to this effect: “I always try to learn from comments like this, so thank you sharing your view.” Thanking someone who disagrees with you will often disarm them. Again, only do so if your sentiments are genuine. We can learn a lot from the most critical comments, which might too easily be dismissed as noxious and without value.
But beware: When commenters start out angry or hateful, there’s little you can do to keep a back-and-forth from spiraling. They generally don’t want to hear your reasoning. They want you to change your mind, or they just want to make themselves look important, or they are just mean people. When I sense any of that, I refrain from any engagement. Most of the time. It’s hard!
Bottom line: Treat comments with common sense. Weigh in on thoughtful comments when you feel you have something worthwhile to share, but never feel any obligation to respond. And don’t give trolls, idiots or assholes an ounce of your time.
Agree? Disagree? How do you handle weird or angry comments?