How Not To Be A Dick: In The Comments Section

A comment thread is over when names are called, especially if anyone brings up the Nazis.

Mar 22, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

Ah, interwebz. You give us cat videos and the ability to shop in our underwear. You also give us the darkest depths of human behavior that take away our will to interact with humanity -- anonymous comments. 
I don’t claim to be an expert on Internet conflict, but I have been online for 15 years, first on usenet forums and browsing tasteful geocities sites, then LiveJournal (I -- gulp -- still have an account I check like twice a year), and nowadays in the blogosphere and on Facebook.
I’m also obsessed with human behavior, enough that I have become an academic indentured servant for 5 years so I can get my doctorate in psychology. But let’s be real, my main qualification is that I have been in lots of stupid fights on the Internet (usenet + being 13 years old = DRAMA). 
So why is the internet such a treacherous place? One word: anonymity. Perceiving oneself as an anonymous member of a large group (like the bajillions of people on the internet) leads to what psychologists label deindividuation - basically acting like a subhuman, often illiterate piece of crap. Imagine the comments on pretty much any YouTube video (a selection from a video of a kitten sleeping include “rape!” and “die mother fucker DIE!!!”)
The core of deindividuation is doing things that aren’t socially acceptable and, in the case of the Internet, doing things that you’d probably never do in real life (if you’re wondering why and how this happens, some academic theory here).
So, I could sum up this article in one sentence and say, “Don’t say anything on the internet you wouldn’t say to someone’s face or want printed on a billboard,” but for funsies let’s break it down a little further.
1. This should go without saying, but don’t start shit. 
Don’t post incendiary, negatively hyperbolic comments, even if you’re in a bad mood and it makes you feel powerful and superior for half a second. Don’t name call -- this is not the playground in grammar school (and it wasn’t cool then either). Comments like “Wow the author was really stupid to do that” create a guaranteed shitstorm, even if it’s the truth. 
Do use “I” statements -- they are a therapy cliche for a reason. “I had trouble understanding why the author didn’t do this other thing instead.” Also avoid phrasing that reads as sarcastic, such as “Um... why didn’t you just do this other thing...?”
Or, maybe you have a valid point but it’s not the time or place to make it (like commenting about self defense in response to personal pieces about rape). Finally, any conversation about politics, religion, or anything with a moral angle (i.e., vegetarians, parenting) is not likely to end with everyone singing kumbaya and holding hands -- engage at your own risk.
2. If you do act like a dick, clarify, apologize, or both -- right away.
Take ownership. If you’re being misread, try “My comment was not intended to imply that view. What I actually meant was...” Or if you realize you wrote in anger, apologize. “I’m sorry” are two of the most powerful words in the English language. Avoid insincere sounding non-apologies like “I’m sorry you read it that way.” 

Cats can totally be dicks, like when they give you The Look because you are writing this piece for instead of paying attention to them.

OK, so hopefully we’re clear on this whole “not being a dick” thing -- but what about when someone is being a dick to you? You can’t control other people’s behavior; you can only control your reactions.
3. Know the culture of the site before you comment.
Some sites are a total lost cause for reasonable discourse (hint: GayLord65343 on YouTube probably does not want to discuss queer theory with you). For some reason this includes most newspaper comment sections. I suggest not reading them, never mind commenting on them.
However, even a good forum or website has it’s own culture -- something I learned on usenet way back when. On one group with a prominently posted FAQ specifying what questions had been done to death, new posters would still open up with those exact same questions. Often the resulting snark of the old timers was enough to lead to a flounce -- drama that would have been avoided if the new person had lurked for even a few minutes.
4. If someone is a dick to you, walk away for a while.
If you really really can’t inhibit the urge to give that kitten video commenter a PIECE OF YOUR MIND!!!! try drafting your response to them elsewhere but not sending it. Do not hit “send” or “reply” until steam is no longer coming out of your ears and you have a chance to clarify your thoughts. If you give it a few hours you may even realize it’s not worth replying at all, and you’ll have saved yourself from potential drama.

Writing kinder comments is easier when your cat stops  being a dick and instead adorably sits on your lap. Side effect include excessive cat references.

5. Realize it’s probably not about you.
Assuming you followed rule #1, someone who writes a really scathing or sarcastic comment in response to you is more likely to just be a jerk, someone in a terrible mood, or somebody trolling for kicks than someone who dislikes you personally.
One way to clarify this is to check their comment history -- if they created an account that day just to write men’s rights activist comments on an article about abortion, back away slowly. Or if they are normally a reasonable, regular commenter but are having a bad day and snarking all over the place in other threads, you know it’s probably because someone left rude comments on their kitten video.
6. Don’t engage the crazy.
I used to work at a psychiatric hospital, and my mantra for dealing with the personality disordered research participants who were stalking me at work was “Their brain is broken.” In some cases this was literally true, like the woman with a steel plate in her head who couldn’t remember she’d already been rejected from the study three times -- but I digress. If you suspect someone’s brain is broken, save everyone the stress and walk away.
7. Don’t insist on having the last word.
There are few things more tedious than discussions, even civil ones, that descend into endless back and forth one-upmanship because someone has to have the last word. If your debate partner has already lasted through 20 comments, they are unlikely to suddenly concede from mere fatigue that you’re right about how they need to stop trying to make “fetch” happen.
8. A comment thread is over when names are called, especially if anyone brings up the Nazis.
This is called Godwin’s Law and it is one of the oldest rules of the internet. Learn it, know it, live it.
9. Learn from your mistakes.
You think I learned all of the above by watching other people argue on the Internet? Bwahahaha! 
No, I’ve wasted entire work days in back and forth, blood pressure raising arguments about...well I don’t remember what. It seemed super important at the time, but very few online conversations are so life altering that you should devote all your headspace to them. 
Regardless, a negative interaction is a chance to examine where your communication skills may have let you down -- maybe you phrase things too bluntly or sarcastically and it reads badly online, or maybe you need to stop commenting on sites you are just hate reading. If you’re getting nothing but downvotes on a site like xoJane, think about why.
And now in the most meta moment of the “Don’t be a dick” series, please apply these rules when commenting on this piece. Because I am a person, and I have a mom who would love to read this, but if she saw a mean comment she would probably HUNT YOU DOWN because NO ONE TALKS TO HER BABY THAT WAY (hi mom!).