From the Northern Voice pipeline: suggestions for dealing with negative comments

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Well, it's been a week since my first Northern Voice experience. I felt a bit like a new girlfriend attending my partner's family reunion: a little intimidated, but nonetheless welcomed with open arms. The amount of expertise and experience contained under one roof was truly inspiring.

Following with the threads of collaboration and freely sharing knowledge, sentiments Northern Voice embraces wholeheartedly, I'd like to share some of the helpful advice I acquired with regards to dealing with trolls and negative comments.

It came in a co-hosted session with David Eaves and Rebecca Bollwitt: Dealing with angry comments, Trolls, Spammers, and Sock Puppets.

Rebecca's a popular community blogger, aka miss604. She suggests having a standard form people have to fill out with their basic info, prior to leaving a comment. This requires people to leave a trail behind them, while also taking a bit more of their time. Users will hopefully feel more committed to participating in the conversation instead of just trying to stir the pot.

Another suggestion Rebecca made was to moderate comments before they are posted live. You don't have to moderate every comment, but consider reading new users' initial responses, until you get a sense of who they are. This point was contested by a few people in the session -- the argument being if you don't want to deal with critical points of view, don't leave a section for comments at the end of your posts. Personally, I feel that different perspectives help to create a vibrant community. The complicated part is how those views are expressed.

The other presenter, Dave, is a successful negotiator and public speaker who also blogs professionally about public policy. (Full disclosure: Dave is a member of our advisory board). He began his discussion with a very important idea: it can be difficult to determine what is a negative blog vs someone trying to make a point. The subtle nuances which help to characterize personal interactions, such as body language and voice inflections are not available to the online user (smiley faces and acronyms can only get us so far). This is an important feature to remember when dealing with people we disagree with.

He suggests asking yourself some basic questions to help shape your blog's effectiveness:

  • What is the goal of your blog?
  • What type of community are you trying to foster?
  • How are you modeling your community?

These questions will help to focus your blog, while also providing participants a roadmap to where you're heading or at least a general outline. Having explicit rules of conduct posted on your site will also help establish what types of participation and content are appropriate to contribute.

When responding to negative or critical comments, it's important to remember not to attack the individual personally, but to focus on their ideas. Dave suggests asking for clarification on where their ideas and information were sourced from. This engages people in a more positive way and tells your readers that you appreciate their perspective and recognize the opportunity to learn. Maintaining a professional tone and respect for participants can go a long way when building relationships.

This isn't to say that if you follow these guidelines that there still won't be people who will get under your skin. The world is full of people with conflicting ideas and perspectives. The key things to remember, as Dave points out, are to consider your reaction and to remember that you can be a difficult person sometimes too.

Sometimes, when Dave is dealing with a particularly difficult comment or individual, he will email them personally instead of carrying on the conversation in the public sphere. This may be a useful alternative to avoid unnecessary heated debate. Some people in the session felt that this would take away from the authentic feel of the conversation online. I think this one is a personal decision and probably depends on the particular circumstances.

 

If all else fails, deleting a comment because of issues like vulgarity or completely being out of line is totally acceptable.

Thanks again Rebecca and Dave for sharing your expertise and experiences.

Comments

Karen Fung says

March 2, 2009 - 3:46pm

Jessica,

I attended David and Rebecca's session too, and your notes are a great summary of the talk which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The thing I took away from the session is the concept of the Sock Puppet - someone who's sole purpose for coming onto a site is to misrepresent their identity and to take up the time or get a rise out of either the community, its moderators or sponsors. (As a side thought, this strikes me at first to be one of those online-only phenomena - an offline, town-hall analog might be someone who always plays devil's advocate or represents conflicting interests just for the sake of disrupting flow.) It's an interesting conundrum - how to defend the interests of the community of like-minds in generating their discussions, while remaining open and engaging to diverse viewpoints - and I find David's advice (of not immediately assuming that people are evil, stupid or crazy) to carry a lot of wisdom.

Thanks for sharing.

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