I used to have two hard and fast rules about comments on the internet: 1) don't read them and 2) don't respond to them. After three years of working for A Plus, however, I've found myself increasingly drawn to engage with readers. There are two general reasons I engage with readers in the comment sections.
The first is that I'm genuinely interested in the stories that people share. I'm interested in seeing how people relate to and are affected by the things I write.
The second reason is less pleasant and far more tedious. Recently I've found myself having to remind people to actually read the articles that they are commenting on. I find myself replying to people who seem to have read something else entirely. But worst of all, I find myself trying to control the damage that misinformed or unreasonable people do in the course of their commenting.
I've decided to go back to my "don't read, don't respond" rule: it's simply not worth the agony to explain what I've already spent long hours writing to people who insist on obstinacy.
That said, I'd be remiss if I focused on a problem without centering on a solution.
Here, then, is my 7-step guide on how to comment intelligently online: I hope you'll read it before you comment on it.
1. Read the thing you're commenting on.
Not just the headline. Read the whole article. Look for the points the author is making. Identify what is being said, what is being implied, and be cognizant of what is not being said or implied. If there's a video that you're directed to, watch it.
If you're commenting on a comment, make sure you've read the thing that is being commented on in the first place.
Receiving the information enables you to make an informed comment, rather than one that will serve no purpose or make the internet that much worse.
2. Know what you're talking about.
If you're not a lawyer, don't give legal advice. If you're not a medical professional, don't dispense medical advice. In general, if you're not 110% sure or if your knowledge of a subject comes from watching TV or reading about it on the Internet, you should probably not give advice on it. Ever.
Beyond that, you should also be aware that no matter how much you think you know, there's always going to be someone who knows just a little bit more than you... and who might be wrong.
3. Embrace the possibility that yours might just possibly be one of an infinite number of opinions on the internet and that you may not be the supreme arbiter of Truth, Morality, and Wisdom.
There are over 7 BILLION people in the world. All of them have experiences that differ from yours. All of them have opinions and beliefs that differ in ways both great and small, from yours. You can argue facts. You can argue positions. You can argue strategies and solutions. The one thing that you cannot argue is an opinion.
And yes, being offended is an expression of an opinion.
Oscar Wilde said it best in The Picture of Dorian Gray when he wrote, "We are not sent into the world to air our moral prejudices."
Banish the word "should" from your argumentation. No one is under any moral obligation to adhere to whatever you believe. The world does not owe it to you to conform to your ideals, fall prostrate to your demands, or surrender its bounty to your sense of entitlement.
4. Spare others your outrage.
You'll get plenty of "likes" by others agreeing with you if you assert that you've never been disgusted/horrified/shocked/outraged/(Fill In The Blank) by whatever you're commenting on, but pouring your anger into a comment thread does absolutely nothing constructive for anyone else. Congratulations: you've become a lightning rod for collective catharsis. Now what? Has your sense of outrage solved a problem? Have you made the world better by telling strangers that you are offended? Have you created a solution or have you just made a problem worse? Have you inspired others to do something constructive?
Have you called attention to anything larger than yourself?
If the answer to any of those things is going to be "no" after you leave a comment, take a deep breath and reconsider what you really want to say.
5. Remember what your mother told you.
If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.
While it would be "nice" if people would abide by that, it's probably not a realistic expectation, so here's a variant that you can actually follow:
If you can't say anything informed and reasonable, don't say anything at all. That's right. If you can't comment with your emotions subdued by reason, don't comment.
6. Pretend you're at a cocktail party with other guests.
This is the most sensible thing anyone has ever said to me about Facebook. Pretend you're at a cocktail party. Comments on the internet create an atmosphere where nearly everyone is just a little buzzed and a little too talkative, so it's a worthwhile analogy.
Assume that the rudest person at this imaginary party is blackout drunk, had a really bad day, and is suffering from a recent, severe head injury. You don't have to go near the foul-mouthed lunatic. You don't have to pour them another drink or add fuel to the fire by engaging with them. If they're really awful, block them. Walk away.
But beyond all that, treat other people with respect. Especially when they're being unreasonable There's nothing that creates a life or death situation in the comments. You gain nothing by "winning" an argument. The most you can do is clarify a position, but at the end of the day, you'll probably just enjoy the entire thing most if you simply sit back and watch.
7. If all else fails, return to real life.
Crazy, right? Unless you're chained to a desk, you can always just walk away. You should probably do that anyway.