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LFCA Latest Issue: Friday, September 25, 2009.

Latest Post on BlogHer: Parenting after Infertility.

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Monday, September 07, 2009

What We Can Learn About Blogging and Commenting from the Child-Free Discussion

Last week, several posts on the greater meaning behind the words child-free or childless floated through the Internet, some said more eloquently than others. Some thought we shouldn't have given attention to the original post but I can't disagree more. When you observe something that bothers you and there is a point to addressing it (because you believe change can come out of addressing it), then the answer is not to squelch your feeling, but instead to utilize the best form you have of expressing yourself and examine your feelings on the subject.

There were posts and bulletin boards that went with pointless name-calling, but others who presented their personal reaction to the post as well as why they were upset by the words. The one that had the best discussion within the comment section appeared on BlogHer and I don't think that was an accident despite the fact that it probably had the most diverse population reading the post than any other blog. We had a great discussion too, but many of us are coming from the same population, therefore, it didn't surprise me that you felt similarly.

The comments on BlogHer were written by a broad audience of those with or without children and in both cases, due to a plethora of reasons ranging from choice to circumstance. There were differing opinions, though everyone stated their thoughts respectfully, taking into account the idea that everyone's circumspection needs to extend as far as the next person reading their words. It can't stop at a halfway point, only creating a bubble of thoughtfulness towards those like-minded. It needs to extend to every possible reader, who doesn't need to agree, but needs to be able to walk away unoffended.

The original post that everyone used as a jumping point to their own words took the opposite approach, with the author stating within her apology "Did I know I’d get a rise out of people? Yes. And yes, I was taking a jab at the child-free." The original post received over one hundred comments--an anomaly for the Orlando Sentinel blog posts which tend to get under 10 comments per post (and most receive one or none) and those comments were as vitriol-laced and angry as the original post.

And the obvious answer is that thoughtfulness begets thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness begets thoughtlessness. Laurie at BlogHer presented her reaction to the original post with thoughtful circumspection and in turn, commenters took her lead and added their own respectful ideas. Kim Hays wrote the original post trying to anger others and in turn, commenters came at her with anger. And it wasn't just an angry reaction from the group she intended to hurt. Her anger created anger in others as her commenters took the lead of the writer and spoke with the same disrespectful tone with which she used on her potential readers.

The idea of how do we communicate what is important to us without offending others has come into discussion in regards to IComLeavWe. The project attracts a lot of infertility bloggers because it started within our community, but it has since expanded to include bloggers in all areas of the blogosphere and participation is open and encouraged for all regardless of blog topic. The very point is to open dialogue between communities.

Participants enter their blog on a list and describe their blog in three words to give readers a heads up before they click over. Participants then read and comment on a wide cross-section of blogs from adoption-focused to political-in-nature. And while the project celebrates the almighty comment and the interactive and conversational nature of blogging, it also is meant to mix people who might not otherwise meet. Think of it as an online version of the BlogHer conference, where you leave your corner of the blogosphere and meet hundreds of other types of blogger whose corners of the blogosphere might be wholly unfamiliar to you.

The point of IComLeavWe is not just to read about a life that might be incredibly different from your own with the person making very different life decisions, but to also respect and respond to their words. To not just read and click away, but to leave a comment. This works better, as you can imagine, sometimes more than others.

But how far can we take circumspection with a vast and varied Internet--especially within blogs where the writer usually doesn't know all the readers who may encounter the post? The larger the audience--as is the case with a large readership such as BlogHer--the more chance there is to offend because the audience will not all be focused on the same like-minded topic as they do on smaller, themed blogs.

A lot can be learned by examining the two posts and learning not only how to be a better blog writer, but a better blog reader and commenter.

(1) Be concise and clear. The reader isn't inside the author's head and therefore if it's not stated outright, the reader doesn't know the information. Don't assume your reader has read a post--link to it. Don't assume they follow the same people on twitter. And don't make the mistake the original author did when she aimed her post at everyone without children by using vague language. Her apology stated that she meant her original post to be directed at those who are child-free who have attacked her decision to have children. But in leaving her post as an open message to all people without children, she inadvertently hurt everyone who is not a parent. In fact, in her apology, she continues to state that "I (still) do believe that there are certain intangible benefits to being a parent that people without children will never be able to comprehend" still directing her message to all people without children rather than the ones she meant to target.

(2) Be polite. Keep the same level of politeness in the online world as you would in the face-to-face world. People can argue and disagree without being cruel. However you comport yourself as you move though your day extend to your interactions online. Before you hit publish on a post or comment, ask yourself if you would say the same things if you had to look the person in the face and speak the words.

(3) Give details. One of the inherent problems with the original article is that she states that she is responding to cruelty thrown her way without actually stating concrete situations that the reader can use as a lens through which to see her words. Without knowing the circumstances that kicked off the post, the reader is left to decide whether or not the voice is trustworthy enough to follow, and 9 times out of 10, when someone is being vague without reason (the exception being when a person is forthcoming and states they needed to keep it vague to protect another person's identity), their words come across as hollow, without substance.

(4) Respond to the words on the page, not what you believe was the author's or commenter's intention. The only facts the reader has to work with are those that are on the screen. As a commenter, do not use the comment box to spout your own personal message but instead use the post as part of a conversation. We all bring with us our life experiences when we read a post, but when I read something on a topic near and dear to my heart, I don't bring in aspects of the argument that were not contained in the post. In kind, as a writer, be clear about your intentions. As an example, unless otherwise contained in the post, if a writer is speaking critically about the Duggars, they are speaking about the Duggars and not all large families. Therefore, the comments should be about the criticism of the Duggars and not about how the commenter feels offended that the author doesn't support all large families.

(5) Stay away from blanket statements and referring to broad groups of people (either positively or negatively). I think the best comments on the BlogHer post came when people didn't make blanket statements about everyone in a situation but instead had the person speak of their own personal experience and state that they understand that a single experience does not stand in place for a whole group.

(6) If you're not prepared to be open-minded and see the world from a different angle, stay away from the interactive medium of blogs that day. There are days when I just don't want to consider anyone else's life but my own. And those are the days when I don't open Google Reader or surf the Web. I read books, watch television, and do a host of activities that do not have an interactive nature to them. Reading blogs is not a daily requirement like a vitamin--it's okay to skip them if you're not in the right mood.

What else would you add to this list of how to read, write, or comment on the Internet doing minimal emotional damage to others? The reality is that no one is perfect, you don't always know who is reading a post, and the point is not to squelch creativity or free speech, but to help people to speak their mind in a way that is productive and moves us forward rather than circling in our own or another person's anger.

somewhat cross-posted with blogher...


HereWeGoAJen said...

Beautifully put, Mel, as always. :)

Cassandra said...

Unrelated to this particular shitstorm...

I would add that some comments may require money in the bank -- they may be inappropriate for a first-time commenter, but would be more welcome from someone who has a history as a reader of and commenter on the blog. For example, questioning someone else's actions. Authors seem to take criticism much worse when it's from a stranger and therefore seems not to appreciate the full context of the situation.

Which is not to say I haven't disagreed with bloggers in my very first comment on their blog, but I've always tried to be respectful and express disagreement without finger-pointing.

Tash said...

As an addendum to #6, if there's a blog or group of blogs that is not addressed to you directly and that pisses you the hell off every time you read it, I suggest highly that you quit reading. Period. There's "observing something that bothers you" as you put it, but then there's searching it out. I really don't know why people engage the br.a.t free people when they keep to themselves. (If they come attack you directly, or float across your radar somehow that I suppose is a different story about how one deals with trolls and anon comments and whatnot.) Just like I don't get people who are clearly irritated by babyloss blogs and make blanket (anonymous) statements about how we all seem to grieve incorrectly and how angry/depressed it makes them, and yet keep reading them and trying to engage them with crappy comments. If after a while you realize it's making you crazy, I suggest you stop going. Life's too short.

Excellent discussion as always, Mel.

Lavender Luz said...

I love what Cassandra said.

And I echo it.

IF Optimist, then... said...

Mel-I really appreciate the thought you put into this post on commenting. I try my best to only comment when I feel I have something to add to the conversation or offer support to the writer. You are absolutely right about how contempt breeds contempt and courtesy breeds courtesy. Oh no! Maybe I shouldn't have used the word "breed"! No offense. ;-)

caitsmom said...

Great list of suggestions. Thanks. We all learned so much from this exchange. Peace.

nancy said...

Mel, this is just a very well written and thought out post. Just wanted you to know that.

Barb said...

I would say also that if the original poster is willing to open up actual dialogue about their intentions/words, then be respectful of that as well and pay attention. Sometimes that helps us understand one another.

MLO said...

I think it depends. Sometimes islands are better than bridges. Really. There are discussions that don't belong among the general public and some blogs do not include everyone in their target audience and that is just fine.

In those cases, generally, it is best to moderate comments and just leave - without comment - those who don't fit the blog's target out of the conversation. Do others have to like that? No. It is the same reason that certain bulletin boards are for members only.

While bridges are a good thing as far as they go, sometimes bridges are not what are called for. Patient communities, minorities, and those whose communities have other special needs really do have a real need for oases away from the general public while choosing to be public to reach other like-minded but isolated individuals.

Ultimately, not everyone is going to read what is written in the spirit it is written no matter how concise and well-written. You just can't worry about those folks. Worry first about your primary audience, and only you can determine who that is.

Michelle said...

Great post!

Being detailed is so important. I have written a couple posts and got responses I wasn't expecting but it was because I wrote without realizing the other way it could be taken. I mean it wasn't bad things but different then what I was talking about. When I went back a reread from a different perspective Icould then see how people took it one way or the other. That is the one problem with the written word... people can't hear what you intend. I have learned and sometimes I read mine out loud so I can hear what it sounds like which sometimes helps with taking a different perspective.

Thanks for posting this.

FET Accompli said...

This was an excellent list. Perhaps another item to add is to be kind. I think there is room for kindness even within the parameters of a healthy debate.

battynurse said...

Well said.

luna said...

an excellent and insightful post, mel, as usual.

it's not that I think every post or comment should always contribute to greater understanding, but some level of respect for one another is necessary if we are ever to appreciate other perspectives.

beautifully distilled.

WiseGuy said...

Yes, and if you feel that a post has gone up only to shake a beehive and get traffic...stay away...don't comment (unless there is something very wrong or extremely compelling).

I love what Cassandra has said.

Chickenpig said...

I think you should write another book, this one about blogging and etiquette. I think anyone who writes a blog and/or reads and comments on other blogs should have this bullet list taped to their monitor. Very insightful and to the point, Mel.

Another point may be to be open to comments from "strangers". Some blogs become like small families or cliques, and when a new person stumbles upon the blog and chooses to comment, they are ignored or attacked. It is one thing if the comment is obviously made by a troll, but a blog is an open forum unless it's password protected and everyone should feel welcome.

Kristin said...

Well said. I hate that the anonymity of the web seems to free the nastiness in some people.

HC said...

I would say Be Respectful. Thats the bottom line. Read and re-read what you write to ensure we are being respectful. If certain piece infuriates you, leave it alone for some time and come back later to write a comment.

Aurelia said...

In terms of setting up your blog to have the least number of problems, a few ideas?

Always have an email address somewhere so that people can reach you privately.

Always have a search box somewhere on the blog.

Always have your archives accessible so people can read the backstory and not accidentally say the wrong thing. I don't care if the blogger "has moved on" or doesn't want to discuss their past; without that context, they can hardly complain that no one understands their situation.

Have the archives listed by date, and also by events. (This is pretty easy using tags)

Alternatively, have an about page that clearly tells your past history and your future goals and whatever we need to know to understand you. A "list of Characters", with names and how they relate to you is helpful.

Have a commenting policy that tells people what is welcome and what is not. If you like arguing and going back and forth, say so. If you don't want controversy, then make it clear. If you are fine with polite debate make it clear. If all you want are supportive ((hugs)) and babydust, MAKE IT CLEAR.

Decide from the beginning whether you are going to be completely out with your full name, or totally pseudononymous, and know that if you write your full name and show pictures, then you might never really be free to talk about your extremely personal issues, or your friends or relatives or job.

And if you are pseudonymous, have certain highly sensitive posts marked so that if you are ever found out, they can disappear. (Just put them back in drafts, by editing them, and then saving to drafts instead of pressing publish again.)

Just don't do the halfway, sort of, not really, anon blog and expect that no one will find you and get pissed off. Some people will be understanding and admire you, others will hate you. It is what it is.

And yeah, I wish everyone would do all this. I have seen too many bloggers get furious at some newbie commenter who hasn't read the archives and everyone piles on. Drives me nuts. Couldn't we just politely direct them to a post that would explain? Or comment politely and explain?

I have also seen too many bloggers get angry and offended that no one understands them when meanwhile, it's impossible to read about them without spending hours on their site, searching fruitlessly, or just plain guessing.

KuKd Chick said...

I think you said it all, Melissa. You ought to be a writing instructor - that sounds exactly like how I tell students to write their essays!

Infertile In the City said...

Great post, fully support it.
If I happen onto a blog that outright upsets me, I tend to do the click and leave rather then comment, because really it is their blog, not my blog, and if I am offended then I am only one click away from getting out of there.
All that said if it is a blog that I regularly read, I may politely give another view point (at least I try).