The Art of Commenting: what holds us back and how we can fix it

The art of commenting

When people leave comments on your site, is replying a pleasure or a chore? And away from your blog, do you reach out to other bloggers through their comment sections and become an active part of their communities, or do you remain a page view shadow: a small, silent jolt up their stats, identifiable only by your place on earth?

In this post, I’m coming from the angle that while we certainly don’t need to leave a comment on a blog post we’ve enjoyed, it’s not good to feel inhibited or uneasy about commenting.

I’d love it if we all felt free to comment, if we wished, and understood the etiquette when we do. 

Commenting can be contentious

Watching classmates interact in the Writing101 commons has made me think. An assignment asked people to take a comment they’d recently left and expand on it. Responses ranged from short and sweet to lengthy debates. Arpita Pramanick wondered aloud why people following her didn’t seem to be reading her posts: a higher follower count wasn’t translating to views, likes or comments.

Others had realised all their energy was going into writing posts and they were hardly reading other bloggers’ posts or commenting much at all. I have one foot in that camp: for me, reading is the other half of blogging, but I don’t comment as much as I’d like.

I speak to strangers.

Always have, always will. I’ll happily communicate with almost anyone one to one, off the cuff. When I can see the person I’m talking to, I watch how they’re responding. If I notice I’m being misunderstood, I rephrase.

I write equally freely when no one is watching. When I’m going to hit the ’publish’ button, concerns start to creep in. I have less power to observe how people respond. Will other people be wise enough to assume good intent, even if my words were clumsy?

Aspects of commenting still puzzle me so I often hold back, even when I’m inspired by the post and have something to say. Pressing ‘like’ isn’t a problem, but I’m not sure that my footprints are always welcome in another’s online home. I’m imagining my reader sometimes feels the same.

When people go out of their way to be friendly, it’s a hard heart that ignores them. I read every comment left on my blog and I try to take a look at the site of everyone who leaves a particularly thoughtful or helpful one. But do I always reply to every single person to make sure they know their comment was appreciated? No, I don’t. No excuses, that’s just a fact.

Liking is easier

A like is halfway to a comment: it’s a possible response, a button offered to us by programmers as an easy way to acknowledge any of many positive states of mind. Liking’s uncomplicated.

I read other blogger’s posts quite widely. I often ‘like’ a post. Does that leave some other human need unsatisfied? Sometimes, I know it does.

Bloggers crave feedback

If you know me from the commons for one of the Blogging U courses, you’ll have observed me commenting and socialising freely. I’ll venture a guess that ‘repressed’ is not the first phrase that will spring to mind. But outside the commons, I don’t comment that much until I’ve become pretty familiar with the blogger.

That’s a pity because one thing that comes over loud and clear on every Blogging U course is that bloggers crave feedback. When we press ‘publish’, the last thing we want to hear is a resounding silence. Recently I’ve been asking myself why I’m too shy (or repressed?) to comment much outside the courses. By paying attention, I can see I’m far from alone. I believe it affects people from all points along the extroverts/introverts scale.

I’m sure you’ll have seen many bloggers putting themselves out there, trying to drum up support, asking others to read their posts and comment more. I can’t remember reading a post analysing why people are reluctant to comment, or to find bloggers wondering out loud why they so often fail to find the right words themselves.

Perhaps it’s blindingly obvious.

One long house party

You arrive unannounced at a party at a series of colourful private houses, open to the public, linked in ways you can hardly imagine. The party never stops. Space and time follow different rules here.

A click of your finger lets you pass freely from one room to the next without raising attention. Some homes are familiar, your regular haunts: others new.

You’re not introduced to the hosts. Guests from different nations enter rooms as anonymous shadows, though they’re automatically counted on the way in. Like you, they’re invisible unless they break cover by leaving some sign of their presence.

Some rooms seem quiet, empty. The host is speaking out loud, but no one has joined in yet. Will you be the first?

If you give a thumbs up sign before leaving, your picture is left behind in token of your approval. But many hosts seem to want more: they’re hopeful you’ll actually say something.

In your current room, you notice several guests have obligingly materialised and left comments. You feel safer here so you venture to say something, then quickly leave the room before getting a response.

More often, you merely watch as an outsider. Guests stand in line to give compliments or make observations, only rarely acknowledging the others alongside them. Hosts pass up and down the line like the Queen meeting the stars at a royal command performance.

You see hosts who are attentive to all their guests, effortlessly enjoying the party, finding the perfect response always on their lips. Others seem to have left the party long ago. Some hosts are clearly uncomfortable with the praise they are receiving, shaking it off as readily as a wet dog shakes off water.

Most hosts acknowledge some guests with thumbs up signs and respond to others with a personal answer. Some guests appear to have been ignored completely. Despite this, wherever there are guests, the atmosphere is convivial and supportive. In some rooms everyone seems to know each other: they’re bouncing with cheeriness, waving smilies at each other. It might not really be your thing, but you’re glad they’re having fun.

It seems OK for you to overhear every conversation, even the intensely private, tragic or confessional ones. You’re astounded at the bravery of some of the hosts: their lucidity and openness in the face of the things they’ve had to go through.

It’s hard to distinguish between the real, the embellished and the invented – but that hardly seems to matter. There are so many storytellers here.

If you linger any time at all, all of life seems to flash before you. You overhear pleasantries and jokes that make you laugh out loud; intense debates about serious issues that get you thinking; tragic events that move you. You see daily lives; glimpses of places you’ve never been.

One guest has already said exactly what you were thinking. Other responses perhaps seem a little inappropriate but who knows exactly the right response to a tragedy? Is there any etiquette you should be following? You’re invisible until you open your mouth to speak. Will you join in?

It’s a bit strange, isn’t it? That’s why it’s far from certain you will.

Do human beings need prompts cards too?

When we open a post and start to read, we have no idea what we’re going to find. Reading is the easy bit. It takes character to leave a public comment about a wide range of ideas and social issues on the blogs of people we have only just met.

Sci-fi fans watching the latest Doctor Who episode will have spotted his pack of neatly written human prompts cards. His companion has clearly provided him with ideas of appropriate things to say – social filters if you will – to help the awkward, alien Time Lord be more human. They included the (wildly optimistic):

‘No one is going to be eaten / vapourised / exterminated / upgraded / possessed / mortally wounded / turned to jelly. We’ll all get out of this unharmed.’

and

‘I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t care.’

The implication is that every human has comments like this at his or her command. And we do.


what’s the etiquette for leaving comments?

To break out of our self-imposed commenting straightjackets, all we need is a feel for the etiquette, some helpful tips on things to say and to start practicing. When in doubt, head straight to the Daily Post. Beyond that, the best way see etiquette in action is to watch how influencers we admire handle comments on their own blogs.

Some have likes and comments disabled (the brilliant marketeer Seth Godin for example). He’ll make it clear when he wants you to respond to specific prompts, and will provide a contact form. If we want to interact with Seth’s daily posts – and he makes sure we do – we need to share them on social media. I’m sure there are other principles at play here: he wants to control the debate and he knows how much creative energy it takes to reply to comments left on a popular blog.

Seth’s approach is extreme, but it’s an option.

At the other end of the scale, I love to watch Amanda of insidethelifeofmoi effortlessly patrolling her own comments and making numerous, thoughtful guest appearances in the comments sections of other people’s blogs. Check out any of her recent posts to see a commenting masterclass.

Being a better host is something we can all aim for, but be careful of what you want ‘cos you’ll surely get it. This is not a light undertaking. Look at the time stamps on the replies – masters like Amanda might be at this all night.

Popular people on all forms of social media have a get-out-of-jail-card-free – no reasonable person seriously expects them to watch their life slip away while they attempt to reply to everything, unless they like it. Bloggers like Amanda clearly do.

The middle way

When influencer Cheri Lucas Rowland laments her addiction to photographic enhancement in her post Instagram Has Ruined Me, the comments section is as meaty as the original post. Her entertaining take on a relevant topic has garnered eighty comments, many adding to the discussion.

Cheri resists the temptation to automatically press ‘like’ in reply. She moderates with a light hand, responding to perhaps 15% when she has something to say. Does it feel like enough?

Yes: especially as the post has shared in several prominent places, including The New York Times. Her light, editor’s touch shows confidence and helps give the comments section a life of its own.

I’m always surprised that people often read other comments, but rarely interact with anyone except their host. There must be some communal instincts at play. The dynamic would certainly change if interactions in comments sections were more like real world get-togethers.

I’d hazard a guess that most of us would be delighted if a blogger replied to the odd comment that particularly interested them on our blogs and a brief conversation ensued, but we would be far less impressed by someone who replied more widely to lots of people, seeming to usurp the role of host.

Moderating comments

Comments sections have been hitting the news: can it be true that they’re an endangered form of communication? Jessica Valenti recently argued in the Guardian that online comments should be ended, because of trolling. I get where she’s coming from, but agree with David Higgerson when he suggests that publications should actively manage their comments sections by investing in moderators.

WordPress bloggers are overwhelmingly kind and supportive. Perhaps that’s partly because we’re all moderators here: there’s no obligation to approve any comment we don’t want on our blogs. Our visitors have an incentive to be thoughtful about what comments they leave – it’s not possible to amend or delete comments left on another person’s blog.

10 snippets of commenting etiquette

Would you agree that most bloggers appear confident hosts in the haven of their own online homes, up for the challenge to moderate and interact? They may not get everything right, but they find a way that works for them. It’s when we venture out onto other people’s blogs that this natural facility to communicate somehow deserts us. These tips are designed to help:

  • Use offline, ‘real world’ etiquette online. 
    If someone sitting next to you plucked up the strength to share details of a tragedy they were living through, would you grin broadly and say ’have a happy day’? I wouldn’t. Commenting is essentially the same as ordinary conversation. If you wouldn’t say something face to face, don’t say it online.
  • Be prepared to give us something of yourself. Just don’t make it all about you.
  • Don’t change the subject.
  • It’s nice to be nice. 
    Make each comment a small act of kindness: a way to be warm, to encourage each other, to show you care.
  • Check out the blog of anyone who leaves you an interesting comment.
    You might meet a kindred spirit.
  • Please fill in your gravatar!
    I’m amazed that so many people who ‘like’ my blog haven’t added their sites to their gravatars. Your gravatar is a calling card you leave on every blog you visit and like or comment. Only leave a blank card if want to be anonymous.
  • It’s OK to respond thoughtfully to another person who has left a comment, even if it’s not your blog.
    But use discretion. It’s not OK to take over.
  • Don’t edit other people’s posts in a comment..
    There’s no reason to correct grammar or point out typos unless specifically encouraged to proof read a piece of writing.
  • Don’t leave a comment on someone else’s blog requesting feedback, follows or views or leave promotional links.
    It’s not just bad etiquette, it’s ineffective, counterproductive marketing.
  • Think carefully before leaving one of these on someone else’s blog:
    ‘Thanks for visiting / commenting / liking / following my blog’.
    I prefer this blogger’s version as it shifts the emphasis from ‘you like me’ to ‘I like you’:
    ‘I am glad you found your way to my blog so I could find my way to your blog. I look forward to reading more of your posts’.

30 ways to leave a meaningful comment

Knowing the etiquette is all very well, but it doesn’t offer much help with the basic issue of what to say. The best way is always to jump right in and practice, but if you’d like a commenting cheat sheet, here are some ideas:

Say what you liked
I prefer / this is my favourite
I enjoyed… (something specific)
This worked well
Pick out a quote from the piece (I liked it when you said…)
If the post has an interesting picture, respond to the technique or the subject choice or say how it makes you feel.

Be supportive
Encourage
Reassure
Give virtual hugs

Express a different viewpoint
Tread carefully – public critiquing is not always welcome. Be kind.
I’m not sure that will work
Have you considered this idea?
I disagree

Extend the debate
Broaden the idea, but don’t change the subject
Add extra research or a useful (non-promotional) link

Ask questions / request clarification
How did you do this?
What do you think about this?
Why did you choose this approach? Did you mean…?
I didn’t understand…

Give advice
Answer questions
My method is… / I use this
Offer practical help

Acknowledge resonance, endorse or validate
I feel the same / that works for me too / I understand
I’ve written about that (it may be appropriate to include a link to useful, related, supportive comment)
Share a related experience
That’s an interesting idea – it’s made me think…

Say thanks
Thanks for sharing / explaining
Thanks for drawing attention to this

Automatic notifications and links
Pingbacks
Reblogs
Keep your gravatar links up to date

Connecting with others

It’s possible for comments to trivialise or become a cacophony of white noise. Used thoughtfully they help us make connections, and give us a warm feeling. If I think of the bloggers I feel closest to since starting to blog, the ones whose posts I look forward to reading most, they’re the ones who talk to me in comments on my blog or their own: those who somehow (despite my inclination to keep silent) have encouraged me to come out of my shell. The kind ones.

It’s just a different level of understanding. I trust them; I know them; I like them.

They don’t just see blogging in terms of publishing a post, but go beyond that. They’re warm, natural and inviting; here to give as well as take. They truly have something to say, not only in published pieces, but in thoughtful, spontaneous ad-libs in comment sections too.

These people have given me more than they’ll ever know, just by being themselves and reaching out. They’ve made my blog richer – they’ve given it life.

I’m hoping to change

I’m not sure I’m cut out to be the perfect host. And I’m not planning to spread myself widely in other people’s comment sections, like the mysterious dust in Philip Pullman’s books, floating down over the blogosphere. World domination’s not for me!

But I will try to reach out that bit more. I’ll try not to accept the tempting excuse quite so often: ‘I don’t know what to say’. I’ll remind myself I am welcome – that every comments box is an invitation.

It does feel like I‘m still treading an overgrown path, so yes, I have to make the effort, but each conversation I have in the comments section clears one bramble away; opens up a new way to connect with people around the world. Perhaps it’s not friendship exactly, but it’s something real and strangely akin to it. So if you see me coming your way, hold back a bramble in welcome for me.

And if you find yourself feeling daunted in the face of an empty comments box, despite having something to say, just remind yourself that in this case at least:

“No one is going to be eaten / vapourised / exterminated / upgraded / possessed / mortally wounded / turned to jelly. We’ll all get out of this unharmed.”

Have you anything to add to this Commenting 101?

Do you ever catch yourself thinking ‘I want to comment but I don’t know what to say’ or feeling awkward replying to comments?
Are there any types of comments you do not like receiving?
Have you made any mistakes about commenting? I’ll confess mine if you confess yours!

94 Replies to “The Art of Commenting: what holds us back and how we can fix it”

  1. Wow! Daily Post should flag up this one, Susurrus. You’ve expressed so well what I first experienced on Flickr as a beginner photographer and then here where I’ve spent most of my time worried about my writing.

    A couple of thoughts came to mind when reading. Sometimes I find commenting really easy. A post just sparks a train of thought, and then I wish I’d written a post about it! Other times, I’m so in agreement with what I’ve read that I don’t feel I have anything worthwhile to add except – I agree! But I also love the meaningful comment. It really makes your day.

    I have a question though. Sometimes a conversation gets started that interests me, but I’m never sure whether to wind it up – or keep it going. I wonder if there’s an etiquette to closing the conversation?

    1. That’s a good question. My instinct (reinforced by the comments I’m receiving) is that comments on a blog form a communal conversation and that’s why different rules seem to apply. If you and I had an exchange of perhaps ten or twenty comments here, that would start to seem inappropriate somehow, (why should others have to read through our private conversation?) though in real life, it would be perfectly normal.

      I think we use a star, silence or increasingly brief comments to close down a conversation within acceptable limits, even though in a different context we’d be happy to continue with it. So comments and conversations become more like distilled essences. As always, that’s just my guess!

  2. Thought provoking post – you’ve asked many questions I have asked myself. And even now I’m thinking will I click the “post comment” button? I agree we bloggers crave feedback so I tihnk it is only polite to respond when someone says something about your post. With some bloggers it is easy to build a relationship, especially when they are responding to your posts as you are to theirs. Here I think lies one of the strengths of blogging – you can make friends across the cyber-fence as one of my favourite blogger calls it.

    1. It’s so honest of you to say ‘even now I’m thinking will I click the “post comment” button?’. I really think it’s a ‘normal’ response – we have to overcome some of our ‘normal’ instincts to get used to commenting.

      I found it quite difficult to understand my inhibitions, especially at first. Safar makes the point that a response either comes or it doesn’t. That’s often been my experience too. Not having the right words at my command felt like a failure. I’m used to being bad at reverse parking, but I expect words to come easily.

      I suppose I’m just trying to expect more of myself when the right words are more elusive.

      1. I think you’re right – I trust my instincts. If after reading the post I feel need to reply then I try and reply.

  3. Excellent post. This is a very full and thoughtful piece. Responding to comments is both a pleasure and a self-imposed chore, because I think if someone has taken the trouble to comment the least I can do is reciprocate. And I do like receiving them. I try to read all those I follow. Sometimes I click like without a comment; sometimes I do neither, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t read them. I like it when others engage in conversations arising from my posts. I won’t necessarily read such conversations on others’ posts. There is only so much time 🙂

    1. I typically skim over comments sections to gather their general character, then linger if something interesting is happening there. You’ve gathered a nice online community and I’m sure it’s partly because you are generous with your own comments.

      It’s lovely when conversations just organically arise. I do think that we’re following quite complex rules, even when we don’t consciously understand them. If it was a total free for all, it would be quite a challenge to keep track.

  4. I adore how you’ve used the Doctor Who reference. It was perhaps my favourite bit of the episode, just because of the beauty of those quotes.
    I think you’ve written a great piece here, and you’ve expanded it out to cover a lot of ground. Commenting and knowing how to comment is perhaps one of the most difficult things on wordpress and I found myself checking some of my own commenting behaviour as I read you piece.
    I’ll certainly be paying a lot more mind to how I interact with other bloggers and if you don’t mind I’d like to reblog this post to my own readers.

    1. There’s a lot of wisdom hidden in the Doctor Who scripts. I’m glad you mentioned that bit!

      I’d be very happy for you to reblog.

  5. Sometimes I wonder though if people are too nervous to leave constructive criticism if they didn’t like a post. I want to learn how to become a better writer, that’s why I started blogging, so if something I wrote is a true stinker, I wouldn’t mind someone giving me an honest critique. Without being nasty of course. The only indication I get that something I wrote wasn’t that good is if I don’t get many clicks or likes.

    I won’t leave a comment that’s critical unless the person asked for an honest critique in the post. If someone just wants to write their little heart out and they’re happy doing it, who am I to tell them I don’t like it? To comment or not to comment…it’s a conundrum…

    1. We have to rely on our instincts. Criticism is not always welcome and I’d hate for anything I said to deter a writer from sharing their work, whether it’s a rough or first effort or a carefully thought out piece.

      I’m always reluctant to suggest improvements to writing on a person’s blog, where my comment is public. It seems more suited for the private commons set up for feedback during Blogging U courses. And I try to be careful to say it’s just my view, and others may think differently if I’m responding personally.

  6. Thank you for clarifying commenting etiquette. I’m relieved to discover that I’ve been practicing good commenting etiquette. That’s one worry gone. I like the analogy you gave. It put things in perspective nicely and it helped me understand the different approaches people take towards commenting. That was invaluable. So thank you.

    1. I’m glad you found this reassuring. There are too many worries in life and blogging doesn’t need to be one of them. I was unsure whether the vignette would come across, but I just couldn’t help myself – that part seemed to write itself!

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