Grad Scheming (8): How to manage commenters

Grad Scheming: How to manage commenters

Someone once told me, “politics is the management of hatred”. Now I know, so is writing for a web audience.

This week, Alan Rusbridger handed the Guardian’s features supplement, G2, over to the ten trainees. A spread online and in the Saturday paper announced the fact.

The first comment left Below The Line (BTL) was immediately removed by the Guardian moderators. This was a bad start to a highly predictable wave of snark, nastiness, straight-up prejudice and unrestrained fuckwittery.

We were given amateur and condescending editorial tips. A man with the face of a curly-haired flanimal asked “Y the fuck did anyone think this was a good idea?” Another cheeky chappy said, “I think it would be more representative if they had picked a couple of people who didn’t seem like tools.”

We were called a “bunch of swots” by someone who was probably wearing bellbottoms. Another proclaimed immediately, “I’m bored already” and someone else typed a simple: “God help us.” This was, remember, before they’d seen a single thing we were about to produce. We were under 30. That’s all they knew.

Someone even emailed me to accuse me of lying about where I’d grown up, of being secretly rich and of only mentioning Slough for “street cred”. Which was all very informative – I didn’t know growing up in Slough gave me street cred! This is excellent news!

This is what it’s like when you go from your own blog, generally a place people only come to if they want to be there, to a news outlet like the Guardian. A lot of people just can’t handle the Internet. Probably nice people in real life, online they embody everything negative, hateful, predictable and sad about humanity, all distilled into the few words they excrete onto a keyboard.

I’m talking about The Haters. And I have it on good authority that they’re “gonna hate”. Here are a few tips on how to manage when they turn their beady little eyes on you…

REPLY TO THEM

The point of BTL is to make journalism a two-way conversation, to engage with readers. So engage. Start a debate, tell them if you agree or if they have a point, if you disagree and why. Ask them to elaborate. Many will – and become much more polite when they realise you can see what they’ve written.

If they say you’ve got your facts wrong, ask them to point you in the right direction. Say “Hi – that’s interesting, that’s not at all what I read, could you send me a link to that source?” Either you’ll learn something, or they’ll shut up. Which I think we can all agree is a win-win.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A TROLL AND A TOOL

You can reply to a tool. If you play your cards right, you can even make friends with them. I wrote an article about Esther McVey’s fascinating advice to jobseekers, “You could be working at Costa”, and someone informed me that Esther was lovely and I was an idiot. So I replied, “Esther, is that you?” I braced myself for a torrent of abuse – but instead he typed his argument, explained in full, ending with “love, Esther xxx”. Whoever he is, there’s a high five here with his name on it.

Trolls are different to tools. A tool is someone who’s impolite, and doesn’t think you’ll ever see their snarky comment. A troll is someone who’s logged on purely to criticise, make you feel worse, and lower the general level of liveability in the world before going off to masturbate into a shoe. Any shoe.

My advice: don’t talk to them. Don’t waste your time, or theirs. Don’t stand between them and that shoe. It’s all they’ve got.

LET SOMEONE ELSE DEAL WITH THEM

“I don’t understand!” bleated a comment on my last column, “I’m in my 20s, I’m not unemployed and neither are my friends. Why are people saying unemployment is such a problem?” Before I could answer, someone slid in like Ferris Bueller and said “Maybe – I’m going out on a limb here – just maybe, you and your friends aren’t necessarily indicative of the whole bloody country?!”

Defend yourself, but remember you’re not a storm trooper. You don’t have to take sole responsibility for setting every idiot straight. Wait for the “What she meant was…”

COMMENTERS AREN’T REPRESENTATIVE

We have a wonderful developer here at the Guardian – and I won’t embarrass him by naming him – who emailed to let us know, “Regular commenters on the site represent something stupid like 0.0037% of the total audience and sadly they tend to be the most reactionary, hateful chunk of said audience.”

I haven’t run the numbers, but my guess is it’s a similar set of figures for most sites. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking The Haters represent the readership. My advice is to check your Twitter shares – I’ve found that generally people comment to be nasty, and share to be nice.

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

Think of all the times you’ve tweeted a snarky comment about Tories, or a Big Brother contestant. You’re not thinking of how their little faces would scrunch if they read how much you hate them. When you’re on a public forum with a massive audience, that’s all you are to commenters. Just like good old “Esther”, many become surprisingly civil when you answer them – not because they’re two-faced or cowardly, but because until you started talking to them, you didn’t seem like a real person.

BE HEALED BY THE GOOD COMMENTS

When someone leaves a positive comment, take a moment to bask in its glow. So few people leave comments, and generally only do so when they feel a strong emotion – and people are much more likely to leave a comment to express something negative. A positive comment is a rare and beautiful thing, worth 50 nasties.

LAUGH ABOUT IT

My favourite comment ever was left on an article I wrote about drop-crotch meggings (a men’s fashion item: leggings with a hilariously low crotch). Someone commented “This article is racist”. I double checked – had I said that meggings look like Native American pantaloons? Or a burqa for balls? Had I said this was an item to wear when you’re trying to look like a minority? Nope. No race was mentioned. In fact, no country was mentioned. But someone read it, and decided to type “this article is racist”. And it made my day.

Your job as a writer is to inform, and entertain. Now we live in the age of BTL commenters, you get to be informed and entertained right back. Which means having to manage hatred is just a pitfall of an essentially marvellous system.

So feel free to leave a comment BTL about how much I suck, readers. I’ve got my Ferris Buellers on standby.

Want to hear more about Erica’s travails at the Guardian? Here you go.

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