GetReligion turns nine: Thoughts on comments and trolls

So, friends and neighbors, if we are going to do some intense navel-gazing here at GetReligion (nine years into this project), then I will assume that it's fair game to briefly pay some attention to a different set of navels. So a blogger named Baldur Bjarnason decided to do a bit of reflecting on the lessons he learned about online writing during 2012. All of his reflections were worth reading, but I was especially struck by his blunt thoughts on what kind of material draws comments from readers (and the nature of those comments).

As I have said many times, GetReligion is not an opinion blog about religion news and trends, it is a commentary blog about the highs and lows of mainstream media attempts to cover religion news and trends. We are strong advocates of old-school American journalism, with an emphasis on accuracy, balance and fairness to voices on both sides of hot-button topics.

Many readers simply cannot grasp what we are doing, or choose to ignore the journalism angle.

That has always been the case, but since this blog's move to the Patheos universe there has definitely been an increase in the number of readers who click "comment" and then comment on the religious and cultural issues in the posts, rather than on the journalism hooks in the posts. I would say that, on my posts, I end up spiking about 50 percent of all comments. The goal is to try, try, try to discuss religion-news coverage.

Bjarnason faces different challenges, but several of his comments, for me, hit close to home. Some samples:

* There is little to no discourse online. What you get are dug in factions and people’s opinion on you are based solely on whether your argument supports what they have chosen to be ‘their team’. If you try and stick to facts and logic, most factions will reject you. It’s ideological trench warfare and the best you can hope for is that the machine-gun nests don’t notice you. ...

* People love to send you argumentative, angry, or otherwise negative emails. That is, if they aren’t asking you to work for free.

* Praise is generally only handed out on disposable media, like Twitter, and rarely anywhere where it counts (like blogs, reviews, or other writing). ... A remarkable number of people will only say nice things to your face, in private, and never in public. .... The end result is that positive feedback is ephemeral while negative feedback gets preserved forever on angry blogs, comments and forums. ...

* You can trust that ideas that are new and unfamiliar to an audience will be either ignored or met with anger.

* Nobody cares when you’re right but a lot of people really enjoy it when you’re wrong. They will rub it in your face.

* There’s no way to tell beforehand which bits you make will take off and which won’t. That nicely written, funny, and informative post will go down like a feminist speech at a men’s rights convention while the quick info-dump written and posted in less than an hour takes off and gets stratospheric traffic.

* There is absolutely no correlation between how much work you put into a post or a piece of writing and how much attention it gets.

* Nasty people are incredibly persistent while nice people go off having lives of their own (they have lives because they are not nasty).

* The only thing people like more than a post that states the obvious is an angry post that states the obvious. Angry and unreasonable will easily get ten times the attention of even-handed and rational. ...

There's much more, but I focused on the really negative stuff (cue: rim shot and cymbal splash) so that more people would comment.

Please keep reading.

Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher added a few comments of his own to this list. Here are a few that are highly relevant to my experiences here at GetReligion:

* Posts having to do with homosexuality or race are always going to be the most popular (i.e., most commented on) posts, no matter what.

* The chances that anybody will have anything fresh to say, or will give any indication of having had second thoughts in any respect about either issue, are vanishingly small.

* Even in a highly curated commenting community like this one, a surprising number of people don’t give evidence of having read the post they’re commenting on. My favorite one this past year was the reader who started his comment with, “I didn’t really read this post, but here’s what I think,” or something very close to that. ...

* When commenters don’t do these things, and rather see things I post, and that other readers post, more as invitations to a civil discussion or respectful argument, and respond in kind, that’s the kind of thing that makes doing this worthwhile.

What would I add? Only a few rather obvious things.

* Americans are not very interested in foreign news. Period.

* Requests for people to add URLs to their comments, to provide background and hard information for readers, are rarely heeded.

* People whose comments are spiked are way more interested in politics than either doctrine or journalism.

* I wish more working journalists were willing to leave on-the-record comments. It would really help the discourse around here.

* There is no way on earth we could do this blog without the help of readers who send us URLs from their local media and other sources. We all have jobs and we post on as many links as we can. My guilt file is always thick.

Now, discuss.

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