Archive for November 19th, 2007

A couple of years ago, getting a negative or irrelevant comment about an article could leave me moping for a couple of days. But familiarity has hardened me, and today the nastier comments about my commentary, “It’s Time to Get Over Microsoft” left me not only unmoved, but observing the different types of negative comments with something like dispassion.

I’m not talking here about comments that point out a typo or a fact of which I’m unaware. As much as I might like to be omniscient, I’m not. I make mistakes, and some of them slip past my editors as well. Nor can I reasonably expect to know everything about a subject – although if an obvious fact has escaped me, I may berate myself for sloppy research. But, as I like to say, the only thing worse than make such mistakes is not correcting them, and I have enough professional pride to appreciate being told when I’m wrong, even if I’m inwardly wincing.

Nor am I talking about readers who simply disagree with me. If my initial expression of my views doesn’t convince people, I’m more or less content to agree to differ. Or, sometimes, I can have an interesting exchange with someone who thinks differently in which I learn perspectives I hadn’t considered. Such exchanges are part of the benefit of writing online, and, mostly, I’m glad for them, even if I sometimes to have to cut them short so I can get some work done.

Anyway, at times (and today was one of them), I’m expressing my views in a language calculated to provoke a response, so I can hardly be upset if I get one.

Rather, the ones that confound me are those that seem only tangentially connected to what I wrote. These fall into several categories:

  • Insults: Comments about my alleged stupidity, sexual orientation, politics, choice of topic or lack of objectivity – I’ve heard them all since I’ve become a journalist. Apparently, some people believe that insults somehow refute a viewpoint. The truth is, they are so inappropriate that I can’t take them seriously. That includes the ad hominem attacks of people who believe themselves experts on grammar; I admit that I can make mistakes through carelessness, but after seven years as a university instructor and writing hundreds of professional works, I almost always know more about grammar than my readers. In fact, often the self-appointed grammar police are wrong.
  • Tours through my life: Borrowed from the American fantasist and essayist Harlan Ellison, this phrase refers to people who think that they can psychoanalyze me through what I write (inevitably, finding me in grievous need of therapy). I have been diagnosed, for example, as being single and as a newcomer to the free software comment, largely because the commenter disagreed with me. Such comments generally reveal far more about them and their assumptions than about me or anything I write.
  • General comments: A surprising number of times, people seem to read just enough to learn the topic of an article, then sound off on some point that’s only related to the article if you squint for a long time. Their main interest seems to be an opportunity to sound off. Well, glad to be a public service, I guess. But wouldn’t a blog be a better place?
  • Missing points that aren’t missing: Even though I do miss some aspects of a topic (or omit them for lack of space), some readers like to find fault because they’ve missed a point that is expressed perfectly clearly in the article. Since the ones they say are missing are often at the end of the article, I suspect that they haven’t finished the article. At the very least, they are skimming.
  • A comment taken out of context: Hostile readers seem to have a special talent for responding to isolated phrases and ignoring the sentences around them in order to accuse me of fantastically wrong or misguided opinions. I seem to be unusually vulnerable to these uncontextual accounts, probably because I have the habit of expressing one possible viewpoint, then correcting or elaborating on it. However, if I wait an hour or so, another reader usually points out the mistake, so no great matter.
  • Complaints about what the article isn’t about: Some readers apparently enjoy finding fault with the choice of topic. For instance, when I write about OpenOffice.org, one or two readers are bound to write that LaTeX does whatever I am writing about much better — never mind that I’m not writing about LaTeX.

All these types of comments have become so familiar to me in the last few years that they have lost almost all their power to wound. Most of them seem so remote from what I was saying as to be irrelevant. However, as someone who spent about half his time as a university instructor trying to teach first year students how to frame arguments, at times these types of comments make me despair.

More often, though, my main response is simpler still: I wish they would show some indication that they had read what I was saying.

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