The perils of commenting

I had another odd experience today. The details and personae don’t matter (and haven’t appeared here in many months). Basically, I read a direct quotation from a person I’m professionally acquainted with, on a third-party site. I found the quotation troublesome. I sent email to the person noting this (in an offhanded manner that could certainly be perceived as snark). I got back email noting:

  • That the quotation was from a much longer response
  • That I should know the person well enough to give them the benefit of the doubt
  • That my snarkiness wasn’t appreciated

Here’s the thing. I sent private email indicating that I was surprised (offended?) by what was said. I did not blog about it. I don’t intend to blog about it (and never did).

I learned some time back how dangerous it is to comment on what somebody is reported to have said or displayed during a conference presentation, even if that person doesn’t choose to say they were misinterpreted. I wasn’t there; how could I understand the context? So I don’t do that any more. (It’s hard. Some of the conference writeups I read make my head hurt and inspire long, argumentative responses. Those responses don’t get written. Not anymore.)

Let’s not even get into what happens when you make perfectly reasonable interpretations and paraphrases of what someone’s said. Straw men! Nobody ever said that! You’re making it up! BAD blogger!

This is a little different. It’s a direct quote, a long enough quote to (presumably) be in context. I would have felt justified in blogging about it–but my impression is now that, at least here, that would be considered mean-spirited and unfair. Why? Because the person, prominent enough to be interviewed more than once, said other things–and, in some ways, what was quoted could be considered out of a broader context.

What next? If I comment on somebody’s own blog post or on an article someone writes, and say anything that’s less than favorable, can I be accused of taking the post or article out of the lifelong context of the person involved?

I should also report a separate email incident. A person I barely know at all had a typo at the beginning of a substantive post, a typo (the wrong word rather than an obvious error) that stood out just enough to make it harder to focus on the substance of the post. I didn’t say so in a comment (this wasn’t one of the very few bloggers who prides themself on the exquisite and well-edited nature of their posts). I sent a quick email saying “you might want to fix this.” The blogger did. Problem solved. And for several months now I’ve been correcting spelling and obvious syntax problems in posts that I quote (here, at C&I, or in books), without “sic”ing them–unless, again, it’s one of those rare cases where the person is A Superior Writer and makes sure we all know it.

There’s an easy solution, to be sure. Never disagree with anyone about anything. Never say anything that could be considered negative or snarky or even constructive criticism (which is still criticism). “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Heck, I could start a new Blogger’s Code of Conduct, with a badge bearing a smiley face: “We only see the sunny days.”

I would have naively assumed that people who take public roles would consider themselves open to criticism. I would have naively assumed that people who (unlike me) are frequently interviewed would be wary of selective quotation. I would have naively assumed that people would stand behind what they say, understanding that some of us learn over time and have been known to change our minds. Heck, some of us are even wrong once in a while; I certainly am.

Maybe I’m getting less naive. Maybe the rule now is that nobody is responsible for anything they say, directly or indirectly, unless you agree with them. I’d like to think otherwise. But I’m beginning to wonder.


Comments welcome–whether you agree or disagree. I reserve the right to delete obscene or patently abusive comments, especially those that aren’t signed or are off-topic–but “patently abusive” has to do with language, not with agreement. Think I’m a whiney asshat? You’re free to say so.

Addition, February 6: The particular situation mentioned was a fluke, I now believe–but I’ll stand behind much of the rest of the post. The comments so far are great, but I should clarify one thing:

No, I’m not going to follow the shining path of only positive comments, and I’m not going to disappear. I assume that pretty much all of you who I’ve had discussions with over the past two years are open to criticism; many of you have been quite explicit about that (and that you feel free to criticize me, as you should).

So, while you’re certainly free to (encouraged to!) add to this interesting discussion, you don’t need to assure me that it’s OK to disagree with you in public. If I get one odd email a year, I can handle that… And, frankly, I’m always a little surprised by the extent to which many blogs seem to get nothing but 100% “agreeable” comments. Fortunately, this isn’t one of those blogs.

15 Responses to “The perils of commenting”

  1. Daniel Cornwall Says:

    ===========
    I would have naively assumed that people who take public roles would consider themselves open to criticism. I would have naively assumed that people who (unlike me) are frequently interviewed would be wary of selective quotation. I would have naively assumed that people would stand behind what they say, understanding that some of us learn over time and have been known to change our minds. Heck, some of us are even wrong once in a while; I certainly am.

    Maybe I’m getting less naive. Maybe the rule now is that nobody is responsible for anything they say, directly or indirectly, unless you agree with them. I’d like to think otherwise. But I’m beginning to wonder.
    ===========

    Hi Walt,

    I don’t think you’re getting less naive, but I worry that you might be getting more sensitive. :-) The naive ones are the folks who take offense at being criticized. If they don’t want to be questioned, then they don’t belong on the ‘net. They should buy a $1.00 paper notebook and start a personal journal. No one would subject them to criticism then.

    Civility isn’t “Say something nice or don’t say anything at all.” It’s the ability to disagree with what is being said without denigrating the personhood of the one you are criticizing. That’s all you and I and the rest of the civil blogging community owe anybody. That and citations for any controversial facts we might cite.

  2. Christina Pikas Says:

    I get sensitive sometimes. Mostly because I’m frustrated that I can’t get my point across. Sometimes if I feel like I’m misquoted, and then breathe a little bit, I can tell that I said what’s on the page, but then remember what my point was… which was something completely different. Like when I speak at conferences and it gets blogged — the points that remain in people’s minds are sometimes not what I intended. I need to do better at delivering stronger take-aways.

    I get seriously offended when you or Mark L. or anyone else I respect who actually has – gasp – a personality and an opinion gets attacked.

    Sometimes e-mails like the one you sent this person are not meant to be helpful but to be maybe like gossip mongering? I don’t know. I would take an e-mail like that as a helpful pointer that I needed to jump in that conversation and clarify my point of view.

    As for typos, alas, I made another in the Update: statement when I corrected 3 I found in the post, sigh… I could sweat the details and write even less frequently, or just let fly and hope that people can make sense of it or do my correcting for me :)

  3. Mark Says:

    I know it’s hard to keep lists of exceptions and often more pragmatic to just adopt a general strategy but please try and remember that you are free to comment on, correct, chastise and correspond with me either in public or private.

    I find it very hard to grow if the ideas that I appear to espouse–especially in public–are not contested by others. In that situation I am left completely to my own abilities to either serendipitously come to my senses (if that is required) or find some other information–in a book or on the web or from a random bar conversation, … –that provides a hint that perhaps something previously espoused needs to be amended or at least reconsidered from another viewpoint.

    But I do understand your feeling here. I have withdrawn from a lot of the biblioblogosphere. I still read as many blogs, though more with less readership, but I engage in a LOT less commenting. And unless it is someone or something I REALLY care about then I am not going to take the time to email them either. And while this behavior seems to contradict my own desires above the reason is because my experience with others is more like yours. Many, many people have no desire for real feedback.

    I love your paragraph below the rule, by the way. Might have to look into borrowing it at some point. Perhaps it belongs right over every comment box. ;)

    Thanks, Christina, and be sure to stay on my rear whenever I need it, asshat or not. :)

  4. Angel Says:

    Hmm, that worries me a bit now. These days I don’t comment much when it comes to the library part of the blogosphere. I think like Mark I have been gradually withdrawing. In my case, it has not been intentional; it has just gradually happened, and I am just letting it happen.

    I don’t totally buy into the bloggers who write something, then claim, once they quoted, “oh, I did not mean that” or “that was not really what I intended to write” because more often than not it seems to come out more as a defensive move than an actual mistake. In other words, it comes out as a form of saying, “don’t criticize me for what I said even though I actually said it.” As Daniel above says, if you don’t want to be questioned, go buy yourself a dollar notebook and keep a journal (actually, I do have a paper journal too, but that is a separate story). If you put it out there, you can expect you may or not be called on it. So deal with it, especially if you are one of the big prominent boys and girls who should know better.

    I do still read a lot of the blogs in our field, though I have been weeding that list a bit as of late, as I have been weeding the rest of my feeds too.

    In the end, I can’t help but wonder as well.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  5. walt Says:

    The good news: This was probably a special case, and it won’t really cause me to swear off altogether. (Since to swear off being critical when appropriate would also mean giving up blogging and Cites & Insights entirely, which I’m not ready to do.) This may have been a “These things happen sometimes” incident.

    The bad news, and I think it’s reflected in liblogs generally: you two (Angel and Mark) may not be the only ones who appear to be commenting less or less frankly. After strongly defending the extent to which library people really do discuss (and disagree), I’m seeing a little less of it than, say, a year or two ago. On the other hand, there have been recent cases where what could have been slugfests turned into valuable multisided conversations, both within comments on blogs and between blogs.

    Fact is, I probably write-and-delete three comments for every one I actually post, not because I’m thin-skinned but because I frequently look at the post (and the blogger), think about it, and conclude that life’s too short to take part in this particular controversy. But I’m old(er) and tired; I’d like to think that the up-and-coming library leaders of tomorrow will engage us (“us” being the whole liblogging community) with no fear of reprisal. I wonder whether that’s true, If it’s not, that’s unfortunate.

    I’m lucky: I’m prominent in my own odd way, but seem to fly under the radar of the usual sources–that is, I’m rarely (never?) asked to comment on anything for publication, so there’s no chance of my being selectively (mis)quoted. (This may also be why I seem to be down to roughly one speech a year, or that could reflect on my presentation skills…) I think it’s tougher for people who are more prominent; I don’t envy them.

    This is turning into a long self-comment, but yesterday afternoon I was working on material for the next C&I, including in this case a couple of posts on blogs I normally don’t see a lot of. The posts themselves were quite divergent, and both had more comments than you usually see on liblogs–and I noticed that nearly all the comments on each post were agreeing with the blogger. The real discussion took place between the two blogs. Are we getting more reluctant to take someone on within their own space? I’m not sure.

    Sigh. There’s one really interesting conference report (from an unusual conference) that I would love to comment on, in this case positively–but, again, I’m not confident that the report reflects the tone of the program well enough that I’m comfortable commenting on it. Oh well, we mostly have too much to read anyway; one less opinion from me won’t matter.

  6. bowerbird Says:

    > Are we getting more reluctant to take someone on
    > within their own space? I’m not sure.

    “take someone on” might be a poor choice of phrasing.
    the object, i would hope, is a guided search for truth…

    but yes, fewer and fewer bloggers seem to _allow_
    anyone to disagree with them. those comments are
    increasingly being “filtered out” along with the spam.

    and that’s when commenting is even turned-on at all.
    some people seem to _prefer_ having a bully-puppet.

    funny, i thought the benefit of the internet was we are
    finally able to engage in many-to-many conversations.
    ends up some people still wanna do one-to-many, where
    they’re the special “one” and we are their adoring “many”.

    there’s a boatload of people out there in the world who
    choose to be _personally_insulted_ whenever you’ve
    demolished their argument with any solid counters…

    i consider them to be a huge opponent to _truth_.

    thus, i’ve learned to turn a deaf ear to their squeals.

    -bowerbird

    p.s. i was trained as a social scientist, so perhaps
    that’s why i actually enjoy it when someone can
    provide evidence that disconfirms my theories…

  7. Laura Says:

    When I wrote a newspaper column, I on occasion got incredibly vitriolic letters–some sent to my home address, not just to the newspaper. I never bothered to reply–I was happy to engage people in a public forum, but I’m not going to argue with crazy people. It’s not worth my time.

    Anyway, I second what Mark said–you’re always more than welcome to criticize what I write or say. I look back on things that I’ve said that now make me cringe, but, you know, if that didn’t happen, it would presumably mean I hadn’t learned anything.

  8. walt Says:

    Laura: What a wonderful dividing line. Fortunately, there don’t seem to be too many crazy people in the liblog arena.

    Bowerbird: It’s not always truth, and it’s not always a guided search. Lots of questions have more than one right answer…

  9. Hazel Says:

    Personally I’d be happy for comments on my blog saying something along the lines of “did you really mean … because that’s how I read it?”. Heck, I’d be glad to get some comments!
    However, my blog is much more of an information-giving exercise than anything else so I don’t expect to get many comments.
    Yes, I do believe that people are reluctant to comment except in a bland sort of way since anything else might lead to a flame war or worse.

  10. Anna Creech Says:

    bowerbird wrote, “but yes, fewer and fewer bloggers seem to _allow_ anyone to disagree with them. those comments are increasingly being ‘filtered out’ along with the spam.”

    As someone who has been accused of removing or not allowing critical comments on my blog, I have some sympathy for the poor sots dealing with comment software that isn’t sophisticated enough to distinguish between legitimate comments and spam comments. I don’t censor comments on my blog, and anyone (except spammers and hatemongers — not that I’ve had many of the latter) is allowed to comment there. However, because my old comment software was so cludgy, many legitimate comments were lost in the ether, or so I’ve been told.

    With the flood of comment spam that has taken over much of the blog commenting world, I would ask that you give your bloggers the benefit of the doubt before accusing them of not allowing negative comments on their blogs.

  11. walt Says:

    A very good point. Used to be, I’d rescue one “real comment” from the spam list maybe twice a month. Now? Not so much–but given the peculiar spam attempts that show up, don’t be surprised if a comment that basically just agrees with me and has an even semi-suspicious URL attached doesn’t get approved. One of these days, I might do a post featuring some of the “real comments”–ones that are obviously spam because post titles at W.a.R. tend to be peculiar, but that would look perfectly normal in other blogs.

  12. bowerbird Says:

    walt said:
    > Bowerbird: It’s not always truth,
    > and it’s not always a guided search.

    except that it is situations which
    _are_ “a guided search for truth”
    — or at the very least _should_be_ —
    where i get most upset at censorship…

    (although “upset” is too strong a word,
    as these days i’ve become inured to it…)

    > Lots of questions have more than one right answer…

    but lots of bloggers only seem to want one answer
    — _their_answer_, right or wrong — to be heard…

    i think it’s the sense of ownership of the blog.

    i guess i’m an old fogey, and i miss listserves,
    where the object was _communal_ in nature.

    -bowerbird

  13. walt Says:

    Good points, bowerbird. I’d respond:

    1. This particular blogger absolutely does not censor based on (relevant) viewpoint. I’ll censor based on language, abusiveness, spam, irrelevance–but not on whether someone agrees with me or not. (As I’ve demonstrated in Cites & Insights, I believe, my record on that is solid.) I have no control over other bloggers–but, in the liblog field (the one I primarily care about), I honestly don’t believe there’s much censorship based on viewpoint.

    2. Mail lists (Listserv is a trademark, and as a longtime editor I avoid using it as a generic) haven’t gone away…at least not in libraryland, where they’re doing just fine.

    3. There are also group blogs and online forums. There’s room for many online media, including those–one-person blogs, ezines, etc.–where the single authorial voice is central.

  14. bowerbird Says:

    walt said:
    > This particular blogger absolutely does not
    > censor based on (relevant) viewpoint.

    walt, i believe that you do _not_ censor.
    but some of your good friends do… :+)

    the best thing, of course, is that there is
    no shortage of soapboxes in cyberspace.
    indeed, almost anyone can buy one and
    shout whatever they want to the world…

    the thing is, i feel like we’re now talking
    _at_ each other, not _with_ each other…

    but like i said, i’m probably just gettin’ old… ;+)

    -bowerbird

  15. walt Says:

    Bowerbird: Your penultimate comment may be right, so maybe it’s best to let it be–although I’m not sure how you would know who my good friends are.


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