Comment when you have something to say

By now it’s well-known that most Internet forums devolve over time, even when the people running the forum take concrete steps to avoid devolution. But the main problem is not necessarily the trolls who deliberately attempt to degrade the quality of the conversation. It’s low-quality comments that aren’t necessarily malicious or even mean-spirited but do reflect shallow knowledge. Not only that, but such comments are often designed to appeal to groupish belief or to raise the status of the commenter, rather than sharing information and asking genuine questions.

Kens offered this insightful observation on HN:

My theory (based on many years of Usenet) is that there are three basic types of online participants: “cocktail party”, “scientific conference”, and “debate team”. In “cocktail party”, the participants are having an entertaining conversation and sharing anecdotes. In “scientific conference”, the participants are trying to increase knowledge and solve problems. In “debate team”, the participants are trying to prove their point is right.

Unfortunately, the people in scientific conference mode attract the cocktail people, but the latter don’t tend to attract the former. Debate team-types tend to be attracted to both—they’re the people exhibiting groupish and status-based behavior. In HN land, I’m probably closer to cocktail mode people than the scientific conference mode people, though I want to act more like a conference person.

Still, it’s worth looking more carefully at what the scientific conference-mode means. I don’t think scientific conference means a literal presentation of new results, but I think it does mean that the people commenting are deeply informed, deeply curious, reasonably respectful, and work to speak from a position of knowledge, rather than ignorance, about a subject. In this sense I fit the scientific conference mode when I discuss a small but real number of issues related to teaching, urban planning / development, and grant writing / government practices. The second one relates least to my day-to-day life but is a personal interest about which I’ve read a fair amount. Towards this end, I suspect a lot of people could improve the quality of the conversation simply by not commenting.

I distill this general idea to a simple behavior heuristic that might be valuable to others: don’t comment unless you have a special, unusual, or well-informed viewpoint. Many of my comments link to books and/or articles I’ve read that elaborate on whatever point I’m making or trying to make (here’s one example, linking to Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and here’s another, citing Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City; in response to the second, someone even said, “I got these books simply because of this recommendation,” which makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside). Some of the ideas contained in the books or articles I cite might be wrong or badly argued, but at least I’m basing my comments on something specific rather than some general philosophical point. Too many people argue based on first principles or unsourced speculation. The latter isn’t always bad; for example, someone might work in a field and know something deep and important about it without having a link to a specific discussion of the idea being discussed.

Many of my comments that don’t link to books or articles still deal with specific issues in which I have above average expertise, knowledge, or experience. This comment discusses how I deal with a student who asks a question relating solely to his or her individual issue in a large group without sounding like a jerk (I think, anyway), this comment is about a specific product I’ve used (the Unicomp Customizer), and this comment is about specificity in writing and thinking. Again, I might be wrong, but in each case I’m writing based on experience.

You can find some exceptions to the principles I’ve discussed above. You should ask logical or reasonable follow-up questions, especially if you’d like more information (here’s one sample; here’s another.) Succinct is often beautiful. Focus on genuine questions, rather than challenging people because their beliefs don’t match yours.

You don’t always have to follow these rules—I don’t—but if you’re debating about whether you should post a comment, you should probably err on the side of silence and not intruding on other people’s time. Unfortunately, the kind of people who most need such internal self-restraint are probably also the ones least likely to use it, and I doubt anything can be done to solve this problem, which seems like a variant of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Despite all this, I don’t see a solution to the fundamental problems, at least beyond the person at the margin who might read this and change his or her behavior slightly.

In other words, one can appeal to community rules and norms, or resort to meta-posts (like this one).* Such an appeal shouldn’t be done too often, or a community will spend more time discussing its own rules and norms than it does discussing and reading the material that should be the purpose of its existence (I last wrote a post like this in January; that January post still seems relevant, but I feel like enough time has passed and that I’ve observed enough behavior to make this post relevant too). But perhaps the occasional reminder will, as I said, help at the margins.

Oh, and the other rule for commenting? When you’re done with substantive content, stop.


* Granted, these kinds of posts and comments can make a community deteriorate. For example, there are a set of overly long comments by jsprink_banned and josteink that fail to distinguish between an argument and how the argument is presented: I suspect they’re unhappy with the mod functions mostly because they haven’t focused on how an argument is delivered. Civility counts for a lot, at all levels of debate; see, for example, Tyler Cowen’s comments on civility and Paul Krugman (and his comments on the limits of binary, good versus evil thinking in general).

There are also comments like this, in which the poster argues from nothing, attempts to activate an anti-corporate ideology, and ignores the obvious, abundant evidence of the continued importance of firms. Alex-C, fortunately, did reply: “I almost can’t tell if this comment came from some sort of Markov text generator.” HN used to have many fewer of those kinds of comments, and when it did get those kinds of comments, they were much less likely to rise. It takes more effort than it should for me not to respond to them directly. Incidentally, the comment Alex-C was replying to meant to say something like this.

Commenting, community deterioration, and Hacker News

The people who most need to read and understand this post are the ones least likely to. Nonetheless, I’m going to post because the topic is important yet neglected topic restraint when speaking and writing. In real life, the problem isn’t nearly as acute as it is on the Internet: few people will ignore social cues that say, “You’re being a jerk,” but on the Internet there are few or no social cues, especially in the comments sections of websites. I try to comment when I have useful, unique, original, or non-standard things to say. That isn’t so often, but it’s often enough that I leave a reasonably large number of comments; some of them are the first drafts of blog posts (and some of those blog posts may eventually find their way into books, a topic that I’ve been thinking about more and more lately).

And when I don’t have something useful, unique, original, or non-standard to say (or ask), I just shut up. But Internet comments tend to degrade as a website grows; it attracts more people who just comment, often in ways that aren’t negative enough to silence through moderation but still annoying enough to lower the quality of the conversation. This, it seems to me, is a problem separate from trolls: the commenters who are leaving thoughtless comments aren’t necessarily doing so for attention, and they may not realize what they’re doing. And we can’t just state it in the negative: don’t don’t this. We should state it in the positive: do add substance. Hacker News tries to solve this problem with its Guidelines and through culture, but the site has been growing faster, it seems, than its culture.

There may not be anything that can be done about this problem; it appears to take a certain and unusual mind to appreciate long-form discussion, be courteous, not feed or respond to trolls, and contribute only things of substance. The early (or earlier) readers of Hacker News, and other big news sites, appear to have understood this. The more recent readers don’t, or a critical mass of people is developing who don’t work to contribute substantive material. I hadn’t really thought about the issue until about a month ago, in this comment thread, where I pointed out that single-function devices can still have utility. A poster named Dextorious replied: “Yeah. So on top of owning an iPhone, you are also a hipster with a (trendy but useless, considering the iPhone also tells the time) watch and a notebook (it’s even a Moleskine). Way to prove the parent poster’s point.”

Argh. I replied:

1) I don’t know what you mean by a “hipster,” or what a “hipster” is, other than that you’re using the term as a slur: http://paulgraham.com/disagree.html . I also don’t know what “hipster culture” means or is.

2) The original poster who I’m responding to said, “the days of the wristwatch and one-function cell-phone are gone [. . .],” so I’m not sure how one can be simultaneously “trendy” and part of a declining trend (that is, watch-wearing).

3) If you’d read the link, you’d know that I don’t use Moleskine notebooks any more because their quality variability appears to have increased over time.

But I bet my reply took way longer than Dextorious’s comment, and by the time I was done replying I felt like I’d wasted my time. I wanted to add another part:

4) I worry that this level of stupidity, and repeated stupidity, is becoming more normal; it’s very hard to wade through that stupidity as an individual. Dextorious has a lot of problems with reason; he tends to post things like “Thanks for the “democratic” downvoting.”

I looked through his comment history; there are many one-line, two-sentence comments like this one, which led to a pointless flame war. He calls Facebook “hyper-valued web crap,” but not in the context of providing real insight. Likewise, consider this comment. Others tell him that he’s not being very nice, as in a comment where Dinkumthinkum says, “You’re missing the point.” But how do you tell someone who chronically misses the point that they’re missing the point? In another thread, talmand says, “Wow, overreact much?” Yes, he does; but you can’t tell from looking a single comment what dextorious is doing, and most people aren’t going to look for a pattern of useless behavior in a poster’s comment history. I only did to make a point.

And I’m not doing this to pick on Dextorious; he’s one guy, but he’s symptomatic of similar threads I’ve seen. The latest happened today, in which jacquesm said:

The thread because this is one of the most hateful and ugly threads I’ve ever seen on HN. A thread like this would be literally unthinkable a year or more ago, and now I’m not even surprised it is here.

I’m not surprised either, and I’m not sure what to do with it in the face of cultural change. I’m not sure there’s a good algorithmic way of dealing with weak comments; one might have a Dunning-Kruger effect at work: the people who are least likely to provide valuable and non-jerky comments are also least likely to realize they’re not doing it. Most of the time, when you’re thinking about writing a comment, you should stop and ask: Is this important? Is it important enough to give it its own post? Is it cruel? Most people don’t do this. I suppose Hacker News could solve this problem by appointing super users or something like that, but such a solution doesn’t scale and has the problem of borderline-useful comments, like many of Dextorious’s. And sometimes it is genuinely hard to separate people telling difficult truths and people being jerks. Self-policing works much better but is imperfect, and its imperfection grows faster than the number of users.

This post is an effort towards cultural change, not only on Hacker News but elsewhere on the Internet. I’ve discussed the problem before and doubt it’s going to go away. I’m still going to try to help people write better comments and think better, but I worry that it’s a losing battle in most circumstances.

Commenting on comments

In “Comment is King,” Virginia Heffernan writes in the New York Times, “What commenters don’t do is provide a sustained or inventive analysis of Applebaum’s work. In fact, critics hardly seem to connect one column to the next.” She notes that comments are often vitriolic and ignorant, which will hardly surprise those used to reading large, public forums.”

She’s right. But part of the issue is that newspapers seem to encourage hit-and-run commenting because of their sheer size and, because of their attempt to be universal, also often hit the lowest common denominator. The latter is also one reason why Hacker News has a vastly better signal-to-noise ratio than, say, Digg.com.

In addition, think about this: if you’re going to incisively, laboriously, and knowledgeably comment on someone’s post or column, you’re probably better off getting your own blog and linking to the person’s post, thus developing a following of your own. It’s not really worth spending forty five minutes or an hour on an extensive critique that’s not likely to be read or remember by many people as a comment. When it becomes part of an ongoing narrative, however, it becomes more meaningful and important to the person who is writing.

That’s not to say comments have no place in blogs or newspapers, and I always read the comments on The Story’s Story and Grant Writing Confidential with care and attention. But I also understand the incentives against careful commenting and for trolling. Furthermore, in a typical comments section, it’s hard to tell who is a lunatic, who is worth listening to, who has background on the subject, and so forth. “Comment in King” now has five pages of comments attached, and I don’t feel like wading through them. With a single blog, however, I can relatively easily evaluate a handful of posts and decide if the rest are worth reading. Therefore I’m more likely to invest in a blog post replying to a story than I am a comment on that story.

You might notice that I’m not responding to Heffernan’s article in the comments section of the New York Times—but I might post a link to this response. Or maybe I’ll send her an e-mail. Heffernan might want to hear from me.

As a tangential point, comments that cite books or substantive articles are almost always better than blue-sky comments; maybe encouraging people to cite their sources would improve online discourse.

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