How do you judiciously help someone whose work isn’t very good?

This question keeps reappearing in various guises: How do you help someone whose work isn’t very good? Simply saying “This sucks” isn’t helpful and is usually taken with offense. A sufficiently screwed up work may also be unrecoverable. But making minor changes and saying, “It’s great!” often isn’t helpful either, because the work isn’t great and false praise is a lie. Those seeking criticism should be tactful enough not to ask, “Is it good?”, but often they aren’t and it leaves critics and editors in an awkward position.

I’m a writer, so I tend to see stuff from bad writers, but the same principles apply to other people with other domains of expertise. I developed my method of commenting on bad writing years ago, when a former student and now friend asked me to read a few stories she’d written for a creative writing class. Given her age they weren’t terrible; I made some comments, fixed a couple of minor things, and suggested some books that might speak to her.*

She asked if I thought the stories were good, but fortunately she asked via email so I had a few minutes to think about my response. I replied that I’d reframe the question: if she keeps writing, reading about writing, and developing her own sense of good writing, in four or five years she’ll reread her stories and be able to decide for herself whether her work was any good. I mentioned that when I was 26 or so, I no longer thought the stuff I’d written from 18 – 22 was any good. She got the point, I think, and seemed to appreciate what I was saying without saying.

And what I told her was and is true: I don’t think much of that early work now. But I also wouldn’t be where I am today without having written what I did then. In addition to being true, that sort of advice has the advantage of being tactful. I think John Irving said that every writer who seeks feedback really wants to be told, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.” But of course nothing is perfect and editors exist for a reason (so do therapists; the reasons may be more closely related than we’d like to commonly assume).

* Anyone interested in writing ought to look at this list, which I still think good. I periodically re-read every book on it. In some sense no good writer ever fully stops being a beginner.

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: . 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.

Trolls, comments, and Slashdot: Thoughts on the response to Avatar

The vast majority of the comments attached to “Thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar and Neal Stephenson’s ‘Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out’” are terrible. They tend toward mindless invective and avoid careful scrutiny of what I actually wrote; they’re quite different from the comments this blog normally gets, which is largely because I submitted the Avatar post to Slashdot, home of the trolls. One friend noted the vitriol and in an e-mail said, “Okay, the Slashdot link explains the overall tone of the comments your “Avatar” post is attracting.”

Part of the reason the comments are so bad is the hit and run nature of comments, especially on larger sites. If you have something substantial to say, and particularly if you regularly have something substantial to say, you tend to get a blog of your own. I wrote about this phenomenon in “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.”

Furthermore, it’s easier and demands less thought to post hit and run comments than it is to really engage an argument. I deleted the worst offenders and sent e-mails to their authors with a pointer to Paul Graham’s How To Disagree; none responded, except for one guy who didn’t understand the point I was trying to make even after three e-mails, when I gave up (“never argue with fools because from a distance people can’t tell who is who”). The hope is that by consciously cultivating better comments and by not responding to random insults, the whole discussion might improve.

(Paul Graham has given the subject a lot of thought too: he even wrote an essay about trolls. As he says, “The core users of News.YC are mostly refugees from other sites that were overrun by trolls.”)

Not every comment I got one was terrible—this one, from a person named “Dutch Uncle,” was probably the best argued of the lot, and it mostly avoided ad hominem attacks. It, however, was very much the exception.

Most comments tended to deal in generalities and not to cite specific parts of my argument. In this respect, they have the same problems I see in freshmen papers, which often want to make generalizations and abstractions without the concrete base necessary. This happens so often that I’ve actually begun a keeping a list of all the things freshmen have told me are “human nature,” with a special eye toward placing contradictory elements next to each other, and in class I now ceaselessly emphasize specifics in arguments.

Since I’ve see this disease before, I’ve already thought about it, and I think the generalization problem is linked to the problem of close reading, which is a really hard skill to develop and one I didn’t develop in earnest till I was around 22 or 23. Even then it was only with a tremendous amount of effort and practice on my part. Close reading demands that you consider every aspect of a writer’s argument, that you pay attention to their word choices and their sentences, and that you don’t attribute to them opinions they don’t necessarily hold. Francine Prose wrote a whole book on the subject called Reading Like a Writer, but the book is a paradox: in order to develop the close reading skills she demonstrates, you have to be able to closely read her book in the first place, which is hard without good teaching.

Mentioning Francine Prose brings up one other common point I saw in the comments: few pointed to sources or ideas outside themselves, and allusions were rare. In the best writing I see, such elements are common. That isn’t to say every time you post a comment, you should cite four peer-reviewed sources and a couple of blog posts, but ideas are often stronger when they show evidence of learning and synthesis from others. In my Avatar post, I brought together Greg Egan, a New Yorker article, Alain de Botton citing Wilhelm Worringer, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the Neal Stephenson essay, and Star Trek. Now, my argument about Avatar could still be totally wrong, like an essay with hundred citations, but at the very least other writers’ thoughts usually show that more thought has gone into an essay, or a comment. Almost every article in every newspaper and magazine piece worth reading cites at least half a dozen and often many more sources: quotes, other articles, journals, books, and more. That’s part of what make The Atlantic and The New Yorker so worth reading.

Citations area common because things that are really worth arguing about require incredible background knowledge to say anything intelligent. The big response I’ve had to many of the comments, especially the deleted ones, are suggestions to read more: read How Fiction Works, The Art of Criticism, and Reading Like a Writer, then post your angry Internet screeds after you’ve thought more about what you’re arguing. These kinds of pleas probably fall on the proverbially deaf ears, but at least with this post now I have somewhere to point bad commenters in the future.

I think one reason I find Slashdot conversations much less interesting than I did as a teenager isn’t because the nature of the site has changed, but because I’ve learned enough to have learned how hard it is to really know about something. Now I’m often more engaged by pure information and less often in invective and pure opinion, especially when that opinion isn’t backed up by much. The information/opinion binary is of course false, especially because the kind of information one presents often leaves pointers to one’s opinion, but it’s nonetheless useful to consider when you’re posting on Internet forums—or writing anywhere.

Incidentally, one reason I like reading Hacker News so much is that the site consciously tries to cultivate smarter, deeper conversation, much as I wish to; it’s trying to meld technical and cultural forces into a system that rewards and encourages high-content comments of the sort I mostly didn’t get regarding Avatar. I submitted the Avatar post to Hacker News before Slashdot, and the first, relatively good comment came from a Hacker News reader.

The problem of trolls is also very old, and probably goes back to the Internet’s beginnings—hence the need for a word like “troll,” with a definition in the Jargon File. As a result, I’m probably not going to change much by writing this, and to judge from my e-mail correspondent, trying to do so via e-mails and blog posts is mostly hopeless. But a part of me is an optimist who thinks or hopes change is possible and that by having a meta conversation about the nature of trolling, one can avoid the behavior in general, at least on a small scale. At Slashdot or Reddit scales, however, the hope fades, and one simply experiences the tragedy of the commons.

EDIT: Robin Hanson has an interesting alternate, but not mutually incompatible, theory in Why Comments Snark:

Comments disagree more than responding posts because post, but not comment, authors must attract readers. Post authors expect that reader experiences of a post will influence whether those readers come back for future posts. In contrast, comment authors less expect reader experience to influence future comment readership; folks read blog posts more because of the post author than who they expect to author comments there.

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,

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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