April 10, 2009 -- For 20 years as a reporter and editor, I never worried about comments.
Sure, as a cub reporter, I used to die a thousand deaths every time a letter to the editor appeared in my newspaper that took issue with something I'd written. But it wasn't long before I learned two things:
1. In a newspaper, there isn't much room for letters to the editor -- maybe a half-dozen per day. And very few of them, even after a big, controversial story, were about you; and,
2. The editorial page editor is your best friend. In order to keep a balanced page, he or she is only going to run (at most) a couple letters about you -- and even then will try to maintain a balance between the laudatory and the cutting … and leave the crazies out.
So, for the next 20 years, as a reporter, magazine writer and magazine editor, I never sweated the "Letters to the Editor" page. Even as an editor, unless there was a serious factual correction I needed to investigate, I usually didn't even read the things -- but instead left it to my managing editor to decide what she wanted to print.
That all changed -- oh boy, did it change -- with the Internet. Between this column and the various stories I've written for publications that have appeared online, I figure in the last decade I've received about 10,000 comments. That's the population of medium-sized towns in some parts of the U.S. And fully half of those comments came with a single story -- the one I wrote last October about being ashamed of being a journalist.
For a few years, I went through the same shell-shock most bloggers and other online writers experience. Seemingly overnight, you go from a handful of generally polite printed comments to hundreds of screaming comments by people who not only don't agree with you, but call you a traitor, a Nazi, a communist, too stupid to live, a fraud … and who fervently pray that you will soon die horribly in a fire.
As you might imagine, this takes a bit of getting used to. After all, in daily life few of us regularly encounter people who hate us with such virulence based on such little information -- and when you do, you run for you life.
So, for about the first 1,000 comments, you tend to actually read what the commenters are saying and take it personally. And you start to understand why some really successful bloggers like Glenn Reynolds or James Lileks don't have comments sections. It must be very nice.
Still, you can get used to just about everything, even howling mobs of commenters wishing for your early death.
Then, something interesting happens: You write that column or blog entry that receives zero comments. Then you start missing all of those angry notes -- Why don't they hate me anymore? -- and wondering what you've got to write next time to get them back.
Pretty soon, in a feedback loop between writer and reader never possible in the print world, you find yourself writing on those topics, and in that style, that will provoke the most reader response. It may be craven, but it's a more reader-responsive form of writing than anything I ever had to face back in my newsroom days.
Internet Commenters: From Pretenders to Pervs
By the time you get to 10,000 comments, you've seen just about every permutation of commenter possible … and, as human beings do, find yourself categorizing them.
The other day, I found myself writing down all of those types -- something I'd never done before -- and I thought I'd share them with you. Please don't take them personally. … Actually, do take them personally; but keep in mind that on those occasions when I comment on other sites, I myself quickly fall into one or more of these categories -- and not always the nice ones.
The Troll -- Everyone knows this guy (and it's usually a guy), who intentionally visits sites in order to stir things up, provoke a furious reaction from other posters and then disappear. Classic examples are the Free Republic types who visit Daily Kos and vice versa.
The Droll -- The mainstay of all fun sites, this poster regularly tosses out clever comments, plays on words, one-liners or amusing pictures. There are a lot of these characters on places like Fark.com
The Relentless Pol -- Posters who can't join any discussion without immediately using it to make a political point, i.e., "The current lack of sunspots is the direct result of the Bush administration's failed policies."
The Skimmer -- The commenter, usually sour, who reads only a headline or sentence of a piece, draws exactly the wrong conclusion, and then embarks on an embarrassing rant.
The Trimmer -- A commenter who initially stakes a strong position, and then under withering attack from other commenters slowly backs off until he or she has completely abandoned that original position.
The Angry Man -- We all know this guy. His solution for almost any problem in the world is the summary execution, in as grisly a manner as possible, of every possible perpetrator.
The Dismisser -- The ultimate arrogant commenter, this person never actually engages with the topic, but merely declares it beneath anyone's interest, already resolved, or improperly stated -- and thus hardly worth the bother. The dismisser's only real message is: I'm smarter than you and you need to acknowledge that fact.
The Butt-Kisser -- Famous writers and bloggers get this one. It's the poster who just can't say enough about how brilliant was that last entry, how they wish they could say it half as good, etc. My assumption is that these folks are angling for some kind of personal relationship with the writer.
The Kumbaya -- These folks always show up two-thirds of the way through any heated on-line debate and ask, "Why can't we all just get along?" They are inevitably ignored or trashed.
The Parser -- What would we do without the Internet Grammar Police? These folks assiduously correct the online writings of others -- never quite catching on that the Web is designed to be fast, fresh and sloppy.
The Pretender -- Everybody is a pretender on the Web -- on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog, as the New Yorker cartoon said. Look at all of those made-up names and sexy icons. But some people just take it to pathological extremes. If the real world actually had that many war heroes, beauty contest winners, Mensa members and Olympic lovers, it would be a very different place.
The Defender -- Bloggers love these guys. When you are getting hammered by other posters, this is the guy who watches your back, supports you, and tells your enemies off … and does a better job of it than your real-life friends.
The Perv -- These guys show up a lot on celebrity sites, announcing some really disgusting thing they'd like to do to that famous figure … and of course will never get the chance to, thanks to stalker laws, restraining orders, and the fact they have no driver's license. It's a toss-up in my mind whether the Web is a good outlet for these guys, or the platform they've always dreamed of.
The Slut -- The best thing about slut commenters ("What's wrong with having sex with your best friend's dad?") is that they don't know they're sluts … until 800 other posters happily point it out to them.
The Boaster -- Few of us have ever driven a Lamborghini at 190 miles per hour. But this guy has. And can bench press 350 pounds. And dated Jessica Alba in high school. And …
The Tough Guy -- Remember the kid who talked tough, then ran off when confronted? The Internet is filled with these clowns, all secure in the knowledge that they will never be called to account.
The Pwn3R -- Most people are lucky to come up with a truly brilliant and devastating comeback a couple times in their lives. But the Web, thanks to its unique characteristics, has bred a population of posters who regularly drop verbal and visual bombs on unsuspecting recipients (like The Boaster and the Tough Guy) that are so devastating that the victims can only slink off and be grateful for their anonymity. I don't know who these men and women are, but I both worship and fear them.
The Lecturer -- This is the buzzkill pedant who feels the need, even in a casual, light comments section, to post a 1,000 word exegesis on what everyone should be talking about. Hey, thanks pal!
The Illiterate -- The blogosphere is still mostly a written medium -- so it's always bizarre to encounter (in about one out of 100 comments) that poster whose spelling and grammar are so awful that you hope that they are just some drunk pounding on a Blackberry.
The Unacknowledged Expert -- A version of the lecturer, this is the undoubtedly insufficiently credentialed poster who feels the need to systematically point out how stupid everyone else is in order to prove how brilliant they are. I always picture these guys as the frustrated adult result of smart kids who didn't listen to their high school guidance counselors.
The Mystery Genius -- These folks are just the opposite of unacknowledged experts. Whoever they are, they post comments that are so shockingly clever or brilliant that you are left wondering who they are: Slumming Nobel Laureates? Bored nobility? The first glimpse of the Internet gaining consciousness?
The Confesser -- You're going along, casually reading some comment stream … and suddenly you are taken up short by a poster who, for some unknown reason, feels compelled to make some stunning confession -- "and that's why I buried the drifter in my crawl space" -- and then disappears. These are some of the most disturbing comments on the Web.
The Tomboy -- Every geek's dream girl. These women show up on sites frequented mostly by young men and instead of professing shock at the proceedings, actually raise the stakes: "Well, I happen to like playing World of Warcraft all weekend in my underwear and only eating Doritos and Top Ramen …"
The Handyman -- This poster is basically dad in disguise. Someone mentions a mechanical or computer problem as an aside, and this poster instantly has the solution -- the wrong jets in your carburetor, a poor ground on your toaster, insufficient cache memory. Whatever it is, they've got the answer.
The Alien -- This is a poster from another country who has no context for what every commenter is talking about, and so asserts his or her own cultural solution: "Why this complain about wife? Sell gotes and buy more wifes!"
The Martian -- Finally, these are the commenters whose combination of pretzel logic, conspiratorial tone and downright weirdness -- "Well, we all know the pope is behind that big lake of fire at the South Pole, don't we?" -- reminds you that the world is an even scarier place than we imagine, and makes you wonder if this writing for the Internet gig is such a good idea after all.
That's my list for now. Needless to say, I'd love to hear what you think. And I'd love to hear what other commenter types you've come up with. But most of all, I'd love to have you post your comments right here at ABCNews.com. And feel free to post as many times as you like …
This is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNews.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.