Here’s How We Can Change Online Commenting Once and for All

Firstly and most importantly, read the article — all of it

TO GO WITH STORY BY KATY LEE A journalist poses looking at a computer screen showing the Guardian's "newslist" on the British newspaper's website in an office in London on November 10, 2011. The Guardian newspaper has opened the way for its readers to look over the shoulders of its reporters, at least virtually. The newspaper decided to publish on its website a "newslist", listing the items on which its journalists are working and invites readers to support comment on their choice of material through Twitter.  AFP PHOTO / CARL COURT (Photo credit should read CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

A journalist poses looking at a computer screen showing the Guardian’s “newslist” on the British newspaper’s website in an office in London on November 10, 2011. (Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

This past year, as I’ve written on a variety of personal topics from relationship cutoff to social isolation to my recent brain tumor diagnosis, I’ve been both the target of online harassment and the recipient of truly inspiring responses that brought me to tears. Even as the news is filled with stories of trolling, shaming and bullying, I’ve seen that online discussions can serve a powerful role in connecting readers and writers and supporting a vibrant public dialogue.

Writing is an inherently vulnerable act; the best comments should be too. One of my favorite comments of the past year is this reader commenting on Tricia Romano’s “Amazon Is Killing My Sex Life”. It begins: “This is the first time in a very long time that I read something and just genuinely felt hurt over someone else’s words so I’m going to share my story…”

Here’s how you can show up as a reader to expand the conversation constructively and to honor writers’ efforts.

Firstly and most importantly, read the article — all of it. If you don’t actually do so, you’ll lack important context and probably miss facts relevant to your post. You might also look silly to other readers and obstruct the conversation.

Generally, be kind. Be respectful of women, minorities and LGBTQ communities, frequently the target of trolls. If you have biases, acknowledge them but promote tolerance and help keep the space emotionally “safe” and positive for everyone to share their points of view.


Speak in the manner you would use if we were sitting face to face having coffee in a public place. Post using your real name, just as we have. Anonymous haters are cowards.


If you can relate to the story, share how. Express empathy. Be funny. These are all good ways to connect in our shared experience of the human condition.

Reflect on how a story made you feel. Have we offended you or triggered you? Often anger is just the surface reaction to something much deeper. It’s more meaningful to share the story behind your anger. An essay’s comment thread is not a place for you to rage at us writers. If something we’ve said makes you angry, say so and say why but don’t be abusive.

Speak in the manner you would use if we were sitting face to face having coffee in a public place. Post using your real name, just as we have. Anonymous haters are cowards.

If we inspired you, tell us. If we made you think differently about your life or changed your mind, tell us how. Writing is often an isolated pursuit — it’s nice to know when we’re affecting people in positive ways.

Respond specifically to what we wrote, not some extrapolation of what you assume our work means about us as people. Respect our experiences — they may differ from yours but they are true for us.

Report if we’ve made any factual errors. Do ask us how we know what we know. It’s essential that writers be able to answer these questions. If you observe hypocrisy, point it out.

If there’s an area you’d like to know more about or to have us write about, tell us — we’re always looking for new ideas.

Share your thoughts in the comment thread so everyone can benefit from them. Email us privately if there’s an important reason to do so.

If you appreciate our efforts, thank us. One way to do so is to share our stories with others via social networks or email. We rely on you to amplify our voices and to help us reach others. Talk about what you’ve read and what it made you think about with your friends and acquaintances. One of the reasons I write is to have a social and cultural impact beyond the web.

Commenting well on the Internet takes some thought, but it’s worth it: your experiences are what bring our stories to life.

Jeff Reifman is a serial entrepreneur, technology consultant at Lookahead Consulting, writer and yogi living in the Pacific Northwest. He blogs at jeffreifman.com.