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Nattering Nabobs of Hacker News

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How do you deal with a negative comment online?

Turns out that's not an easy question to answer, and the answer I've found is counter-intuitive.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've struggled with whether or not to do tool reviews on hn-books. After much thought, I decided that the site would still keep its spirit and be more valuable with them -- after all, there's nothing more practical than sitting down with somebody and step-by-step showing them how to use something in their startup. So I spent a long time on the first tools review, making sure I was selecting something that I myself pay for, that is highly recommended, and has a lot of startup value.

I finally decided on SEOMoz -- a great site that can help you narrow down your startup plans from a "boil the ocean" mentality to something a bit more practical. Knowing that this was tricky (because, let's face it, tools get a lot more expensive than books), I really fretted over the review, rewriting it four times and having other people look at it. Because it was a difficult decision to make about reviewing tools, and because I wanted to do the best job I could, I was pretty emotionally wrapped up in it by the time I posted it.

But when I posted the review, although it got a great response, I also got a (predicted) backlash: the site was going to hell! Ads all over the place! The article was unreadable. Nobody is commenting because nobody likes it. How dare you use bit.ly links to hide from us the fact they are all affiliate links.

Like a bozo, like Charlie Brown with the football, I dove in and replied to the commenters.

Big mistake.

In 90% of situations, it's a mistake to respond to negative commenters when you post an article or a comment.


  • Its a numbers game - Ever hear the old saying that there is probably 1% of the population that you're not going to get along with? Guess what? It's true. And in a large group, that 1% can turn out to be hundreds of people. Remember that.
  • They're right - Almost every time somebody replies in a negative way, they are expressing an opinion, much like "But I like chocolate ice cream!" Of course, if it were as simple as that, we'd all recognize the situation and let it go. But commenters couch their emotions in lots of things: logical proofs, personal stories, even thinly-veiled attacks on your character. All of that is a red herring, though. In the end, what you said or did affected the person emotionally. You're not going to get far arguing with a kid about whether chocolate ice cream tastes good, and you're not going to get far with most commenters who disagree, either.
  • It isn't a debate, it's posturing - The purpose of a board and what's it's actually about are many times two completely different things. Since I'm picking on Hacker News, over there the purpose of the board is startups and things that interest hackers. But the way the board operates is hackers trying to impress one another. So there's lots of gossip and such about important people, there are posts about cool new intricately-detailed technology that the average guy wouldn't know, there are stories about really technical things that supposedly made the difference in a startup. These are social signals, and when somebody comments, they are making a social signal as well. (In my case, it was something like "This site feels like it is going to trick me, and I don't trust you any more"). Fair enough feeling to have, but it wasn't really about me or my site. It was about one person signalling the rest of the group that there was danger ahead.
  • Learn from transactional sales - Let's say you post a comment and 80 people like it. Then somebody comes along and says something snarky. Guess what? The more you talk, the more those 80 people are probably not going to approve of what you say. In sales, when you do something nice for somebody, and they agree that it has value, shut up. You've made a friend. You've tried to help out. They like what you are doing. Anything else that comes out of your mouth is just going to hurt that. (Of course in modern social media the rules are a lot more complicated, but the principle remains)
  • The forum is about more than just you - Biggest reason not to reply? Because the forum isn't about you. It's about everybody else. Weird that it is, when somebody replies to you, most all of the time they aren't even talking to you. They are talking at you to everybody else. So have some humility and let somebody else handle the conversation. After all, what you say probably isn't that important anyway.
  • Kicking a skunk just makes you both stink - Finally, this is a no-win situation. I would love it if people could meet online, have honest and open conversations, and then each of them come away enlightened. But with most online sites today, that's just not the way things work. It's either ignore somebody or end up in an endless argument. It's like kicking a skunk -- there's just no way the nice little feeling you get while swinging your leg is going to match up with all the pain that follows.

As one friend and longtime HNer asked me yesterday, "Why so much hate on HN?" To which I replied, "It's nothing to do with HN at all, it's the way large groups of people are" Large groups of people perform in a way online that small groups of people do not perform in person.

I know that this makes me look snobby or asinine at times, and there is another 10% of online conversations that don't fit this mold, but the fact is you need a tough skin to participate in online communities. Sometimes I have one. Unfortunately sometimes I do not. Any time there are 30 or 40 thousand people reading what you wrote, somebody is going to have a comment. And its probably going to be negative. If you have your heart on your sleeve, think twice about jumping in. Of course the killer observation is that we're all wrapped up emotionally in various material -- otherwise we wouldn't comment on anything to begin with. When participating in large online groups: more strategy, less emotion. At least as much as you can.

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Comment Policy: I really, really, really enjoy comments, but if all you have to offer is general platitudes like how happy you are to have found my site and what a wonderful place it is, I will delete your comment and report your comment as spam. Please try to either tell me I am wrong, sympathize with my point, expand on what I'm saying, or offer your own experiences or opinions. If you just want a link your best bet is to just ask for one. Probably won't work, but at least be honest about it. No name-calling and please keep the profanity as low as possible. If your grandma can't read it or you wouldn't say it in person, don't write it here. Thanks.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on February 15, 2011 8:57 AM.

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