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Jeff Pearlman, “online haters,” and the art of Internet self defense

Jan 21, 2011, 3:06 PM EDT

Internet Tough

Jeff Pearlman has a column up over at CNN today that’s getting a lot of notice. Seems he tracked down and confronted some people who went after him over at his personal blog, leaving obnoxious or obscene comments or otherwise acting like jerks.

I won’t defend the jerks for a second. People were linking awful porn and calling Pearlman every name in the book. Totally juvenile and totally unwarranted, no matter what you think of whatever Jeff is writing about. It’s the kind of stuff that, if it ever shows up here or showed up at my old blogs, I immediately delete and, if it happens again, I ban the commenter.  Two clicks, and he gone, Hawk Harrelson-style.

But it does make me wonder about how an environment in which such comments can happen is created in the first place.

I say I delete and ban, but really, I’ve had to do that less than five times in the nearly four years I’ve been blogging.  And I write thousands upon thousands of posts a year, many of which are pointed and critical and — in the case of some teams’ fan bases — sometimes intentionally baiting.  Yet I don’t have people going after me like Pearlman has. The comments sections for the places I write aren’t an insane asylum of people linking nasty garbage like Pearlman describes. My comments sections are actually pretty congenial places where a lot of smart stuff gets discussed.

I don’t think it’s because I’m better or that I have a better class of readers or anything like that. When MSNBC links something from HardballTalk on its front page there are millions of eyes who come through here that aren’t “regulars.” It’s a pretty wide cross-section of America. There’s no systemic reason why — when I defend hated figures like Roger Clemens, for example — people aren’t telling me to go die someplace or worse.  But they don’t.

I think it has to do with the fact that one truly has to work at cultivating and managing a blog community. And it is a community, as is any blog with a comments section, whether the writer intends it to be or not.  My stuff in the post goes on the top of the page, but reader comments below it are every bit a part of the work as a whole. When someone finds the post later, they can read it all as a piece.  And a responsible blogger has to take responsibility for the stuff above the page break and below it, and not cultivate an an environment where the readers feel there’s a distance between themselves and the writer. A distance which provides the commenter cover, he thinks, to leave all sense of civility at the door.

How do you do it?  By commenting yourself.  By responding to reader criticisms in the thread.  By acknowledging when you’re wrong and making edits to the original post showing that your product and logic is as transparent as can be and that you’re listening.  When someone comes into a comment thread with sharp elbows, you make a point to engage them. Positively if possible, but by arguing back if necessary. And of course, you do so by making it crystal clear that your comment threads have standards. Mine: no racial, misogynistic, homophobic or otherwise bigoted baloney. Fight hard for your points but don’t attack others.  No spamming.  That’s about it.

Ultimately, it’s the same lesson your dad taught you about dealing with bullies: stand up to them and they quickly back down and skulk away. Let them do what they want without fear of confrontation or retribution? They get out of control.

None of which is to say that Pearlman has created such an environment over at his own blog. I don’t read his blog that often so I don’t know.  But I disagree that the bad behavior he is now confronting is merely a function of “the anonymity provided by the internet” and that online spaces are, by design, destined to be home to jerkish behavior.  It’s a function of a lot of things, but mostly, I think, it’s a function of commenters who feel like no one is really minding the store or reading what they write.  The people Pearlman contacted for his column said as much themselves.

Bad commenter behavior can be nipped in the bud before it starts.  I’ve done it here. A lot of other blogs I read have too.  It just takes a little work. And some engagement. Show that you’re not an easy mark, and you won’t become one.

113 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. writtenbyross - Jan 22, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    This is percisely why I left my last preferred sports blog, Deadspin, and found greener pastures. Trying to comment against the popular opinion there would get you attacked like a 90-pound-nerd standing up to a high school football team: a lot of cursing, personal attacks and nonsensical blathering. Once I started looking around and found all the other options I wasn’t sure why I ever settled there to begin with.

    • writtenbyross - Jan 22, 2011 at 9:40 AM

      And in retrospect it’s why I left the blog before that, too. ArmchairGM was a wonderful thing until the comment trolls took it over and burned it to the ground. (Although part what caused that was the change in ownership that opened the door to a wider audience.)

    • evanpenn - Jan 23, 2011 at 4:30 AM

      “Precisely” is the precise way to spell precisely, if you want to be precise.

  2. ta192 - Jan 23, 2011 at 1:22 PM

    I’m leaning on the “better class of reader” argument for why this blog is different. After all, it started out as Shysterball, a place where the legal questions of baseball could be discussed. Tends to focus the community on more erudite types. Most blogs are in the “player A is better than player B” niche, and devolve rapidly into the “so’s your old man” type of name calling. Add to that, suppose the very first page of blog comments that some typical surfer stumbles across on this site features one of Old Gator’s captivating gems…the guy would think he’d been redirected to a parallel universe…

    • yankeesfanlen - Jan 23, 2011 at 2:05 PM

      Hey, you have hit upon some good points here. There are lots of commenters from the NL and AL evil empires, however we let everyone in our little club, even look to recruit more than the token 3 Tigers fans.
      In honor of National Pie Day, which was of extreme interest in these parts and motivated the atrocious outburst by our esteemed MinionMaster (patent pending), I will therefore be my usual contrary self and make a pineapple upside down cake.
      BTW, and strictly to promote divisersity, tonight will be rooting for the Steelers to take apart the riff-raff that doesn’t have a stadium in the lower part of my home county.

      • ta192 - Jan 23, 2011 at 4:58 PM

        There’s an NL evil empire?

      • Utley's Hair - Jan 23, 2011 at 7:16 PM

        As of the other day, the Phightins were apparently dubbed the Evil Empire of the NL—though they haven’t won as many titles, which is a large part of the reason for the Wankers to be called that, but whatever. LET’S GO PHILS!!!!!!!!!!!!

        And Len, we should always celebrate National Pie day—not to be confused with National Pi day in March, three days before Everybody Likes to Think They Can Drink Like a Mick But in Actuality Can’t Day—with cake. And good choice on your part. Jonny’s Jewish Apple is also a good choice. So many cakes…so little time to eat them on National Pie Day. Mmmm…caaaaake…

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