How to Get Under a Commenters Skin

Filed as News on September 15, 2006 9:57 am

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As a defacto Part II to Thord’s entry about responding to angry commenters, let me pass along my method of responding to commenters in a way to get under their skin. I’ll admit, certain topics and people DO manage to reverse this method and has the reverse effect – me getting irritated, feisty, argumentative and indeed defeating my ownself. But for the vast majority of situations where a commenter is contrary and just needs to be taught a lesson, this works well for me.

See, everyone has their own position from which they speak. Most people, whether intentionally or without knowing, tend to obfuscate that position with arguments, comments and statements that are insignificant to their argument. I come from a family that is strong in “foundations” – that is, we have a way of seeing through the fluff and seeing the root cause of an issue or an argument. We recognize the place from which the person is coming from. My dad is a pro at this. I’ve got the same thing, with far fewer years of experience. His experience comes from being a minister and counseling with people who have messed up lives and screwed up heads. Mine comes from watching him and learning, and practicing the same thing in my own conversations at work, blogging and by just taking a keen interest in what makes people tick.

How Do People Blur Their Position?

In the blogging world, you’re more likely to find contrarians in areas of politics, religions, cultural differences, etc. So in that context, how does a position obfuscation work? Take this conversation as an example:

Person #1: Republicans are assholes.
Person #2: Why are Republicans assholes?
Person #1: George Bush sucks as a President and he’s got a Republican Congress and a Republican Supreme Court. I can’t even find a job.
Person #2: So really, what you’re saying is you’re lazy and won’t go find a job?
Person #1: I’m not lazy, the economy just sucks and I’ve got a family to support.
Person #2: There’s a McDonalds down the road. I think they’re hiring. Why don’t you go put in an application there.
Person #1: I don’t want to work at McDonalds.
Person #2: I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want to either. Tell you what, my cousin owns a home remodeling business. He mentioned he needed some reliable help to hang sheetrock. Want me to talk to him for you?
Person #1: I’d rather be doing web design
Person #2: I thought you needed a job and had a family to support. Why is it that Republicans are assholes, again?

See, Person #1 begins his argument with his position: Republicans are assholes. But instead of staying on point, he begins to talk about how he needs a job and because he can’t find a job – er, rather, he can’t find one that he wants – then that is somehow Republicans faults.

Getting Under Their Skin

As a blogger, when people make stupid comments, you have the choice to either entertain their stupidity or to flip it on them and come at a different angle. Often times, the affect is to rile the commenter up and expose the stupidity. It’s not that you want to make someone look stupid, but it’s a part of debate. It happens in court all the time. Attorney attempt to turn a witness – in other words, make them less effective in their arguments. The jury will see the inconsistency and the witness becomes irrelevant.

In the above conversation, Person #1 makes the mistake of not connecting his dots. He starts with “Republicans are assholes”, jumps to “I can’t get a job that I want” and concludes that because of this, “Republicans are assholes”.

One way to point this weakness out without coming out with an accusation (let the commenter depose himself) is to ask pointed questions. Confront the commenter with questions that force him to answer questions that expose his weaknesses. In the above example, you could ask questions like Person #2 did, “Why don’t you apply at McDonalds” or “Would you like a job hanging sheetrock”. The answers to these questions highlighted the fact that it wasn’t that Person #1 couldn’t get work, it’s that he didn’t want the work that he could get.

Moving away from politics and back into blogging, there was an interesting debate started by Nick Carr about the blogging “A listers” a few weeks ago. In his entry, Nick asserts that:

As the blogophere has become more rigidly hierarchical, not by design but as a natural consequence of hyperlinking patterns, filtering algorithms, aggregation engines, and subscription and syndication technologies, not to mention human nature, it has turned into a grand system of patronage operated – with the best of intentions, mind you – by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite. A blog-peasant, one of the Great Unread, comes to the wall of the castle to offer a tribute to a royal, and the royal drops a couple of coins of attention into the peasant’s little purse. The peasant is happy, and the royal’s hold over his position in the castle is a little bit stronger.

Nick’s argument is fueled by a common sentiment among many bloggers, particularly the long-tail, that views popular bloggers as elitist, patronizing and self-inclusive. A-listers link to A-listers and the longtail is forever put out unless you pay your dues to those A-listers. His piece is actually very poetic and compelling.

However, a few commenters take him to task as the root of his argument is seen as being off base. Seth Finklestein is one:

Another straw-man is to view a shorthand (“links”) out of context, away from what it’s used to signify, and then ridicule that isolated context. Obviously, pure infamy, or a jillion links from spam-blogs, is not what I’m after. But intellectual influence, including professional recognition, and bluntly, some the monetary opportunities which can flow from that, are very reasonable desires (you don’t think people attend conferences for the wild drunken parties, do you?).

Preceding this quote, Seth lays out an argument that is based on a different premise: Not everyone can link to everyone. In this quote, Seth carries on to note that links are often taken out of context – they don’t make sense. Getting an inbound link does not necessarily mean anything. And then, classic point, he ends his argument with an interesting question, “You don’t think people attend conferences for the wild drunken parties, do you?”. This question might seem to be an offhand joke or something, it accomplishes exactly what I have stated: It forces Nick to answer the question about what the purpose is of the conferences that A-listers and others attend is. In this context, the answer is to network, here SMEs speak on various topics and to grow professionally – the shoulder rubbing, fist pumping and extra-curricular activity comes as a perk.

In the spirit of good-natured debate, Nick responds to this question later:

OK, my follow-up question is, does blogging indeed raise the likelihood of this happening, specifically related to your aspirations? I won’t get into all of the ins and outs of “fame” as applied to “A-List” bloggers, but the matchbook cover version is that many A-Listers thrive on “that which is valued”. I don’t mean this as a put-down. More to the point, this comes down to “tell me how you’re measuring me, and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave.”

It’s interesting here how Nick responds to Seth’s question. These two are coming to the middle and finding a common premise to preach from. And he answers the question with another question. Ding ding ding! “Tell me how you’re measuring me, and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave”.

This conversation goes on both on Nick’s blog and crosses over into other blogs as well, and I’m not coming down on either side. In this case, the substance of the debate matters not. It’s another debate. What is important to note is the structure of effective debate.

I’ve gone on long enough on this topic, but next time you encoutner someone saying something completely absurd in your mind, stop and think about how to approach him. Figure out before you go in, where the commenter has weaknesses before jumping in. Plan your work before you work your plan. Chances are, the other guy will be the one coming out with egg on his face without you having to resort to pointless arguments or character assassination.

The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege. ~Sun Tzu, The Art of War

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  1. By Josh posted on September 15, 2006 at 10:01 am
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    Wow, that’s way too much work to deal with someone that probably isn’t intelligent enough to comprehend the sophistication of this approach.

    Basically, most people believe what they believe and no amount of evidence will persuade them to see your side of the argument. Better to write what you feel and not care about what the clueless commenters (myself included) think.

  2. By Big Roy posted on September 15, 2006 at 10:15 am
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    Someone might just be a little full of himself.

    I’m starting to think some people in blogging give themselves far to much importance than what is actually due. That’s part of life though and should be expected.

    Interesting post.

  3. By Aaron Brazell posted on September 15, 2006 at 10:19 am
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    Big Roy–

    You wouldn’t be the first person to accuse me of being full of myself! :)

  4. By Dick Johnson posted on September 15, 2006 at 12:26 pm
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    But isn’t saying that Republicans are Assholes very redundant as well?

  5. By Jessica Doyle posted on September 15, 2006 at 4:40 pm
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    Good read Aaron. I believe you were the first person I had a truly commented/argued/crossbloged/emotional discussion with. It was interesting. I believe we reached a common ground…

  6. By Aaron Brazell posted on September 15, 2006 at 6:24 pm
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    Touché, Dick! ;)

  7. By Matt Craven posted on September 15, 2006 at 9:30 pm
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    Arguing is fun.

    Where’s scrivs when you need him?

    Matt

  8. By Martin posted on September 17, 2006 at 3:59 am
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    Hey, aren’t we, as bloggers, always full of it ;-)

    Makes it all fun.

    Aaron – I see your point. I’m a little like you, I tend to verbally play with commenters that go after me or my writing. If I know I’m in the wrong or that I should accept other POVs I tend to backdown, agree, move on etc., … but if I know they’re full of shit, it’s my duty to play with them. :-) But one must be careful – don’t want to be seen as full of oneself.

    Matt – Scrivs has gone AWOL this year when the proverbial blogwars hit the fan every other week. He used to provide good banter.