“You’re a dumpster fire of a human, this is the worst blog on the entirety of the internet, and I hope you slip on a banana peel in a very public place with recording devices present.”
While this isn’t technically a direct quote of any comment I’ve received in my five years of blogging at Alex in Wanderland, I admit I’ve fielded some impressive insults lobbed my way. This summer when I started sharing some behind-the-scenes blogging content, you guys gave me two thumbs up to keep veering off the travel path every once in a while, so here are we. I’ve been thinking a lot about comment moderation lately, and I’m excited to really dive into this today and hear what you all have to say, too. Because if there’s one thing you’ll learn from this post, it’s that I love hearing different perspectives.
“What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.” — Leslie Knope
At some point in every successful blogging career, one is going to have to decide how to handle dissenters and dissers that pop up in their comments section, social media pages, and inbox. Some respond politely, some delete gleefully, some reply aggressively, some write highly-anticipated round-up posts of their best hate comments of the year.
Personally, I think I can count the number of comments I’ve ever deleted on one hand. Now, I have to admit that I’m pretty blessed in this department — I have a kind-hearted, loyal and fun community of readers around these parts, and mean-spirited comments are few and far between. But they do occasionally roll in, and even after half a decade of experience they can still feel like a swift kick to the gut. Yet rather than evict those comments to the black hole of cyberspace, I tend to let even the most wince-inducing through. I find that whenever “coping with comments” comes up as a topic in blogging circles, promotion of the delete button is the most resounding recommendation — which left me wondering, why don’t I just do that?
Sitting down to reflect on this choice I’ve made in my blogging and business life was interesting, and I thought I’d share the results with y’all. One thing I want to emphasize for any fellow bloggers that might be reading this is that I don’t judge you in the slightest if you make a different choice in this department than I do.
Why I Don’t Delete
1. Limiting speech is a slippery slope.
I never really valued free speech until I lived in a country without it. I mean really valued it. Living in Thailand, a country where lèse-majesté laws reign, where single moms can go to jail for Facebook posts, where men can be imprisoned for a joke about the King’s beloved pet, and where ambassadors can be investigating for raising concerns over such laws, has made me grateful for the basic human right to speak one’s mind in a way that seeps through every cell in my body — even when it seems some people use it in ridiculous ways.
In this current US election cycle, when so many are rolling their eyes at the opinionated outbursts of their friends and the madness that is the media news cycle, I’m the one with my hands up in the air praising the fact that even that weird kid that used to sit behind you in homeroom can share his looney tunes political views without fear of persecution. Go on Billy Bob, tell me more about your crackpot conspiracy theories! Really go into detail about that faked moon landing! If I see someone go off on a particularly hateful rant, well, that’s a gray area for sure, but I try to remain grateful for the heads up never to willingly take a seat next to that person should we find ourselves on the same bus.
I want Alex in Wanderland to be a place where everyone had a voice, even if it’s one that I disagree with — after all, I love a good debate! Some people lack tact. Some people are just plain wrong. That doesn’t mean they should be silenced, even if it does leave me wincing or wound up.
2. It’s good practice for real life.
Silencing our critics doesn’t make them go away.
When someone is rude to me in person or online, I try to remember that they might be having the absolute worst day of their life — of course, they might also be an asshole, but thinking that doesn’t really help me handle the situation with grace. Maybe they’ve had a terrible day. Maybe they’ve lost someone they love very much and they’re hurting. Maybe they’ve been dealt a million bad hands and today was just the final straw. This story of a comedian’s clash with her harshest troll stuck with me for a long time after reading.
You may be able to delete blog comments, but firsthand experience has taught me you can’t delete rude people in front of you at the checkout line at Target. Responding with humor, compassion or honesty to rude blog commenters? It can be great practice for being a diplomatic person in your real life.
3. You can addressing rumors head on.
As a blogger, I’m always afraid that if one person wrote it, a hundred are thinking it. Hence, I like the chance to address criticism directly, and share my perspective. When a reader complains that I’m a sell out, I’m spoiled, I’m narcissistic, I’m racist, or any of the many painful accusations that has been lobbed my way in the comments, it hurts. But in a strange way, I’m grateful they’ve voiced their allegations — because I can’t respond to a thought in someone’s head, or a rumor whispered behind my back.
Even when I know claims like the ones I just rattled off aren’t true, I appreciate the reminder to stop and reflect on whether or not I’m misrepresenting myself in some way. Maybe it’s not actually about me at all — maybe that reader is bringing their own biases, excuses and issues to the table — but it never hurts to pause and parse how you are portraying yourself to the world.
4. Blogging is a conversation.
At least that’s my favorite aspect of it. Guys, my mind has been cracked wide open a million times by the new perspectives readers bring to the table! And I feel humbled by having a relatively large platform with which to share mine.
The comments section is where I can really get to the heart of things that matter to me. Of course I hope that the people around me will adopt some of the ideas I share here, especially regarding important issues like responsible tourism. But if I strongly believe X and the person in front of me strongly believes Y, I don’t have even a shot at converting them to my ideas if I don’t take the time to see and understand theirs first. “Why does this person feel this way?” can be a powerful question to ask yourself.
If someone criticizes an idea I have about how to travel responsibly, I try to think of it as an opportunity: a chance to figure out why that solution didn’t fit that person, and maybe get to the heart of how we can make more wide-spread societal change. Stopping that flow of conversation means stopping that flow of ideas.
When I Do Delete
Every blogger has to decide where to draw the line. Personally, I’ll let through personal attacks, criticisms, and petty taunts for the reasons listed above, but I quickly hit the eject button on posts that are (a) sexual harassing in nature — my readers don’t need to be made uncomfortable by reading that — or (b) are cruel to my family, friends or readers — they aren’t the ones who put their lives into pixels for public consumption.
Threats are an obvious exception to any free speech policies, and I wish social media sites would be stricter about regulating them and law enforcement would take them more seriously.
And How To Deal
I sincerely hope it comes as a shock to no one that I am not perfect! Sometimes I respond snappily, sometimes I’m less than gracious, and sometimes I post a screenshot on my personal Facebook with a self-deprecating caption, and let my friends’ giggles ease the sting of a particularly cutting comment… like when someone wrote that this site was the blog version of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and I was losing focus. Serious burn! But in general, this is what I aim for:
“When they go low, we go high.” — Michelle Obama
Responding with humor
If someone straight up leaves a comment that says “you’re an idiot,” obviously there’s little to reflect upon or learn from a comment like that. Yet, going back to reason one listed above, I still don’t like to delete. So typically, in this case, I deflect back to humor. As my friend Angie says, “gee, let me get you a refund on that free content you hated!” Often times, I think trolls are just looking to pick a fight — and so by coming back with a lighthearted laugh, you’re actually really sticking it to them while still getting to enjoy the view from the high road.
Responding with love
Coming back with love is exactly what I aim for — and very often fail at — when responding to comments that burn me. Normally I don’t feel this blog is the appropriate outlet for partisan politics, but this response from Senator Corey Booker to a very famous critic is too relevant not to share.
Because I’m fairly outspoken about my passion for sustainability and the environment, I get a lot of critiques from those who feel I’m not green enough. While I’m frustrated by those comments sometimes, I try to remind myself that this person who has just hurt my feelings and I share the same root beliefs that have caused them to criticize me in what I feel is an overly harsh manner, we are just at different places in our journeys or focusing on different aspects. So I respond with respect and love, and you know what? They often come back and meet right back and meet me with it.
Responding with honesty
I’m not afraid to let someone know when they have hurt my feelings when they’ve been harsh — I’m not made of teflon, after all, and it can be easy for some people to forget that there’s a human being behind the screen.
This also circles back to the point I made above about reflecting on how you’ve represented yourself. When I realized I was receiving multiple comments that bitterly pointed out my “perfect family” (ha ha) or accused me of bragging about “my perfect childhood” (lol), it was a wake up call that I wasn’t really painting an accurate picture of a past that was yes, privileged, but also at times extremely painful. It prompted me to write one of my most raw posts ever, in which I opened up as much as I could while still respecting my family’s privacy — and it was a cathartic, healing process I’m grateful for.
Responding with reflection
It’s easy to write critics off as “haters” but it’s hard to look in the mirror and realize that maybe you do have some room for improvement. When a commenter last year criticized that my blog had changed and I was doing too many sponsored hotel stays, I gently pointed out that it had been a full six months since I’d last stayed in a comped hotel room, and politely directed her to the many paid-out-of-my-own-pocket hostels I’d reviewed in the interim. Yet when another commenter called me out for using insensitive language in describing a place I didn’t enjoy or feel particularly safe in, I conceded that I’d been harsh and thanked her for reminding me to use more diplomatic wording in the future.
Responding with facts
When a commenter makes a factually incorrect — and borderline hateful — statement on a post about voting abroad or when a commenter asserts that young backpackers make up the majority of sex tourists (LOL FOREVER) on a post about Sihanoukville, I try to keep a level head and simply respond with factual data. Don’t be afraid to cite sources! If someone really can’t hear reality, you have to just walk away. Don’t fall into this trap.
Opinions are harder to defend. Anytime I don’t trip over myself falling in love with a place — Vietnam and Guatemala come to mind — I get some flack ranging from subtle to sledge-hammer in the comments. In those cases, all I can do is reiterate that I’m relaying my personal experience, and that’s all I have to share.
Responding with silence
Sometimes, it’s best to leave it to your community. When one reader insisted on relentlessly criticizing my beloved dog in the comments during a recent series on traveling with your pet, I was rattled, but found myself really touched by how many of my readers jumped in — not to be cruel or gang up on the original commenter, but rather to tell me how much they were enjoying the series, how insanely adorable they think Tucker is, and to give their two cents that in their opinions, pet travel is a topic that is very relevant for a travel blog. A year prior, when another reader left me pondering the very nature of blogging by telling me my opinion was worthless, over a hundred fellow travel addicts weighed in to give me a virtual “chin up!” And years prior to that, when a reader accused me of being a liar and insisted I was using stock photography, one of the prominent editors I was freelancing for at the time stepped in to defend me.
Personally, I do like to reply personally as well, but if you’re taken aback by a harsh comment, don’t be surprised if your readers rush to defend you first!
I’m certainly not saying my way is the high way. But if you’re a new blogger hearing a chorus of experts telling you to delete with abandon anyone who gives you a bit of grief, I’m just here to offer one humble, dissenting opinion. Speaking of opinions? When you’re taking in so many from what is hopefully a large, passionate community, remember to give appropriate weight to outside ones. I really do deeply value listening to others’ viewpoints, because that is how ideas are spread and I always want the same courtesy extended to me. But I remember that when it comes to decisions about my blog and business, my own vote has to weigh the heaviest.
What do you say, friends? How do you deal with criticism both online and in person?