by libertyandvigilance

Social media” has numerous definitions, and all of them share the principle that the Internet has given us a lot of cheap ways to communicate with each other. As computers have gotten cheaper and broadband pipes have become fatter, we’ve expanded the multimedia involved: text has been prominent since the BBS glory days, but pictures are up there too, and making your own videos no longer draws double-takes. (Extending further into the future is building your own 3D content in virtual worlds.)

I’ve become a social media expert not by label alone, but sheer, dogged experience. After 100,000+ comments/forum posts/etc., I’ve distilled what’s worked best for me, much of it learned from vets who’ve spent even longer stretches “in the field”. If you’re wondering how to make your blossoming comments shine, this is for you!

1. Write eclectically

In other words: observe the diversity that’s out there, then share the best gems that other people miss. After scanning what’s already been said.

Always be looking for connections other people aren’t — or internalize, but aren’t bringing up. One of my fave things is share origin stories, and I’m not limited to comic book characters. I wrote a piece for leading design weblog Smashing Magazine where I revealed where the drumbeat in the Kill Bill trailer music came from, how Russell Brown came to be the godfather of Photoshop, and 3 more “I didn’t know that!” stories. While that’s a post instead of a comment, the responses make it clear: there’s a big hunger for filling in gaps.

Yes, it’s healthy to continue discussions by threading someone else’s thoughtline, but to rock — to create change by leading — you should be initiating conversations that influence others.

2. Don’t use “lonely humor”

“Lonely humor” includes when a comment is snarky or sarcastic, but provides nothing else. Like empty calories, “lonely humor” doesn’t contribute to your long-term health or wealth.

Who’s to judge? Well beside the site owner(s), there are certain things which are funny at first but quickly become tiresome blah. One of the mother of all examples is declaring “First!” if no one has commented yet. This gets really annoying when you’ve seen it a handful of times, and besides self-pride, does not add any value whatsoever. It gets forgotten in the long run, too.

Also in this boat but trickier to tell are predictable reactions. While I’m on the liberal side of Internet memes and don’t mind getting Rickrolled in fresh ways, humor should be applied with relevance to the conversation at hand — in other words, if the original topic isn’t about Rick Astley finally winning an MTV award, it’s not a criminal sin to Rickroll the post, but there are so many better choices, so go with them. Humor can be a tasty wrap to flavor a meatier comment in, but like the best political satire (think Jon Stewart), make sure your irrelevance surrounds relevant matters.

3. Add value quickly

Related to the “First!” thing, on some blogs and forums, you may see rules that encourage you to “Add value to the conversation”. You can read between the (guide)lines and discern this means “Don’t be a jerk and flame others.” We can also understand it as:

“Don’t post useless crap!”

Do be early to comment — often because later ones need to be scrolled/paged through and hardly get seen, reducing your visibility — and do be quick. This isn’t writing A-levels, and spending a great amount of time on a comment isn’t proportional to its overall impact. (That’s not necessarily true of original posts, tho.) I strive for 5 min. or less, which over the longterm leads to “quality in quantity“.

Harsh truth: a comment without readers serves no function. Spread your thoughts prolifically. It helps to practice your typing and boost your WPM so you can comment more in the same amount of time. (I type 110 WPM with 2 fingers and a thumb.)

4. Substantiate hearsay

No, not these kind of rumors…

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours by Loony Libberswick.
by Loony Libberswick

rumors, in the hurtful sense, are a human problem, not a technological one. But tech facilitates spreading them, and there’s all sorts of unverified fallacies on the Internet. Sadly, such distractions can invade discussion threads, causing conflict and derailing trains of thought. Celebrity sex, political scandals, financial turmoil, or a mixture of those 3 are often involved.

Your reply, if confronted with such a rumor, should be terse: “More details?” or “Please provide a source” will do. Then, the onus is on the rumormonger to explain themselves.

Often, I find said rumormonger won’t reply (they don’t have anything to add or didn’t come back to check). If they don’t give a helpful answer (i.e., they rudely insult you), they aren’t worth the time. These are Gladwellian psychological tests you can use to move on.

By focusing on what’s tested and true, you’re advancing the conversation, and also providing a cue that you’re not gullible — a good example to set for other commenters.

5. Express yourself uniquely

That covers such a wide ground of behavior, doesn’t it? Let me be simple & clear: this relates to #1 in that you want to do what other people aren’t. Not just for the sake of being “different”, but because adding to the conversation also means not duplicating what’s already been said.

Here’s an excellent opportunity: some blogs, like TechCrunch, support video comments like Seesmic. While relatively rare at present, if you have a US$25 webcam, you can easily upload a video and show yourself off in a way most people won’t do.

Look for ops like those and seize them. You may open up new work & play possibilities by dabbling across formats: “social media” doesn’t just refer to words!

6. Repeat your main ideas

Day 247/365 "Um...Sir, you forgot your idea..." by Wellstone.
by Wellstone

This needs some clarification. Repetition helps retention. This is best used on sites you’ve become a regular at, and is great for championing what you really believe in. You may’ve seen people on political blogs gain a reputation for being forthright about certain views, and while it can get heated, that’s certainly a valid example.

Don’t come off as a stubborn smartass though, and the best way to be proactive is explain why your ideas hold benefit for other commenters. For example, if you believe open source code is superior to proprietary software, make sure you emphasize this, and relate it to their needs (not just yours). Don’t butt-heads with others who disagree, but appeal to what they can get out of it. One of the best ways to win someone’s passion is to associate their memories of you with things that make them happier.

(Such an old notion, but so very true.)

Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong, either — people love getting credit, and attributing someone who corrects your error while smiling is the best thing to do.

7. Don’t fall for wasteful arguments

MUCH easier said than done! Most people can’t resist the temptation and only realize in hindsight that they were “scammed for time”. Well, being a comment rockstar means being you, not “most people”.

By the time an argument has reared its ugly head like Rosemary’s Baby, the hope of convincing someone else to listen is ridiculously, preposterously low. And yet, I see so many humans make this mistake.

It’s best to not get involved in the first place.

But, if you find yourself starting to enter the “zone o’ hostility”, the most helpful way I deal with this is: I think of all the great comments I could be making, either here or somewhere else. If only… I wasn’t involved in this lame debate!

That usually snaps me out of it; I close the web browser tab and concentrate on what we lovingly know as “productive activities”. Or disagreeing with someone who’ll really listen. :)

Departing long before an oncoming text-trainwreck is essential, because like gambling or drug abuse, the deeper you fall, the harder it is to get out.

If someone’s being really persistently uncivil, flag them using the social site’s moderation system, or if it’s extremely rotten, let a moderator/site owner know.

8. Create intrigue by linking

singing beach #11 by sandcastlematt.
by sandcastlematt

If you feel your comment is going to be longer than 3-4 weighty paragraphs, I suggest making your own blog post about it and linking/trackbacking from there after a brief teaser (this is welcome on most sites). That also serves the benefit of driving traffic to your site. If you don’t want to start your own blog (it’s really easy), pick one key thing you can focus on, express it in as few words as possible, and leave it at that.

You’ll have every opportunity to continue in future comments.

This is useful for a number of reasons, chief among them being people’s attention spans. You want to grab and hook others for more, not bore them on your first outing. Planting the seeds and inviting someone to followup both pleases their own will to comment and is amenable to a good long-term relationship. On vibrant communities, you will see the same faces frequently, and it’s been said (I hate to use passive voice but couldn’t find who originated this):

“Links are the currency of your online popularity.”

Also beware of know-it-alls (in the worst sense): they’re overly concerned with using expensive-sounding words, not getting to the point, and cramming more links than you’ll ever want to check out. The sheer amount of choices negates your ability to choose. They’re not concerned with your benefit, just their ego. Know-it-alls may seem impressive, but that’s superficial. They fail the simple skill of summarizing neatly, so don’t fall for that, and don’t let your writing style head in that direction — it’s the wrong thing to do.

Speak in your own earnest, casual voice.

9. Ask questions for followup

I’m a big fan of followup, and indulging my curiosity is a driving force behind this. Pushing queries is another way to help the discussion flow, and projects your own vulnerability as a human being — that you don’t know everything. And that’s fabulous, because you will learn from asking.

Be sure to read what’s already been written: the answer may be in (or linked to) the original post or highlighted by another commenter. In which case, absorb knowledge and say thank-you.

10. Keep track of what you’re saying

It’s well-worth knowing your “comment assets” to understand how you’re growing. There are a number of tools out there to keep tabs on your comments. I tried several clunky systems before my current favorite, BackType, which lets you see comments you’ve made across various blogs (email the makers to get more added), and you can also follow comments of interest, or be followed.

It’s funny and touching to read what you’ve written ages ago.

Got comments?

I use all 10 of the above to this day — since it’s easier to share ideas than execute them, I hope you’ll give them a live go and figure out your own specific applications.

Now, let’s comment about comments!

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