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Commenters Are $#!%ing Evil! (And Other Respectful Thoughts)

“I suggest this article is so bad that you should not only be fired but live-sacrificed on an altar to a pagan god of pestilence and your remains fed to gremlins.”

— bc, in response to my 12/30 article, “NHL Winter Classic: I’m Glad Selig Didn’t Think of That”

“Alex, your sabermetrical analysis continues to amaze me. Keep up the good job of destroying FanGraphs with this political bullshit.”

— Part-Time Pariah, in response to my 4/30 article, “Should You Boycott the Diamondbacks?”

If there’s a way to win a popularity contest by writing about baseball online, I haven’t figured it out. In fairness to the collective wisdom of the Fangraphs community, many of the lumps I take are at least somewhat justified — the harshest language is usually reserved for when I speak from ignorance or err in a statement of fact — but few of the insults are quite as well-thought out as bc’s gem, which remains my favorite burn that I’ve ever received. Other commenters don’t seem to really care whether the piece is good or not, and are simply opposed to the simple fact that my columns aren’t statistics-based, like the above from Part-Time Pariah.

Obviously, my experience isn’t particularly unique. Everyone knows that anonymity can bring out the worst in people online, and the longer a comment thread, the more likely it is to fall prey to Godwin’s Law or descend into a morass of personal attacks. Yet despite all that, there is an internal logic to comment threads, whether it’s in the wilderness of unmoderated message boards or a smart blog with smart readers like Fangraphs. The issue came to the fore recently, when Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Pearlman wrote a piece about confronting a few of his online attackers and discovering that they were much more reasonable on the phone than on their Twitter feed. But one of them responded with his side of the story, indicating that Pearlman had somewhat distorted the facts — they hadn’t tweeted @jeffpearlman, they just wrote about him; instead, he had gone after them, confronting them by phone even though they hadn’t directly contacted him.

Craig Calcaterra responded to the Pearlman incident by implying that Pearlman had earned the vitriol by using some injudicious language of his own in the past, calling people “punk” and “evil.” Calcaterra concludes: “A writer ultimately sets the tone for his blog. As such, he should not be surprised when he reaps what he sows.” I wasn’t convinced that it’s that simple. After all, I’ve been cursed out for pieces I wrote despite having never used a swear word. (With one exception: I once used a verbatim profane Ozzie Guillen quote.) So I talked to Craig and two beat writers, David O’Brien, who covers the Braves for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Geoff Baker, who covers the Mariners for the Seattle Times, to ask them what they thought about the incident and how they viewed online comments.

Calcaterra told me that in his view, the writer sets a tone, but that tone is really maintained and enforced by the community. “People have civility based on how they see other people behaving,” he said, but that really only works for regulars. People who come to the blog from an outside link are more likely to mix it up. As a former lawyer, Calcaterra tends to mix it up with them, and his results were similar to Pearlman’s: “As soon as you confront someone like that, they just shut up, or go away, or say, I was just trying to get a rise out of people.”

O’Brien and Baker said similar things, but with a very different tone. While O’Brien described spending time on the comment threads of his blog as “nothing but a positive,” Baker said, “It’s a struggle.” Like Calcaterra, O’Brien told me that they have found the best way to defuse a situation is to confront it: “I can be as much of a smartass as anyone,” he said. But Baker said that he prefers to engage his respectful commenters, and while he sometimes calls out the gadflies, he would prefer to ignore the rest: “Our commenters account for only a tiny fraction of our daily readership and that’s what I’ve expressed to those I no longer want around. We don’t need you that badly.”

Perhaps a little chagrined by all the negative attention, Pearlman responded to the furor surrounding his piece twice more throughout the week. First, he was defensive: “Why is it wrong for me to contact people who get excessively rude? I mean, it’s OK for someone to call me a f^%$wad, but if I then reply to the person I’m the one open for criticism?” The second time, though, he was more muted. “I was thinking about my relatively thin skin, and why the foul comments particularly offend me,” he wrote. “The answer, I believe, is because writing—if you genuinely care about the product—is personal.”

I think he’s overstating it — after all, it’s one thing to take offense when a guy calls you a f^%$wad, and it’s quite another thing to call his mother to complain — but to some extent, he’s right. I don’t really mind when a commenter tells me to do something unprintable to myself, because that’s not really personal, it’s just someone trying to get a rise out of me. But when a commenter tells me that I’m a moron because I said something ignorant or incorrect, as I did in the hockey piece, I do take it personally.

So, if any %$!&%ing evil punks want to mess with me, they know where to find me. I’ll be in the comment threads of this and every other story I write. Like Baker, I prefer to respond to the people who respond with intelligence — whether they agree with me or they want my remains to be fed to gremlins — than the people who object to my very existence, like Part-Time Pariah. My skin is getting thicker; I hope my columns are getting better. I’m lucky enough to write for one of the smartest online communities anywhere, but even here, some comments are more intelligent than others. I don’t think Pearlman’s approach is the right way to do it, so I won’t be calling any of you up on the phone if you think I’m an idiot. But if you do think I’m an idiot, I’d appreciate it if you say so creatively.