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On Commenting: Does criticism have to be controversial?

If you’ve visiting after reading either my guest post on Danny Brown’s site, or Heather’s response on Clever Marketer, then welcome! The “story so far” might seem a bit familiar, but you can just skim that part and continue past it for juicy new ideas. And please, join the discussion by leaving a comment!

I was very nervous.

There was a moment’s pause before I hit “send” – was this definitely the best way for me to handle it all? Did I even have to be in this situation?

I had written what might I felt was a somewhat controversial article, and I was going against the grain – was this really a good idea?

The moment passed, and I sent the message. Events had already been set in motion, and I believed that I had done the right thing. If I didn’t send the message, the result could be even worse, and at best I’d just be postponing the inevitable.

But I was nervous – what if it didn’t go over well? What if I was burning bridges?

It would take almost 24 hours for me to know for sure…

Ok, let’s recap the story so far…

A couple of months ago, my friend and rising star Jon Alford introduced me to Heather Stephens’ Clever Marketer community.

In addition to running a great blog, Heather’s community allows bloggers to link up in small groups, commenting on and promoting each others’ blogs. In theory, at least, it’s a great way of discovering and connecting with other bloggers, and getting the word out about your own blog.

My experience with that community was mixed – I made some great connections and discovered some really interesting blogs, but the experience left me skeptical about whether I would really want to do it again.

A short while later, I came across a strong criticism in a somewhat controversial article about the practice of comment swapping by Tito Philips Jr., generously hosted on Tristan Higbee’s Blogging Bookshelf. A quick word about Tristan – he introduced the post by saying that: “I do not agree with everything he wrote, but I loved the passion that the he wrote it with. It’s something I’d never write, but I do think he makes some great points. That’s why I wanted to publish this piece.” Voltaire would have been proud.

I could definitely relate to some of Tito’s ideas (and there’s some great advice in there about how to leave a proper comment that I wish everybody would read), but it seemed a little too harsh to me. After all, I had done it, and while I had mixed feelings, at least a portion of those feelings were positive.

I eventually reached the conclusion that this debate needs to continue further. There needs to be more weighing in on both sides, so that this whole concept can evolve further, and provide more value to everyone within our online community.

I wrote a somewhat controversial article outlining the problems that I saw with the current arrangement, and a couple of suggestions for improvement. I felt that this was an important discussion for the community to have and I wanted to get it in front of a bigger microphone than I have here at Mirasee, so I turned to Danny Brown the social media icon with the best first name that I could find. He graciously agreed to host my guest post – if you haven’t read it, it’s right here:

Building an Audience with Commenting Communities: Smart, or Sleazy?

Was I burning bridges by doing this?

After the initial elation at having a guest post on Danny Brown’s blog wore off, I started feeling nervous. I did my best to be balanced in the post, but I did have criticisms of the type of community that I know Heather had worked so hard to build.

Would she be offended? Wouldn’t I, if I were in her shoes?

Most people don’t know this about me, and most would be surprised, because I’m not one to shy away from a fight. But the truth is that I’m not at all comfortable with conflict, or with someone having a negative impression of me – especially of my character. I’ve gone above and beyond for clients in cases where it was probably stupid to do so because I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of them being upset with me.

All this to say that the idea of Heather being upset with me was making me very nervous.

Finally, I decided to come clean. I still felt that this was an important discussion and debate for the community to have, but I didn’t want it to be adversarial. So I write an email to Heather explaining how I felt, and sent her an advance copy of the post.

And that brings us to where I started this post – feeling nervous as I finally hit “send”.

How would you react in Heather’s shoes?

You know the saying that before you judge someone you should walk a mile in their shoes? Well, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it – and not just because if they get mad at you for judging them, you’ll be a mile away and have their shoes. 😉

Seriously – before I tell you how Heather reacted, stop for a moment and think honestly about how you would react in her position. Because that is the benchmark that behavior should be measured against.

We’d all like to believe that if we were in that position, we would respond graciously, welcome the feedback, and happily join into the debate.

But let’s face it – we aren’t always as noble as we’d like to be.

More often than not, when a dearly beloved project of ours comes under criticism – especially if that criticism is public – we bristle and feel the need to rise to our project’s defense. We all too often see the world in extremes of black and white with no shades of gray, with polarized rationalizations about why we’re right, and why they’re wrong.

(Small tangent – If you want to read more about this, then pick up Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.)

So… how did Heather actually react?

Remember how we would all like to believe we would behave in Heather’s shoes (figuratively speaking, of course – I wouldn’t actually wear Heather’s shoes)? Gracious, welcoming of feedback, and happily joining into the debate?

Well, Heather did all that, and more. She emailed me back less than 24 hours later. Not only was she kind and gracious, but she wrote an entire (really awesome, by the way) post about the same subject to run on her blog at the same time.

Not only was she ready to join the debate, but she was ready to lead it.

Her post isn’t a blind defense of the comment trading community idea, either – she honestly and very accurately shares the biggest challenges that she sees with the current structure. She identifies more issues than I had noticed, and has ideas for improvement that are similar to mine, but more detailed and nuanced. Here’s the link to it:

Commenting Controversy: Are Tribes Smart or Sleazy?

I think you’ll agree that her post is pretty honest, and pretty awesome. Frankly, I think it’s quite a bit better than mine, and that makes me very happy. 🙂

Does criticism *HAVE* to lead to controversy?

I had two intentions in writing this post. The first is to give Heather a huge shout-out for being such a class act. Heather, you rock!

The second intention was to talk about controversy. Lately I’ve been seeing a few people allude to the idea that there isn’t nearly as much discussion or exploration of contentious ideas happening online as there could or should be. For example:

I’ve always believed that people can disagree and grow stronger and better for the experience, together – that’s what dialogue is all about. Creating solid dialogue has always been difficult, though, and current digital media doesn’t seem to have necessarily made things easier.

That’s why I was so encouraged by Heather’s response, and by some of the ideas that she proposed – really good ideas that, if implemented, would probably make the comment swapping community idea a lot more valuable to its members, and would make me more than happy to get involved again.

What do you think? Can we disagree constructively in the online world, and come to creative solutions together? If it’s hard for that to happen, then why do you think that is? What can we do about it?


About Danny Iny

Danny Iny (@DannyIny) is the CEO and founder of Mirasee, host of the Business Reimagined podcast, and best-selling author of multiple books including Engagement from Scratch!, The Audience Revolution, and Teach and Grow Rich.

35 thoughts on “On Commenting: Does criticism have to be controversial?

  1. I think constructive disagreement is not only possible, but necessary for discussion. There is only so much you can do with “great post, I agree”, but if you can throw in an alternative view you can have a discussion and help each other grow.

    Plus, isn’t arguing half the fun anyway? 🙂

    • Hey Eugene, it’s great to see you here! Nick Cardot had a great post about this recently:

      Here’s his spoof of what some blog comment “conversations” look like online:

      “Hey, could you please pass the rolls?”“Sure. Thanks for asking a great question.”“Umm. Okay…Hey, these are really good.”“Absolutely. Thanks for the great comment.”

      Made me smile. 😀

  2. I totally tried to cause a little disturbance on Paul Wolfe’s blog last week and he just loved it as did I. We disturbed each other 🙂 I think it’s more than possible to have a great discussion online as long as you remember that most people aren’t dumb, so show respect. I think you do that. Nice post.

      • Alex actually posted some great points – and he doesn’t know it (cos I’ve not told him) he really stretched my brain too! Point is: that’s is brilliant. Exactly what I wanted. I think people who only want agreement are running vanity blogs – and wordpress should make a theme for them!

        Disagreement. Debate. Discussion. These are the lifeblood of learning….without it you;re stuck in a comfort zone. The Comfort Zone is like the Bermuda Triangle of development – get stuck in there and you never get seen again.

        • Amen, Paul – we need to be seeing a lot more of those, and stay out of the “comfort zone = bermuda triangle of development”… you know, that would make a great blog post title, you should write it!

          • Yeah when I wrote it I cut and pasted it to my Idea bank….I feel like an air traffic controller with about 60 planes to land. Bermuda Airways Flight 101 from the Comfort Zone just added to the stack….:)

  3. Hi Danny,

    Thank you for bringing this part of the conversation to your blog. I agree that a healthy discussion is so beneficial and as you know I totally embrace it. I love it when I get to hear other points of view. “Yes men” bore me! 🙂 I truly appreciate you sharing your thoughts on Danny’s blog as well as letting me know about them.

    It frustrates me when people have a problem about something but aren’t willing to address the issue so that it can be resolved. I think almost always there is a way to work through the situation and turn it into one that benefits all parties. It just takes a little creativity and two heads are always better than one in that department.

    Great job, Danny! I appreciate you,


    • Hey Heather, it’s an honor to see you here on Firepole Marketing, and I want to say how much I appreciate your attitude. You’re right – often people have a problem but aren’t willing to address the issue, because they’re afraid of fallout, discomfort or awkardness. Thanks for making it so easy to raise issues and work together for a better solution! 🙂

  4. The best blogs (for me) are the ones that encourage and heartily approve disagreement. I stopped subscribing to the “Yes” bloggers a long time ago – it’s all one big ego stroke.

    Give me a blogger with balls that isn’t afraid to call it as he or she sees it, and then allows healthy discourse in the comments.

    That’s the only way we’re really going to grow anyway, mate.

    • We’re on the same page, Danny – it’s conversation that makes for the most interesting stuff to read, and for the most learning and growth for all of us. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. The best blogs (for me) are the ones that encourage and heartily approve disagreement. I stopped subscribing to the “Yes” bloggers a long time ago – it’s all one big ego stroke.

    Give me a blogger with balls that isn’t afraid to call it as he or she sees it, and then allows healthy discourse in the comments.

    That’s the only way we’re really going to grow anyway, mate.

  6. Danny,

    A little disagreement, politely worded, should be a big part of a healthy blog. We do not all have the same views. A little healthy debate can really act to clarify things. It is good to see that Heather (and the other posters you mentioned) can have varied and non-humogenous views on the topic and still debate it for the issue that I think it is…

    One with a few “right” answers that all depend on the “eye of the beholder”

  7. Really interesting stuff here, Danny!

    I think bloggers need to 1) have a thicker skin, and 2) realize that trying to make everyone happy all the time is not fun or interesting.

    Regarding #1… Holy crap, people. Grow a pair already. In “real life” do you like everyone and does everyone like you? Of course not. And the internet amplifies that a bazillion-fold by providing a convenient wall of anonymity to hide behind. People say crazy things online (I’ve been called a bigot, an idiot, and a jerk, among other highlights) but just keep everything in perspective. These are random people you’ve never met calling you a name based off of them “knowing” you for five seconds. Brush it off and move on. And just because someone disagrees with something you said, that doesn’t mean they hate you. If you’re one of those people who has to have the approval of absolutely everyone to feel good about yourself, I do not envy you.

    I got an email from someone recently who saw a “controversial” comment of mine on someone’s blog. He thanked me for sharing my opinion and supported what I said. Here’s something I wrote back in reply:

    “I think most bloggers are too scared to “rock the boat,” but by not being opinionated and saying things that–horror of horrors–others might not agree with, they’re just joining everyone else as they play nicely into obscurity.”

    No one likes a wuss. The most interesting blogs are written by people who have something interesting to say. In my opinion, playing it safe is rarely interesting.I’m going to bestow on myself the dubious honor of being pretty dang good at this. On a regular basis I seem to upset someone with something I’ve done or written. I get a lot more interaction, traffic, mentions, and subscriptions when I disagree with something or someone. I don’t go out of my way to be controversial; I don’t think that’s wise. But I do go out of my way to share my opinion. Sometime’s they just happen to be one and the same.

    • Gee, count on Tristan to enlighten the conversation! 🙂

      Seriously: “I don’t go out of my way to be controversial; I don’t think that’s wise. But I do go out of my way to share my opinion. Sometime’s they just happen to be one and the same.” – this is going to be quotable for a long time.

      Thanks again for weighing in – much appreciated, my friend!

  8. Pingback: Commenting Controversy: Are Tribes Smart or Sleazy?
  9. Danny,

    You stirred things up nicely here with this wave of discussion spanning several websites now. First off, great job bringing in the stakeholders and congrats for having the courage to share your opinion on this.

    Also, thanks for the praise and mention here.

    There has been so much ground covered in the posts and comments on Danny’s, Heather’s, your site and others on this topic that it’s tough to say anything new. But I’ll toss in my two cents.

    I don’t care what anyone says, a commenting tribe is a great way to get started. It’s even great for seasoned vets. If you use the forum to connect with the other writers and ask for suggestions, listen for their feedback (sometimes different in forum than publicly in comments) then you’ll improve. You can ask for suggestions or write a post and receive instant feedback from a group rather than waiting around for search traffic.

    It’s up to us to leverage the power of the community. Our duty to ask for genuine replies. Our task to write quality content and continually improve.

    A tribe helps you gain momentum by having your content tweeted, shared on Facebook, and you benefit by this social proof. This is instant exposure you wouldn’t have had if you just wrote exceptional content and then waited for someone to stumble across it.

    Numbers (anything other than zero) in comments and share count improve your perceived value and invite more discussion and sharing. That’s just the way we’re wired to view things; why do you think these buttons show counts anyway?

    Not all websites are going to be your flavor. That’s the risk you take when you commit to a campaign. Should they be divided into niches? Sure. Let’s try it. We may miss out on making new and interesting connections but at least we’ll be more likely to leave insightful comments.

    It’s not perfect because being part of the community you feel compelled to support everyone involved; even if they’re limping along with mediocre content and design. Heck, the sheer time invested commenting can sometimes prevent you from taking the extra step to privately email the site owner to offer advice. But I’ve done it.

    As with all things online, don’t put your eggs in one basket. A commenting tribe should be just one leg of support for your marketing campaign. Shame on you if you’re not deepening some of those relationships and expanding into other communities.

    Heather’s reply with her post and the way she handled this was top notch. She truly is a class act and leader.

    Thanks everyone for your input. I know I’ve been reading every comment and letting this all sink in.


    • Wow, Jon. You might want to add a headline and re-publish this on your blog! 😉

      Seriously, thanks for the detailed comment – you raise some very important points, and I think you’re right – if someone puts as much effort into what they’re doing as you do, it will be a very positive experience.

      What do you do about the people who aren’t as committed or engaged? When they leave you comments that are boiler-plate “Thank you for writing about this subject. I haven’t thought about [HEADLINE] in this way before, and you’ve really made me think.”?

      Jon, you enrich the conversation wherever you go – I’m grateful to consider you a friend. 🙂

  10. I’m so with Danny Brown on this one Danny Iny. I’m annoyed an the silent suppression of independent thought. I’ve been scolded before for disagreeing publicly online. In fact, I was told that unless my commentary was “helpful” (translation in agreement) than I should probably refrain from commenting. To be honest, I did. I’ve taken to not saying anything if it’s not going to be nice because I do feel that bloggers who disagree aren’t welcomed by the host blog. Personally, I’m quite the opposite. I love when people disagree with me. It helps me flesh out ideas, build stronger arguments and use my frickin’ brain. In fact, I’m inspired. I’ve gotta go stir some pots! 😉

    • I’m with you, Marlee – I love it when people disagree, because it means that:

      1. They’ve read my ideas.
      2. They’ve thought about it enough to find something that they disagree with.
      3. They care enough to share their opinion.
      4. There’s probably something about my ideas that need refining.

      By yeah, I’ve sometimes avoided commenting when I disagreed with something because not all bloggers are as welcoming, unfortunately.

      Go stir those pots, Marlee!

      • I think we should have a WordPress ‘badge’ made to display on our blogs saying: Discussion and Disagreement Welcomed Here! Because if I wrote something that Marlee disagreed with, I’d really, really want her to post that on my website. In many fields you pay thousands of dollars for that kind of feedback – for bloggers all you gotta do to get it for free is to be polite, be respectful and courteous.

        The absolute ONLY time I can think of that you wouldn’t want disagreement is when you’re in the middle of a big writing project – and you just want people to say, well done for the writing, keep going. Those kind of projects shouldn’t be published on your blog anyway….other than that, it should be open season. (Maybe we could get an open season banner too – for posts that we REALLY want comments on?)

  11. I’ve read the different posts, and the comments too, and yes – if I have nothing to say, or if someone has said what I had in mind, I would not add my 2 words. Yet, every now and then I read a post that I really enjoy, and I would like to somehow express just that, without adding a content of my own. I find blogs lacking this option, and writing “great post” sounds so very shallow, even if I truly mean it…

  12. Hey Danny, the me too crowd is getting tiresome. Even icons like Mr. B are getting board. There’s a time to go with the flow and a time to shake things up. These are the best times because so many new minds and personalities come to light.

    It’s great to have guys like Danny B. supporting and providing the platforms to shake things up a bit. It say’s a lot about the guy and it’s a great opportunity to voice those things that will usher in new insights, strategies and leadership that’s shaping the future of the social web.

    In five years, you won’t recognize the space…

    Cheers to both Danny’s!!!

    • I agree with you, Mark – there are way too many “me toos” out there, and it’s important to shake things up. Danny B has been doing plenty of that lately – by offering his platform, but also with his own excellent work.

  13. Danny – amazing post once again!

    I think it’s a part of our upbringing that we are taught to conform socially and not be confrontational, and that is part of the reason why we are so eager to seek acceptance and approval. I think that ego plays a big part as well, people like their ego to be inflated by others, and what better way to do that than by having people agreeing with your ideas.

    I’ve said to Ryan and Jk before, part of blogging is to express our own opinions and put our own twist on things, regardless of whether or not they are controversial. It’s really not that difficult to be controversial without being offensive, so there’s no excuse for bloggers who are holding back! 😉

    I’ve always tried to pride myself on being “straight up” and honest, and I’ve noticed that (most) people actually respect you more, because at least they know where they stand!

    Being controversial is cool, as long as the person is not continually moaning in every blog post! 😉

    • Being controversial is cool, as long as the person is not continually moaning in every blog post!” – Nice, Robert – that’s super-quotable. 🙂

      I’m with you – it shouldn’t be too hard to express your opinions, even when they’re divergent from the norm, without being offensive. Why is it so hard for people to do, and harder still for people to accept when they are faced with it?

  14.  Hey Danny,

    There is nothing to be offended. Criticism are part of any business and constructive criticism like yours pave way for interesting improvements. I read Heather’s post, being part of the community there, it was so interesting to see the members of the tribe coming up with new ideas to tackle the problem.

    I am sure that it will be all headed in one direction (as your image shows) without a second thought.


  15. I hate fake ass comments period. I will hit the delete button so fast, it will make your head spin. I could feel your reservations and why you felt it was weird. Commenting on another person’s blog always should be heart felt and if its not don’t bother commenting. I see what Heather was trying to do and you have to give her credit for doing something no one else has. 

    This was a kick ass post. I love it when people aren’t afraid to take it to the next level and just say it like it is. I always call it like I see it and I don’t write for the masses, so anytime I see a blog that isn’t afraid to say what’s on their mind I am hooked. 

    • Thank you, Sonia – I’m really touched by your heartfelt words. I’m still hopeful that there might be a way to find a middle ground, to structure something like Heather’s community in a way that would allow for comments to be genuine and valuable – for example, by giving people the option of writing an email explaining why they weren’t comfortable writing a comment instead. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by, Sonia – I’ve heard lots of great stuff about you from Ryan Critchett, and it’s great to see you here.

  16. I guess I’m a little jaded, Danny.  I read all three posts, and I kept wondering where the controversy was. I think both you and Heather handled this with class, and that allowed a productive conversation to ensue.  If you want to see a few examples of how not to handle controversy, I wrote about that today.  I’ll save the rest of my comment for Danny and Heather’s blogs.  See you over there.

    • Not jaded, but probably with a wider perspective than some in the blogosphere – you raised a really good point on Danny Brown’s blog where you mentioned how similar this idea is to offline networking groups – but it isn’t nearly as controversial offline as it is in the blogosphere. I think some bloggers want to believe that the laws governing human interaction are completely different  here, which I don’t think is true.

      I’m heading over to read your post now. See you soon, Brad!

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