A few thoughts occur.

Anxiety

I think that all interaction on the internet is prone to produce an anxious response if one is not careful.  For myself, I understand the reason for this.  It relates to the idea of “intermittent reinforcement“, the subject, for the sake of clarity of a separate post in due course, but which I describe here briefly as the phenomenon of never quite knowing when someone is going to respond to your contribution, or whether they will respond at all and feeling anxious as a result.  I believe that knowingly constructing situations of intermittent reinforcement is cruel.  Many of the points that follow are aimed at reducing the anxiety that arises in such a situation of intermittent reinforcement.

New posts

Once you have found a blog you like, you may want to know whether the writer has posted anything new recently.  The most obvious way to check this is to visit his or her site.  Those sites that only interest you vaguely are less problematic than those blogs written by people whom you feel that in some sense you have come to know and like, or whom are your real life friends already. 

Generally, obviously, the more you know and like someone, the keener you are to see what they have written next.  This can lead to frequent checking of the site to see if any new posts have appeared.  If there has been a period of silence since the last blog, a normal response is probably to check increasingly often and then, after a while, to give up and find something else to read. 

Post Feeds

It is usually possible to make things easier for yourself – to reduce the constant checking – by signing up to a “feed” or email alert. 

Feed Symbol

Not all blogs allow a feed.  There is only one reason why a blogger would not want his blog to have a feed.  This is because each new visit increases the number on his stat counter.  And bloggers are judged by the size of the number on their stat counter.  People reading your blog via a feed will not feature in most visible stat counters – not in mine at any rate.  You have to not mind too much about stats to allow a feed at all.  The reality is that a person may read a blog once, and forever thereafter read it only by a feed.  He may read loyally over years, but unless he visits the site, his interest will be invisible to the blogger.  Most blogs do allow a feed or email subscription.

New Comments

However, the blogger’s post may be only part of your interest in the blog.  You may also wish to read the comments that others have made on posts, and also any replies that the blogger has made to comments that you or others have made.  Comments may appear much more frequently than posts and take on the nature of a spoken conversation rather than a more leisurely exchange of letters.  In this case, if you are interested in the conversation, and particularly if you think you may wish to interject, you will want to be able to read comments as soon as they are posted. 

Comment Feeds

Some blogs offer a “feed” facility for both posts and comments, or allow you to subscribe to email up-dates for comments to a particular post.  Both mean, potentially, that visitors’ numbers are depressed, since – as with posts – to read a comment via a feed you do not need to visit the site.  However, you still have to visit a blog to post a comment and there is possibly sometimes a greater likelihood that people will comment if they can easily keep up with discussions as they happen.  And comments are generally good. 

As a blogger, you have to weigh up the advantages and the disadvantages.  I prefer to be able to take a comment feed from a blog I like to read, so I presume that my readers do too.  I provide a comment feed as well as a post feed, and would encourage others, for the sake of their readers, to do the same.

Responding to Comments

Posting a comment on a blog, or a message board, or a forum is not much different from writing someone a letter, but is quite different from picking up the phone and speaking to someone, or meeting them face to face.  There are two sorts of comments.  Those in respect of which you would like an acknowledgement, and those which do not need any sort of reply.  The latter are less problematic than the former.  The former are, I would venture to guess, much more common than the latter.

There is no general rule of etiquette about whether a blogger should respond to a comment.  My own view is that it is polite to respond to every comment for two reasons.  First, because it acknowledges that the person who made the comment has taken time out of a busy day to let you know what they think.  Secondly, because it is human nature to want attention, and most people who comment would, I believe, want their comments read and attended to.  A response is a way of the blogger showing that he has indeed read the comment. 

Besides, I am (usually) only too delighted that someone has commented, and I like to converse.  So responding is a happy thing for me.

I have tried commenting on a few blogs where the response from the blogger is either non-existant or unpredictable, and have found it to be a very unrewarding experience which leads me to desert the blog.  If the blogger does not respond to comments, it suggests that he is not interested in what the person commenting has to say.  In which case, why invite comments in the first place? 

So, should you choose to write a comment on my blog, I will respond to every comment which is published.  If I don’t, it will be an oversight, and you may prod me for a response.  I do not ignore people.

My next problem comes with my response to your comment.  Should I try to encourage a conversation, or prolong a debate?  I do not know the answer to this bit.

How many strokes?

Here, I think the language of Transactional Analysis is helpful in giving us a vocabulary for the discussion.  Transactional Analysis sees all communication a bit like a tennis game, consisting of strokes.  Strokes are good – at least, most people like them. 

The game begins with one person hitting a ball over the net to the other person.  The other person has the choice of letting the ball go without returning it, catching it, or returning it.  If she returns it, the original person has the same choice of returning it, catching it, or stepping aside and letting it out.  So if I say “hello, how are you?”, you may say nothing, or just “hello” or “hello, I haven’t seen you for a while, how are you doing?”.

The game could go on for ever.  But games never do.  In an ideal world, both people will have had enough at the same point and the game will end.  At other times, one person wants the game to end earlier than the other person, usually leaving the other person feeling rejected.  Face to face, this is quite easy to avoid – unless you intend to cause hurt, or are mind blind – but it is much more difficult on the internet.  How do you know whether the person who has commented wants a two-stroke exchange, or a long conversation? 

In real life, the length of the game is usually determined by the context and by our personalities.  A two-stroke exchange is normal if you both pass each other in the street on your way to a meeting.  Men’s exchanges with each other often have fewer strokes than equivalent exchanges between women.  A longer exchange would be normal if you were sitting next to each other at dinner. 

But the internet has no context, and people often trade on anonymity.  And people live in different time zones.  What is a relaxed time of day for me, might be your busiest hour?  The potential for doing the wrong thing and causing disappointment is enormous, and enough to make you consider throwing the whole thing in.

So, if I respond to your comment with another comment which includes a question, you may not wish to respond.  If you don’t respond, I look a bit stupid for having asked the question in the first place, and I feel sad that you haven’t answered the question.  Being surprisingly reluctant to expose myself to the humiliation or the hurt, I am probably unlikely to ask further questions in my comment, unless I’m pretty sure that the person commenting will respond.  If I don’t ask a question, you now know one of the reasons why.  Which may be the same reason why you don’t comment on a blog.

Knowing that I will respond should ease anxiety.  Of course, you will still not know when I will respond, and the different time zones are very unhelpful.  My daily schedule is fairly unpredictable, which causes its own problems, but I am going to try to write posts on Sundays and Tuesdays or Wednesdays.  I may write posts in between, if I have time, and will try to answer comments as soon as I can.  I cannot stand passive aggressive behaviour, so rest assured that I will never delay responding to a comment on purpose.

Wouldn’t it be good if there was some symbol which a blogger could add to his or her blog which showed his or her commitment to responding to comments? 

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