​How to find the positive in negative comments

The key to benefiting from online criticism is to ignore the trolls, acknowledge legitimate gripes, and realize the value of opposing viewpoints.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

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The best thing about commenters is that they keep you on your toes. In January 2013, I wrote about how to participate in the open government movement, in which I stated that the Obama administration had improved government transparency. The first commenter called "BS."

A few months later, Eric Snowden's revelations about NSA snooping surfaced. Score one for the commenters.

Like many online writers, I often encounter cringe-worthy comments to my posts. Usually the "negative" comment is correcting a mistake, expressing a legitimate counteropinion, or making some other valid point. As long as it isn't a personal attack, I choose to view the criticism as an opportunity.

Many businesses are taking this approach to online critics. Papa John's UK operation has implemented the Rant & Rave program intended to capture comments by customers and potential customers sent via text message or entered on Papa John UK's site.

Damage control for negative comments

For businesses, anonymous negative comments on Yelp and other consumer sites present a quandary: to respond or ignore? Mary E. Gately, writing on the Inside Counsel site, suggests that organizations monitor social media and consumer-review sites such as Yelp and establish a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other popular sharing sites so they can get out ahead of their critics.

If the comments are defamatory, Gately recommends contacting the service's administrators to request that the post be removed. If the comment is false or otherwise illegal, it is almost certain to violate the service's terms of use. If the site refuses to remove the comment, the company should respond to the comment directly so they can rebut the issues raised. The organization may also want to address the matter on its own blog.

As a last resort, organizations can take legal action against the commenter, although Gately points out that filing suit may have its own negative consequences. Erik Sherman reported recently on the CBS MoneyWatch site about Yelp's attempts to protect the anonymity of its reviewers after being sued by a Virginia-based cleaning company.

Last December, Chris Matyszczyk described how a negative Yelp review led to the reviewer being sued for $750,000 by the contractor who was the target of the reviewer's wrath. Also pointing out the dangers of criticizing a business is the case of a woman in Scottsdale, Arizona, who complained about her plastic surgeon and ended up having to pay the doctor a $12 million judgment, as The Republic's Peter Corbett reported on azcentral.com. (The woman is appealing the judgment.)

Forbes.com's Tim Devaney and Tom Stein explain how Walmart turns the tables on negative commenters. The company attempts to respond positively to its critics on social media and on its own site. Even if you're unable to win over the unhappy commenter, other customers will appreciate the company's attempt to address the matter positively, according to the authors.

On Skyword's Content Standard site, Anne Handley-Fierce offers advice for writers who receive criticism online. If it's a personal attack that has nothing to do with the content of what you wrote, ignore it. If it's a legitimate counteropinion or opposing viewpoint, learn from it even if you don't feel the need to respond. If the commenter is asking a question, or you believe the person has misinterpreted something you wrote, respond positively.

Handley-Fierce points out that you should never criticize the comment or the commenter. If the person is attempting to disseminate misinformation about you, take the necessary steps quickly to correct the misstatements, including a request to the site administrators to remove the defamatory comments.

As soon as a commenter becomes abusive, disengage. On those rare occasions when a comment constitutes a threat, contact the authorities.

The war against Internet anonymity

Many sites are responding to the increase in abusive comments by requiring that all commenters identify themselves. Google faced a hailstorm of criticism when it implemented a policy last November requiring YouTube commenters to use their Google+ IDs, as Seth Rosenblatt reported. (It seems commenters were just as rude when they used their real names.)

Nick Hide wrote about the negative response of YouTube users to the video service's changes to its comments. It didn't take long for YouTube to roll out a revamped comment management page, as Dara Kerr reported last January.

Last September the Popular Science site pulled the plug on commenting, claiming reader comments ran counter to its mission of championing science, as Nick Statt reported. In last October's "Enhance privacy by being deliberately inaccurate," I discussed the reasons for sites such as the Huffington Post and Sacramento Bee to end anonymous comments.

Anonymous apps such as Secret and Whisper create a new challenge to organizations trying to minimize the damage inflicted by negative comments. The problem affects small businesses in particular, according to a post by VerticalResponse on the Business2Community site. Responding to every nasty rumor or inaccuracy can be nearly impossible.

According to a Pew Research Internet Project study released last fall entitled Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online, 18 percent of the Internet users surveyed had used a fake name or untraceable user name. The survey found that 86 percent of respondents had taken some action to prevent their personal information from being disclosed.

Pew Research Internet Project: users attempt to protect personal information
Most Internet users make some effort to prevent sharing their personal information. Pew Research Center

The same survey found that 55 percent of people have attempted to hide from another person or organization, including family members or romantic partners (14 percent) and employers, supervisors, or coworkers (11 percent).

Pew Research Internet Project survey on Internet anonymity
More than half of Internet users attempt to hide their identity from a person or organization. Pew Research Center

The New Yorker's Maria Konnikova reported last October on the results of research conducted by Arthur D. Santana of the University of Houston that compared the tone of comments at newspaper sites that allowed anonymous comments and those that did not. Santana found uncivil comments accounted for 53 percent of those posted on sites allowing anonymity, compared to only 29 percent of comments being uncivil on sites requiring identification.

Other researchers have found that anonymous commenting systems tend to be self-policing. In general, anonymous comments are less likely to influence readers to change their opinion, and they are perceived as less credible, according to researchers at the University of Arizona and MIT.

In a paper published by MIT in 1995, Karina Rigby explained why anonymity on the Internet must be protected. Without anonymity, there is no true freedom of expression -- for better and worse. Without freedom of expression, there is less likelihood that people will share their unpopular opinions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Speech: Anonymity page discusses court cases establishing a right to online anonymity under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

If you would like proof of the power of anonymous posts, consider who is attempting to quash Internet anonymity. Security expert Bruce Schneier reported on The Guardian last October about the U.S. National Security Agency's effort to crack the Tor online anonymity service. In late April of this year, John Hawes of the Sophos Naked Security blog wrote about the Russian Federal Assembly's proposed legislation to curb online anonymity and free speech. And Kimberly Carlson describes on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Deep Links blog attempts by the Armenian government to outlaw anonymous posts.

Everything of value comes with a price. The price of anonymity is having to abide unpopular opinions, and even the occasional lie, at least the ones that fall short of defamation. The best we can do is tune out the haters and find a way to benefit from legitimate criticisms regardless of the tone adopted by the critic.