My ongoing struggle to make comments suck less

One of the most common four-word phrases in journalism (after “the CMS from hell”) must be “don’t read the comments.” A lot of newsrooms treat reader comments as the equivalent of the town dump: They’re something you need to have, and you want to spend as little time as possible there.

Comments formI, however, am one of those weirdos who reads the comments–and not just when I see a bunch, but on almost every story I write. Part of that is because I enjoy seeing people make fools of themselves while attempting to argue. But most of it is because I don’t mind seeing what people think and usually enjoy answering a reader’s question–if not to their satisfaction, in a way that sane readers of the comments thread will regard as astute.

(That’s also why you can usually find me showing up in reddit comments about my stories, much as I used to watch Slashdot to see if any of my work was getting picked apart there.)

Last year, I heard some advice about comments that’s stayed with me: At the Online News Association conference in Chicago, the Texas Tribune’s Amanda `Krauss said that having a story’s author open the discussion by posting the first comment helped make the resulting conversation more civil. She had other advice that journalists can’t easily follow without major CMS tinkering (for instance, changing the “Like” button to a “Respect” one), but this first-comment thing is something any writer can do.

Question is, what should that first comment be? Here’s how I’ve handled that at recent Yahoo Tech columns:

• Sharing a how-to recipe that would have been too involved to cram into the story itself. Example: my review of the KnowRoaming SIM sticker, in which I used that first comment to explain how to stop a “SIM Toolkit” app from taking up full-time residence in your phone’s notifications.

• Using that space to revise and extend my remarks by describing the philosophical underpinnings of my outlook on the subject, as I did in Tuesday’s column about the impending expiration of some USA Patriot Act provisions that enable the NSA’s bulk surveillance. Reader replies to that: zero.

• The old standby of posing a question to readers about a key issue of the story, most recently seen in the column about Apple Watch app rules where I opened the comments by asking readers if they’re bothered at all by them or basically trust Apple to look out for them. Reader replies: three.

Explaining a story’s sourcing or just naming the people I talked to on the record who didn’t get a quote in the story seems like an obvious move, but I haven’t done that yet. Maybe next week?

I’m not sure I’m making a huge difference–I’m sure it won’t for readers who have already sworn off comments–but this practice only takes a few minutes and it helps ensure I won’t ignore the comments later on, or at least until a post gets featured on the Yahoo home page and promptly gets overrun with 2,000 comments. That seems a worthwhile use of my time.

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Apple Derangement Syndrome

I thought Tuesday’s Yahoo Tech column about stores blocking Apple Pay and other NFC-payment apps would provoke some emotional reactions from angry iPhone users. I was wrong.

IScratched Apple logonstead, the comments thread, Twitter and my inbox lit up with denunciations of me for being an Apple shill. One typical tweet: “Pathetic apple fanboy. You’re not fooling anyone. How much did apple pay you for that trash?” Another Twitter interlocutor suggested I get Ebola, providing me an overdue opportunity to try Twitter’s block function.

In e-mail, where you don’t have to worry about what onlookers think of your foaming at the mouth, things were even less civil. One fellow whose e-mail signature identified him as a technology consultant decried my enabling “Apple Octopus pot culture,” whatever that is. A particularly incensed reader managed to drop seven f-bombs into the first four sentences.

And all of this was about a column that explained how blocking NFC inconveniences Android and Windows Phone users as well as anybody with an iPhone 6 to 6 Plus, and which led off with a photo of my own Android phone getting rejected at a CVS.

But no, basic logic or reading comprehension isn’t necessary when one is in the grip of Apple Derangement Syndrome. And expecting readers to take a minute to learn that I’ve never owned an iPhone and am responsible for gracing the Washington Post’s site with the sarcastic query “why does Steve Jobs hate America?”… man, that’s just crazy talk.

Yahoo Tech Apple Pay comments countApple has always had people who dislike its products and its attitude, but this full-on, frothing hate seems a more recent development. I can only guess that’s because if you think this phenomenally successful company really will take over the world, it must be stopped by any means necessary and you can’t wait a second longer to act.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with Google many times, most recently when a German media exec suggested the gang in Mountain View applied, I kid you not, North Korean media-manipulation techniques. And only a decade ago, Microsoft Derangement Syndrome was much more of a thing than it is now.

But there’s never been such a thing as Palm Derangement Syndrome, Dell Derangement Syndrome or Nokia Derangement Syndrome. Don’t you feel sorry for those companies now?