Stories about Software


Negative Comments and the Art of Not Letting the Bastards Get You Down

Time for yet another reader question post.  This one is going to be all about negative comments.  How do I deal with them?  How should you?

As an aside, any trolls arriving here to read could turn this post into an interesting meta pop-psych exercise by scrolling down immediately and blasting away in the comments section.  “Didn’t read the post, you’re an idiot!”  That’ll turn the post from theoretical reading into an applied lab exercise.

But I digress.

The Reader Question: How Do You Deal with It?

This is another short and sweet reader question.

How do you deal with the inevitable negativity toward /criticism of you or your work, when you put yourself out there (speaking, blogging, making courses, publishing books etc.)?  How do you recommend handling it?

The answer to how I deal with it is pretty simple: not well.

But I think the particulars of my “not well” involve a lot of coping mechanisms and strategies that can help you.  And here’s a hint: it won’t ever stop bothering you.  So accept that fact because the sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll stop trying futilely to “toughen yourself up” and start doing things that work.

Industry Cred Doesn’t Take the Sting Away

Let’s start by busting another core assumption that you might have, on top of the “if I just get used to it, I’ll stop caring.”  Becoming more famous, followed, or respected doesn’t magically stop the titular bastards and their negative comments from bothering you.

But don’t take my word for it.  Let’s consider some folks that are internet-famous, and who I’ve heard talk about this sort of thing before.

  • Troy Hunt gave a conference talk in which he addressed negative comments, and even entire troll accounts dedicated to bashing him.  He does some funny stuff in response, but in the talk he does reference it making him angry.
  • Scott Hansleman once wrote a funny post about icons not aging well.  The post went viral, and Scott later talked on some podcast (if anyone has it, I’d love a link) about how someone on Reddit was wishing death on him over this post.  To the best of my recollection, his reaction was mortification and bleakness.  He said something on the podcast like, “you realize I’m an actual human being, don’t you?”
  • Phil Haack talked about this on his blog long ago, even confessing to deliberately avoiding Twitter at times to avoid the negative comments.
  • And, of course, he cited this iconic cartoon from the Oatmeal (one that I love and that increasingly describes my life these days with increasing and alarming accuracy).  Here is that cartoon.

The Human Default is Not to Handle This Well

And this is just a handful of software people and a comic writer.  Ball players and celebrities seem to tune it out, for the most part, but even they snap from time to time.

Point is, you’re not going to hit some magic point where you don’t care.

Your lizard brain will always react the same way it does now.  You’ll get a flush and the fight or flight instinct will kick in, making its presence felt as a mix of rage, indignation, offense, and a put-upon sadness.

Here be dragons, like this one, when you accept a counter offer.

So first, you need to stop expecting your lizard brain ever to change.  I don’t deal with this well, nor do any of the people I’ve mentioned.  Nor will you.

Strategy 1: Stop Trying to Please Everyone

In the tech world, when we put ourselves out there, we tend to start with helpful how-tos.  You give a talk on how to do something cool, or you write a detailed guide on your blog.  This is about as vanilla as it gets, and, in the beginning, you don’t have a big audience.

This creates the early illusion that you’re putting out content that everyone can agree on.

But you’re not.  You’re just not big enough yet to have found your angry trolls.  Did you just put together a helpful PHP tutorial about writing WordPress plugins?  Good for you.  Now wait until the “PHP is all crap” brigade shows up and lets you have it for your choice of language.  They’ll come by eventually.  So forget about trying to be universally agreeable.

Strategy 2: Pick Your Enemies before They Pick You

So the first step is to stop assuming you can avoid negativity.  Watch this video by Moz about succeeding by making enemies.

Identify who you want to appeal to, and appeal to them with strong positions that unite you.  Write your PHP how-tos and then some think pieces on how PHP is great in spite of the whining of programming language snobs.  Your fellow PHP folks will feel closer to you for it, and the trolls were going to troll anyway.

For instance, take this post I wrote about why you shouldn’t accept the title “junior software developer” (or junior anything).  DaedTech’s core readers these days are ones with whom my latest book will resonate, and who are skeptical of the corporate advancement conveyor belt.  They’ll probably like that post.

You know who won’t, though?  The angry commenters who probably happily wore and or doled out that title.

And, that’s okay.  I knew that going in.

Anticipating the vitriol doesn’t negate it.

But going in knowing that you’ll probably piss some people off makes it deterministic and puts you in the driver’s seat.  You’re not poor Scott Hanselman, posting what you thought was an innocuous joke and getting blindsided by the worst people on the internet.  You’re pre-determining the nature of the conversation.

And that matters more than you might think.

Strategy 3: Gamify a Rational (Non) Response

You can build on that with this next strategy.  Let’s say that you write a post that you know will be controversial, binding your target audience to you while angering your common enemies.  Assuming that you get enough eyeballs, the rage will flow and the negative comments will come.

Have a gamified plan for when they do.

It could be something as simple as deciding (or even stating at the end of your post in italics: my goal here is to receive and completely blow off at least 5 angry comments.)  

Think about the cunning here.  The normal, adrenaline-fueled response to negative comments is to roll up your sleeves, wade in, and start slugging it out like you were on a political op-ed’s comments section.  But here, you’re creating a commitment device that rewards you for shrugging and ignoring it.

You could employ other strategies as well.  This guy, Yegor Bugayenko, has a “testimonials” page where he immortalizes his angriest commenters.  This gives him the ability to respond to the negativity with a breezy, “look, you’re famous,” or whatever.

Or you could go the aforementioned Phil Haack’s route and kill ’em with kindness and understanding.  Makes sense when they’re your users.

But whatever you do, have a strategy and make it a public one.  When you have a stock response to negative comments, you don’t have to waste your energy responding (or even really reading).

Strategy 4: It’s Just Business

That last strategy also dovetails into this next one, though this one is more of a mindset.  Look at your presence in the community, putting yourself out there, not as some kind of personal statement but rather as a business/career play.  “It’s just business.”

Giving a talk?  Writing a blog post?  Doing a course?

All of these things position you and help your career.  You have your eyes on a bigger goal and you can’t get distracted by the petty stuff.

For my content agency, Hit Subscribe, I can’t even estimate how many paid blog posts I’ve written for clients.  Some of them get comments on the blogs, and some of them go a bit viral on Hacker News, Reddit, et al.

I would estimate that, if you factored all of those viral escapades and discussion sites into the mix, I probably have a mean post comment rate of 25 or something.  Can one of me possibly respond to 25 comments per post, when I’ve written sometimes 2 or 3 per day?

Of course note.  I have a business to run — I don’t have time for all of that.  This is the mentality that you want.

Of course, like everything else here, it doesn’t stop your lizard brain adrenaline reaction if/when you see the negativity.  But it helps you not care as much — you’ve got bigger things to worry about.

Strategy 5: Life’s Too Short, So Delete or Ignore

This last strategy might seem like a cop-out.  It certainly did (maybe still does a little) to me.  But you can just make it so you never even see the comments.

Early on in my blogging days, I resolved with sort of parliamentary resoluteness, to leave all comments on my blog unless they were obscene or over the top vulgar.  And I mostly still do that.  But there have been times over the years where people were abusive without being overly profane.

I remember once or twice weeding into such exchanges and then saying to myself, “this is my site, it reflects on me, and life is too short for this.”  I thought I’d feel like a sell-out brandishing the ban hammer, but, really, all I felt was, “welp, that’s the end of that.”

Similarly, I don’t, as a matter of policy, ever read the comments on a discussion site when I’m trending.  In my experience, those sites have far too many weirdly angry people to have anything approaching a decent signal to noise ratio.  Weeding through 5 comments wishing death to my family to find something passingly engaging is a poor use of an afternoon.

So realize that you don’t have to engage at all.

Block people on Twitter, delete comments, mute people — do what you need to do to have a happy life.  The easiest to deal with negative comments are the ones you never see in the first place.  And this holds doubly true for those of you that receive abuse that I, as a well-off, straight white guy, can’t even begin to imagine.

But Leave Understanding that People Are Mostly Decent

I was listening to that Troy Hunt talk that I linked to in order to synthesize the salient parts.  In it, he described what I can only imagine was a seriously damaged human being who started a website dedicated to trolling Troy.  But then he went on to say that the overwhelming majority of his interactions were actually positive.

That’s what I’ve found, too.  I would estimate that at least 98% of the comments on this blog are constructive and interesting, and I’m grateful to have them.  In spite of the potential out there for the internet to be terrible, you’re likely to find it mostly wonderful.

I close on this note to drive home an important point.  Negative comments are real, and you’re going to deal with them.  But they’ll also be only a tiny fraction of your experience, and one that you can easily manage.  So whatever you do, don’t let the potential for negative feedback stop you from putting yourself out there — don’t let the bastards get you down.

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5 years ago

Thanks. Very helpful and insightful post. Even Stack Overflow can be harsh!

(Minor, but I noticed two typos: “politcal” and “testiominals”.)

Tim Boyce
5 years ago
Reply to  Jubobs

I’m amused by how much people hate on Stack Overflow (the site) recently. They seem to expect to be provided with perfect answers to their poorly formed questions, forgetting that it’s free and volunteer driven. It certainly beats the options that came before it, in my opinion.

Mike Loux
Mike Loux
5 years ago

Not a blogger, but I agree with Jubobs’s post that even Stack Overflow can be harsh. The older I get, the less likely I am to dash off an angry retort (which is exactly what these trolls are looking for). Or (and this is something I tell my directs as well, including my lab manager who used to be very defensive and reactionary), go ahead and WRITE the rage-filled reply…but then DELETE it before you send it. Better yet, write it in Notepad or something, so it never actually runs the risk of accidentally being sent. You still got it… Read more »

5 years ago

This is such a horrible post!…just kidding. I love your stuff!

Erik Dietrich
5 years ago
Reply to  fernando