How to Lurk Less (and benefit others while benefiting yourself)

by romeostevensit1 min read17th Feb 202015 comments

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Posts like this have been written before, but I think it's worth making the point periodically.

Lurker ratios have likely increased over time. Comments and discussion are an important feedback mechanism for content creators. So if you see stuff you like, and you'd like to see more posts like it, it's quite helpful to comment. Many people report being intimidated about posting, especially if the platform in question has a highly specific vocabulary and norms. I wanted to offer a couple of the heuristics I use for making comments as well as invite others to boggle/comment/discuss what they think mediates the difference between times they do and don't comment.

In a shallow review of the pedagogy literature, four interventions stood out as having large effect sizes replicate: deliberate practice, test taking, elaborating the context (cross linking knowledge), and teaching the material to others. Cross linking provides an easy heuristic for commenting: simply mention which idea(s) in the post stood out to you most and how they connect to your existing knowledge. This helps you by strengthening those connections, and helps others because each person's cross links have some chance of being unique and therefore surprising to others. I think of this as a sort of low rent version of helping the post author cite additional sources. And speaking as a writer, these sorts of comments are always welcome as I learn about which ideas tend to stand out the most to people and might be worth writing more about.

Another heuristic I've found quite helpful is just to say more obvious things on the margin. Due to illusion of transparency, many things wind up being less obvious than I thought. This also forms a bit of a virtuous cycle as it helps reduce the context overhead for other readers, giving them more on ramps to comment and discuss. You will pay a minor cost of people occasionally getting frustrated that you're repeating something they already know about, but this happens much, much less often in my experience than people thanking me for alerting them to some concept that they either were only somewhat familiar with or had never heard before. This doubles as good vulnerability practice, creating more opportunities to connect with people over odd corners of mutual interest.

I think it's worth it to try over correcting here. I have had a surprising number of experiences of people telling me I was the first person to thank them for something that I imagined was popular enough for them to get lots of feedback on.

Please feel free to comment on things that have made you feel better about commenting, or if you're an existing contributor what sorts of comments make you feel most appreciated for your writing efforts.

P.S. I waffled about making this post, then realized that was kind of silly.

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There is a phenomenon among students of mathematics where things go from being "difficult" to "trivial" as soon as concepts are grasped. The main reason why I don't comment many of my thoughts is that I think that since I can think them, they must not be very hard to think, so commenting them is kind of useless. I think me thinking that my thoughts aren't very novel/insightful/good explains nearly all of the times I don't comment - if I have a thought I think is non-trivial to think or I have access to information that I think most people do not have access to, I will likely comment it (this happens extremely rarely).

However, I agree that people should say more obvious things on the margin.

(I also think that, on the margin, people should compliment other people more. I liked this post and think it is an important problem to try and solve.).

There is more to say about going from "difficult" to "trivial" in that normally it takes a good deal of building foundational background knowledge for the "trivialness" to fall out. So that puts one in a tricky situation where one second guesses if they should mention the trivial concept at all because anyone who has the foundation will likely already have gotten it and for anyone who doesn't it might be asking a lot of them to get up to speed.

(arbital.com is making a good effort at solve this problem. I mention them for two reasons: one because its true and two because I don't really have any conflict about signal boosting anything I enjoy that's also useful.)

Something that may or may not help: varying levels of pressure to make quality posts and comments. So you have a place for low-quality posts and off-the-cuff comments, to help generate ideas and grow some familiarity with stuff in a safer environment, and then a place for actually good content to direct people to later.

LW feels like it's one of the latter.

Yeah maybe there should be a way to self mark comments as less important, potentially tangential, etc and have them clearly separated. The distinguishing between Answers and Comments in question posts feels useful in that way.

For "quality vs off-the-cuff posts", wanted to make sure you knew about the shortform feature.

I think it's OK for LW comments to be relatively off-the-cuff (in the sense of a discussion section for a college course). I mean, my off-the-cuff comments get upvoted, at least.

I had not considered commenting as a form of vulnerability practice, but as a person who struggles with vulnerability, it was a very salient point in your post. Well done.

I also appreciated the discussion of your heuristics, as it helped me frame the pedagogical facets of commenting and discussion in ways I had not previously considered. When I'm engaging with these sort of concepts, I struggle to frame them usefully in discussion with others. Your explanation made it easier for me to consider how I might engage in these discussions in the future.

Thanks for writing this. This post comes at an apt time as I'm considering commenting more on LW (a club I've crashed but I'm making myself at home).

I read this post and it feels all about positive feedback - phases like "say if you like something, ideas that stand out, worth writing more about ..."

What about comments that aren't so flattering? That might be considered critical, negative, in disagreement?

Pointing out biases and errors, things that should be re-worded and what's just a load of waffle?!

It would be useful to know which authors want honest feedback - I'm not bothered about the negative karma as such, but it's a waste of my time commenting if it's down-voted out of view and/or the author isn't interested in the thoughts of this internet-random.

If ideas are to be developed and thought improved, should they not be open to all feedback?

whether it feels warm and fluffy or whether it's a more like a kick in the guts.

Rational thinking - information gathering, logical thinking, considering all the possibilities, keeping an open mind, letting the ego go ...

Collaborative criticism definitely feels different from adversarial criticism. I try (and don't always succeed) at doing the former unless the author wants the latter.

Collaborative v. adversarial are not categories I'd use for feedback - but do you not sometimes succeed because of what you've written, or is it the way the recipient receives it?

I aim to be factual and fair. But also honest and direct. Which can come over as harsh sometimes but it comes from a position of wanting to help.

How much time do I spend framing 'less than congratulatory' feedback?

How is the author going to take that feedback whatever I write?

A lot comes down to the author's reaction rather than the feedback given.

I get the impression that there's bloggers that want to write stuff and bask in their glory of great thinking, and then there's other authors that are developing thoughts and ideas. Who wants feedback?

How about "I don't understand X, can someone explain?" comments? I don't see those very often, but I think they would be pretty awesome! The person with the question gets their question answered; other people with the question get an answer; people who didn't have the question get some cross-linking; it provides an easy way for lurkers to participate more; and this activity on the post provides encouragement to the author. I've had this in my mind as something to do more often for a while but haven't taken much action on it for some reason.

I agree with this. Thinking about it, I think it's very easy to just slide past posts that I don't understand on the assumption that explaining more would be tedious for the author. But this doesn't make sense since I never find such comments tedious on my own posts.

Right. And there are probably many people other than the author who can respond to your question as well.

Posts like this have been written before, but I think it's worth making the point periodically.

Agreed.

In general I like this sort of metadata in posts. Since I'm pro-making-the-point-periodically, this particular metadata wasn't necessary for me, but if I wasn't I could imagine myself progressing through the following thought process: "Ugh, this has been said already. Oh wait, he's acknowledging that. Hm, actually I think I've undervalued the benefits of making the point periodically. Let's keep reading..."

Another thing I like about this sort of metadata is that I suspect that it makes posting less intimidating. Eg for a post like this, without the metadata you as the author might feel hesitant ("People will be annoyed because this has been said already."), but by adding the metadata you might feel better about posting it ("Even though it's been said already, I do have the disclaimer.) And by including metadata it sorta shows others that doing so is acceptable and makes them feel comfortable including it in their own posts.