The Power of Online Comments and a Caution to People Who Write Them

Laptop sitting on a bed in a dark room
Earlier this year, I made the risky decision to write about the church’s struggle to connect with people in the gay community (to which Lisa wrote an additional piece). It was a tough topic because I was juggling all kinds of competing interests: There was God, first and foremost, whom I didn’t want to misrepresent. There were my gay friends, whom I didn’t want to alienate. And then there were believers, whom I wanted to encourage, rather than accuse.

Of course it would’ve been easier to avoid writing the piece altogether, but I wanted to offer something redemptive from a Christian perspective that would be uplifting. I should’ve been prepared for the cacophony of reactions.

I prayed about it, called my editor on the weekend to talk it out, and ran the whole idea past my wife and one of the most successful and brilliant conservative, Christian attorneys in Washington, D.C. With great caution and prayer, I spent hours working on a 700-word blog post.

I knew it wouldn’t be well-received by some people, and I was prepared for that, but the experience ended up being more stressful than I had anticipated. As it started to go semi-viral and appear on Christian social media channels, the comments became increasingly rancorous. Some people applauded the piece, but plenty of others did far more than simply disagree. They ripped the piece to shreds, took my words out of context and misconstrued the message. They questioned my theology and morals, and they hurled insults at Focus on the Family, the ministry that publishes Boundless.

At its worst, the internet can be a dark and lonely place where very few are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. As the angry chorus gained steam, I found the response both disturbing and stressful. I mean, these weren’t commenters over at the Washington Post — they were self-professing Christians, and there was zero grace in most of their responses. I eventually decided, for my mental and spiritual health, to stop reading the comments.

I had taken several hours to write that piece and chose every word with care. These folks, on the other hand — some of whom probably didn’t even read the whole thing — spent a couple of minutes writing responses filled with anger and too many exclamation points. The effort-to-output ratios were too far apart to create any kind of meaningful interaction.

However, there were others who respectfully disagreed and advised on how I could have made the piece stronger. This included the Boundless audience, a few followers on my Facebook page and even a well-respected author who, after taking the time to tell me he was considering writing a public response, privately let me respond to his concerns through email.

But I can’t judge those who hastily pound out a reply on the keyboard and hit “submit” before rereading it. I used to be that guy — the one who carelessly wrote comments on articles. It gave me a little rush, especially when a contingent of readers started agreeing with me. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I want people to read my articles charitably, assuming the best of intentions instead of the worst. As Joy Beth recently said in response to some angry readers in a Facebook conversation, “Hey folks — please keep in mind that there’s a real person on the other end of this conversation.”

The next time you get ready to write an angry comment, status update or tweet, keep in mind that many writers are reading your responses to their work. They are eager for feedback, so your words matter a great deal. Be gracious, but honest. Be kind, but clear. And always, always assume your words will have an impact — they aren’t being sent out into a void — and consider what you’d like that impact to be. In the words of Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

It takes more work to do that, but as Andy Stanley once said, “It’s easy to make a point. If you have a computer, a blog, a Twitter account, you can make a point. But you’re not going to make a difference. We have been called to be difference makers.” It’s a unique opportunity to influence the writers who will read your comments, so steward that power well.

About the Author

Joshua Rogers

Joshua Rogers is an attorney and writer who lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and three children. In addition to writing for Boundless, he has also written for ChristianityToday.com, FOXNews.com, Washington Post, Thriving Family, and Inside Journal. His personal blog is www.joshuarogers.com. You can follow him @MrJoshuaRogers or on his Facebook page.