I need to get the hang of forums September 1, 2010 12:10 PM   Subscribe

Articulating myself better on the blue, and elsewhere

(I know that this is a bit AskMeFi, but it is kind of about a question there, so here seemed better, hope that is okay).

I actually edit and write for much of my living. So you would have thought I could do this forums on the internet better. But I often seem unable to express myself properly, and people (rightly I guess) misunderstand me. Is there a good source (like a website) for learning how to express yourself 'properly' on the internet?
posted by Megami to MetaFilter-Related at 12:10 PM (40 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

Nah, this is probably better suited for AskMe, where you will receive no wise-ass comments like many I am thinking of right now but am refraining from typing.
posted by not_on_display at 12:14 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Emoticons are the key. :)
posted by smackfu at 12:14 PM on September 1, 2010

The really big deal with interacting with people online is getting a feel for the particular site and how people interact with each other there: what they expect, how they interact, good and bad things to do/avoid.

I assume you are asking this here because a few people misunderstood your AskMe question [which I was just looking at] and my take on that is that you asked one question "How much time with your kid is enough?" but it seemed like through explication the real issue is that your kid is having tantrums and is desirous of taking up all your time and you're feeling a little overwhelmed by this and yet also guilty about not wanting to spend all your time with him and frazzled being a single mom for eight more months.

So, people were trying to untangle what you were asking in their clunky dogged way and you responded with more information. It really seemed okay to me except that for some reason you see a disconnect where others might not see it from the outside. So this may be an issue where you're seeing a problem that others don't see [I don't see it, maybe others do] and/or you're taking peoples' requests for more information as more negative than I think perhaps they were intended.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:17 PM on September 1, 2010

Thanks Jessamyn, I think that is a great summary of that question on AskMe. I am genuinely interested in it as a general 'parenting' question, but then turned it all in to it being just about me, and then got defensive.

I guess I have found this happening more than once and thought 'what am I doing wrong so as people misunderstand me/get their backs up'. Getting their backs up is possibly just me misinterpreting, but as for misunderstanding, beyond the general not everyone understand everyone interaction you get with any medium, I was wondering what I could do to improve how I go about articulating what I want to get across.
posted by Megami at 12:22 PM on September 1, 2010

but then turned it all in to it being just about me, and then got defensive.

I think in AskMe the chances of writing an initial question that is fairly short and having no requests for clarification are quite low. When you ask something people's answers would change based on information you wouldn't have considered so it's probably best just to answer and take it neutrally in good faith even if it's quite snarky/clipped.

If it was happening on other parts of the site it might be you and your interweb skills but Ask reads a lot differently to me.
posted by shinybaum at 12:28 PM on September 1, 2010

Oh dear. I think I answered your question wrongly, then!
I think the only problem was that your question was too broad to actually answer (there, is no estimation of how much time is too long), while your details are extremely specific and seem only tangentially related to the original question. So I guess most people make a straight beeline for your specific situation because this is something they can answer.

I think it would help if you specified the type of answer you want. Like "your personal experiences, please". Or "is there any research about this?" Or "how much time would be good for me in my specific situation?"
Otherwise it's really hard to tell how to answer the question.

And keep in mind that no matter how wonderfully you express yourself, there will always, unfailingly, be people who will interpret something different into your question than you meant. Mefi and indeed communication itself is fallible that way.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:30 PM on September 1, 2010

The thing that has helped me, both as a librarian trying to understand people's questions but also as someone trying to ask good questions is thinking "What is the problem you are trying to solve?" So when someone comes into the library and asks for a good book to read, that could mean that they are going on vacation and need something for the plane, or it might mean that they just finished Don Quixote and are looking for the next novel, or it could mean they're asking for their daughter, who is eleven.

Figuring out how to ask follow-up questions that seem sincerely helpful and not pokey or nosey or snarky is something that many people on AskMe are just flat out not good at. Being able to reply to those follow-up questions with some degree of grace and charm may seem like you're ignoring the fact that someone was being possibly rude to you but at the same time, does set the tone well so that other people in the thread can feel like it's okay to ask questions, understand more.

So as a general rule, trying to avoid reading things in to people's answers [or asking your own clarifying questions], avoiding snarking back if people are being twitchy, flagging and moving on, obviously. A good general tactic is "If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying this..." or some sort of restatement if you really think people are missing your point. And, at some level, people's advice can be really helpful or it may be worthless. You have to, privately, filter out the worthless stuff and walk away with some things that can help you deal with your own issue. I think some people get really caught up in "thanks for nothing!" or "that's not helpful!" or "read the question idiot!" sorts of responses because they're really hoping for some sort of usefulness and instead wind up with unhelpful "DTMFA/therapy/meds/yoga/exercise/GiftofFear" answers that they could have told themsleves.

Often AskMe just winds up highlighting the thing that's the real problem which is something that the OP has declared [either outright or tacitly] "off the table" for discussion, and then the OP has to sit there thinking about their own tough choices.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:34 PM on September 1, 2010 [9 favorites]

Readers can easily get attached to odd specifics, so it's better to generalize as much as possible around your specific topic. Leaving out unnecessary details or re-wording them so they're more innocuous allows people to focus on the point of your writing. In your case, you could have said that you and your son were spending lots of time together over the summer, traveling and at home, with all the ups and downs that entails, and then you ask your question. Mentioning your husband's deployment, and especially detailing how you don't get along with your son sometimes, are superfluous to the question you want answered. Leave that stuff out.

Also, and I'm as guilty of this as anyone so, you know, grain of salt and all, but don't be so cutesy in your wording. I try to avoid twee phrasings &c. (hah!) when using AskMe by imagining it as one of those ancient room-sized mainframe computers, and I'm feeding a single tape into it in the hopes it'll spit out a good answer. The closer to simple dots and dashes my question text is, the better the machine can parse it and churn out a best answer.
posted by carsonb at 12:35 PM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hi Megami, I was in that thread, and I too write and edit for a living! From my perspective, it seemed you were looking for an objective answer to the question, yet, you had framed it with much that was quite subjective. Within that context, the initial question seemed dwarfed by the other issues you kind of layed out there. So, maybe wrongly, I felt like you were a young parent who was maybe giving too much weight to "how many hours exactly and in what proximity ..." and really needed to get a little yank back to basics.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:39 PM on September 1, 2010

On preview, jessamyn's last paragraph.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:41 PM on September 1, 2010

No omnomnom, your answer was great. I can see I was kind of trying to ask two questions (or more!) in one, that is part of the problem.

And carsonb - good point about the twee phrasing - I guess I wasn't sure of what tone to use. I didn't want to seem too harsh - this is parenting my kid we are talking about, and I am not desperate and ready to slash my wrists over it, some days (like today) we are great. I guess it was just interested generally as well as to get some perspective on my own situation, but backfired in the tone and execution.

Great tips/points BTW people. Thanks.
posted by Megami at 12:43 PM on September 1, 2010

And thinkpiece - thanks. See, I am not all that hung up on the 'what is the optimal x hours I need to spend' but can see how it looked like that!
posted by Megami at 12:44 PM on September 1, 2010

I find that I delete or otherwise decide not to go through with about 35% of my comments, posts, and questions. (Yeah, I know, it must seem crazy that I actually have even MORE to say than what is already apparent.)

Self-moderation is key. If you find yourself laboring over a particular comment, take a moment to ask whether you really have anything to say at all.
posted by hermitosis at 12:55 PM on September 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

To add to that, you often have to hang back and trust that someone else will come along and say what I am struggling to articulate. And almost always they do, usually better.
posted by hermitosis at 12:57 PM on September 1, 2010

AskMe can be tricky, because of the question you want to ask and the information you need to provide. With the former, you often realise midway through formulating your piece that the question you thought you had isn't actually the question - it's one or two steps away from the actual issue. So sometimes it's a case of writing and then completely rewriting something, as the first 'draft' has helped you thrash out the base issue.

For the latter, it's a balancing act. You need to provide a certain amount of detail so that people can give focused responses, but avoid overloading people with extraneous info - or indeed, some bit of fairly minor information that everyone fixates upon. I find this tends to happen with badly-phrased questions - the person is trying to convey background, and doesn't quite get the right phrasing for something that is to them quite minor - but the way it comes out is completely different, and before you know it there are tons of answers discussing it.

My general approach to AskMe is:
- Type out my question long-form. Just chuck everything relevant in
- Normally during this I'll realise that actually I need to be asking about something else
- Re-draft on the basis of that question.
- Try and get the question down to one sentence - the crux of the issue.
- Use More Inside for background and expansion of the question, but only give relevant information and try and keep it short.
- Monitor my questions. Often, people ask for more info or misinterpret stuff. A quick clarification, giving extra info or whatever can head off a protracted 'irrelevant' discussion

I also try and be as logical as possible in the structure, and recap at the end of any long sections. Also, things like spelling, grammar, punctuation. And avoiding huge walls of text.

You should be able to quickly assess from a question what the core issue is. I think really it just takes time (both in crafting a question and generally on MeFi to figure out what works best).

As for the blue - well, it's an eclectic mix, but it's less pressured. I often feel that if you are misunderstood, someone will take issue with it in some way, and stick around for the response. So you have an opportunity to go back and say that actually you meant something slightly different, and the person will get your point and everyone can move on happy. I get the feeling that AskMe can be a bit more fire-and-forget, whereby people swing by with answers and don't stick around for any further developments (the exception being relationshipfilter, because everyone loves a trainwreck, so everything tends to get thrashed out).
posted by djgh at 1:05 PM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

To add to that, you often have to hang back and trust that someone else will come along and say what I am struggling to articulate. And almost always they do, usually better.

Heh, mostly before for me. Always beaten to the punch. MeFites are a clever lot.
posted by djgh at 1:07 PM on September 1, 2010

Sometimes I've gotten answers that assumed incorrectly a lot of information about me and/or my motivations. I have learned the best thing to do is to sit back and look at the answers that come in unless people ask questions that I think are actually relevant to what I asked or if all the answers seem to be off track. I just disregard the answers that have the wrong assumptions or I don't think are relevant. They don't know me, there's only so much I can put in a question, some points are just not important to me etc. I have never asked a subjective question that hasn't had both really good and extremely off answers, that's just what happens with such a large pool of answerers. It's not (or doesn't have to be) personal.
posted by Kimberly at 1:34 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Megami, take a look at this (short) question for a view from the other side of this.

The Asker got pretty defensive and pissy by the end, even though people actually were answering his direct question--they were also just suggesting other issues he clearly didn't want to hear about.

You're not doing that, of course, but I think it's helpful to see it from the other side--people don't have all the information and don't really know the situation. And people have good intentions--it's helpful to remember that.

(Also I'm going to post in your original thread. Good luck.)
posted by bluedaisy at 1:52 PM on September 1, 2010

to the club
impluvium is not for feet
and the frigidarivm is quite temperatre.
some syriam wime just arrived from Ostia
and fresh Gelotophyllis from Sura.

fires lit.
posted by clavdivs at 1:54 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and my other point about that guy in the other thread is that he should've just ignored the stuff he didn't want to hear and taken some very good tips on shoes and left it at that. Instead he got all riled up. And what's the good in that?
posted by bluedaisy at 1:54 PM on September 1, 2010

spell check first and

What is the problem you are trying to solve
is the best ah yeah.
yeah solves the problem.
posted by clavdivs at 1:56 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, yes! it's usually a mistake to try to be casual/conversational/ironic or even a bit funny, or anything like that in an AskMe question, because it will attract a lot of answers that assume you are an idiot.

Basically, forget the idea that you talking to peers. For the most part, you probably are, but for the more most part, answerers don't take that attitude toward askers, even when it seems like they should. For example, one thing I would have told you is definitely not to use the "push each others buttons" phrase, because people would make way too much of that. You could say that to someone else personally, and they would instantly get it, but since in Ask you can't exactly be expansive, it will be one of the few clues that people use to respond... even if they don't actually have an answer to your question.

I think it's possibly often more difficult for people who are used to writing professionally to write a good (as in ultimately effective) AskMe question, because you have to trim away any possible word or phrase that might lead people down imaginary rabbit holes, and professional writers are accustomed to making their writing interesting. In Ask, "interesting" bits can often be extrapolated as abusive/ignorant/complacent/smug/jeering... and etc.

And I don't say this as innocent party. It's happened to me (and it sucked!), but I think I've inflicted once or twice on this level as well... So take this advice from a sinner: try to narrow your question as much as possible, and don't be clever (or comfortable! Ask hates that!). Try to make your statement as factual and dry as possible, and be prepared for misunderstanding and accusation nonetheless.
posted by taz at 2:26 PM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Lots of good advice here, and you seem to be dealing with things remarkably well, but I just thought I'd add this: no matter how good your writing and editing skills are, it is very very difficult to write coherently about something so intimately part of you. Your relationship with your kid is at the absolute core of your life, and you probably have a hard time articulating things about it to yourself; how can you hope to produce a nice, clear question about it that everyone else will automatically understand? I think it's almost inevitable that a question like yours will be pretty much blurted out in a messy fashion, and that people will then have to pick their way through it and try to puzzle out with your help what's actually going on and what you need to have answered.

In other words, I think it went pretty well, and you shouldn't worry about your communication skills!
posted by languagehat at 3:03 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The shoe guy has an undisclosed hereditary illness that usually affects only women, and he is determined not to have that be the problem. Which is just fine with me.

I would say your son is very anxious about losing you and clings because he doesn't really appreciate that he hasn't actually lost his father.

If I were you, I'm not sure I'd entirely appreciate that myself, nor am I altogether sure that you in fact do.

If I had to guess, I'd venture that you may not have done as good a job addressing your son's anxieties as you usually do, because you are anxious about this yourself. I don't blame you if this is the case, either. It would be very hard to do that well.

Because you are a good writer, your question is evocative and full of such undertones and overtones.

Different answers resonate with different patterns of these, and sometimes the result can be dissonant or even grating, depending on your sensibilities (and sensitivities).
posted by jamjam at 3:06 PM on September 1, 2010

I wanted to suggest that you might come across more clearly if you don't use the post structure that starts with a gerund and doesn't form a complete sentence, like you did here.

Then I read some of the other comments and realized maybe that is just something that annoys me and is not a problem on your end. I especially agree with jessamyn and languagehat.

But really, it is annoying.
posted by achmorrison at 3:15 PM on September 1, 2010

?? There is a slew of contemporary (pop culture-informed) X structures that start with a gerund as a header, a la "Chasing Amy" or "Deconstructing Harry" or "Hating Whitey." Please.
posted by taz at 3:33 PM on September 1, 2010

There's a larger number of posts which are constructed using complete sentences. For me, the flow of reading a question is broken if I have to parse the sentence fragment in order to interpret what the user is asking. It grates on my nerves. Forgive me.
posted by achmorrison at 3:45 PM on September 1, 2010

Forgiving You

I actually like and admire achmorrison, and hold no bad feelings... but we just seem to disagree here.
posted by taz at 3:56 PM on September 1, 2010

You are totally forgiven, but, yeah, that's kind of Quixotic and probably not so much useful advice as it is understandable style kvetching. You should see the comma splices I've gotten in the habit of committing around here. Horror show stuff. But people are going to write in all sorts of ways, and as long as the actual grammatical structure is not itself actively preventing reasonable people from understanding the intent it's probably not the thing to focus on.
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:20 PM on September 1, 2010

Do what I'm terrible at: keep it brief, keep it to the point, and try to be humble and polite and specific.
posted by davejay at 4:25 PM on September 1, 2010

I find that I delete or otherwise decide not to go through with about 35% of my comments, posts, and questions. (Yeah, I know, it must seem crazy that I actually have even MORE to say than what is already apparent.)

Self-moderation is key. If you find yourself laboring over a particular comment, take a moment to ask whether you really have anything to say at all.

I do that a lot. Glad to know I'm not the only one.
posted by zarq at 4:25 PM on September 1, 2010

I do that, too, but apparently not as often as I should.

Actually, MeFi really drilled that into my head: THINK AND RE-READ BEFORE HITTING POST. AND THEN HIT PREVIEW FIRST.
posted by not_on_display at 4:32 PM on September 1, 2010

Well, I commented in that thread, and since you're asking about it in MeTa, and specifically asking about your choice of words, I'll give you my honest opinion.

First of all: there are several deficiencies with AskMe. We're reading about a situation out of the blue, probably knowing nothing about the person or situation (unless they've asked a series of memorable, related questions or the person has a well-known persona on the site, but both of those are rare). We have very little context; we're just getting a brief description in plain text; and we're getting only one person's perspective.

OK, in the context of all that, can you see how many answerers would approach a question by trying to find an unusual wording -- a wording that the OP might not have intended to be very significant or the focus of the question, but that allows us to give an analysis of the "real" problem underlying the situation? The very fact that this wording seems to have been a casual reference, not the focus, may only intensify our sense that the OP has inadvertently revealed "the heart of the matter."

If you can see that point, then imagine you're me. You open up ask.metafilter.com in your broswer with no idea what the questions are going to be about it or who they'll be asked by. You open up a question about parenting that sounds vaguely interesting based on the first sentence. You don't recognize the username. You don't know anything about who's asking the question except: mother of 6-year-old boy. You're looking through the question and don't really have much to say. You're not a parent, so you assume you might as well let other people offer their expert advise, which they're sure to do.

But then this jumps out at you: "we push each others buttons and it escalates very quickly." And you think: whoa, that sounds way, way off from how I expect a parent to be talking about their 6-year-old child. That has got to be pointed out. If I don't point out the problem with that, someone else will.

So, I wrote a quick comment just to say: that is really ... really not how it works.

You responded to me by username and said you might not have been "clear." To me, that's a polite way of saying: "You misinterpreted what I said; therefore, your answer is invalid." But your follow-up comment didn't really change my mind that I had made a good point. So I just went away thinking: "I had a good point, but she dismissed it. Too bad." I'm not complaining that you didn't like my point, but it's better to err on the side of not responding at all to people you disagree with unless there's some important clarification. I know you phrased your comment as a clarification, but I didn't see it clearing anything up -- it struck me as basically a repetition and justification of what you had said in the post. My instinct was to say: "OK, but ... didn't you see when I said [my original comment]??"

I'm not trying to draw this out any more than necessary, but you brought up your communication in that thread, so there's my honest opinion.
posted by John Cohen at 7:17 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's okay that we disagree. :)

For some reason, the structure is not annoying to me when it is used as a title ("Chasing Amy", etc.) I'm thinking of the posts like these (from today alone):

Taking my car...on a cross-country road trip on Saturday. Need some more advice.

Gardening/landscaping ideas needed.

It's a total kvetch, I know. But there is something about the lack of subject in the sentences that seems off to me.

So when this post used that structure to ask about how to write more articulately online, I just found it a little ironic. I had a feeling I would be in the minority. I guess it's out of my system now. :)
posted by achmorrison at 7:31 PM on September 1, 2010

When you have a draft of your comment that you like, read it again, pretending (to the best of your ability) that it was written by someone else and that you need to understand it completely (or, at least, well enough to formulate a consistent response).

You have a lot of context in your head; some of it is crucial to understanding your comment, but doesn't always make it into the first draft.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:52 PM on September 1, 2010

It helps, when giving advice, if one also actually follows it. My previous comment was intended to refer to the generic "you", not to Megami specifically.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:32 PM on September 1, 2010

shinybaum: "When you ask something people's answers would change based on information you wouldn't have considered so it's probably best just to answer and take it neutrally in good faith even if it's quite snarky/clipped."

This. I asked a question about Guitar Hero drums. The person who responded asked if I was using the Rock Band kit or some other brand that escapes me at the moment. My first thought was "I said Guitar Hero didn't I!? What do you think I'm using?"

I tend to do that a lot though. It comes from hanging out in too many fora where people are being snarky and not trying to get more information so they could help.
posted by theichibun at 4:45 AM on September 2, 2010

You thought that was bad? Try asking an anonymous question sometime. You could have your whole life and the choices you've made invalided based on some minor detail or awkward wording.

I try to take AskMe with a sense of "Hey, it's just another tool", not matter what side of the table I'm on. It's, hopefully, another source of advice, as opposed to a singular authority. M special snowflake advice may mean a little or it may mean a lot and in either case, it still might be wrong for that particular situation, due to some left out detail or misunderstanding on my part.

The great benefit of AskMe, IMO, is that you can get a large assortment of answers that consider things you haven't thought of or perhaps not as deeply or widely. To me, it's plus when several different, if not exact opposite, pieces of advice are given, especially in the more personal questions. Hopefully the question asker considers all sides and it helps them decide the route for them, not me or anyone else in the thread.

The flip side of that great benefit is that the question asker may hear things they don't want to hear. That can be tough to take, especially if it's a nasty pile on or if the question asker is in the wrong somehow. But ultimately, it's up to the question asker to decide what to do with the advice and baring any specific requests for help from me, I shouldn't concern myself with the issue too much. In the end, I'm just trying to give something back to the world, in some small way.
posted by nomadicink at 5:34 AM on September 2, 2010

I find that I delete or otherwise decide not to go through with about 35% of my comments, posts, and questions. (Yeah, I know, it must seem crazy that I actually have even MORE to say than what is already apparent.)

Self-moderation is key. If you find yourself laboring over a particular comment, take a moment to ask whether you really have anything to say at all.

Hermitosis said what I came to say, except my numbers are reversed. About 60% of what I write into this box, I just delete and move on.
posted by fake at 6:42 AM on September 2, 2010

Ha! I love the shoe guy! He sassed you guys good.

This place is awesome and has amazing people in it and I am sad my work blocks it now. But with a giant population of smart people comes a giant population of people who think they know everything, and because it's the internet they are really not shy about expressing that.

So I am with the people who say you should talk like a robot. Nobody can tell a robot it's a shitty person who should totally break up with otherwise decent person/quit otherwise lucrative job/change otherwise sound opinion!

I am merely turning the eye inward because I am as bad as any of them, I know it, but that's because unlike everyone else here, I AM RIGHT ALL THE TIME.
posted by mckenney at 3:49 PM on September 2, 2010

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