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How Not To Lose Your Mind On Message Boards (Or At Least Keep What's Left of It)
By Jonathan Moeller

 


The great science fiction/cyberpunk writer Neal Stephenson once observed that arguing with people over the Internet is "a sucker's game because they almost always turn out to be-- or to be indistinguishable from-- self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time."

About five minutes browsing a message board will prove this observation valid.

But, in these wired days, message boards are a superb way for writers to communicate with readers. It's also an excellent way to make new contacts; I've sold three short stories to an editor I initially met on a message board. And if you have books with a smaller publisher or a small-press house, the Internet is absolutely vital for promotion-- your book might disappear without a ripple, otherwise.

So message boards are a vital tool in a writer's promotional repertoire. But they're full of crazy people! This needn't be a concern, though; society is filled with crazy people, and it continues to function, most of the time. You just need to know how to present yourself, and I have some suggestions on how to do just that.

First, don't be a jerk. This is surprisingly useful advice for all parts of life, including message boards. Don't belittle people. Keep the profanity to a minimum. Don't indulge in long, incoherent rants on any topic. Don't do anything you'd be embarrassed to see someone else do. An excellent rule of thumb: if you write anything with the potential, however slight, to make you look like a jerk, it will come back to bite you someday. Consider it digital karma.

It's also a good idea to use appropriate grammar. L33tspeak might be useful when playing World of Warcraft, but if you're trying to convince people to buy your books and read your articles, it's best to avoid net slang. Using proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation on the Internet is the equivalent of wearing a suit; it makes you look better with very little effort on your part.

Most reviewers have websites nowadays, and these websites have message boards. If someone writes a negative review of your book, it's not a good idea to post on his or her message board. For one thing, most people's preferences for books are not much more complicated than I likes what I likes, and I don't likes what I don't likes, and reviewers, whatever lofty arguments they use, are no different. No amount of debate will change their minds. And if someone gives you a bad review and you do post a rebuttal on his or her site, you risk coming across as petulant. Anne Rice, for instance, had a famous meltdown on Amazon over negative reviews for her Blood Canticle, a meltdown that has risen to near-legendary status. Hence, if you come across someone trashing your work, it's best to just ignore them. (Of course, if you're the admin for the board, you can laugh maniacally as you delete his comments at will; no one ever said message boards had to be a democracy.)

In a similar vein, it's also best to avoid long, drawn-out arguments. It's like any happy marriage. While long discussions are a good thing, long arguments are not, and tend to result in one partner sleeping on a lumpy sofa in a drafty room. While message board arguments might not result in incommodious sleeping arrangements, they can devour otherwise productive hours, lead to much annoyance, and leave you staring at the monitor until your eyeballs begin to vibrate at four in the morning. If an argument has passed the point of usefulness, relevancy, or even entertainment, it's best to just let it go.

And, like the three billy goats gruff, beware the trolls. Unlike the billy goats' adversary, modern Internet trolls lurk on message boards, not under bridges, and post inflammatory messages to get people riled up. Overreacting to trolls, or trying to out-argue them, is not recommended.  Like bad reviewers, it's best to ignore trolls whenever possible, or to delete their posts, if you have admin rights. Of course, it's always possible to respond with wit and humor and grace. The aforementioned Neal Stephenson did so during his Slashdot.org interview (http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/10/20/1518217), when a potential troll asked if Stephenson could beat William Gibson in a fight. Stephenson responded by describing his three epic kung-fu battles with Gibson, complete with psionic powers, wakizashis, obscure Chinese martial-arts forms, and high-tech super-weaponry. Humor almost always trumps boorishness.

Finally, the best way to use a message board is to use it as little as possible. After all, we have better things to do. Like writing, right? Try to limit yourself to maybe an hour a day, if at all possible. The Internet is full of entertaining and time-consuming diversions, and message boards, while useful, can eat up a lot of otherwise useful time. So go forth and post, and have fun... but like all good things, know when to stop.


Jonathan Moeller is mostly a fantasy writer (Demonsouled from Gale/Five Star, and Worlds to Conquer coming soon from Mundania Press), and also writes science fiction and some freelance nonfiction (most recently, in Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into Michigan).

If you want to argue with him over the Internet, e-mail him at jmcontact@jonathanmoeller.com, or visit his website at http://www.jonathanmoeller.com.

 

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