Last week, Kate and I flew to Utah to attend the Altitude Design Summit, which, much like last year, did not disappoint. The conference was jam-packed with amazing panels, people and enough inspiration to keep me going for a few months with new ideas. I was excited to speak on a panel again this year discussing Online Etiquette and Ethics.
Alt’s schedule was filled to the brim with slightly sexier topics that involved learning how to make money with your blog and how to throw amazing parties, so a big part of me was worried that no one would come to a panel that might be a bit controversial or even a bit difficult in terms of tackling somewhat tough topics. But I was thrilled and surprised to see people fill the room and really enjoy learning from some of the sticky situations that my fantastic panel mates — Joy from Oh Joy! and Emily from Once Wed — and I had navigated. Our panel ended up taking 50 of our 60 minutes, so I wanted to share the information, tips and advice we shared during the talk, as well as some ideas audience members shared.
Because we had a pretty info-heavy presentation, I’m breaking the notes into three parts. Starting today with
Part 1: Comments (Good and Bad), Copying/Stealing and Crediting.
These topics were the heaviest and stickiest addressed, so I’m going to do my best to summarize what we discussed. Our goal was not to hand attendees a list of rules but rather to learn from each other’s experiences and discuss how to manage tough situations and form better relationships with other bloggers.
*Just like our panel, I’m more than happy to answer comments in the comment section below regarding today’s topic. I’ll pass these on to my panel mates as well, so they can weigh in when they have time. So please consider this an open discussion on the issue. We can all learn from each other’s experiences with these issues.
CLICK HERE for the rest of Part 1: Commenting, Copying/Stealing and Crediting after the jump (it’s over 3,000 words, so hang in there)!
Commenting can seem like one of the easiest topics to cover, but it can actually be pretty tricky. One of the things our panel and the audience agreed about was that comment “etiquette” is changing as quickly as blogs are, and what was once deemed as appropriate or even “good” commenting behavior can sometimes lead to stepping on other bloggers’ toes. So to start this discussion, we tackled the idea of what a great comment would look like for most bloggers.
Joy, Emily and I all agreed that our ideal comments would be those that contributed constructively to an agreement, remained on topic (for the post) and left promotional linking to the providing commenting spaces.
I remember just a few years ago, people were telling other bloggers that a great way to promote their blogs was to stick a signature with their blog’s name, motto, URL, Twitter feed, etc. into EVERY comment. This quickly became something that most bloggers I knew hated. It seemed like people were using comments purely as an excuse to promote, and less as a forum for discussion or a space to leave a genuine comment. To me, it felt like going to a cocktail party and giving someone your business card and elevator pitch every time you met them — even if you’d already met them 10 times before. Would you do that in person? Probably not. So why do it online?
Most bloggers leave and accept comments to generate discussions, engagement and “real” interaction between readers. So to have someone constantly chime in with a lot of “Check out my blog’s giveaway!” comments feels like a cheapening of the comment area.
So, if plugging your business or blog feels inappropriate, how do you use your comments to get people to know you, your brand and your blog? Simple: use the comment spaces provided. If you really want to be known as your business name, change your commenting handle to “Jenny from Store B” or just “Store B” and use the provided URL link in every blog’s comment section to make sure your name/handle links straight back to your blog or business. After that, comment often and do your best to make sure your comment contributes something interesting to the conversation. Comments that go beyond “I love it!” or “I hate that!” Stand out the most.*
*Note: Also, keep your comment tone in mind if you’re commenting as the face of your brand. What you say will be associated with your brand, too.
Bottom line: Comment sections are about comments, not self-promotion, so please use them wisely and to build trust with your fellow commenters. Use provided spaces for your business name and links, and leave the body of your comments for topical discussions.
Negative comments are one of the less-fun parts of blogging. And they’re a place where etiquette (both in leaving them and handling them) comes into play the most. I had the bittersweet honor among my panel mates of being the blog-owner with the most negative-comment experience. In comment sections, emails and through social networking, I’ve learned how to handle and deal with life’s less pleasant commentary. So I wanted to share the methods/steps I’ve created to deal with and manage negative commentary.
But before I dive in, I wanted to share a tip on which all of our panel mates agreed: Come up with a clear, easy-to-understand comment policy and post it on your site (preferably next to where people actually leave comments). People often feel pressured by readers to make their comment sections some sort of Model UN governed by the idea that free speech trumps everything else. But one thing to keep in mind (whether you choose to act on it or not) is that your blog is just that: yours. No one has the right to tell you what you allow and don’t allow on your site. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you allow negative comments or even moderate comments at all. You are well within your right as a blog-owner to moderate (but not modify) comments left on your blog. I’ve chosen to moderate comments over the years based on our current comment policy, which clearly prohibits comments that do not seek to contribute constructively to the discussion, seek to attack someone personally or seek to promote an unrelated business or blog.
Joy, Emily and I all have slightly different comment policies, but we all agreed that the presence of a comment policy is one of the most helpful things when dealing with negative comments. It gives your readers a guideline and sets the tone for your blog’s comment section.*
*Note: There are ups and downs to moderating. Pros: Your readers (and post subjects) feel safe to comment and know they won’t get bashed across the web without any defense. Cons: Some readers feel that blogs should allow any and all comments without moderation. So you may lose (or just hear from) readers who feel that way. As long as you’re transparent about your policy, you give readers the chance to make that choice themselves.
Dealing with Negative Comments
A while ago, someone asked me what I thought about negative comments, so I filled what felt like four pages of a Formspring page with my thoughts and methods for this topic. Rather than take up all of the space here with those tips, I’ll summarize my ideas below and refer to the full post here.
Dealing with negative comments is all about two things: Objectively understanding what the comment says and assessing the commenter’s behavior. Understanding both of those will help you learn to let comments roll off your back and when to step in and say something.
Here’s how I handle negative comments:
1. Assess the comment. This is hard to do because we all take these comments personally. But 90% of the negative comments most of us get aren’t actually about US. They’re about someone hating an object, a piece of art, an idea or a discussion. It’s tough not to take that personally, but the most important thing to do first is to distance yourself from the comment and try to assess whether it’s really a personal attack or just an attack or criticism of an idea/thing. Once you can see the comment clearly for what it is, you’ll be better able to decide whether or not you let it go or hit delete.
2. Assess the commenter’s pattern. I find that understanding someone’s commenting behavior is very helpful. And most helpful is your new best friend: your blog’s IP tool. When someone leaves a comment that bothers me, I click his or her IP address in our WordPress back end to see what else the commenter said. I typically see three different things and here is how I handle them:
- Drop by Deadbeat: If I see someone’s never been to the site and has never commented before, and all they have to say is something jerky, I tend to just let it go. Sometimes links to your site get out to audiences that don’t understand or appreciate the niche you cover — or just plain don’t like it. They rarely come back, and you’ll notice that these people are the online equivalent to someone walking past you in a mall and rolling their eyes about something you’re wearing. Lame? Yes. Rude? Probably. But a big deal? For me, not so much.
- Serial Negative Nancy: These people really bug me, mostly because when I click their IP, I notice that all they EVER say are things like “I hate this” or “This is STUPID.” I always wonder why they feel the need to only say negative things, but at the end of the day, I remember that they’re often people who feel negative about most things in life. So personally, I just let it go and know that when they DO leave a positive comment, I’ll know they really, really had to like it. But mostly, I sort of shrug these off (and publish them) as another example of someone who just doesn’t have anything nice to say . . . ever.
- First-Time Caller: The one time I really get involved with a commenter and their negative comment is if I check their IP and see that they have a history of leaving rational, constructive comments. If this person has proven that she or he is mature and can comment constructively, and then out of nowhere flies off the handle, I see that as a sign that I should pay serious attention. I often email these people directly to discuss the outburst. It almost always leads to defusing the situation and often, learning something I could do better next time to avoid the issue again. These people are valuable learning tools; if they’re normally constructive and then freak out, you may have a chance to get to know a commenter better or learn about something you can do to improve your site.*
*Note: A particularly harsh grammar comment was what inspired me to finally save up and hire a copy editor for D*S. A reader flew off the handle with a huge rant that shocked me, but lead to an email exchange that convinced me that it was time to take that aspect of my site more seriously.
3. What to do next? Now that you’ve assessed the comment and the commenter, you can choose whether to publish or delete the comment. That individual decision is up to each blog owner, but I’d suggest that it’s sometimes more powerful to let a negative comment about you or your blog stand as a sign that you’re strong enough to handle it and let it roll off your back. That said, it’s your site, and you have the right to decide what you publish and don’t publish.
I’ll keep it real, this topic is TOUGH. Namely because we all work so hard on our blogs that it’s difficult not to take similarities personally and feel like they are copied. So here are the points we discussed when it comes to dealing with this topic:
1. Is it really copying? If your post is based on a product, it’s hard to claim copying because PR people often (stupidly) email many bloggers at once, even if they say they don’t. So product or magazine review-based posts are really hard to consider copying. Even if you suspect they are, keep in mind that this may not be the time to “pick a battle.”
*Emily, Joy and I all agreed that the best way to avoid this issue is to consider embracing original content on your site, or content that you create on your own without the help of a magazine, press release, etc. Readers and traffic often follow this type of content because it’s unique to your voice and your site.
2. Handle the issue personally. Most people see something they feel is copied or stolen and fly off the handle. Believe me, I’ve done it myself and know that it’s easy to slide down that slippery slope, and you’ll almost always regret it. Rather than assuming the worst about someone, discuss it personally first. Assume that the person who’s taken a post, idea or column from you was merely showing their love for your work and see if you can diffuse that bomb rather than explode it. Have a calm, personal conversation about your work and how you’d appreciate them not copying it in full, and more often than not, you’ll find a find a nice blogger who didn’t know he or she was stepping on your toes. Discuss a solution you can both live with, and you may even make a new blogging friend.
3. What to do if you can’t handle the issue personally. Know your rights and pick your battles. If you see your content being reproduced online, in print or on TV and know it’s being done at your expense, feel free to get counsel. If it’s serious (i.e., not a smaller personal blog), consider consulting a local lawyer. A lawyer can tell you if it’s worth pursuing legally. In six years of blogging, I’ve only had to do this three times, so I promise, it doesn’t often get to this level.*
*Note: If you find a scraper or spam site profiting from your content (e.g., running it as a feed and selling ads), the fastest way to end that is to contact their site’s service provider and let them know about the copyright violation. They are more likely to respond than the jerks scraping your content.
How To Avoid Copying Someone Else
A good rule of thumb is to never reproduce someone else’s content in full without written permission, period. Always, always summarize someone’s content. An image or two with summary text and a linked credit is a safe, basic level from which to start. Most of the emails I get from people asking how to deal with copying are about people scraping a full post (images included) on their site. If you run someone’s full post, it doesn’t give readers much reason to click on the original site for the full post, so do your best to honor the original source by enticing people to click over and view the full post there.
Post/image/graphic layouts are other areas to avoid lifting. Joy in particular discussed this issue because she puts a lot of time and effort into creating custom graphic headers/layouts for her post images. People often copy those and reproduce them, and that is something bloggers notice as well. There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from something, but reproducing content or a layout in full will be considered copying by most bloggers.
How To Protect Yourself
Knowing your rights is a big part of dealing with this issue. Original content is copyrighted the moment you write it on your blog. You can go through the extra effort of working with a copyright lawyer to copyright your content on a yearly basis, but most people are fine with the copyright level that you get from writing something online with your name attached. Beyond that, you may want to be informed about where your content is being run online without your permission or without you knowing it.
WARNING: These tools can be a little bit dangerous because you’ll be tempted to contact them ALL to take down images, text, etc. Please pick your battles and approach people kindly before jumping into legal jargon.
1. Tynt: Tynt is a program you can install in your site’s header that inserts a credit tag/text every time someone copies a chunk of text or images from your site. The code can obviously be removed by the blogger who took your content, but I find it’s a good reminder for them not to take something without crediting.
2. TinEye: TinEye is an astounding tool. Upload any image (regardless of changed file name) and Tineye will find EVERYWHERE it lives on the web. Photographers are using this tool more and more to get compensation for images used without permission, so it’s a good reminder to get permission to use images before you run them.
Bottom line: Don’t use people’s original work or ideas without permission. And if you correctly assess that you’ve been copied, approach people calmly and personally before getting “the law” involved.
Last but not least, if there’s one thing that bloggers can do to avoid stepping on each other’s toes and maintain relationships and non-burned bridges, it’s this: always credit your sources.
With the proliferation of (albeit great) sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, people often forget to credit where they find images, or the crediting process gets watered down by people Tumbl-ing and re-Tumbl-ing things so many times that original sources get lost. What’s the best way to fix this? If you are using someone else’s content, whether it’s text or images, always provide an easy to see link to the original source next to the image or text.
One of the comments we heard most at the panel was, “As a design blogger, I have tons of folders full of images, and I forget where they came from because they’ve been in there for months.” So we came up with a few suggestions:
1. Rename any image you drag off the web with the URL of the site (preferably with the direct link to the post that the image came from).
2. Use a program like Evernote (thanks to Erica, Meagan and Susan for the tip in their Alt Panel!) to organize your inspiration images and keep direct links to things. Keep a program like that on your desktop, laptop, phone or any other device you might use to keep inspiration images, and you can avoid the issue all together.
But do you have to ask for permission for EVERYTHING?
Bottom line? Unless it’s a press release or retail-based promotional post, yes. I’ve learned first-hand (not my finest moment) that personal blogs, Google images, Flickr and Wikipedia are not sources that you can just “link credit” and move on. You should ALWAYS have written permission to run images that aren’t yours.
There is one exception that most design bloggers can regularly take advantage of: promotional images. Images from retail websites (like Crate & Barrel, Anthropologie, Etsy, etc.) and press releases that you’re using to promote or discuss an object are fair use. However, if they come with photo credits, you still need to include them. But if they’re displayed on those public websites or are given to you directly and are within fair use for your work as an online publisher, you can use them.
Good rules of thumb to avoid a lawsuit or angry emails:
- Never use images from a newspaper without written permission from the publisher’s image holder. I learned, sadly, that even the writer of a written article can’t give you permission to run an image from a newspaper. I ran an image from the NY Times years ago (of which I was the subject), and the Times‘ image service sent me a cease and desist within 48 hours. It was pretty scary, and I learned the hard way that the writer didn’t have permission to give ME permission. So never use those images without written permission from the photographer or the publisher’s image service.
- Use magazine images carefully. Right now, magazines seem to be letting this slide, but photographers are contacting bloggers more frequently these days to ask for photo removal or payment or with legal threats. Those images sometimes still belong to photographers, so always be careful to credit the photographer and ASK whom you should credit if you can’t find the source.
- Always get written permission for non-promotional images (discussed above). This written permission will do you wonders should you have to defend yourself in court for image use (which is happening more and more these days).
- Credit next to the work and credit with a link. Crediting someone after the “jump” in the post, when you’ve already run all their work, will often lead to people not giving you permission to run things. If you’re going to benefit from someone else’s work, it’s polite to credit them next to the meat of their content.
- Never EVER modify or remove a watermark or copyright mark. That’s a HUGE legal violation and can get you into some really hot water. If you want a non-watermark version, ask for permission from the photo owner or ask if they have an image usage fee.
Bottom line: When in doubt, credit with a text link.
I would love to hear any issues, experiences and ideas you have to share about these topics. There is so much more to the subject, but I don’t want to write a novel, so I’ll bring it to a close here. Questions? Comments? Examples we can all learn from? Please feel free to share it here — I think we all have so much to learn from and share with each other that can help us improve relationships and friendships, not only with bloggers but with our readers as well. xo, grace
*I’m driving home from Tarrytown today and will be home by 3pm EST to answer anything I can’t do from my phone.*