Monday, February 22, 2010

Top 10 rules for writing a critical blog.

Think of it as Critical Blogging 101 - but first a back story.

So there's this guy named Drew Harvey and he doesn't seem to like me very much.

Apparently Drew believes that my criticism of the Food Guide contributes to the obesity epidemic and he "questions my motives" for being critical and calls them "self-serving" on his blog.

Now I didn't bother engaging Drew on his argument. Basically it boiled down to yes, industry is involved in the creation of the Guide but hey, the Guide suggests you eat lots of fruits and vegetables so how can it be bad or obesogenic and criticizing it only pushes people into the arms of pill pushers and diet peddlers.

So while I didn't weigh in myself what I did was punt his blog out into the ether by linking to it on Twitter and Facebook figuring that some of my friends and readers might have something to say, and in responding to them Drew ended up leading a real-time seminar on how not to host a critical blog.

While watching the scramble that ensued, I thought perhaps going over some dos and don'ts of critical blogging might make for a good post. So here are some rules that are well worth considering if you're planning on writing an opinionated blog:

1. Do your homework.

Before you choose to blog about someone or something make sure you really understand what they're saying or doing.

For example, if you want to criticize me regarding my take on the Food Guide it's probably best to really understand my take on the Food Guide.

2. Have an evidence-based leg to stand on.

If you're going to attack someone or something the most important thing to have on hand is evidence supporting your position.

As one deleted commenter on Drew's blog noted, a straw-man argument (creating the illusion that you've check-mated someone else's argument by substituting a distracting and easily refutable argument that the someone else didn't actually make) isn't an evidence base.

In Drew's case he creates a straw-man argument by suggesting I must have ulterior motives because I criticize a Guide that promotes the consumption of healthy-for-you fruits and vegetables, and given that fruits and vegetables are low-calorie options, following the Guide couldn't possibly make you fat. In turn that doesn't actually speak to my criticisms of the Guide but does serve to try to paint me as a ridiculous man of straw who's easily blown down.

3. If you can't take the heat, don't turn on your oven.

Simply put, don't ever publish a post critical of someone or something without the expectation that people will disagree with you and potentially even write some nasty things in your comments.

Turning off commenting like Drew did on Saturday isn't a great plan either.

4. Don't mess with your comments.

Or better yet, choose a blogging platform that doesn't allow you to.

Blogger, the platform I use, allows me to delete comments but not to edit them, and as I spell out on the sidebar of my blog, the only comments I actively delete are those containing profanities or spam.

Drew, when faced a whole slew of inflammatory comments chose first to delete the ones he didn't like, but then things got really weird. He went on to: Post-edit his own comments; amazingly added my name to comments that I didn't write (and I thought I had chutzpah); deleted every single one of the comments; only to finally bring back a carefully selected few.

Unfortunately this left behind an incoherent jumble on his blog with comments referring back to comments that are no longer there and leading one of his commenters to ask,

"How would anyone ever follow anything on here with any semblance of a 'conversation' of ideas if they just showed up now?"
5. Don't misrepresent yourself.

One of the first comments that Drew deleted questioned his websites' representations of himself as a, "professor of nutrition, physiology and behavior modification", and, "a leading author, researcher, and lecturer in the areas of nutrition, exercise, and weight management".

I won't bother raking Drew through the muck of the deleted comment but what I will say is that you'd better be able to healthily defend all of the statements you make about yourself on your website or at the very least have a track record that speaks for itself.

6. Don't be surprised if the person you're attacking decides to write back.

This blog is an open forum and I encourage anyone who thinks I'm out to lunch to tell me so in the comments - anonymously or otherwise.

Over the years there have been some great comments written by folks who think I've wronged them. Perhaps the best example of this would be Canadian reality TV trainer Nadeen Boman's very thoughtful comment on what I see as her negative contribution to body image in Canada. Hers was the 4th comment in and it led me to write a followup post asking if people agreed with her.

Oh, and if you do decide to allow anonymous posting on your blog you shouldn't be be upset or surprised if people choose to use it.

7. Not every squeak deserves a roar.

You’ve got to pick and choose your battles. Depending on the degree or the source of the squeak you might not want to bother with a post or a response as in some senses that may validate the argument of the person who’s squeaking.

8. Don’t feed the trolls.

A troll is someone who leaves comments or posts that are meant to goad you into roaring at a squeak. For instance it’s highly likely that someone in today's comments will talk about how they’re not going to write a full comment because that would validate my squeaking. If you want to see some non-hypothetical trolls have a peek at the comments left on yesterday's post.

Trolls are best left ignored.

The worst thing you could do? Lose your cool and respond with a gigantic knee jerk as that'll likely just serve to make you look foolish.

9. Don’t break the law.

Libel and defamation are serious charges, and while truth and fair comment are strong defenses, you’d still better make sure that what you’re writing is truth or fair comment.

Drew’s opinion that I shouldn’t be criticizing the Food Guide is indeed fair comment. On the other hand suggesting I have ulterior motives for my criticisms might be construed as libel, while adding my name to comments I didn’t write is just plain illegal.

10. Keep your cool and be able to admit you’re wrong.

I know I've lost my cool on the blog from time to time and I've probably looked pretty silly doing so. That said, I try my best.

More important than keeping your cool is having the ability to admit when you’re wrong. Case in point on my blog? For a recent example check out my post and the comments regarding UFit. While I wasn’t wholly wrong, I certainly was partially wrong, something I owned up to quickly in the comments and the post when it became clear that I wasn’t fully informed (goes back to the Do Your Homework rule).

Bottom line?

Blogging's rapid fire. It's easy to take shortcuts and not do your homework. Remember too that there's no one easier to convince you're right than yourself. While at times blogging can certainly feel like a blood sport, you should still strive to keep your wits about you, play hard and play smart.

Lets hope I didn't make Drew sweat or swear too much this weekend.

Drew, like rule #6 points out, you shouldn't be surprised if the person you're writing about writes back. I guess an addendum there is that you shouldn't be surprised if the person you're casting aspersions about on your blog as having shady, self-serving motives decides to mess with you.

That said Drew, if you're reading this and you want to debate the Food Guide's pros and cons, please feel free to leave angry comments on your or my blog but perhaps first take the time to actually read my series on the Food Guide rather than just its landing page. Given that apparently you're concerned by my understanding of the Guide's fruit and vegetable recommendations and the Guide's calorific nature, why don't you start by reading the post I wrote on the Guide's fruit and vegetable recommendations, followed by this post, and this post on why the Food Guide's certainly obesogenic.