On the one hand, the social Internet has become perhaps the most revolutionary communications tool in human history. On the other, it has also been called “a shallow and unreliable electronic repository of dirty pictures, inaccurate rumors, bad spelling and worse grammar, inhabited largely by people with no demonstrable social skills.” But, for better or worse, most of us would agree the Internet, as a place to share knowledge, engage in dialogue and socialize, is here to stay.
And in my view, lawyers ought to be influential voices in the online discussion to seek improvement of the law, cultivate knowledge of the law and further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law. And so, lawyers should be involved in online commentary. Here are a few comments on commenting online.
First, don’t be a troll. Spitting fire solely for the purpose of provoking a response is amateurish.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m certainly not advocating watering down your comments. A hearty, healthy debate is the only way to separate wheat from chaff in the marketplace of ideas. But you’re a lawyer. Shouldn’t you conduct yourself with some modicum of professionalism?
Furthermore, unless your professional obligations prohibit it, use your real name. Are there times when anonymous commenting is warranted? Sure. However, most of the time anonymous commenting is for canines.
Second, don’t feed the trolls. Trolls aren’t looking to engage you in a dialogue. They’re not looking to debate the merits. Their sole purpose is to ruin your day for their own personal amusement. You’re not going to convince them of anything.
If you have a blog, you probably know all-too-well the problem of spam. Don’t become part of the problem.
First, don’t go to (or hire someone to go to) community forums, question-and-answer sites or social networking sites to sell your services, legal or otherwise. You’re more likely to be blocked, unfollowed and banned than to attract new business.
Second, let’s put to rest the misunderstanding about commenting and visibility in search results. Google knows all about your clever attempts to trick them with comment spam. They’ve been on to those tricks for a long time.
But even if comment spam did work for SEO (and it doesn’t), you might want to weigh the professional reputation consequences of marketing in this manner. Hint: It’s not greeted kindly by citizens of the Internet.
So what makes for good online commentary?
For starters, you have to listen. Seek out the people and publications that are talking about issues that matter to you and your practice. Read them, follow them and subscribe to them. When you have something worth saying, say it.
If your experience has taught you something that’s relevant to a post, article or forum thread, share it.
If you have read something by someone else that is germane to the discussion, don’t be afraid to share that, too.
If the site requests your name, email and website, enter your real name, email and a link to a website that either tells others more about you or provides an additional resource for further reading.
But What’s in It for Me?
Not motivated to comment solely for the purpose of bettering the Internet? Participating in online discussions benefits you, too. It can position you as someone who knows something about a subject. This might motivate others to read, follow and subscribe to the “stuff” you publish online. A thoughtful comment or response to a question might even motivate someone to contact you. This contact might be a journalist looking for an interview, another lawyer who might eventually become part of your professional network, and yes, maybe even someone interested in hiring you.
But let’s not be silly. Online commenting isn’t going to “make it rain” overnight. Just as is true offline, developing your professional reputation online requires time, knowledge and experience. However, using online commentary to forge, nurture and solidify professional relationships can be effective.
For a Few Bloggers More
If you have a blog or are a moderator for an online forum, you’re going to want to think about your comment moderation policy (though maybe I’ve stretched the Sergio Leone theme a little too far).
I recommend that you configure your site so that all comments are moderated. This holds all comments in a queue to be reviewed by a moderator or editor. Aside from preventing spam, holding comments for moderation can protect your readers from the trolls.
Am I suggesting that you become a tyrannical Minister of Information filtering out contrary viewpoints? Of course not. But you should think about all the different people who might read what you publish, the comments on what you publish and your response to those comments (i.e., think of clients, judges, jurors, opposing counsel, etc).
I also recommend considering the use of third-party social comment plug-ins like Disqus, Livefyre or Facebook’s comment box. You should also allow readers and commenters to subscribe to be notified when additional comments are added to a particular post. All of this will encourage more social interaction on your site, blog or forum and foster richer discussion.
Gyi Tsakalakis helps lawyers put their best foot forward online because clients are looking for them there. He is a co-founder of AttorneySync, a digital marketing agency for law firms. You can find more of his writing at Lawyerist and Avvo’s Lawyernomics blog. You can ask him a question (or just say hi) on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.