Regarding blog comments, again

March 13th, 2009

I’m behind in my reading and even further behind in my writing. Which is why I’m just now finally writing about something I’ve wanted to since earlier this week even though the original post was written in late February. Ugh.

Alex Payne, one of the many talented people behind Twitter, recently wrote on his blog his thoughts on blog comments. In a nut, Alex felt that by leaving comments off he’s elevating the level of conversation. That, if he had comments turned on, there would be less than desirable comments written on his blog. That, by turning comments off, it forces people to reply to his blog posts from their own blog. Since people don’t want to write stupid things on their own blog the level of conversation would automatically be risen. Smart.

Alex isn’t the first person to share this sentiment. I’ve written about blog comments in 2004, again in 2007, and have thought about it many times since I began blogging around the turn of the century. In 2004 I was commenting on the indirect benefits for turning off comments. The main benefit I highlighted was that by not allowing comments, you’d be forcing people to link to your site from theirs, creating more link backs to your site, increasing your blog’s audience, and improving your site’s Pagerank on search engines. All very good things for any writer. I suppose those benefits really just improve Alex’s reason. Improving the conversation while at the same time doing well for yourself.

In 2007 I was, in an ironic sort of way, responding to Jeremy Keith’s thoughts on leaving blog comments off. He said that he didn’t like having them on because of they were “examples of antisocial networking”. He made examples of YouTube and Digg being saturated with worthless comments. I’ve recently reread my post and I think I worded my response quite well, so if you’re interested, give it a read.

I think my thoughts hold up, two years later, that Digg and YouTube are, well, Digg and YouTube. Digg, generally speaking, is meant to act as a human filter for the world’s news. The comments on a Digg are, for the most part, about whether or not that particular news item, link, photo, video, or whatever should be worthy of being on Digg at all. Digg has gotten so much better than it was when it first reached critical mass. YouTube, however, still has a lot of maturing to do. The community is so vast that as you browse around the site you will see that thoughtful videos usually are rewarded with thoughtful responses while not-so-thoughtful videos are not. The nature of the beast I suppose.

There are edge cases, of course. Where you have a thoughtful video that gets the attention of the trolls. Where dumb people with nothing to do flock to a particular video and, for no other reason than their own personal entertainment, tee off in the comments in a tirade of incredibly distasteful, worthless, and (even I’ll admit) humorous commentary.

I suppose my main reason for agreeing to disagree with Jeremy was because, well, my site isn’t that popular. This isn’t Digg. This isn’t YouTube. I don’t have the problem of having millions of troll-like morons looking for an excuse to yell things like “first” or, well, any other worthless response (let alone the off-color ones). If I did I’d probably deal with that in my own way. This is, afterall, my house. I very much doubt I’d ever turn comments off entirely. One of my core beliefs, which I mentioned in my 2007 note, was that I thought of blog posts as the beginning of or the response to conversations. I still feel that way. I wouldn’t write anything on my blog, ever, if I didn’t in some way want someone to think about what I’m writing about and, if they chose to, respond to it. That is why I write.

Daring Fireball, one of my favorite Weblogs of all time, which made my Best of 2008 list, and is run by my friend John Gruber, also leaves comments off. John, who recently linked to Alex Payne’s thoughts, has covered this topic a few times. Based on what he’s written publicly about this topic I can safely say that he is in agreement with both Alex and Jeremy. And he has reason to. Jeremy’s main point about how there are too many worthless comments out there has a lot to do with scale. Daring Fireball has enough scale, though no where near the scale of Digg or YouTube, to create those types of moderation problems for John. You see, John curates Daring Fireball like a rooftop garden in a busy city. He cares for it. Every pixel. He cares for it as though it has very limited space. He uses that space efficiently. It is like he needs to get the greatest quality vegetables possible from the absolutely least amount of area. Besides John’s writing it is probably the biggest factor in the success of Daring Fireball. With as much traffic as he gets (which is about 1.2M hits per month according to his Sponsorship page) he would probably run into the problem of trolls. When John goes off on jackasses (which are some of my favorite posts, by the way) I’m pretty sure other jackasses would chime in.  With regards to Alex’s main point, about the fact that Alex really enjoys well thought-out discussions rather than terse commentary, John also tends to link to many people that mention his site in thoughtful posts. John enjoys good writing as much as anyone. In other words, I can see why blogs like Daring Fireball leave comments off.

TechCrunch, one of the most popular blogs right now, has comments on. It has some troll activity. It has some comments that, in my opinion, aren’t worth all that much. But, some people have used the comment area on TechCrunch to do a great job of responding to not only TechCrunch’s commentary but also to the TechCrunch audience. Gary Vaynerchuk, someone I consider a dear friend, runs a Web site called Cork’d. (You can read my interview with Gary about Cork’d, if you’d like). When Cork’d got hacked, and TechCrunch promptly reported on it, Gary took the opportunity to directly communicate what was going on through his own blog and through TechCrunch’s comments. I’d love to hear Michael Arrington’s thoughts on comments on TechCrunch and why they’ve chosen to leave them on for the majority of their posts. I’m positive he has an opinion on this matter.

Again, I’ve been blogging for 10 years. Longer than it has been called blogging. Longer than there has been any form of personal content management systems. This topic of comments, and whether or not to have them on my site, has been debated in many conversations with other bloggers at blogging meetups and conferences, with myself in the shower, with the road while I’m driving, in my own brain, and many other places over those years. I struggle with it. All. The. Time.  My strategy, as of today, is that if it even became a problem where I began to regret having comments on – where the comments I get on my site do not have a value to quantity ratio that I’m happy with – or when my goal is for people to link to my site from their own sites for the sake of getting linkbacks – then maybe I’ll turn them off. But not until then. And neither of those situations have happened in all of these years an
d I doubt they will any time soon.

I’m just happy to know that other people think about these sorts of things still too. That, even after 10 years of publishing on the Web, we’re all still struggling together with the same fundamental issues that the Web, in all of its social greatness, has imposed on our efforts of sharing ideas. No matter how good the tools get, no matter how many people jump online worldwide and join the conversation, we will always have the decision to make of how we’d like interact. What we’re comfortable with for us, for our companies, and for our Web sites. The learning curve is, as far as I see it, infinite. And I’m okay with that.

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