Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blog Comments

I read a couple of blog posts today discussing the topic of comments on blogs. Two sides of a debate, if you will (except I don’t know if anyone’s actually debating the issue).

First there was a post by Jeff Atwood over at Coding Horror, called Finally, a Definition of Programming I Can Actually Understand, in which he’s very much in favour of comments. A representative quote:

As I said in How To Advertise on Your Blog Without (Completely) Selling Out:

It’s an open secret amongst bloggers that the blog comments are often better than the original blog post, and it’s because the community collectively knows far more than you or I will ever know.

Indeed, the best part of a blog post often begins where the blog post ends. If you are offended by that, I humbly submit you don’t understand why blogs work.

A blog without comments is like Amazon without user reviews. Is it really even worth using at that point? The products themselves are commodities; I could buy them anywhere. Having dozens of highly relevant, informed user reviews means I’ll almost always buy stuff from Amazon given the chance. It’s a huge competitive advantage.

Jeff’s making a pretty good case that comments are an integral part of the medium of blogging; that blogs aren’t essays, per se, they’re forms of communication, and if the communication is one-sided, then it’s broken.

On the other side of the coin, we’ve got Joel Spolsky from Joel on Software fame, in an article called Learning from Dave Winer in which he argues that comments are basically just noise. I’ll post another representative quote (which actually starts with its own quote, from Dave Winer):
“…to the extent that comments interfere with the natural expression of the unedited voice of an individual, comments may act to make something not a blog…. The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you’re looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones…. That’s what’s important about blogs, not that people can comment on your ideas. As long as they can start their own blog, there will be no shortage of places to comment.”

The important thing to notice here is that Dave does not see blog comments as productive to the free exchange of ideas. They are a part of the problem, not the solution. You don’t have a right to post your thoughts at the bottom of someone else’s thoughts. That’s not freedom of expression, that’s an infringement on their freedom of expression. Get your own space, write compelling things, and if your ideas are smart, they’ll be linked to, and Google will notice, and you’ll move up in PageRank, and you’ll have influence and your ideas will have power.

So on the one hand we have Jeff Atwood with his assertion that comments are an integral part of the medium, and you’ve got Joel Spolsky with his assertion that comments are mostly noise, and don’t add anything to the discussion—that if you really had something to say, you’d get your own blog and say it there. And that the magic of PageRank would take care of adding structure to the conversation.

Long time readers (if any) will probably not be surprised to hear that I’m mostly with Joel on this one. But the conversation got me thinking. In fact, it was Atwood’s post that I read first, and only got to Spolsky’s post because Jeff linked to it. (In fact, my wife’s organization has started a blog, and I was planning to send her the link to Atwood’s post, along with a link to The Corporate Weblog Manifesto. I probably won’t bother anymore; I’ll just send her a link to this post, and say “read the posts that I linked to”.)

So I did some more thinking on the subject. I think it comes down to what kind of a blog you’re trying to create; if you’re trying to build a community, then of course Atwood’s right: comments are an integral part of that, and Atwood makes a good case that spending some time with them is an important way to build that community. Others will have their own blogs, and will also contribute to the discussion that way, but comments allow for a much more immediate way to do that. On the other hand, if your blog is more of a personal thing, and a way to get your own opinions voiced, then Spolsky is right, comments will generate more noise than usefulness.

Which also explains why I am more closely aligned with Spolsky when it comes to my blog. This blog is not intended to be a community; it’s intended for me to spout my own personal opinions, for my own personal use. In fact, all of my blogs are really more for my own benefit than anyone else’s; if nobody ever reads the serna Bible Blog it’s cool with me, because I’ll still be getting my own use out of it. Same with the serna Book Blog. I write all of my blogs as if there are readers, but I don’t really care if there really are. (That’s right: still no stat counter on this or any other of my blogs.) That’s not to say that I discourage comments, but I must say that any time I do get notified of a comment—on any of my blogs—I immediately get a bad feeling in my gut, and only after I’ve read the comment and found it to be positive (and/or helpful) does the feeling go away. When I get an email from Blogger saying “so and so has left a new comment on your post such and such”, my initial reaction is always “oh no, what now…” And that’s despite the fact that most of the comments I get these days are helpful and/or positive.

It extends even to blogs that I read; I rarely read the comments on any blog. I’ll look on Google for other bloggers who are posting about the same topic, but I don’t look down to see what the commenters are saying. Some blogs are better than others, of course. Some have active communities, where the comments will provide useful discussion and a frank exchange of ideas. (Ironically, the majority of comments I get on this blog are in that category—or, at the very least, friendly.) Other blogs will have a maelstrom of noise so powerful that after reading them it’s hard to have intelligent conversation to anyone about anything for thirty minutes after; you find yourself afraid to compliment a fellow employee’s shirt for fear of having someone jump out beside you and tell you you’re a fool and don’t know what you’re talking about and Microsoft sucks.

Perhaps it’s a nature vs. nurture discussion; maybe Jeff Atwood simply “grew up” with friendly blogs that had intelligent conversations happening in the comments, while Joel Spolsky and I “grew up” with blogs frequented by trolls with nothing better to do with their time than telling us that we’re fools.


Sweep said...

I think I side with Atwood on this one, though probably not for all the same reasons. I enjoy reading the comments on a blog that I enjoy. No matter the topic, I find you can get aditional information from other posters. I don't like the idea of "putting all my eggs in one basket," if you will. I can't expect the blogger to infallibly correct every time. (Except here, of course.)

On the other hand, I hate that 90% of the people commenting are complete idiots. If you have nothing intelligent to say, don't say anything. I see nothing wrong with having a friendly discussion (If that's even possibly on the internet) with the OP but flaming is uncalled for and will not earn you any respect from anyone reading.

One website I am a member of, roosterteeth.com, has the right idea. They have a system where users can mod other users' comments on any post.

For example, Bob1337 makes a funny and insightful comment on my photo. Eight people liked his comment and modded it accordingly. He got +8 Zing! for his post and recieves 8 mod points.

Joe6969 posted "First!!!1! LOLZ!!!!1!!1!" on the same photo. This is stupid and eight people thought so. He gets -8 Flamebait for his post. (Not sure if he loses mod points.) And once someone gets -5 mods or under, the post turns into a small link you have to click on to see the post. If you have no interest in reading neg modded posts, you're in luck as they're barely noticeable.

Conclusion to this excessively long-winded comment: I like blog comments, but I can only take so much stupidity.