Blog comments and community

I’m a couple weeks late in commenting on the post where Joel explains why he doesn’t let people comment on his posts:

When a blog allows comments right below the writer’s post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody … nobody … would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.

I tend to agree with Clay Shirky’s response, which Joel mentioned, where he says:

…the sites that suffer most from anonymous postings and drivel are the ones operating at large scale. If you are operating below that scale, comments can be quite good, in a way not replicable in any ‘everyone post to their own blog’.

As I wrote in what I know about blogging:

Having comments is a good sign. It means that the blogger is trying to start a conversation, and is interested in more than just hearing themselves speak. One of the great achievements a blogger can attain in my eyes is to be the seed around which a community forms.

When a blogger is starting out, comments are wonderful. They indicate that people are reading, and that people care enough about what they’re saying to respond. That’s obviously not an issue for somebody like Joel, who’s got hundreds of thousands of readers. But for those of us that are nowhere near the A-list, comments are a great way to see what our readers are thinking.

I also disagree with Joel’s contention that all comments should be placed on one’s own blog, rather than with the post in question. I much prefer seeing all the discussion on the post in one place, rather than trying to follow a conversational thread all over the Internet. I’m also more likely to contribute to the conversation via a comment. I often leave paragraph length comments on other blogs that I would never post to my own blog, because setting the context for my reply would be annoying, and I don’t feel the paragraph response deserves its own post.

The usefulness of comments depends on whether one is looking to create a conversation or a community with one’s blog. If so, making it easy to continue the conversation is essential – that means keeping all the comments in one place, not scattered across the web, and not requiring registration to post a comment. On the other hand, if one is blogging to express oneself, perhaps comments are not appropriate because they might create an environment where one feels uncomfortable saying what one wants. I personally love getting comments – comments have spurred some of the best posts I have done on this blog, as the commenter extended my ideas into new and interesting directions.

Separating the comments from the post also makes it impossible for those who arrive at a post much later (as often happens in Google-world) to see what has already been suggested. For instance, if I post a question asking for advice about a topic, I’d prefer not to be getting emails two years later saying “Did you think of X?” when X was suggested by the first responder. When I was using blogging software that did not support comments, I actually had a year where I asked people to comment over on my LiveJournal, and it was a mess. I regret not being able to go back and easily associate the comments with the posts.

That being said, Shirky’s point that scale matters is a good one. Once the audience size reaches a certain point, the community experiences what he calls The Tragedy of the Conversational Commons, where the temptation to hijack the audience for one’s own purposes overcome normal communitarian tendencies. Preventing such hijacking requires immense resources – think of the security present at sporting events and how it’s ineffectual at preventing streakers.

At small scales, one can manage such antisocial tendencies by careful curation of comments. I obviously remove all spam comments with the help of the Akismet plugin for WordPress, which intercepts hundreds of spam comments a day. I haven’t had to remove any “real” comments, but if a discussion degenerated into flaming and personal attacks, I would have no hesitation in deleting those comments.

I find it interesting that the appropriate comment policy flip-flops when the blog reaches a certain scale. The behavior feels like that described by Inside the Tornado, where the perfect strategy for one business development phase is a disaster in the next one. When a blog is small and struggling to gain an audience, engaging the audience and providing them a voice is essential in building a community of readers. At some point, the blog goes through a phase transition where no amount of curation can keep up with the chaos of the audience rampaging through the conversational commons, and at that point, comments become a detriment.

Issues like this make social software very difficult to write. The appropriate behaviors in one situation don’t match the appropriate behaviors in another, and social software is not currently able to handle such nuances. Perhaps the software tools have to change between the small scale of bloggers like me and the A-list bloggers like Joel. The designers of such software also have to identify what people are trying to do with the software, which will be difficult since the reasons people have for blogging are as varied as the bloggers. I’m enjoying watching as these social software tools evolve, in addition to being co-opted and adapted, to meet the needs of people.

3 thoughts on “Blog comments and community

  1. I think one of the reasons I like livejournal so much is that it has a lot of features that support the development of community through comments.

    There are a number of factors that encourage people to have a persistent identity if they’re going to comment on someone’s LJ, and that leads to folks owning their comments. Even if someone is a jerk, the persistence of identity means that I can simply choose not to interact with them when I’ve observed them being rude over in someone else’s journal.

    And the nature of the commenting system, where you post a comment in reply to something, really does a lot to encourage conversations rather than drive-by opinion spamming. I start to get really crabby with blogs that have long exchanges going on in a completely unthreaded comment system.

  2. Hi Eric,

    I commented late as well, and have segued into a user analysis of SezWho and coComment (next) since, but it’s good to come back to the this conversation. I believe it’s an important one.

    You said, “Issues like this make social software very difficult to write. The appropriate behaviors in one situation don’t match the appropriate behaviors in another.”

    My abiding question on this is, how can we possibly expect software to understand appropriate behaviors? especially if the humans engaging in them don’t? We don’t have AI yet, just people and their machines.

    I’ve a strong belief that there needs to be far more collaboration between real people / communities, and developers / programmers. Writing code, after all, is the translation of an idea and a desired result (which can be expressed in plain English) into a structured process and then into a language or three.


  3. I dont know why some bloggers restrict users to comment on their posts. many users really want to understand the blogs in depth and when they doubt something, they ask them in comments. While most of the people just bark at each other in comment section.

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