I’ve been spending a lot of time these past few weeks thinking about blog comments and how they work, or (far too often) how they don’t work. The topic’s been on my mind in part because of recent events at Pharyngula, but my mental squeaky rat wheel really got turning when John Scalzi wrote this post on comments, which you should read all of but which was especially valuable to me for this passage:
In a general sense, though, I think it’s well past time for sites (and personal blogs) to seriously think about whether they need to have comment threads at all. What is the benefit? What is the expense? Blogs have comments because other blogs have comments, and the blog software allows comments to happen, and I suspect everyone just defaults to having comments on.
Comments can be a good and useful thing, but if the end result of having them open is that the person running the blog is drained and enervated by them (and by having to deal with them), then that person maybe should not have comments on. If the end result of having comments on a blog is that the site is over run with trolls and assholes, some of whom are systematically attempting to silence the blog’s owner, then that site maybe should not have comments on. If having comments makes a desired audience avoid a site or blog because they don’t want to have to deal with trolls and assholes, that site maybe should not have comments on.
Over this blog’s run of ten years and counting the comments here have been, almost all of the time, a very good thing. I met Annette because she started commenting here, if we include the blog’s previous iteration Creek Running North in our definition of “here.” I’ve made many other friends through comments here, some of whose company I’ve enjoyed in Real Life as well.
Some of the best examples of comment threads on this blog suffered file corruption in 2008, and are far less worthwhile as a result. I’m thinking for instance of a discussion over women’s labor and the late fetishization of domestic work as seen in the “Slow Food” movement and similar tendencies. It was a difficult discussion, with many possibilities for rails-going-off-ness, and yet it ended up being constructive and healthy because the person at the center of the argument was willing to listen, and the people who had problems with what he’d said refused to write him off as a lost cause.
That post is here, but the glitch ate many of the comments — including those from the person who that sparked the conflict. You’ll just have to trust me: things could have gotten ugly, but things didn’t get ugly because everyone involved (including the moderator) worked to make those things work.
And it is work.
That one was all the way over at the far right tail of the unpleasant blog comment bell curve. Most are way better, a low bar to be sure, but it’s increasingly my sense that the most constructive, interesting, engaging comments on most blog posts are no longer to be found on the blogs themselves, with a few exceptions such as the above-linked Scalzi.
Instead, the commentariat for most blogs has dispersed, and where a blog like Michael’s in 2005 could boast a coherent cadre of commenters with enough expertise and interests in common to keep a centralized conversation going, such a blog nowadays would necessarily spawn separate, unfindable conversations in four or five major venues and a host of smaller ones.
In retrospect, this really started in the middle of the last decade with sites like Metafilter. I noticed early on — 2005 or so? — that getting a link from Metafilter meant an uptick in traffic, with all the associated costs, but no uptick in comments. People following a link from Metafilter to this site would come, read a bit of the post, and then return to Metafilter to discuss it. It was an essentially parasitic relationship, and it siphoned off what could have been interesting discussion on the original post to an essentially private site requiring a membership fee to join in on the discussion.
But at least you can read what people are saying about your post in a MeFi thread. When Facebook opened to the general public in 2006, a new and stealthier parasite on blog comment threads arose: suddenly it was very easy to share and discuss a post with your friends with no way for the post writer to see what you were saying unless the person sharing it on Facebook had their posts set to publicly viewable.
This isn’t a bad thing per se. I think some of the diaspora of commentary on blog posts happened because blog comment threads are to a first approximation cesspools of stupid hate. As Scalzi says in his post, the phrase “Don’t Read The Comments” is widely used for a reason. It’s partly because moderating comments is work, and partly because people give inexplicable latitude to vandals whose sole intent is to piss all over your living room rug. Meanwhile? On Facebook? If you post a link to an outside blog post and make a comment on it, and someone replies by insulting you, you have moderation powers. That’s not a bad thing: it’s a democratization of the ability to enforce respectful discourse.
Anyway. What had been a more coherent commentariat for many mid-sized to large blogs has splintered. A provocative blog post might now spawn conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Google+, and a handful of other major venues. With a very few exceptions, I think mainly constituting large blogs that offer their commenters a distinct sense of community, the comment diaspora has happened and I don’t think we’ll be going back to 2005.
The commentariat that frequented this place back in the day seems mainly to have assembled on Facebook, with a few people on Twitter and a few on Google Plus. With some exceptions, few regulars comment here directly anymore. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing: it just is.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have dome things a bit more differently back in the days when discussions about what I write mainly happened here. I would have been far quicker to nuke comments like this without regret or apology.
I might, in fact, have failed to allow comments in the first place. We’d have missed out on some good conversations, but I’d also have missed out on a very large amount of personal stress and unpleasantness.
This weekend I was talking about the whole mess at Pharyngula with my friend Jake, who offered an interesting simile. “Writing is an art form,” she said. “If you were a painter, you wouldn’t necessarily think it was the best idea to have a bunch of brushes and paint available in your studio for passersby to come in and paint over what you’ve done on a canvas. Or to scrawl comments on the wall next to the canvas. Why should writing be any different?”
The question becomes “Do comments add value to a site?” And the next question that logically follows is “if so, for whom?”
Some of the comment threads here have been just sheer delight. Some, like the long-deleted Ally 101 thread from January 2008, were agonizing and contentious things that served no one and were best avoided.
And many of the posts I’m proudest of here attracted no comments whatsoever. Almost 400 of the 2,774 posts I’ve made here since 2003 attracted no comments. 1,664 of those posts — 60 percent of the posts I’ve written here in more than a decade — have five comments or fewer.
It’s not just hostile or needlessly argumentative comments that cause problems, though those are the kind I’ve had to deal with most lately. There are the comments that are “too friendly,” in which a person decides, based on what I’ve shared here, that they’re entitled to provide medical advice or relationship counseling or some such. There are people who go completely off topic in uninteresting ways. There was the one guy whose comments here mainly consisted of posting entire song lyrics. A few people started to opine back in 2007 about how long it was taking me to get over Zeke’s death, or who just Didn’t Understand why I wouldn’t get another dog. If you put yourself out in public the way I have there will be people who mean well, but who take their own assumptions about you to be immutable truth that must be shared.
A lot of the time the thought of having to deal with comments has severed as a disincentive to writing, at least about certain topics, or when I’m in a certain frame of mind.
I’m not sure yet, but I might be in the process of deciding to end that disincentive.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be thinking this through to see how I want to have the issue of commenting play out here. This isn’t the first time I’ve considered what role comments should play here: when I first rebooted the blog in Summer 2008 I decided to try separating comments from posts. It didn’t work all that well, mainly because of the software limitations in the forum software I used. Perhaps it was a half-measure.
I am not yet sure what I’ll decide to do here vis a vis future comments: leave them available, bar them on some posts, or end them altogether. But I have to say it’s liberating as hell to realize I have the option, especially considering people have other options for discussion now, in places where it won’t be my job to moderate them.