On comments on blogs

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.

Sometimes it’s nasty work, as evidenced by this now disemvowelled comment from October 2006, which was so unpleasant that it echoed far outside these walls.

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.


12 thoughts on “On comments on blogs

  1. Sue

    People DO understand that moderating their language and focusing their thoughts into a logical path for others to comprehend, is one of the definitions of a socialised adult. Here, I think you are talking about a space for emotionally stable people commenting on a topic. I, for what its worth, don’t think that’s what’s been happening.

    There are those who fail to contain the pain of their life experiences, when online, and the sheer hateful force of the trolls and MRA groups as they attempt to harm those who express ANY sense of pain, causes me to recoil from the world .

    It seems to me that Pharyngula has created a safe space where a lot of hurt people who want a forum to express that hurt can do so, but to keep it safe for themselves, they also create a hostile atmosphere that you really, really have to work hard to get through. I dont view it as a comments section but as a forum.run by and for the people who use it. I wouldn’t presume to try to share their space. In the real world i would salute many of them as brave and decent caring people. And I think PZ rocks.

    This is Your space, Your focus Your right to permit access to a creative and educative forum. Rarely do I see comments that take me further along my thought path than the original post on ANY site ( it does happen and then that’s terrific.) You owe no-one the space to derail and cause pain to others.Neither should you be expected to moderate the emotional debris that can spill from even the best intentioned commenter

    In short, feel the power, If you have questions yourself then open up comments on individual posts. You can make it about education and not about pain. I hope that’s useful.

    Shorter still

    i think PZ is a good guy and he has some good people commenting there.
    Trolls Suck
    I think your writing rocks and I am going to enjoy following your posts.
    comments are not necessary.

  2. Howard Bannister

    There are several sites where I read the articles and used to be a fairly regular commenter that I’ve more or less allowed myself to be squeezed out of, because there’s low or no moderation.

    Low or no moderation defaults to a troll space.

    Some of it is intentional. If you let the trolls in and smash their arguments thoroughly it gives the feeling of having demolished all the arguments aimed at you. Troll arguments aren’t very well thought through in the first place, after all.

    Places with a strong moderation policy, where I have to think before posting and make sure that I’m adding to the conversation, those are much more likely to have fruitful discussion.

    I’m much more likely to read the comments there, knowing that I won’t have to wade through hate and bigotry. It doesn’t magically make every post make sense and eliminate every logical fallacy, but it changes the tenor of the place.

    It also means that the kneejerk combativeness is lessened. When you deal with trolls all day then an innocent question or misunderstanding becomes something flame-worthy.

    And if trolls are all over the place, then shouting them down and out becomes normal.

    Which has the disturbing effect of making every conversation a shouting match.

    Even when we all agree.

    Even when there are no trolls.

    It thickens the skin. And thick skins mean less empathy for those need it.

    I love comment sections on blogs. I love being able to read the reactions of others, who might know more about a subject than me. I love being able to learn more details of the subject under discussion.

    I love the sense of community that can grow in a well-moderated blog-splace.

  3. chigau

    I agree with Sue.
    If it’s mouse-click-easy, just turn the comments off.
    Unless you really want to hear directly from the peanut gallery.

  4. Theo Bromine

    Long time reader; occasional commenter. Reviewing the commentless posts that you said you were proud of, I recall that several of them left me speechless with their sadness and/or beauty and/or sheer awesomeness, but seemed complete in themselves – In most cases, I felt that there was nothing to be discussed and comments (at least any I would have made) would be superfluous.

    I agree with pretty much everything Sue says, with the exception of the statement: “People DO understand that moderating their language and focusing their thoughts into a logical path for others to comprehend, is one of the definitions of a socialised adult.” Or rather, I personally agree with that definition of a socialised adult, but unfortunately, I think there are too many people who would turn it around to claim that real properly socialised adults can handle the unmoderated language and unfocused thoughts just fine (so stop complaining).

    I hate facebook (though I’ve come to regard it as a necessary evil in some ways), so I find the idea of reading a blog and then discussing on facebook to be annoying to the point that I would probably stop commenting altogether, but I have no idea how many others would feel that way. (Alas, the world changes, and much as I might pine for the days of usenet, for good or for ill they ain’t comin’ back.)

    Chris: Your space, your rules, but I hope you keep writing so we can keep reading, even if we can’t comment.

  5. neurobonkers

    Perhaps you should install a comment manager such as Disqus, which lets users upvote, downvote, flag comments for review and allow for threaded conversations.

    For me, one of the greatest pleasures of blogging is receiving constructive feedback in the form of comments and watching fruitful discussions follow my posts. I’ve learned so much from comments, to see them go would be such a great loss.

    I disagree with your comment about social networks acting as parasites. Yes, a Reddit posting of a blog post might get 1000 comments, I’ve seen it happen to me for a blog post with ~5 comments on the post itself, but let’s be realistic, that volume of comments would never have happened otherwise, These are comments mostly from new visitors.

    One of the reasons Reddit is such a successful model is because of the voting system which brings the cream to the top and kills the trolls dead, the threaded nature allows for real discussion with multiple parties, which old fashioned comment threads like this don’t quite enable in the same way..

  6. Chris Clarke Post author

    Allowing readers to up-and down-vote comments is a cop-out. For every venue I’ve ever seen in which that works to control trolls and vandals, I’ve seen multiple venues where the functionality is used to silence people with unpopular but valid points of view. Making a discussion a popularity contest accentuates the worst of the comment thread dynamics. As do threaded comments, whch only serve to fragment conversations. They’re horrible.

    Yes, a Reddit posting of a blog post might get 1000 comments, I’ve seen it happen to me for a blog post with ~5 comments on the post itself, but let’s be realistic, that volume of comments would never have happened otherwise, These are comments mostly from new visitors.

    Which is only a good if you postulate that comments are, in and of themselves, a good. Perhaps they are for you. If so, more power to you. But I was talking here about my blog and what works for me.

  7. Alona Bea

    The comment moderation I’ve appreciated the most has been that of the New York Times and a few other news organizations – a few comments are flagged as “picks” and you can choose to read those 15 and not the whole tome of hundreds. It’s not a conversation, the way Pharyngula used to be, but it lets the responses become part of the content in much the same way that letters to the editor can be. Allowing comments and not providing moderation pretty much guarantees a swamp of badly written, incoherent, and trollish turds.

    Facebook discussions don’t work for anything that draws more than around 200 comments because it’s too hard to get back to the beginning of the thread. And twitter just seems to me to be a nightmare.

    And a question – how does turning off comments affect page views?

  8. Chris Clarke Post author

    I’d think that turning off comments would decrease page views per unique visiitor, because people wouldn’t be refreshing the page to see if anyone new had commented yet. But that’s not a number that’s useful to me, seeing as I’m not selling ads these days..

  9. pecunium

    I like comments, because I like commenting, and I’ve been fortunate that I don’t get too much in the way of hate-mail comments (at least now, when I’m not talking about torture so much).

    But that’s me, and offered only as how I came to decide to keep comments when I moved to WordPress (where comments, for me, are somewhat fewer, even on well read posts).

  10. ignobility

    Chris, I rarely comment anywhere, but I do enjoy reading comments. They can add a lot to the original post. Trolls can be very annoying, though, and completely hi-jack some thoughtful posts and comments. If the comments stop adding anything of value to your blog, then let them go. I’ll still stop by to see what you’re up to. I agree with Theo Bromine, also. Sometimes your posts need no comments.

  11. Xanthë

    Particular threads can be like magnets for controversy (just by virtue of being linked from much busier site somewhere else) and all of sudden the normal rules go out the window as the moderation is insufficient to cope with the influx.

    I realise I’m posting very late on this thread, and sort of off-topic too or at best tangentially, but mainly because there once was a neat little civility pledge written in response to a much longer one, and I’d like permission to recycle it (i.e. the one which kept neatly to the point) on my own somewhat neglected blog. The, erm, proximal cause, for this request is that the author of that exceedingly verbose pledge started a social media thread a few days ago wherein he described the ‘freeze peach!’ meme (a mockery of the people who misunderstand free speech) as ‘despicable’… and curiously thereafter the comments exploded totally out of his control.