Daily Archives: January 4, 2012

On the value of blog comments

paper blogs

"Paper Blogs" by bookwyrmish

Over at GigaOm, Matthew Ingram weighs in on whether blogs should allow comments or not, spurred by a debate between venture capitalist Fred Wilson and Tech Crunch blogger-turned-venture capitalist M.G. Siegler:

MG Siegler, who doesn’t have comments on his blog and has written several posts defending his decision, saying they are 99-percent bile and a waste of his time. On the other side of the debate is fellow VC Fred Wilson, who says Siegler is missing a lot by not allowing comments.

I think Wilson is right — while comments can be a royal pain at times, they are a crucial part of what makes a blog more than just a bully pulpit.

For my part, I respect MG Siegler‘s choice to have a place on the Internet where only he can share his thoughts, whether we call it a blog or not, just as I do that of Seth Godin or John Gruber. If someone wants to comment on a given post, he or she can do so and respond via email, social networks, YouTube or their own blog(s). Or all of the above. There is no shortage of options on the Web of 2012 to share and opinion of something online and link to it. Just the opposite, really. If I want to publicly comment on one of Siegler’s posts, I can do so right here on my blog. Or Facebook. Or Google+. Or  @reply to @parislemon on Twitter, albeit in fewer characters.

From where I sit tonight, whether you choose to have comments or not speaks to whether you want to create an online community, which requires a human’s touch to manage and moderate, or to simply publish your thoughts publicly online, without making the necessary commitment of time and patience.

As is often the case, I agree with Mathew Ingram: blog comments are worth the effort.

He cites two important examples of high functioning people who maintain blogs with excellent comment sections, Anil Dash and Fred Wilson.

Dash and Wilson both spend time reading and responding to comments. For those who have been online for a few years, you know that’s not the case with many other blog authors. In a frank post last year, Dash observed that if your website is full of bad behavior, it’s your fault. He clearly thinks it’s worth it:

“When you engage with a community online in a constructive way, it can be one of the most meaningful experiences of your life. It doesn’t have to be polite, or neat and tidy, or full of everyone agreeing with each other. It just has to not be hateful and destructive.”

It’s worth noting that both men have also put into place architectures for participation that enable them to create better norms for discourse alongside social norms created by community. Dash uses Facebook comments, Wilson Disqus.

Some of the worst comments online still show up on YouTube or unmoderated newspaper comment sections. That’s one reason newspapers have been rethinking anonymous commenters. (Another, of course, is that knowing more about your readers’ demographics matters for online advertising and lead generation.)

It’s on that count that Ingram has extra credibility with me, since he used to be the social media editor at the Globe and Mail in Canada. While Canadians generally have a reputation for being polite, online that can change. Despite years of exposure to the best and worst of humanity on his screen, however, Mathew still supports having them:

“…I still defend comments as a crucial element of what blogging is, and more than that I defend anonymity as well. A blog without comments is a soap-box, plain and simple. Not having comments says you are only interested in passing on your wisdom, without testing it against any external source (at least not where others can watch you do so) or leaving open the opportunity to actually learn something from those who don’t have their own blogs, or aren’t on Twitter or Google+. That may make for a nicer experience for you the blogger, and it may make your blog load faster, but it is still a loss — for you, and for your readers.”

Moderating and responding to comments is a full-time job at high traffic blogs. If you’re a one man outfit, small business or don’t have a full time community manager, that’s going to take time away from research, writing and interviews — and that’s a legitimate problem for a writer, much less an entire news outfit. MG made this point today, commenting on the decision by Macstories to remove all comments:

It’s one thing for a single person site (like this one) to make a call to remove comments. It’s another for a larger team blog to do so. In fact, I can’t think of any without comments.

Right or wrong, the mentality is that to build a next generation media publication on the web, you need comments. That’s why we never got rid of them on TechCrunch (believe me, plenty of us wanted to — Facebook comments were a compromise).

Even more interesting is the psychology behind “needing” comments on big sites. Let’s be honest: most of these sites defend comments because if they don’t, it will seem like they’re taking a shit on their readers. It’s along the lines of “the reader is always right” — even when only half a percent are commenting and the vast majority of those are trolls.

For me, keeping up with email, Google+ and Facebook, @replies on Twitter, txts and IMs frankly can feel a bit exhausting. One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2012, in fact, is remove communications cruft from my digital life wherever possible, cutting way down on bacn and spam. (Note Bene: I’m not giving up bacon in meatspace.)

That said, I think keeping up that level of engagement is worth it. It’s important to me. I hear from readers that it’s important to them. I plan to continue to publish posts this year that have comments enabled because I believe, as Mathew Ingram does, that they’re worth it, both for me and for other readers. If I ever think that they aren’t, I’ll either turn them off or advocate that we do so — but I’m not expecting a change of heart any time soon.

I’m looking forward to an upgrade at the O’Reilly Radar that should make it much easier for our community to ring in. Given that O’Reilly Media has legions of smart readers, I expect to learn a great deal from them, although I suspect I’ll take my lumps as well if I make mistakes or errors of reasoning. For me, that remains a worthwhile trade.

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