A Commentary on Comments

Today I noticed more discussion on various blogs regarding the closing off of comments to readers. I know several writers have done this – some very recently and some quite some time ago – and while I respect their thoughts on the matter, I also respectfully disagree with them.
The great part about allowing comments on one’s site is that you allow a one-stop shop for a conversation to take place. That doesn’t mean that you have to take part in it – but it does mean that others can. The Internet is a to-way medium, as opposed to radio and television – and that’s part of what is appealing about it. Sure, there are situations where radio and television become conversational between those sending and receiving the messages (call-in shows would be an example of this), but you’re more of a spectator than a participant when listening or watching.

With the Internet, you can actively take part in the work. You can discuss and speak your mind. You may not be listened to (or even heard, depending on where you’re speaking your mind), but you have the ability to do so anyway. As a writer, I get to see on my site who is responding to what I’ve written. And I can respond back. Right there. In the same place. And then they can do the same.

So why are some writers turning their “blogs” away from active commenting? I’ve listed some of those I’ve found that have turned off comments, and then chimed in with my own thoughts on their reasons why they did so.1

Matt Legend Gemmell

This post was what started it all for me today.

Gemmell turned them off recently – and it was a tough decision for him.

“It’s been a very difficult decision (I love reading comments on my articles, and they’re almost unfailingly insightful and valuable), but I’ve finally switched comments off.”

He mentions that only a “tiny minority of his readers leave comments”, says that “comments on the web generally don’t contribute very much, encourage unconsidered responses, allow anonymity and create a burden of moderation on the blog owner”, all of which either are true or tend to be true. Some or all of these factors can lead to comments that are less than stellar examples of what comments on blogs can (and should) be.

I’d suggest that the “burden of moderation” is the key. Gemmell used Disqus for his commenting system, which has an ability to adjust comment moderation quite well. It can be customized to suit the author’s needs more than the reader’s, and that can lead to better commenting. How? If a reader really wants to leave a comment, they need to put forth more effort than just typing in a comment and hitting a button to publish. That can, should (and often does) cause the comments that are left on posts to be far more “useful” and “considered”, as Gemmell puts it.

By eliminating comments altogether, you’re not even giving the reader a choice. Well, that’s not exactly true, either. But it’s pretty darn close.

Gemmell argues that if a reader really wants to comment on something he’s written, then they can do so on their own platforms, whether in social media circles or on their own blog. The problem with that theory is that the reader has to really, really care about what was written and have something to say that warrants being said elsewhere than where it was first seen. Now, if Gemmell posts this post on Google+, I could see it being less of a problem – for some. But for others (I’d say at this point, a majority), it is a problem. Commenting on a post on the author’s blog: Not nearly as much of one — because you’re already there.

Well, it’s a problem on Gemmell’s site now, of course.

Jon Gruber

This quote from the man behind Daring Fireball comes from Shawn Blanc’s blog:

“I wanted to write a site for someone it’s meant for. That reader I write for is a second version of me. I’m writing for him. He’s interested in the exact same things I’m interested in; he reads the exact same websites I read. I want him to like this website so much that he reads it from the top to the bottom, and he reads everything. Every single word. The copyright statement, what software I use, he’s read it all.”

Gruber goes on to say that if he turns comments on, then that “all goes away” – and he’s right, of course.

It’s clear that Gruber has really thought this through. He’s been attacked for not having comments on DF and has stood by his convictions. And I totally respect him for that (the fact that he’s an incredible writer doesn’t hurt, either). I also respect him for not having comments on his site. He’s given his reasons, he has the audience (which isn’t just Him 2.0 anymore) and would be overwhelmed with comment moderation if he ever did change course.

What I’m saying is that Gruber is the host of Daring Fireball, which is a one-way conversation because it’s by design. And it’s a design that has worked well for him.

Marco Arment

Arment is another case where comment-free is the way to be. He explains it best, so I’ll let him:

“I don’t make it difficult to give me feedback. What’s not possible is reaching my audience, on my site, without my permission. Given that this site represents me, and I’ve earned an audience over a very long time of people who generously allow me to take tiny slices of their attention on a regular basis, I don’t think that tightly controlling its content is unfair.”

In the rest of the post (the above is from the closing), Arment argues that comments on a blog do not build community or promote discussion:

“Discussion and communities require mechanics such as listening and following up that are rarely present in comments.”

I’m not questioning whether or not he values what has been said in comments left on sites elsewhere, but it appears as if he wouldn’t read them or respond to them if he did have them enabled. That may be because he’s a busy guy or it may be that he’s seen far too much in the way of terrible commenting (or both), but I think through diligent moderation and attention that allowing comments can foster conversation – if not build a community.

I’m not faulting him for going “comment-less” – especially considering his thoughts on how he feels about his audience. But I think that is a better argument than his thoughts on what comments don’t – or can’t – do.

Final, er…Comments

I know that others such as Shawn Blanc and Ben Brooks don’t have comments enabled on their sites. I’m sure there are more. I think the problem with comments definitely stems from those who leave really crappy, irrelevant or spammy comments. The problem has gotten so bad that many are going comment-less because of it.

I won’t be, though.2

I wish comment moderation wasn’t so tedious. I wish that the value of having a commenting system on blogs was still held in high regard – I truly believe the spirit of the web is in that it is a two-way medium unlike any other. I wish that those leaving comments on blogs would spend more time considering the content and not the context, and then comment accordingly.

There are sound arguments for ridding comments from a blog. I’ve seen plenty and commented (no pun intended) on some here. But I think there’s plenty of sound arguments for keeping them, too.

It’s too bad that so many great writers let a whole bunch of bad apples spoil the one good one.

Feel free to leave your thoughts on commenting below…in the comments.3

1. Because I can’t do so on their blogs. Is that irony?
2. No matter how high my readership gets. That said, it has a loooong way to go.
3 As of 12/15/11, comments at Vardy.me are now powered by LiveFyre. A big thanks to Yuvi Zalkow for succeeding in getting me to empower the commenting service.