Blog Comments: Chaos or Currency?

Are comments more trouble than they are literally worth? According to Animal’s Joel Johnson, the answer is a resounding Yes.

I believe I’m right, and I think it’s important to start the discussion. And my theory is very easy to disprove: just run your own analysis on your traffic and determine exactly how many people are scrolling down the page to read comments. Then figure out how much you’re spending to maintain comment communities that are civil, vibrant, and not an embarassment sitting just below your own work. I bet once you run all the numbers, you’d discover you’d be saving money simply by not having comments at all. (You’d probably save a bundle on therapy for authors alone.)

Johnson’s objections to comments are many. First, he says, most of them are worthless. Only 1 or 2 in 100 “actually provoke discussion or elucidate another’s argument,” he argues.

Next, he says, comments don’t make any money. (But then what does for most bloggers? Please let me know.)

Moreover, commenters are often rude to authors. Comments, he says, are a dinner party, and “if I’ve invited you to have a seat at my table, at least have the courtesy to not call me an idiot for serving you food slightly different than you preferred.”

Finally, and most damningly, almost no one actually reads the comments.

I’m sure all this is true for high-traffic, commercial blogs. But I’m willing to bet that for the vast majority of blogs, the problems Johnson and others experience at mainstream, consumer oriented blogs like Animal simply don’t exist.

One reason, of course, is that most blogs, like mine, alas, don’t get many comments to begin with (other than the spammy variety that Akismet so silently and effectively filters out).

But some are so clearly and consistently focused on a single community interest that they generate with almost every post a huge number of intelligent, interesting, and polite comments. For some of my favorite blogs, in fact, the comments are at least as good as the original post, and often better.

Though I haven’t asked them, I’d guess that Steve Buttry, Mark Schaefer, Mitch Joel, Porter Anderson, and others too numerous to mention here don’t just tolerate their comments, but live for them. Certainly the comments they approve and respond to all reflect a genuine and productive engagement with the topic.

In addition to a carefully targeted focus, there are probably a couple of other reasons these bloggers get such a wealth of thoughtful and useful comments.

First, they are all personal. These bloggers are heavily invested in their blogs, and take the responsibility for every word that appears in them.

Second, they are all genuinely good, thoughtful, and generous people. They attract like personalities that come to enhance the discussion, not to degrade it.

So, yes, if your aim as a blogger is first and foremost to make money, you may want to disable commenting. For the rest of us, though, comments, not cash, are the currency we seek.

7 thoughts on “Blog Comments: Chaos or Currency?

  1. Thanks for the kind words, John. Yes, comments are an important part of the conversation on my blog, and I make a point to join and guide the conversation. I almost never get hostile or ugly comments, though I get many who disagree. My curmudgeon post had lots of lively discussion and good criticism: I also hardly ever withhold approval of a comment that isn’t spam.

    Comments continue the conversation I start with my post and I regard them as an important part of the value of my blog.

  2. I think the key word is conversation. If that’s why you’re blogging–to promote and take part in conversation–comments are an important feature. But having read Derek Powazek’s comment on Mathew Ingram’s post today on the same topic, I think it’s important to add that sometimes it is appropriate not to allow comments. I can’t imagine Seth Godin enabling comments on his blog, for instance–that just wouldn’t work. So let me say here I do not intend to demonize or deprecate those who choose not to allow comments–just those who say none of us should allow them.

  3. Hi John,
    The comment issue has been a tough one for me. If you look through the archives of my blog, you’ll see that I was a big and early advocate of comments in B2B. And for B2B sites, I still think comments are valuable.

    But in the B2C world, comments have become so … disappointing. There was a time, not so very long ago, when I thought of comments as nearly fundamental to free speech. I loved the “idea” of comments.

    But as time passed, I stopped reading the things. Commenting had become a new form of speech — and not one I enjoyed or found valuable.

    But there’s no need to waste your time reading my comment on what I think about comments.

    Rather, let me point you toward two important pieces on the subject.

    First, check out what Dave Winer says about “relative writing” and comments. When Dave, who sort of started this whole Web media thing, shuts off comments, we all need to stop and think:

    Second, Paul Ford wrote a lovely piece in early 2011 about the nature of the Web. Paul’s piece is extraordinary and multifaceted. But the thing that resonates the most with me is his description of the fundamental question asked on the Web: Why wasn’t I consulted?

    Think about it. Of the countless millions of comments out there, they nearly all boil down to the same thing. Someone somewhere thinks they should have been consulted about the subject.

    Paul’s discussion of WWIC is broader than comments. He’s arrived at a much deeper understanding of the Web and why we use it to create/share/discuss ideas.

    But after reading his piece I’ve come to see comments as an endless stream of that same question, repeated over and over and over — sometimes it’s slightly funnier than others. Sometimes it’s a wee bit insightful. Often it’s just harsh and cruel. But it’s always the same question — why wasn’t I consulted?

    It’s a question that is as annoying as it is moving. For every time that I feel inclined to answer “because you’re an idiot,” I also sense I should say something like “I know. It’s hard to live with so little influence over the things we care about. And yet the more we scream, the softer our voices become in the crowd. Please consult with a theologian for a more detailed answer.”

    Check out Paul’s piece:

  4. Life every other thing in life, while we’d love it to be easy, the elegant and simple answer is “it depends”. In the six years I’ve written at Conversation Agent and on other sites, comments have come and gone like fashion. Although the community is strong and long-term, the ability of people to truly immerse themselves in conversation — thinking together — is challenged by overwhelm with information and everything else that occupies time at the frenetic pace of change we’re facing. The context has changed at many personal levels. This doesn’t mean people don’t want to tease out topics. And the need to confront issues and think together in conversation are stronger than ever. The question is “does a comment mean the same thing to me right now as it did five years ago as the person leaving it?” “will it lead to acknowledgment, potentially a new relationship, an exchange across blogs/posts like when people were not so hung up on naming famous names or getting links just from high ranking sites?” All those five ways and three steps are paying off… just not always in intended directions.

  5. Paul,

    The more I think about it, the more at peace I am with the idea of closing comments. The beauty of the web is that the conversation you spark will continue somewhere, whether or not you choose to host that conversation.

  6. Valeria,

    As you say, the relationship between comments and conversation really waxes and wanes. Sometimes comments contribute to the conversation, sometimes they distract from it. But one way or another the conversation goes on.

    As for typos, they are not always a mark of carelessness–sometimes they indicate passion and urgency!

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