Comments on comments

Right before I set off on my antipodean adventure, hell froze over and I opened up comments. There was a twist, of course. I wanted to solicit feedback but discourage conversation so, to foster independence of opinion, comments were not immediately published. Instead, all the comments were published together once the ability to add comments had been switched off. In this case, that was a period of one week.

The post received quite a few comments, some more interesting than others.

Quite a few people were sidetracked by the issue of spam and assumed that I would simply be inundated with comment spam. Spam was something I deliberately didn’t mention in the original post as it is tangential to the matter at hand. As it happens, the Akismet API — which I’m using to filter comments — does a great job of keeping comment spam out.

The original post was prompted by Mike mentioning the lack of comments on my site at the Future of Web Apps summit. The audio of Mike’s talk is now available and I highly recommend you listen to it. It’s an excellent presentation chock full of ideas about community, participation and social interaction. Mike also weighed in on my post, saying:

In my view, comments can significantly raise the quality of experience on most sites but cannot significantly lower it.

Now, this is interesting because I disagree almost 100%. In my experience, coming across pointless, lame, nasty or redundant comments attached to a blog post can lower the quality of the document as a whole. I think Mike has managed to crystalise why others are willing to put up with the downsides of comments, while I find the trade-off unacceptable.

Bradley Wright says:

I’m curious as to how comments that no one else can see will foster good feedback.

Well, that goes back to the whole wisdom of crowds thing I was talking about: independence is one of the defining factors.

He continues:

Sometimes the best leaps I’ve seen in online “conversations” come from the back and forth, which is helpful for some people to help crystallise their thoughts.

I agree. But I haven’t found those conversations happening very often in comments. Instead, I find them happening blog to blog. People tend to post more well-thought responses on their own blogs than they do in the comments to someone else’s blog post.

Guy Carberry brings up an important issue:

I have got some very useful information from the comments of a post.

This is true. This is also something that Andy said to me when we were discussing blogs and comments. Well, with my system of comments, this will still be true. Once comments are displayed, there is a greater chance that they will contain only useful information rather than a mixture of information and conversation. The google dance usually takes a while anyway, so if someone is looking for information on a topic and they end up at one of my blog posts, the ability to add comments will probably be disabled and all comments will be displayed. That person gets the information in the original post along with any feedback sent in via a comment. In fact, I would argue that my comment system will prove more valuable for long-term information search.

But how long is long? For how long should the ability to add a comment be available? For the inaugural post, I chose one week. I figured that would be a nice length of time to allow everyone to have their say. As it turned out, the vast majority of comments were submitted in the first few days. Clearly, a week is a long time on the web. I think two to four days might be a better length of time to keep the comment form available.

Pete Lambert commented on the need for some way of tracking when comments get published:

My only issue with it is that I would have to remember to come back and check the comments after whatever arbitrary quarantine period you define.

This is clearly something I need to work on. I still think some form of email notification would work best. Another option would be to actually publish the comments in my RSS feed as well as on the site. With a little jiggery-pokery, this could be flagged up as unread in most RSS readers. But this could just end up pissing off the people who don’t care when comments are published.

Here’s another point:

I suspect what you are going to wind up with is a long list of the same comment over and over again.

Surprisingly, this didn’t turn out to be the case. I actually received a fairly wide range of ideas from people.

That’s not crowd wisdom at all. If your blog was a multiple choice quiz, then fine, but it’s not.

That’s a good point: the wisdom of crowds does seem to work best with multiple choice questions (or “guess how much this weighs” questions). I opened up comments on another entry, where I was soliciting opinions on things to do in Melbourne. I personally thought that this would be a better test of my commenting system. The aggregate results should have given me a good independent overview of recommendations.

As is turned out, I shot myself in the foot by

  1. restricting the crowd to people who know anything about Melbourne and
  2. also encouraging feedback via my contact form.

Still, my point above about the added value of comments via findability still stands: somebody googling for restaurants in Melbourne will not just find my original post, but also the (one) useful comment about places to eat. The fact that the comments was originally hidden during the submission process doesn’t affect the long-term usefulness. I can see the commenting system working well for less tightly focused questions.

Based on the inaugural post with comments, I’m pretty pleased with the results. Clearly I need to work on a better notification system and I also need to figure out the sweet spot of how long to allow comments to be submitted but overall, this little experiment has yielded some pretty tasty fruit.

I was all set to start allowing more comments when I came across a post by Robert Nyman entitled A blog without comments isn’t really a blog.

Oh, brother! Here we go again.

After all these years of trying to define what a blog is, who knew that someone blogging for a year and a half would stumble upon the answer?

Forgive my sarcasm, but I get pretty fed up of being judged based on how I set up my personal site. I said as much in a comment on Robert’s post.

In his post, Robert has this advice for people who don’t have comments enabled:

Then you shouldn’t blog.

At the same time, he claims to love the openness of the web. I’m seeing a disconnect here. In his reply to my comment, Robert says:

I’m glad that I have comments here so everyone can read your and my opinions on this, and also have the possibility to contribute with what they think. That’s what I like about the web: the openness.

That’s a pretty narrow view of openness. I don’t think it’s very open to have all responses in a single document.

Here’s what I like about the web: openness through hypertext. I can link to any resource on the Web and comment on it here on my own website. Conversely, anyone is free to link to this document and comment on it on their own site (or a third-party site like Newsvine). That’s openness. Demanding that everyone post their thoughts together on the originating document is a closed system.

So, just as I was ready to start experimenting more with feedback mechanisms, I’m confronted with a “my way or the highway” ultimatum about what I’m allowed do on my own site. It’s enough to make me give up on the whole idea.

But I won’t. I’ll keep opening up the occasional post for comments, although I’m also really interest in using tags and pings for tracking responses, hence the Del.icio.us, Technorati, and Flickr links at the end of each post.

I was thinking of opening comments on this very post, but I think most of the salient points have been gathered from the initial post. If you would like to respond to this, you can write a blog post of your own and it will appear through the Technorati link (I really wish Trackback worked better but spam has effectively killed that off). If you have any feedback, there’s always email and IM.

Have you published a response to this? :