Reflection

Sometimes I write something here in my journal and open up the post for comments. It doesn’t happen very often, maybe one in ten posts. That’s because I still firmly believe in my corollary of Sturgeon’s Law for blogs:

Comments should be disabled 90% of the time.

No doubt there are still those who believe that what I am doing is somehow anti-community. The fallacy there is in equating comments with community. Choose a random video on YouTube or a random story on Digg, read each and every comment and then tell me that the comments contribute to any kind of community discussion. They are shining examples of antisocial networking.

As for the oft-quoted justification that comments on blogs enable conversation, I’m going to quote my past self again:

The best online conversations I’ve seen have been blog to blog: somebody posts something on their blog; somebody else feels compelled to respond on their own blog. The quality of such a response is nearly always better than a comment on the originating blog for the simple reason that people care more about what appears on their own site than on someone else’s.

I’m guilty of this myself. I chimed in with some comments on Jeff Croft’s latest post. There was some subsequent miscommunication between Jeff and myself that I think was partly due to the medium: a textarea at the end of a blog post has a low barrier to entry but it’s that same ease of access that discourages deeper reflection. If I had crafted a response here on my own site, I probably wouldn’t have hit the curt tone that I unintentionally wrote in and I’m sure our mutual misunderstandings could have been avoided. Jeff has now deleted the back and forth we had in the comments as is his prerogative and that’s probably for the best.

I often wonder why so many writers are so keen to have comments on their blogs considering the burden it places on them. Managing a centralised community (the kind fostered by blog comments) is hard work. I know this from all the effort I put in over at The Session. It takes a lot of time and it can be extremely frustrating (though, admittedly, it can also be very rewarding).

Between my ill-advised contributions to Jeff’s blog post and a particularly heavy week of cat-herding at The Session, I was feeling less than optimistic about the nature of online communication. Then I made the mistake of reading the responses to Molly’s open letter to organisations beginning with W. I became very despondent indeed.

I find it very depressing to see people I consider to be good friends bickering. The really discouraging aspect is that these disagreements are based on such minor differences. I’m reminded of Gulliver’s Travels in which a debate about the correct way to crack an egg eventually leads to war.

For crying out loud, we’re all on the same side here, people! We have so, so much in common and yet here we are, focusing on the few differences that separate us. Step back. Look at the big picture. We are comrades, not enemies.

Leaving aside the trolling and petulance in the comments—which should hardly surprise me, given my opinion of most blog comments—the contents of Molly’s post is equally dispiriting but for different reasons.

Molly is calling for more action from the W3C and the WaSP. She’s right, of course. Things have been far too quiet at the Web Standards Project. I’ve been feeling guilty about my own lack of activity and Molly’s rallying cry has increased that feeling.

But here’s the thing… I don’t think I can muster the requisite energy. I’m not saying that the work of the DOM Scripting Task Force is done but the perception of JavaScript has come along way since we wrote our manifesto. Two years ago, I really felt that something had to be done. I couldn’t just sit still. My colleagues and I were motivated to get out there and encourage best practices. A lot of that came from frustration: anger is an energy. Today, that flame burns lower. I’m not saying that best practices are widespread but they’re more widespread than they were and I got the feeling that there are a lot of good developers out there who could do a better of job of spreading the word than me.

This has happened before. I caught the CSS bug back in 2001. I started evangelising at any opportunity; mailing lists, blogs and so on. A few years later, I was kind of burned out but in a good way. I couldn’t muster the necessary enthusiasm for activism but that was okay: plenty of other people came along with abundant time and energy. I was free to get on with actually building websites, using standards instead of just talking about them.

Well, apparently it’s not enough to just use best practices. Molly—and others I’m sure—want to see much more direct action. But I can’t force myself into action. I certainly can’t get behind the conspiracy theory that Molly is seeing in Mozilla and Adobe collaborating on JavaScript… it’s bad when companies don’t sit down and talk to each other but it’s worse when they do? I just don’t get it.

I’m also getting tired of the no-win situation: you can either get passionate about a cause and be labeled a zealot or you can keep your head down and be labeled complacent. To quote Molly: Fuck. That.

I honestly don’t think I can muster the requisite enthusiasm to contribute to mailing lists, blog posts and other fora for advancing best practices. I am, however, very willing to lead by example; to publish online using standards and validate what I put out there. Maybe that isn’t enough. But I’m drawing a line.

I can appreciate how much effort someone like Molly has put into fighting the good fight over the years. But I can also see the toll it has taken and I don’t think I’m willing to pay that price. I’m not feeling quite as nihilistic as Brothercake but I can certainly relate to his conclusion:

So screw the endless arguments. I’m just going to quietly get on with doing what I think is the right thing to do, in the way I think it should be done.

There are still topics that get me excited. Microformats have rekindled my love of markup and I don’t see that excitement fading anytime soon.

In amongst all the doom and gloom that’s being weighing on everyone’s shoulders lately, I’m immensely buoyed by Aral’s outlook. I share his optimism regarding the collaboration between the worlds of Web standards and Flash. Crucially, I think that what Aral and I feel is bolstered by interaction and communication in the real world.

I love the Web. I really do. But sometimes I think that one good natter over a beer is worth a thousand mailing lists or a million blog comments. For that reason, I intend to maintain as much meatspace standards activity as I can: conferences, workshops, local meetups… but don’t expect too much in the way of emails, articles or other online evangelism from me. I’m going to be too busy building a better Web to spend much time talking about building a better Web.

Comments are, most emphatically, closed.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

cdevroe.com

There has been an ongoing discussion as to whether or not blogs should always have comments enabled to allow its readers to be part of the conversation. I myself firmly believe that each blog post should be thought of as a starting point of, or a response to, a conversation.

Some deal with this issue from an ideological perspective in that they disable comments because they feel that people will behave differently when commenting than they would if they wrote from their own Web sites. Jeremy Keith recently said:

“Choose a random video on YouTube or a random story on Digg, read each and every comment and then tell me that the comments contribute to any kind of community discussion. They are shining examples of antisocial networking.” — Reflection

I feel this is a blanket statement, which has some validity, but I do not believe that YouTube or Digg comments are completely “examples of antisocial networking”.

Sure. Many comments found on Digg threads are a bunch of teenaged boys (the proof is in the statistics) yelling back and forth about whether or not that specific article is digg worthy – but I believe those threads are there exactly for that reason. Should the commentary on Digg be about the article itself? Or should that conversation be reserved for the article’s origin? I believe it is up to the community to decide and it seems like they have.

Not that Jeremy’s point isn’t a valid one. Someone leaving a comment on my blog may indeed be a little looser with their speech than they would if they were responding, like I am right now, from their own Web sites. And if the author of the site is not willing to weed through the comments – then perhaps it is best to disable the comments for that very reason.

But I believe there is a completely different angle to consider.

One of the benefits I see coming from disabling comments is the number of links you end up getting back to your site. It is always nice when someone writes a blog post in response to something you said or wrote and have them link to your site or post as a way to direct people to the rest of the conversation. I’ve been fortunate to have a fair amount of people doing that very thing with some of my posts here on my personal site – and everytime I enjoy it when they do. I wonder, if I disabled comments, would the number of “linkbacks” increase because I was no longer providing a way for the conversation to continue on this site?

In the spring of 2004 I published a poorly written post entitled: “Disabling Comments, The Pros” wherein I spoke about a few sites that were good examples of this “theory” at work. Some of the most popular personal weblogs to date have been those who rarely, if at all, enable comments on their posts. I don’t believe this to be “the formula for creating a popular personal blog” but I believe it may help in some cases.

I leave comments enabled because I suppose I’m not as strict as Jeremy. I don’t care if my readers (all 11 of you) comment in a little different form than they would if they had written an entire response on their sites. So I guess I’m willing to moderate, though I very rarely do, in order to keep the conversation somewhat centralized.

What do you think? Have you ever considered turning off comments? Why? You may answer in the comment form below. 😉

# Monday, August 20th, 2007 at 8:29am

cdevroe.com

I’m behind in my reading and even further behind in my writing. Which is why I’m just now finally writing about something I’ve wanted to since earlier this week even though the original post was written in late February. Ugh.

Alex Payne, one of the many talented people behind Twitter, recently wrote on his blog his thoughts on blog comments. In a nut, Alex felt that by leaving comments off he’s elevating the level of conversation. That, if he had comments turned on, there would be less than desirable comments written on his blog. That, by turning comments off, it forces people to reply to his blog posts from their own blog. Since people don’t want to write stupid things on their own blog the level of conversation would automatically be risen. Smart.

Alex isn’t the first person to share this sentiment. I’ve written about blog comments in 2004, again in 2007, and have thought about it many times since I began blogging around the turn of the century. In 2004 I was commenting on the indirect benefits for turning off comments. The main benefit I highlighted was that by not allowing comments, you’d be forcing people to link to your site from theirs, creating more link backs to your site, increasing your blog’s audience, and improving your site’s Pagerank on search engines. All very good things for any writer. I suppose those benefits really just improve Alex’s reason. Improving the conversation while at the same time doing well for yourself.

In 2007 I was, in an ironic sort of way, responding to Jeremy Keith’s thoughts on leaving blog comments off. He said that he didn’t like having them on because of they were “examples of antisocial networking”. He made examples of YouTube and Digg being saturated with worthless comments. I’ve recently reread my post and I think I worded my response quite well, so if you’re interested, give it a read.

I think my thoughts hold up, two years later, that Digg and YouTube are, well, Digg and YouTube. Digg, generally speaking, is meant to act as a human filter for the world’s news. The comments on a Digg are, for the most part, about whether or not that particular news item, link, photo, video, or whatever should be worthy of being on Digg at all. Digg has gotten so much better than it was when it first reached critical mass. YouTube, however, still has a lot of maturing to do. The community is so vast that as you browse around the site you will see that thoughtful videos usually are rewarded with thoughtful responses while not-so-thoughtful videos are not. The nature of the beast I suppose.

There are edge cases, of course. Where you have a thoughtful video that gets the attention of the trolls. Where dumb people with nothing to do flock to a particular video and, for no other reason than their own personal entertainment, tee off in the comments in a tirade of incredibly distasteful, worthless, and (even I’ll admit) humorous commentary.

I suppose my main reason for agreeing to disagree with Jeremy was because, well, my site isn’t that popular. This isn’t Digg. This isn’t YouTube. I don’t have the problem of having millions of troll-like morons looking for an excuse to yell things like “first” or, well, any other worthless response (let alone the off-color ones). If I did I’d probably deal with that in my own way. This is, afterall, my house. I very much doubt I’d ever turn comments off entirely. One of my core beliefs, which I mentioned in my 2007 note, was that I thought of blog posts as the beginning of or the response to conversations. I still feel that way. I wouldn’t write anything on my blog, ever, if I didn’t in some way want someone to think about what I’m writing about and, if they chose to, respond to it. That is why I write.

Daring Fireball, one of my favorite Weblogs of all time, which made my Best of 2008 list, and is run by my friend John Gruber, also leaves comments off. John, who recently linked to Alex Payne’s thoughts, has covered this topic a few times. Based on what he’s written publicly about this topic I can safely say that he is in agreement with both Alex and Jeremy. And he has reason to. Jeremy’s main point about how there are too many worthless comments out there has a lot to do with scale. Daring Fireball has enough scale, though no where near the scale of Digg or YouTube, to create those types of moderation problems for John. You see, John curates Daring Fireball like a rooftop garden in a busy city. He cares for it. Every pixel. He cares for it as though it has very limited space. He uses that space efficiently. It is like he needs to get the greatest quality vegetables possible from the absolutely least amount of area. Besides John’s writing it is probably the biggest factor in the success of Daring Fireball. With as much traffic as he gets (which is about 1.2M hits per month according to his Sponsorship page) he would probably run into the problem of trolls. When John goes off on jackasses (which are some of my favorite posts, by the way) I’m pretty sure other jackasses would chime in.  With regards to Alex’s main point, about the fact that Alex really enjoys well thought-out discussions rather than terse commentary, John also tends to link to many people that mention his site in thoughtful posts. John enjoys good writing as much as anyone. In other words, I can see why blogs like Daring Fireball leave comments off.

TechCrunch, one of the most popular blogs right now, has comments on. It has some troll activity. It has some comments that, in my opinion, aren’t worth all that much. But, some people have used the comment area on TechCrunch to do a great job of responding to not only TechCrunch’s commentary but also to the TechCrunch audience. Gary Vaynerchuk, someone I consider a dear friend, runs a Web site called Cork’d. (You can read my interview with Gary about Cork’d, if you’d like). When Cork’d got hacked, and TechCrunch promptly reported on it, Gary took the opportunity to directly communicate what was going on through his own blog and through TechCrunch’s comments. I’d love to hear Michael Arrington’s thoughts on comments on TechCrunch and why they’ve chosen to leave them on for the majority of their posts. I’m positive he has an opinion on this matter.

Again, I’ve been blogging for 10 years. Longer than it has been called blogging. Longer than there has been any form of personal content management systems. This topic of comments, and whether or not to have them on my site, has been debated in many conversations with other bloggers at blogging meetups and conferences, with myself in the shower, with the road while I’m driving, in my own brain, and many other places over those years. I struggle with it. All. The. Time.  My strategy, as of today, is that if it even became a problem where I began to regret having comments on – where the comments I get on my site do not have a value to quantity ratio that I’m happy with – or when my goal is for people to link to my site from their own sites for the sake of getting linkbacks – then maybe I’ll turn them off. But not until then. And neither of those situations have happened in all of these years an d I doubt they will any time soon.

I’m just happy to know that other people think about these sorts of things still too. That, even after 10 years of publishing on the Web, we’re all still struggling together with the same fundamental issues that the Web, in all of its social greatness, has imposed on our efforts of sharing ideas. No matter how good the tools get, no matter how many people jump online worldwide and join the conversation, we will always have the decision to make of how we’d like interact. What we’re comfortable with for us, for our companies, and for our Web sites. The learning curve is, as far as I see it, infinite. And I’m okay with that.