Tags: comments

10

sparkline

Owning my words

When I wrote a few words about progressive enhancement recently, I linked to Karolina’s great article The Web Isn’t Uniform. I was a little reluctant to link to it, not because of the content—which is great—but because of its location on Ev’s blog. I much prefer to link directly to people’s own websites (I have a hunch that those resources tend to last longer too) but I understand that Medium offers a nice low barrier to publishing.

That low barrier comes at a price. It means you have to put up with anyone and everyone weighing in with their own hot takes. The way the site works is that anyone who writes a comment on your article is effectively writing their own article—you don’t get to have any editorial control over what kind of stuff appears together with your words. There is very little in the way of community management once a piece is published.

Karolina’s piece attracted some particularly unsavoury snark—tech bros disagreeing in their brash bullying way. I linked to a few comments, leaving out the worst of the snark, but I couldn’t resist editorialising:

Ah, Medium! Where the opinions of self-entitled dudes flow like rain from the tech heavens.

I knew even when I was writing it that it was unproductive, itself a snarky remark. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But I wanted to acknowledge that not only was bad behaviour happening, but that I was seeing it, and I wasn’t ignoring it. I guess it was mostly intended for Karolina—I wanted to extend some kind of acknowledgment that the cumulative weight of those sneering drive-by reckons is a burden that no one should have to put up with.

I knew that when I wrote about Medium being “where the opinions of self-entitled dudes flow like rain from the tech heavens” that I would (rightly) get pushback, and sure enough, I did …on Medium. Not on Twitter or anywhere else, just Medium.

I syndicate my posts to Ev’s blog, so the free-for-all approach to commenting doesn’t bother me that much. The canonical URL for my words remains on my site under my control. But for people posting directly to Medium and then having to put up with other people casually shitting all over their words, it must feel quite disempowering.

I have a similar feeling with Twitter. I syndicate my notes there and if the service disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed any tears. There’s something very comforting in knowing that any snarky nasty responses to my words are only being thrown at copies. I know a lot of my friends are disheartened about the way that Twitter has changed in recent years. I wish I could articulate how much better it feels to only use Twitter (or Medium or Facebook) as a syndication tool, like RSS.

There is an equal and opposite reaction too. I think it’s easier to fling off some thoughtless remarks when you’re doing it on someone else’s site. I bet you that the discourse on Ev’s blog would be of a much higher quality if you could only respond from your own site. I find I’m more careful with my words when I publish here on adactio.com. I’m taking ownership of what I say.

And when I do lapse and write snarky words like “Ah, Medium! Where the opinions of self-entitled dudes flow like rain from the tech heavens.”, at least I’m owning my own snark. Still, I will endeavour to keep my snark levels down …but that doesn’t mean I’m going to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour.

Parsing webmentions

Thanks to everyone who helped me test webmentions that I hacked together at Indie Web Camp last weekend.

Let me explain what web mentions are all about…

Basically, it’s an equivalent to pingback. Let’s say I write something here on adactio.com. Suppose that prompts you to write something in response on your own site. A web mention is a way for you to let me know that your response exists.

If you look in the head of any of my journal posts, you’ll see this link element:

<link rel="webmention" href="http://adactio.com/webmention.php" />

That’s my web mention endpoint: http://adactio.com/webmention.php …it’s kind of like a webhook: a URL that’s intended to be hit by machines rather than people. So when you publish your response to my post, you ping that URL with a POST request that sends two parameters:

  1. target: the URL of my post and
  2. source: the URL of your response.

Ideally your own CMS or blogging system would take care of doing the pinging, but until that’s more widely implemented, I’m providing this form at the end of each of my posts:

Either way, once you ping my web mention endpoint—discoverable through that link rel="webmention"—with those two parameters, I just need to confirm that your post does indeed contain a link to my post—by making a cURL request and parsing your source—and then I return a server response of 202 (Accepted).

Here’s the code for a minimum viable web mention in PHP.

That’s as far as I got at Indie Web Camp but it was enough for me to start collecting responses to posts.

Webmentions as links

The next step is to do something with the responses. After all, I’ve already got the source of each response from those cURL requests.

Barnaby has a written a nice straightforward microformats parser in PHP. I’m using that to check the cURLed source for any responses that have been marked up using h-entry. That’s one of the microformats 2 vocabularies—a much simpler way of writing structured content with microformats.

Aaron, Amber, and Barnaby all sent responses that were marked up with h-entry so now their responses appear in full.

Webmentions as comments

So there you have it. Comments are now open on every journal post on adactio.com …the only catch is that you have to write the comment on your own site. And if you want the content of your post to appear here (instead of just a link) then update your blog post template to include a handful of h-entry classes.

Feel free to use this post as a test. Mark up your blog with h-entry, write a post that links to this URL, and enter the URL of your post in the form below.

Testing webmentions

I’m at Indie Web Camp and we’re onto the second day, which involves hacking on stuff (the first day involved discussing stuff).

I’ve had my head down attempting to implement webmentions on my site—basically a simpler form of pingback.

This probably won’t work, and this is the first basic step, but if you write a reply to this post on your own site, you should be able to ping me by entering your post’s URL into the form under this post.

Now, this is just a first run so all I’m doing is gathering the pings—I’m not actually going to fetch and parse your post; that step can come later. But if you want to help me kick the tires on this, write something on your site that links to this post and then enter your post’s URL below.

Ship talk

The always-brilliant Tom Taylor, prompted by the incessant peanut-gallery criticism from Da Meedja, wrote You’ve either shipped, or you haven’t:

You’ve either poured weeks, months or even years of your life into bringing a product or a service into the world, or you haven’t.

He finishes with:

And the next time someone produces an antenna with a weak spot, or a sticky accelerator, you’re more likely to feel their pain, listen to their words and trust their actions than the braying media who have never shipped anything in their lives.

Bobbie took issue with that last point and wrote Shipping news:

I’d suggest the opposite is in fact the case: the trouble is that media ships constantly, and therefore becomes inured to the difficulties and delicacies of launching a product of any size or scale.

It’s an excellent point, which Tom readily concedes.

Finally, Paul Ford wrote Real Editors Ship:

People often think that editors are there to read things and tell people “no.” Saying “no” is a tiny part of the job. Editors are first and foremost there to ship the product without getting sued. They order the raw materials—words, sounds, images—mill them to approved tolerances, and ship.

It’s a rather spiffing conversation and it’s fascinating to see the ideas get bounced around from blog to blog. Notice that none of those blogs allow comments. I’m pretty sure that if they did have comments, the resulting conversation wouldn’t have been nearly as good. As I’ve said before:

I don’t think we should be looking at comments to see conversations. It isn’t much of a conversation when the same person determines the subject matter of every dialogue. 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.

But how can we keep track of the conversation? I hear you cry.

I don’t think there’s any one particular technological solution to that problem but the combination of RSS, Delicious, Twitter and other linking tools seem to be doing a pretty decent job. If you dig down deep enough, they’re all using the same fundamental technology: the a element and the href attribute.

It’s messy and it’s chaotic but it’s also elegant …because it works. Seeing these kinds of distributed conversations makes me very happy indeed that Tim Berners-Lee shipped his product.

Commentary

I’m still thinking about blog comments so I thought I’d get a few hyperlinks and blockquotes out of my system.

Dave Winer promotes the idea of blog-to-blog conversations rather than the easier solution of providing a comment form:

That’s what’s important about blogs, not that people can comment on your ideas. As long as they can start their own blog, there will be no shortage of places to comment.

That’s exactly what Tantek does on his blog by displaying any Technorati links (reactions) back to his posts.

Joel Spolsky expands on the problem with comments:

They are a part of the problem, not the solution. You don’t have a right to post your thoughts at the bottom of someone else’s thoughts. That’s not freedom of expression, that’s an infringement on their freedom of expression.

When a blog allows comments right below the writer’s post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody … nobody … would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.

This issue of taking responsibility for, and hosting your own words also lies behind Andy Rutledge’s attitude to feedback:

Anyone who feels the need to comment on what I write may send an email to me just as easily as writing a comment in some form on my site. Further, if someone takes issue with what I say, they may write about it from their own website and take responsibility for what they put forth, as everyone should.

But perhaps the best justification comes from John Gruber during a podcast chat transcribed by Shawn Blanc:

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… If I turn comments on, that goes away. It’s not that I don’t like sites with comments on, but when you read a site with comments it automatically puts you, the reader, in a defensive mode where you’re saying, “what’s good in this comment thread? What can I skim?”

The comments over on Digg are, of course, an extreme example of just how puerile comments can be but at least they’re quarantined over there. I’ve never understood why a site owner would actually want to get Dugg and invite those kind of people over to piss on the furniture. As Jason Kottke put it:

Digg sents lots of traffic but IMO it’s mostly useless. They usually read only one page, send stupid emails, and never visit again.

And yet, again and again, I see sites like Digg and YouTube held up as paragons of community and interaction. I was chatting with Andy at work about how many potential clients treat community as some kind of checklist; comments: check, ratings: check, tagging: check. Thomas Vander Wal has come up against the same attitude. His solution is to point people to this Kevin Federline page on Amazon and ask Now, do you still want tagging?

I’m always impressed when site owners can provide a new, different way of fostering interaction. I really like the way del.icio.us uses the proto-machinetag syntax of for:username to allow sharing between users. It’s so much more discreet than the pre-filled emails that most sites use for user-to-user communication. It allows for a network to develop in an understated, organic way.

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.

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.

The comments of crowds

The Future Of Web Apps summit took place in San Francisco this week. By all accounts, it was an excellent two days although it did spark an interesting hand-wringing debate about diversity which reminded me of the best ever episode of Father Ted: “I hear you’re a racist now, Father”.

One of the speakers was Mike Davidson. During his talk about Newsvine and online communities, my ears started burning. Why, I do believe he’s talking about me!

It all goes back to this post I made where I talked about how crap most comments are:

I’d like to propose a corollary of Sturgeon’s Law for blogs: Comments should be disabled 90% of the time.

Mike made the point that he finds it frustrating not being able to comment on my posts. Fair enough. He also speculated that the lack of a comment facility here might well lead to a decrease in traffic. I think he’s probably right.

But here’s the thing: I’m okay with that. I don’t think lots of traffic is a goal to strive for. There’s no doubt that comments are a simple and effective way of driving traffic to your site, but to what end? Instead of having lots of visitors, I’d much rather have a small amount of the right kind of visitors.

I’ve tried to explain this to people in the past (especially people just starting out in blogging) but I keep running into the same problem over and over: nobody believes a word I’m saying. But I swear it’s true! I’ve seen the way that useless comments can lower the tone on other sites and I don’t want it happening here.

Let me reiterate that this problem is particularly troublesome on sites that cover a diverse range of topics. Narrowly focused sites tend to foster higher quality comments. That’s why I’ve got comments enabled on the DOM Scripting blog which is focused entirely on JavaScript, but not here on Adactio, which is a smorgasbord of any ol’ rubbish that pops into my head.

It’s definitely a challenge for a wide-ranging site like Newsvine which seems to be handling the situation quite well. It’s certainly doing a lot better job than Digg. The rude, pointless, spiteful bickering that goes on over there makes me want to block any referrals from that domain. Mind you, it could simply be a matter of numbers. Digg users have clearly left their Dunbar number in the dust while Newsvine still feels cosy enough.

I’ve been trying to get at the root of my issues with comments on blogs. Ironically, I was able to crystalize my thoughts through participating in the comments on a blog post by Bryan Veloso. Oh, the irony!

I realised that comments on blogs are trying to fulfil two roles. On the one hand, they are a feedback mechanism — “Good post!”, “Me too!”, “You’re full of crap!”, et cetera. On the other hand, people claim that comments are a great way of fostering conversation.

Well, which is it? Feedback or conversation? Comments are a so-so way of dealing with both although better tools exist. Email is better for feedback. Mailing lists, forums, and instant messaging are better for conversations.

Now that I’ve had my about the dual nature of comments, I can better address what I want from them.

Here at Adactio, I don’t want to start conversations. I’m not looking to foster a community. I already run one large online community and I’d rather keep this site separate from all that. I am, however, interested in getting occasional feedback or hearing what other people have to say about some of the things I write about here. So, after much deliberation, here’s the moment that almost nobody has been waiting for:

I’m opening up comments here… but with a twist. To encourage feedback whilst discouraging conversation, I’m turning to .

There are a number of factors that go into making a wise crowd:

  1. Numbers. Generally, the bigger the crowd, the better. I have no idea how many people read this blog so I have no clue as to whether there will be enough people to make this work.

  2. Diversity. A diverse range of backgrounds and opinions is vital. I suspect that my site is mostly read by geeks, but I know there are non-geek friends and family that also stop by. Everybody’s opinion is valuable.

  3. Independence. This is the clincher. To really get wisdom from a crowd, it is vital that each person is acting independently. For a practical demonstration, just think about the “ask the audience” part of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The results are strikingly good because each audience member has no idea what the others are choosing.

Comments on blogs fall down on that last point. Traditionally, comments are visible, thereby influencing future comments. That’s good if you’re trying to stoke a conversation, but lousy for getting some honest feedback.

So here’s what Im going to do:

I will occasionally open up some posts for comments. You will be presented with the usual form: name, email, url, etc. I would greatly appreciate getting your opinion. However, your comment will not be published immediately.

Comments will remain open for a set period of time; sometimes a week, sometimes a month. At the end of this time, all the comments will be published at once. At this point, it will no longer be possible to add a comment.

I still need to iron out a few technical details. It would be nice if there were a cron job set up so that you could be notified when your comment goes live. But mostly it’s a pretty straightforward set-up. It’s really only a minor variation on the traditional comment model but I’m intrigued to see what the results turn out to be.

Like I said, I won’t be doing this for every post. I intend to stick to my rule of thumb and keep comments closed 90% of the time.

Let’s get the ball rolling. What do you think of this idea? How vehemently do you disagree with my assessment of comments on blogs? Exactly how pretentious and arrogant do you think I am?

Comments are open.

Further comment

My thoughts on comments were cause for some debate in certain circles. I’m not the only one grappling with this issue.

I managed to lure Dunstan out of his self-imposed exile long enough for him to point to some ideas he had for a more heavily moderated commenting system where only useful additions appear with a post. This is somewhat along the lines of the BBC’s website where occasionally feedback is solicited but it’s more along the lines of letters to the editor: comments enter a queue and only representative selections are published.

For a very interesting take on the comments question, I highly recommend listening to this interview with David Sifry posted on the Podleaders podcast. Responding to the question of whether Technorati has any plans to begin indexing comments, he points out that whereas blog posts have a certain level of accountability, comments are more like the (often anonymous) throwaway remarks that polluted Usenet and chat rooms, preventing those technologies from scaling past a certain point:

One of the reasons I think blogging is very different from bulletin boards or chat rooms is that it fundamentally enforces a level of accountability.

I find that that level accountability tends to create, or enforce, a certain amount of thoughtfulness… a willingness to think twice before someone says nasty things.

The problem I have with many commenting systems on blogs [is that they] do not enforce any level of accountability.

That’s exactly what I was getting at in my original post when I said:

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.

Then the tricky bit is tracking those conversations. And that’s where services like Technorati come in.

Comments on community

I was an early beta tester of Newsvine, Mike’s nifty new website. I like it.

There are two ways of using Newsvine. If you want, you can simply use it as alternative to Google News, a way of catching up on the latest stories appearing on the wire. The other way of using Newsvine is to read and comment on what other users are linking to and writing about.

Personally, I find myself using the site the first way. I don’t just confine myself to the Associated Press stories though, I do also investigate intriguing things that other users are linking to. But I don’t really participate in the comments. The simple reason for this is that the comments mostly suck.

This isn’t the fault of Newsvine, it’s simply the nature of the beast. Most comments suck.

This shouldn’t be surprising. According to Theodore Sturgeon’s infamous take on the , 90% of everything is crud. One look at the music charts should be enough to confirm that this signal to noise estimate is about right.

Take Digg. It’s a nice way to find out what links people find interesting (a la del.icou.us) but the comments attached to each link are mostly a waste of space. The more popular the link, the more useless the comments. That’s revealing. There seems to be an inverse relationship between popularity and the usefulness of accompanying comments. Slashdot also testifies to this. I’m worried that as Newsvine grows in popularity, as it inevitably will, the comments will get even worse.

So why have comments at all? In a nutshell, comments are a great way of fostering a community. But that doesn’t really answer the question; that assumes that a community is necessarily a positive thing. But is it?

Clearly, the minds behind Digg, Slashdot and Newsvine feel that the value of the 10% outweighs the ballast of the 90%. They’ve made a conscious decision that having a community built into the site is important, perhaps even the whole point of the site in the first place.

Joshua Schacter, on the other hand, made a conscious decision not to have a comment-based community built directly into del.icio.us. A community still exists around the site; it’s still social software — it wouldn’t work unless lots of people were using it — but any benefit gained by adding comments would be accompanied by a corresponding increase in the general level of crapiness.

Clay Shirky nails it in his speech A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. This is a fundamental problem with social software (more so than real world situations because of The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory). The more popular the community, the more likely it is that comments are going to suck.

Should we abandon comments completely then? Absolutely not! I’m a great believer in Tim Berners Lee’s dream of read/write web. But we should think very carefully about when and where to enable comments.

And so to blogs…

Blogs are susceptible to the same problems as social software sites (as well as having to deal with comment spamming scum). The more popular the blog, the bigger the problem. Just ask Heather or Jason.

Most blogs allow comments. There’s no doubt about it; having comments enabled is likely to increase the popularity of your blog.

But that, in and of itself, is not a good justification. It assumes that popularity is desirable. The truth is that, when it comes to personal publishing, it’s not the amount of people who visit that count, it’s who those people are why they’re visiting that’s important.

Comments are a shortcut to a Pyrrhic victory of popularity at the cost of having your pages cluttered with pointless remarks (by pointless, I don’t just mean the negative stuff: “me too!” and “great post!” achieve as little as “you suck!”). If popularity is your aim, it’s better in the long run to claw your way towards that goal on the strength of your writing or design skills.

But comments can add value. They are particularly useful on sites that have a narrow, focused scope. The focused nature of the subject matter ensures that visitors share a common interest — otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.

The more general a site’s focus, the less chance there is of it receiving quality comments. A site that covers everything from politics (Republican vs. Democrat) to computing (Mac vs. PC) is going to be flame-war central. A site that deals exclusively in the appreciation of chihuahuas stands a much better chance of forming a cohesive community.

I have three blogs. Comments are enabled on two of them. Those two are narrowly focused. One is about JavaScript and the Document Object Model, the other is about good food. While the number of comments on those sites remains low, the quality of those comments is disproportionately high. My third blog is the one you’re reading now, which doesn’t allow comments. That’s because this journal is, quite frankly, all over the place.

Sometimes I’ll write about design or code, but I’m equally likely to rant about the government or rave about a good book. My audience is, therefore, also all over the place. Geeks visit in the misguided hope that they might learn something useful but this site also functions as a way for my friends and family to keep track of what I’ve been up to (Hi, Mum!).

The inverse relationship between a blog’s diversity and popularity on the one hand, and the usefulness of its comments on the other, would seem to fly in the face of the wisdom of crowds. The two central factors in the creation of a wise crowd are that it is large and diverse. But there is another crucial factor: the individuals in the crowd should be unaware of one another’s decisions. You can be sure that the “ask the audience” section of Who wants to be a millionaire? would yield very different results if every audience member could see how every other audience member was voting.

The fact that comments are observable by default means that they effect the outcome of their own experiment. This cat of Schrodinger’s is clearly dead.

If you solicited feedback through the more private medium of email, the wisdom of the responding crowd would be greater and the quality of the feedback would increase. But that would defeat the community-building aspect: there would be no real conversation amongst your audience.

I don’t think we should be looking at comments to see conversations. It isn’t much of a conversation when the same person determines the subject matter of every dialogue. 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.

The difficulty then is keeping track of these conversations. would be a good option but it relies on a certain level of techiness on the part of the responder and again, the issue of spam raises its ugly head. These days, it should be possible to replace trackback with search using third-party tools like Technorati and Google Blog Search. Expect to see that kind of functionality built in to more and more blogging tools.

I think the fundamental issue with comments is that are often enabled without reason. I wrote already about the need to justify every design decision. The same should also be true for community decisions. Does every little blog post really need to accept comments? Wouldn’t it be better to save them for special occasions?

I’d like to propose a corollary of Sturgeon’s Law for blogs:

Comments should be disabled 90% of the time.

Discuss.