Matt Gemmell

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Comments Commentary

15 min read

My recent follow-up to my article of a month ago about switching comments off has generated quite a bit of interesting discussion, via email, Twitter, and (particularly) posts on other people’s blogs.

Let me just quickly say that again. High-quality, well-considered feedback and responses written on other blogs, rather than impulsive retorts and/or snarks. That’s exactly what I and my fellow no-comments advocates had hoped for and indeed anticipated. So, do keep that in mind.

First, let’s take a brief tour of some of the reactions, then I’ll respond to some of the pro-comments arguments (or general complaints) raised in some of them. First up, my wife!

Lauren Gemmell - Comments On

Lauren and I were discussing the comments issue recently, and she remarked that the types of comments received varied depending on the blog’s audience, and that she’d never disable comments on her food blog, for example.

She didn’t intend to write a piece about it on grounds of propriety, but I encouraged her to do so (getting married really does wonders for one’s magnanimity), and you can read it via the link above. I certainly acknowledge that my only real experience of comments is within the technology industry, where they have a deservedly less-than-stellar reputation. ‘Comments off’ may not be the right choice for a different audience, as she points out.

Now in my third year of food blogging, I have never received a negative comment.

She also, however, acknowledges the point about comments that don’t contribute meaningfully to the article itself, and indeed notes that in the food blogging community, reciprocal comments are a primary means of gaining much-needed exposure. That’s fine if it’s a mutually accepted practice, but my own feeling is that such comments are irrelevant noise which do little to benefit any reader besides the person being linked to.

MG Siegler - Comments Still Off

MG’s piece was probably the one that shared mine with a wider audience initially. He’s in strong agreement with a no-comments policy, and his argument is partly about deterring low-quality feedback, but more about comments being a poor cousin of writing at your own blog, in terms of giving weight to your words.

Commenting is a facade. It makes you think you have a voice. You don’t. Get your own blog and write how you really feel on your own site.

I’d agree with that; indeed, I see it as strongly related to a person’s online identity, and its importance.

MG then followed up with an additional piece entitled Bile, which responds to some pushback he received (it also contains some interesting further links to related discussion - on other’s blogs, naturally). He reminds us of something that seems obvious but which is often forgotten or ignored when debating the comments issue:

This is my site. I choose not to have comments. I recognize that sometimes people feel the need to respond to what I write here, and I love that. Please do it on your own site.

Fundamentally, it’s your site, and your right to choose whether or not to have comments. There’s a troubling sense of entitlement that repeatedly rears its head in this discussion. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but they do not have a right to express it on your site. A blog is not a democracy, and those that try to be are usually less engaging for it.

TechCrunch - Blogs Need Comments

TechCrunch’s basic position is effectively summed up by the title, but the article’s angle isn’t quite what you’d expect; instead, it’s a set of suggestions about how to address the well-acknowledged problems with comments: trolls, spam, moderation burden, and the dilution of importance of the actual article being commented on.

The suggestions make interesting reading, even if they don’t really touch on the (for me, more important) issues of quality, consideration (in the sense of thinking through a position before stating it), or the right to curate your own web presence.

The close of the article does do some hand-waving, though:

Comments keep bloggers humble, honest, accurate, and in touch with their audience. Personally, I enjoy debating with people who think I’m wrong, as long as they’re civil. I really value my commenters and often update my articles with thoughts they’ve inspired or corrections they’ve cited.

The first sentence is actually what’s at the heart of most disagreement with ‘comments off’ - not honesty, but instead humility, and righteous anger at anyone perceived to lack it. It says much more about the would-be commenter than the blog’s author, but I’ll touch on that later. And regarding comments keeping writers accurate, I prefer to believe that self-respect and professionalism do that.

The remaining two sentences aren’t actually an argument for having comments at all, which is a bit cheeky (and bordering on a false dichotomy: no comments does not mean “I don’t care what you think”). Instead, they’re arguments for reading and taking into account any feedback you do receive, via any medium. As such, they’re laudable common sense and courtesy, but aren’t particularly germane to this discussion.

MacStories - On Comments

This piece begins with a defence of the usefulness of comments in allowing readers to add their opinions inline with the article itself - evidently. It then, however, laments the very real issues of spam and moderation-burden, particularly with regard to older and thus potentially outdated information (a particularly problematic issue for technical material).

The issue of identity (or rather, malicious anonymity, aliases and/or sock-puppetry) is then raised, and there’s a brief discussion of technical issues with integrating commenting systems. Of most interest to me, it mentions the trend (very much confirmed by my experience, in the months before I switched comments off) of receiving much more feedback on Twitter than as comments on the article itself, and the benefits of that trend for the site owners.

The upshot of all this is notable:

In consideration of the reader, how we want the site to look, and due to the amount of time we can spend keeping an eye of this stuff, we will be removing comments from the next iteration of MacStories.

It’s a brave move, and sure to court controversy. I freely admit to being surprised at the boldness and definitiveness of the decision (that’s no reflection on MacStories itself; it’s just that news sites, like any business, tend to understandably err on the side of caution).

MG Siegler also remarked on the piece, in his response MacStories Goes Nuclear On Comments, which you should read. Here’s a portion that resonated with me:

Even more interesting is the psychology behind "needing" comments on big sites. Let’s be honest: most of these sites defend comments because if they don’t, it will seem like they’re taking a shit on their readers.

I think that’s indeed the biggest fear for higher-traffic sites and blogs, rather than the more-often-quoted discussion aspect. It’s a matter of assumed intent, and of course there’s that phrase about “assume” making an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me’.

MacStories cares about their readers’ opinions, as does MG, and as do I. My decision was made for the reasons stated, and certainly not due to a lack of regard for readers, nor a surfeit of regard for myself. I can only state that fact, and leave it up to you to decide whether or not to believe it.

GigaOM - Yes, blog comments are still worth the effort

GigaOM’s piece begins as a response to MG Siegler’s “Comments Off” article (linked and discussed previously), but quickly reaches its main argument: once again, it’s humility (the lack thereof; or, an excess of arrogance or ego). Even without the embedded image of a man using a bullhorn, the message is clear:

While comments can be a royal pain at times, they are a crucial part of what makes a blog more than just a bully pulpit.

A “bully pulpit”, indeed. Whilst I’m on record as an advocate of expressing strong opinions in journalism, that’s an extremely inflammatory position. My favourite extract, though, is this:

A blog without comments is a soap-box, plain and simple. Not having comments says you are only interested in passing on your wisdom, without testing it against any external source (at least not where others can watch you do so) or leaving open the opportunity to actually learn something from those who don't have their own blogs, or aren't on Twitter or Google+.

Again, the straw man of democracy. I was tempted to feel a little offended at the implication (I use that word charitably, where ‘accusation’ would be considerably more appropriate) that I want to avoid scrutiny, or even more ridiculously that I explicitly don’t wish to learn from others.

I’ll leave you to judge the quoted article for yourself, but I’ll say this: bandying-about the charge of hiding from discussion is an exceptionally facile response to the genuine difficulty that I (and others, increasingly) had in coming to the no-comments decision in the first place.

John C. Welch - One minor point on the comment bullshit

John’s article (strongly in favour of comments, and openly derisive of switching them off) is another response to MG Siegler - and an angry one. Having browsed his blog archive, anger seems to be John’s default emotional state.

In any case, he writes a considered, long-form response on his own blog saying that it’s a fallacy to think that switching off comments will make people write considered, long-form responses on their own blogs. Hmm.

(I’m actually being a bit unfair here; what he says is that comments-off won’t create more intelligent discourse. John’s response is intelligent as far as it goes, but I do take issue with its confrontational tone, implied ad hominems and nigh-constant needless profanity. I’d also say that this article that you’re reading now, with its many links to just such intelligent discourse, ably disproves his assertion.)

The main topic covered (and it’s the first time I’ve seen it in this debate) is that responses on external blogs which link to your article will confer search-engine relevance and rank to you. From my understanding of search engines, that’s true enough (with greater rank being conferred by links from pages perceived to be high-quality themselves). John is outraged at this, and implies - but never quite states - that that’s the actual, evil hidden purpose of ‘comments off’. Accordingly, he spitefully refuses to even link to the article which prompted his response.

If I comment on an article by someone espousing this stupid bullshit about comments, I'm not linking to shit. Why should I give them juice and ad money for free? What the fuck will they do for me in return?

I’ll point out that John takes umbrage at his perception that comments-off blogs are trying to take something from him for their own benefit, then he justifies not linking by questioning how he’ll personally benefit from doing so. It’s up to you, the reader, to decide whether that’s hypocritical (you could also see it as an absolutely consistent, if somewhat crass, capitalist view of linking on the web).

I think that bringing reward into the discussion sabotages his erstwhile apparently principled stance. I’ll also remark that you can withhold the sharing of relevance by adding a rel="nofollow" attribute to any link.

Linking (and its effects on SEO, traffic and rank), as I said, is the main topic covered, but it’s not really what the piece is about. Here’s a list of words that caught my eye, all from John’s (500-word) article:

  • entitlement
  • elitist
  • hipsters
  • snotty
  • precious
  • tainted

The real argument here, once again, is that those who switch off comments lack due humility. We’re not humble enough for John, and that angers him.

It’s a very common argument against disabling comments (even moreso since I believe it’s the real motivation behind several other arguments), and it’s worthy of a serious discussion - which John’s article, in my allegedly not-so-humble opinion, isn’t.

Matt Alexander - Switching Comments Off

Matt touches on the same preference for responses via Twitter as MacStories mentioned, and also confirms my perception that switching off comments increases the amount of contact from those who really have something worthwhile to say.

From my perspective, I can corroborate Gemmell's results. I switched off comments a few weeks ago, and have not looked back. While the daily volume of comments was still relatively small when I turned them off, I have noticed a drastic increase in users reaching out to me using other means to express opinions, ask questions, and to provide feedback.

Matt also notes the possibly unwelcome insulation from negative feedback, but acknowledges the real problems of identity and accountability, leading to rash and unhelpful remarks from the all-too-familiar trolls, teenagers and sociopaths who clutter almost every comment form and forum on the web.

He closes with a neat summary of why no-comments is not only a valid choice, but also an aesthetic one. I’ll leave you to read that for yourself.

Brent Simmons - Comments on blogs

Brent, who initially inspired me to switch to a static HTML blogging system, has an intriguing observation: that the comments vs no-comments discussion brings to mind another fiery (and ongoing) debate:

It reminds me of the classic geek religious war between the text editors Emacs and Vi.

Naturally, blogs with comments are likened to Emacs’ vast domain of functionality, and no-comments blogs equate to Vi’s task-focused and far more limited feature-set. You should read the whole piece for yourself (it’s not long), but there’s something compelling about the idea that your blog can have a different purpose, and that your choice of whether to allow comments can reflect that purpose. I’ll touch on this more later.

Jim Cloudman - No Comment

Jim (whose blog theme charmingly reflects his last name) agrees with comments-off, and echoes MG Siegler’s (and my) stance regarding identity and the ownership of one’s own words.

He then discusses an important issue: the need for a no-comments blog author to stay up to date with responses posted elsewhere, and to link to those responses where appropriate. That’s the other half of the contract implied by switching off comments, if you don’t want to be seen as simply hiding from all feedback.

I think it would be very cool if blogs without comments had, underneath each article, a list called “Great Replies” and then a list of hyperlinks to various replies that the blogger added because he/she thought they were great reads.

His suggestions are sensible and well worth a read. I plan to adopt his “Great Replies” idea (and indeed, I already have in a few previous posts).

Matthew Mascioni - Comments… off

Matthew talks about his journey towards discovering the positive side of comments-off, leading up to his having taken the plunge last week: faster page loading, no moderation burden, and a sense of focus and cleanliness on each article.

He then cheerfully asserts his hope that a lack of comments will encourage, not discourage, conversation - and like me, lists Twitter, email and your own blog as suitable avenues of reply.

Darren Steadman - Re: Comments off

Darren’s piece opens by summarising the main arguments for comments-off (he himself does allow comments, and has no strong feelings on the issue), but then he moves onto a somewhat detailed technical discussion on how to solve the twin issues of:

  1. Identity (and anonymity, trolling etc), and:
  2. Relevance (unconsidered or irrelevant comments, including replies to out-of-date material)

The proposals are algorithmic, and make interesting reading. I won’t attempt to quote an extract; do take the time to read the article itself.

My thoughts

I think that’ll do for quoting others’ pieces for the moment; be sure to take the time to read those articles - several link to further discussion elsewhere. I think at this point that we can see the general thrust of the arguments on both sides.

For me, there are two ideas of primary interest, which have cropped up repeatedly: humility of the writer, and the purpose of your blog.

The two issues are interlinked, because misunderstanding the author’s purpose for his or her blog can lead to a perception that they lack humility; a perception that manifests itself as all sorts of tortured arguments about the importance of comments themselves, whereas in fact the underlying sentiment is an accusation of rampant egocentrism.

I freely and gladly admit that I enjoy writing, and that I particularly enjoy writing things that I know people will read. Writing is its own reward, certainly - any diarist will tell you that. But having readers is a substantial additional reward, and everyone likes confirmation and validation.

The vast, vast majority of all comments I’ve ever received have been agreement and/or praise. That’s just a fact. I write for a technical audience, who aren’t known to be either sycophants or simpletons, so I’m compelled to conclude that I’m doing something right. My comments feed was a confirmation of that, on a daily basis. If stating this basic statistical truth shows lack of humility, then I’m guilty as charged - but I won’t lie about it.

For most people in this discussion, the main worry about switching off comments has been a fear of reducing engagement or conversation. For me, that was about 50% of my concern; the other 50% was that I really, really liked getting those comments each day from people who (for the most part) agreed with what I’d written. I was in the absurdly privileged position that disabling comments amounted to switching off daily reassurance and validation. Accordingly, any accusation that I’m hiding from disagreement is frankly ridiculous.

Readers aren’t idiots (for the most part). Certainly not in this industry. If people didn’t generally enjoy (regardless of agreement or disagreement) reading what I write, they simply wouldn’t read this blog anymore. The kind of person who would voluntarily continue to read material he always disliked is a mystery to me. If he does so only to then post unpleasant comments, I think that borders on a personality disorder.

So, to humility. Putting aside the unpalatable but nevertheless true fact that there’s no requirement for you to be humble on your blog in the first place, I do understand and agree that no reader wants to feel patronised, or that the writer is intolerably arrogant. I feel the same way about the blogs that I read.

Of course, writing of any kind can never be entirely separated from vanity. When your writing is instantly published on the internet for all to (potentially) see, it’s difficult to completely subsume our very human egos. It’s enjoyable; I think we’re all adult enough to acknowledge that. I like pontificating, and so do you. I enjoy sending the truth down the mountain. Such is the human condition.

That doesn’t automatically mean that I don’t value feedback, or wish to be exposed to it. It most certainly isn’t the reason I switched off comments (giving multiple reasons for doing so, I might add). To arbitrarily claim, or to just have decided, that the motive for comments-off is arrogance or lack of humility, is a straw man. It’s a judgement which speaks more about the accuser than the accused. It is also, being an accusation which cannot ever be completely disproven (how can I prove my inner motive beyond doubt?), a weak argument.

That brings me to the purpose of a blog, or your view of what a blog should be. For me, “blog” implies:

  • A website
  • Primarily text
  • Updated periodically
  • Probably with an element of personal reflection and an individual voice

That’s all. It’s a very generic description. I don’t feel, personally, that a blog must have comments - but it seems that many people do. The reason, I believe, is that many see the purpose of a blog to be a kind of noticeboard of thoughts. Something that’s implicitly in the public domain, and thus fair game for on-site comments and such. Something that exists outside the personal domain of its author; indeed, a public extension of that person.

Others, including myself, have a different purpose in mind. To me, a blog is an extremely personal thing. It’s entirely within my personal domain, and is far more like a collection of essays than a noticeboard. I put a great deal of effort into these pieces, and I have a correspondingly proprietorial view of the blog itself. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position.

So, to those who see no-comments as a violation of democracy, I see no such democracy here. You imagine that I’m trying to remove your right to attach a note to a public noticeboard, or to participate in a town-hall debate (which would indeed be reprehensible of me, and a violation), but from my perspective, I’m asking you not to scribble on my newspaper, or to be boorish at my dinner party. It’s simply down to a different perception of the purpose, and thus degree of ownership, of a blog as a whole. To me, this is my home on the internet. You’re most welcome to visit as often as you like, and to stay for as long as you like, and I’m sure you’ll understand if I retain the right to set the rules while you’re here.

The comments-on position is valid, and the comments-off position is valid too. Both can coexist peacefully. It doesn’t have to become an issue of principle, and indeed to try and make it into one is faintly ludicrous (it’s a website on the internet, for goodness’ sake). To frame it according to the now-hackneyed democratic principle, all we ask is the right to choose whether or not to allow comments.

I welcome feedback, both positive and negative. I always have. I’ve been lucky to enjoy a great deal of it, and I’ve made many friends and met many colleagues and clients via my writings here. I feel strongly about serving the community, and a part of my writing here is about doing so.

My main motivation, however (and I say this without compunction or shame), is to please myself by writing. I can’t help but write - as any writer will tell you - and I enjoy it immensely. I’m delighted to share it with you, and I respectfully assert my right to control the manner in which I do that.

Review, respond and critique as you wish - but please do so via your own public outlet, or privately via email, or over a shared medium such as Twitter. I do hope you’ll choose the first option, and add yet another piece to the list above - I look forward to reading it.

Whether you allow comments on that prospective post is a matter for you, and you alone. Your blog is what you want it to be, and no-one can tell you that it has to be a discussion.