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29 Jul

Some comments on comments – Recently, he of the Hairy Chasms disabled comments on his blog, electing to return to an email-only commenting system. During this process, I wrote him a rather lengthy email explaining why I thought it would be perfectly OK to get rid of comments. As I reached the end of the email I realized that I was really laying out a defense of my own decision not to have a public commenting system at Liminality—something I’ve never really discussed before. At the end of the email I appended a note that the contents of the missive would most likely be reworked into a future journal entry. Then I hit send and my email program ate the message and belched loudly (it only does this when I fail to take precautions against it, kind of like how it only rains when you forget your umbrella). I took this is a sign from the cybergods that I should write the entry, so here it is.

“Why do most blog comment threads fail to become hotbeds of discussion?”

I toyed with the idea of implementing a public commenting system when I first built Liminality, much as one might toy with the idea of jumping off a tall building or going postal on a supermarket full of unsuspecting people. In other words, I didn’t ever seriously consider it. For one, I didn’t feel like figuring out how to build a commenting system (I learned PHP while building Liminality, so everything was new to me). But I had more important reasons for not having public comments, and that is why Liminality has the private, email-based commenting system that you can find (mysteriously enough) on the contact page.

With a public commenting system, anyone can come along and read all the comments you might get for any given post. This could be good, but it could also be bad. At best, public commenting creates a community atmosphere where the original post acts as a spark that starts discussion. At worst, it gives unscrupulous individuals an audience for hateful or degrading comments made from behind the mask of anonymity. Although not all public commenting experiments reach one of these two extremes, it is probably safe to say that more have reached the latter extreme than the former. Why do most blog comment threads fail to become hotbeds of discussion? By way of answering that question, I’d like to take a step back in time and reminisce on a personal experience that seems appropriate to the subject at hand.

In 1994 I spent a semester in London. In whatever free time was left between studying and drinking myself silly, I traveled around the city to see the sights, mostly by myself. One place that I was particularly excited about seeing was Speaker’s Corner. Speaker’s Corner (for those of you too lazy to click on that Wikipedia link) is on the northeast corner of Hyde Park (a park I ended up spending a good deal of time in that semester). It is an important place because any one can go there and say whatever they want. Never mind the fact that some people say this sort of selective free speech (free speech zones ring a bell?) is merely a form of censorship—Speaker’s Corner is a symbol (again, see the Wikipedia link for a brief history), and I wanted to see it in action.

So, one Sunday when I wasn’t too hung over from drinking too much Guinness the night before, I took the tube to Marble Arch, prepared to see history in the making. Maybe it was just an off day, but what I saw was not anything even resembling history in the making. What I saw was a few scruffy men speaking to their own little circles of listeners. Seeing as this was over a decade ago, I can’t remember what each of the men was talking about, but I do remember that one guy carried on at length about how we were slaves to our penises. Man, I could’ve told you that.

I wandered from speaker to speaker and noticed that most of the listeners had gathered into smaller groups centered around each speaker. Some hung back, taking in the whole scene. The more active listeners heckled some of the speakers. For their part, the speakers mostly ignored their audience, which was probably the only thing they could do, seeing as all of the feedback they were getting was negative. Just as you are allowed to say anything you want at Speaker’s Corner, so everyone else is allowed to say anything they want back to you. Needless to say, I walked away from the experience rather disillusioned.

A year later and half a world away, I stumbled on the fledgling web—and then promptly stumbled away again because there wasn’t really all that much to see. I only came back a few years later and was surprised to see how things had exploded. Then, with the advent of weblogs, the internet became the cyberspace equivalent of Speaker’s Corner—in more ways than one. Yeah, I won’t deny that the web can be a great place, that there can be voices that are fascinating, revolutionary, and visionary. But most of the time the collection of personal sites on the web (known as the “blogosphere”) is just a bunch of people standing on a street corner next to the information highway, pontificating on penises to anyone who will listen.

And just like Speaker’s Corner, these cyber speakers will have their little circle of listeners. Unlike Speaker’s Corner, these listeners are more often than not friends and family rather than hecklers (although the occasional troll will appear). The more popular you get, the more listeners begin to gather around your soapbox. They may comment on your little speeches, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, but usually these comments are all directed at you. Very few are directed toward other commenters. That is, people will speak their mind, but they will rarely engage in a communal discussion with the other commenters.

So what makes us think that having a public comment system will encourage people to form a discussion community? I think the answer to that question lies in our experience with message boards—an entirely different phenomenon from personal websites. Message boards, or forums, are places where people gather together to talk about subjects of mutual interest. I sometimes hang out at a forum called the Ozone Asylum, which is ostensibly a web and graphic design community but is also a place where we talk about philosophy, religion, politics, sports, and pretty much anything else that strikes our fancy. Although there are certainly some key, long-term members (or inmates, as we like to say in our own special metaphor), the Asylum does not revolve around any single member—not even Doc Ozone, the founder of the boards. The Doc has long since ceased being a regular presence, yet the Asylum goes on. Older members frequently bemoan the influx of clueless newbies and prophesy the demise of the community, but the Asylum goes on. It is a living, breathing organism that exists because of its constituent members but is not dependent on any single member (or clique of members) for its existence.

I use the Asylum as an example because it is the forum with which I have the most experience, but all message boards are the same way. Once a community develops, that community generally continues to exist, even if all the original members leave. I guess the idea of public commenting systems on blogs is to try to capture this community spirit by mimicking the forum threads. What some people fail to realize is that the functionality is not what spawns discussion, it is the community that has grown up around it. Personal sites, unlike forums, are generally very egocentric. They are centered around one individual, and if this individual stops writing, the site dies. This is less like what you have at a forum and more like what you have at Speaker’s Corner—people talking about whatever is on their mind. The focus is on the persona—what that individual feels, believes, fears, hates, loves, etc.—and not on any community. Thus when there are comments, they are usually directed at this persona and not at other commenters.

Even when a post contains content identical to what might appear in an initial post on a forum, you will rarely see a discussion develop. This is because of the understanding of and expectations for a personal site. In a forum, threads become public property the moment they are started. It doesn’t matter who starts the thread, once it is released “into the wild” it becomes the community’s thread. In fact, at the Asylum I have seen inmates get upset because they failed to understand this basic principle. Sometimes threads are “derailed” (that is, taken off topic—something I will admit I have been guilty of doing many times), and the original poster will complain about how “their thread” is being ruined. Guess what—it’s not your thread anymore. It’s our thread, and we will run it into the ground if we get bored with it. Granted, it is considered obnoxious to deliberately derail meaningful threads, but as with any discussion, sometimes tangents arise and are pursued.

Personal websites, on the other hand, offer a completely different environment. Because the site belongs to an individual, commenters are usually keenly aware of the direction any discussion might take and will probably be leery of straying too far. This is considered common courtesy. In fact, the only commenters likely to stray too far are those who will leave scathing, hateful messages. This may be an example of free speech, but it is certainly not conducive to discussion. At best, it might bring down the ire of the friendlier, more polite commenters, but this is probably not the discussion that the owner of the site had in mind.

This is not to say that genuine discussion cannot develop on a blog. It can happen, but there are a few requirements. For one, the persona of the site must take a back seat—even if it is not eliminated entirely, it must at least be subdued. What I mean by this is that commenters must come to see the site, at least the comment section of the site, as belonging in part to them. Secondly, posts need to be kept short enough to better serve as stepping stones to discussion. This is not to say that a long post is incapable of sparking discussion, but a short post is more likely to get more people involved more quickly. In other words, you need to create the same atmosphere found in a forum if you want forum-type discussion to ensue.

One blog that illustrates this principle in fine fashion is The Marmot’s Hole. There is a small community of commenters that participates in sometimes lively discussion in response to the posts. But there are a few things that set The Marmot’s Hole apart from the average blog. Although there has only been one post in the last 24 hours (presumably because it’s the weekend), in the 24 hour period before that there were six posts. All of these posts are relatively short, and they have an average of 21 comments per post (with a high of 51 and a low of 1). On the right-hand sidebar, there are ten commenters listed as part of the “Super Comment Tribe,” with their monthly comment totals ranging from 111 to 48. Right below the comment tribe is a list of authors—although an overwhelming majority of the posts (nearly three thousand) were authored by the site owner, eight other authors have combined for 137 posts. The Marmot’s Hole succeeds in creating a forum-like atmosphere by keeping posts short and sweet (not to mention frequent) and by diffusing the persona somewhat with the appearance of “guest posters.”

Even with a site like The Marmot’s Hole, though, you’re not always going to get forum-level discussion. A large number of comments doesn’t always mean that all these comments will be part of the discussion. The same thing can be said of forums, of course, but blog comment threads tend to be particularly susceptible to “hit-and-run” comments. That is, commenters will usually have their say and then generally not bother to check back and contribute further to any discussion that might develop. Even if a comment is rich enough in substance that it might start or sustain a conversation, commenters generally don’t have an interest in following up. It’s more like the hecklers in Speaker’s Corner throwing their one-time jibes than a group of people sitting around in a circle and discussing a matter.

You can see this principle in action at any popular site that gets a lot of comments. On blogs where the comment threads are much longer, discussions tend to be limited to isolated mini-discussions between commenters, more like a cocktail party than a round-table discussion. I do not read the Daily Kos (I avoid most political blogs, to be honest), but it might be one of the best examples of this type of discussion on a blog. Posts are generally short and sweet, and there are a number of different posters in addition to the eponymous Kos. The comment system is also designed to promote discussion—comments are indented in a threaded fashion so you can see who was responding to what comment. Yet it would appear that, just from my brief perusal of some of the comment threads, discussions are often limited to (if I can continue to borrow from my Speaker’s Corner metaphor) brief exchanges between hecklers. This recent thread (which I must admit I chose because it has the fewest comments—at 115—of all threads currently on the front page) shows this dynamic in action. There are indeed a number of discussions in the comments, but most of them are limited to a commenter stating his or her position, replies from agreeing and/or dissenting voices, and then a reply from the original commenter defending or elaborating on his or her position.

Although I’m sure there are numerous other examples, what you find at the Daily Kos is about as good as it gets for lengthy blog comment thread discussions. Just this past week, Jeffrey Zeldman implemented a public commenting system on his blog. The result? His first discussion-worthy post after the new system was introduced drew seventeen comments. One of these was a trackback and four comments were left by Jeffrey in response to commenters, leaving twelve original comments. No commenter commented twice, nor did any commenter mention a previous comment. It’s unlikely that anyone even read the previous comments. So just having a really popular website doesn’t guarantee discussion in the comments (although we’ll have to see what the future holds in Zeldman’s case). You may get feedback, but you probably won’t get true discussion.

So, to answer the original question and bring this meandering entry to a close, blog commenters rarely engage in discussion because blogs do not generally provide an environment conducive to discussion. If you want your blog to be a cyber salon where the best and brightest come to chat, you need to be prepared to sacrifice a few things, not the least of which is your ego. A discussion-oriented blog needs to be about the community, not the man or woman behind the scenes. You also need to actively encourage discussion both in your posts and in the comments themselves. Even then, though, you are not going to achieve forum-level discussion. If you want that, you need to start a forum, not a blog (or start a forum at your blog, something I have seen at a number of places).

As I mentioned at the start, part of the reason for writing this entry was to explain why I elected not to have a public commenting system at Liminality. While I do value (and respond to) all the comments I get, and I appreciate it when people write in to tell me how much they enjoyed my writing or how it made them think, these interactions with my readers remain one-on-one. Liminality is not about a community, it is about me—what I think, what I believe, what I am interested in. I realize this is incredibly egocentric, but I’ve always been honest about that. Knowing from the start that this was the type of site I was creating, the decision between public and private comments was a very easy one to make. Like I said, I still value comments and feedback and dialogue, but I am not interested in sacrificing my persona and my style to foster communal discussion.

Besides, I don’t think I’d be able to bear the blank comment threads that would be appended to most of my journal entries anyway.

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