Commented Out

Last week I had to shut down the comment thread for a post I wrote about The Daily when it turned into an unexpectedly snarky exchange on the merits of various approaches to iPad publishing. To look at the twenty comments that were published before I shut it off you’d think the discourse wasn’t that bad, but I had to filter out several fairly nasty and thoroughly unconstructive comments that some less diplomatic readers tried to post.

I don’t mind debate and disagreement and even outright refutation of my opinions, but I really do mean it when I implore commenters to “Please be nice.” In fact, that’s the only instruction I offer in my comments form, simply because I feel like it’s short and simple enough to set the right tone for 99% percent of the people who comment here. When commenters don’t adhere to that, the fun of running a site with open comments is drained away for me.

Luckily, this hasn’t happened very often. In fact I can’t remember the last time it did, and I doubt I’ve had to take this measure more than two or three times in the decade or so I’ve been running this blog. So I’m very grateful to the vast majority of the readership here who have had the decency to be nice in the comments.


Conversation Levels

I’m indebted to the Subtraction.com readership for many reasons, but high quality comments is near the very top of that list. Of course hosting well-mannered and constructive comments is more pleasant than hosting nasty rants, but more than that, I’ve consistently found that the comments I get here are very insightful, surprising and rewarding. Not only does this site give me a platform on which to publish my thoughts on all sorts of random topics, but getting tremendously robust and revealing feedback from readers makes the whole experience immeasurably richer. It’s truly difficult to overestimate how much I’ve learned from Subtraction.com’s commenters over the years.

For me, the act of blogging would be substantially different, and much less satisfying, without comments. That’s why a service like Tumblr — which has done some amazing things with the blogging form, but doesn’t make comments a central part of the experience — doesn’t feel quite right for me. As much as I truly admire what Tumblr has done, it doesn’t enable the kind of blogger-reader conversation that I find so valuable.

At the same time, I’m not blind to the fact that the world is changing. First, blogging in the style that I cherish — the Blogger/MovableType/WordPress.org style, you might say, where each blog is a kind of an independent publication — now feels somewhat like a niche activity practiced by relatively few, where it once seemed like a revolutionary democratization of publishing. What seems more lively, more immediate and more relevant right now is what I might call ‘network blogging’ — content publishing that’s truly integrated into a host network like Tumblr or Twitter, that’s not just on the network, it’s of the network too. It’s simpler, faster, more democratic than what came before. It’s not my preferred style of blogging, but it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s not incredibly exciting in very different ways.

The Conversation Died Down

Part of this change, I think, is a decline in commenting. From what I’ve seen here at Subtraction.com over the past year or two, there seems to have been a marked decline in comment activity. The sort of posts that once would have generated two or three dozen comments now rarely generate more than a dozen. While the quality has remained relatively high, the exchanges I see in my comment threads are less robust, less active, less lively.

It’s presumptuous, I know, to extrapolate what I’ve seen happen here on my own site into an interpretation of how the blogosphere as a whole is changing. After all, a decline in comments could very well be directly attributable to a decline in the quality and/or relevance of my writing. I like to think that’s not the case, though, because I’ve written some of what I would consider to be my best stuff in the past year or so.

I think what’s really happening is a simple matter of divided attention: there are much more absorbing content experiences than independent blogs out there right now: not just Tumblr, but Twitter and Facebook and all sorts of social media, too, obviously, and they’re drawing the attention that the ‘old’ blogs once commanded. Moreover, these social networks allow people to talk directly to one another rather than in the more random method that commenting on a blog post allows; why wouldn’t you prefer to carry on a one-on-one conversation with a friend rather than hoping someone reads a comment you’ve added to a blog post, number 59 out of 159?

Of course, there are many independent blogs that continue to draw significant numbers of comments. Most of these draw much bigger readerships than Subtraction.com ever has, and they’ll continue to see healthy comment numbers for many years, I’m sure. Maybe that does mean it’s just that Subtraction.com has become less interesting to people over time, or that only the very high-traffic blogs will continue to attract lots of commenters. I don’t know for sure, and I’m not certain anyone can know for sure. But I do feel like some marked change has occurred, that blogging and commenting have evolved or continue to evolve into substantially different behavioral modes than what we saw when the form first became popular. In retrospect, I guess it was unrealistic of me to assume that blogging was here to stay in the form that I first became familiar with it, but of course just the opposite is true. Everything is always changing on the Internet.

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33 Comments

  1. Good points and these are all things I’ve felt change over the past few years. The conversation has moved to Twitter for the most part as it is more conversational in that regard.

    However, I also notice that people have returned to providing commentary or responses on their own sites or in the case of Tumblr, reblogging and adding commentary to it. Prime examples are of course, Daring Fireball, Neven Mrgn and Marco Ament.

    Comments have evolved into more of a call and response nature: sites like Quora, Stack Overflow and Ask Metafilter demonstrate that we’ve moved to wanting to help people out and pushing discussion into a “Hey, I have an opinion or know about this and here’s my two cents.”

    In a way, it’s about ownership — on Twitter, your own site and Quora or other social graph account-driven sites, your responses are collected better into one place with a larger audience. There’s a bit of ego there and a bit of wanting to get your answer out there to a wider audience too. But I think people like to control the flow and where the conversation is happening, moreso on their own terms and territory or neutral territory.

  2. I agree on everything you have stated. What I find interesting and odd is the level of comments on blogs. A single article about a random non news story on Fark can gain four hundred comments in a heartbeat, while a blog can run for months without more then five comments. My own site, although not even a fraction of a percentage as popular as here, I have received.. 2 comments? Lots of people visiting, but I think a lot of people don’t feel they have the time to comment.

  3. For what it’s worth, I think you bring up an issue the design community needs to consider. Comments are important, so how can we capture and display the lively discussion of the post, whether it’s happening in comments or on Twitter?

    Very interesting problem…

  4. I’m saddened by how the lowest common denominator is often what ends up defining a medium, blog comments included.

    It’s been often noted that people’s worst tendencies are set loose by anonymity, whether in a mob on the street or hiding behind an anonymous username. http://nyti.ms/fEXvBM Back in the days when I was the boss of a set of Compuserve forums (remember Sysops?), we were well served by the absolute requirement for real names; it made a huge difference in the level of discussion. I wonder if there’s a way to require, or at least encourage, real names in blog comments.

  5. Joe: Well one thing I didn’t talk about is the likelihood (or inevitability) of Facebook-powered comments. That will, at least, root out anonymity. Whether it brings quality too is anyone’s guess, but it’s certain to have another major change on the dynamic of comments.

  6. I think you touched on a factor contributing to the decline of commenting—a direct conversation with others—but there’s more to it.

    Commenting still allows for direct conversations in a big way. Most systems support sub-threads, so people can still reply to each other on that post and split and merge conversations as they please. Plus, the discussion is “filed away” in the sense that it’s tied to a specific place on the web and not sprawling all over our other social accounts. Those things have value to people who want to have discussions around a topic or a specific post.

    But with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, people aren’t just getting interested in conducting these direct conversations in another way, they’re becoming their own broadcasters with their own audience. It’s appealing from both a person-to-person perspective and a narcissistic endeavor. “Why add *my* smart/funny/useful perspective as a footnote to that person’s website when I can take center stage by publishing to my audience.”

    I think commenting’s descent into sheer vitriol has also helped to drive away participation, but that means we have the blogging and commenting platforms to blame for not trying to solve the problem sooner. This is why budding comment system alternatives like Disqus and (the perhaps unfortunately named) IntenseDebate are so interesting. They’re offering better identity and commenting tools that raise the bar for accountability in comments. Besides enabling the community to police itself when it comes to bad apples, site owners can require commenters to login with, say, their Twitter or Facebook accounts. If readers misbehave on your site or another Disqus-powered site and get flagged and eventually banned, there is actually something for them to lose.

    I can think of few examples other than comments where the power of anonymity is the Internet’s greatest blessing, but also its most bitter curse. Some people understandably don’t want to use their Facebook profiles because of the service’s insistence on personal transparency. But other login options from these comment alternatives like Twitter (and more social/identity systems that generally require some kind of responsibility from the user) offer more comfortable alternatives while still raising that bar of accountability.

    Disqus and IntenseDebate haven’t entirely cracked the nut yet. But I think they’ve taken big steps towards cleaning up comments and allowing reasoned discussion to flourish again.

  7. I find that reading on the phone means I comment less. It’s not just that I’m not as quick a typist on the phone. It’s also that well-developed comments can require googling other links, looking at other pages to connect a discussion, re-reading the post and other comments in the middle of writing a comment, etc, and all of those things are much clunkier on the phone.

  8. For a separate reply on the Tumblr thing: for what it’s worth, the company finally saw the light and began embracing comments to a reasonable degree. It now natively supports the Disqus commenting system, and theme designers can add the option and make it easy for users to turn them on. Granted, it means you have to sign up for a third-party service, but I think they struck a good balance between providing a streamlined blogging experience and the option of enabling conversations.

  9. Agree, and yes it’s interesting. I think there’s an interesting critical mass that makes a site and it’s comments throughput just the right size. Too small and it’s not vibrant enough, too big and it’s impossible to handle. How does one keep the size just right?

    Secondly, I’d say Facebook now owns the comment-dialog experience. The mental energy to just keep track of what you’ve made a comment on (and where?) is not insignificant, and Facebook has sucked whatever dialog “need” most people might have into their black hole. Sad, but I think true.

  10. Khoi, the experience you discuss in your article is very similar to the experience we have discovered recently on Smashing Magazine as well. In the magazine, to achieve meaningful, lengthy discussions in the comments, the article has to be very thought-provoking and challenging. It appears that most active discussions are the ones that originate from loud, not necessarily well-argued or useful articles.

    As a large online publication, we’ve been struggling with this very issue a lot recently. I agree that the lack of quality comments is probably related to the limited amount of attention that the members of our community have. However, I often ask myself where the community actually went? Where are most people? Where do discussions take place? On Twitter? On Facebook? Both do not seem like the right medium for a lengthy discussion to me.

    Or maybe we just don’t have time for leaving a comment; clicking on the “Like” button and tweeting a link is much easier and requires less attention. Maybe we should think of new forms of communication that would bring the “blog”-style communication back on track.

  11. Networks like Facebook, Twitter and even Tumblr provides for a completely different experience compared to comments on a stand-alone site or blog.

    I consider myself a heavy Facebook user but I still find huge value in stand-alone Blogs and sites which provide meaningful insights and articles. Interesting articles and well-thought out insights invite me to comment on them and participate in a public conversation.

    On Facebook, the conversation can revolve around exactly the same article (as a shared link) but with a significantly different social circle – my friends.

    As for Tumblr, I try to use it once every while but I still find myself naturally drawn to long form articles/essays instead of short bursts of randomness which is what I get from Tumblr.

  12. Brilliant Post!

    I think Daiyami is on the money – so much more of the blog reading is now done via the phone not the traditional taking a break at the computer. Somehow it seems that people are now more open to engage just not interact when looking at the blog on the phone. Which is funny given it is a device built for communication!

    I think the downtime on the computer now gets used to check out facebook/twitter.

  13. I think this evolution has been going on for quite some time now. I blogged about it in 2008, but I was definitely not the first to raise this issue. Over the years the problem has grown bigger and now blogs which had a considerable amount of comments to begin with are starting to feel the downfall of our online communication.

    I still believe web2.0 started this trend, reducing “communication” to simple “likes”, short blurps of text and just “being friends”. Meaningful commentary on blog posts died together with old web forums, where people would pull together to discuss certain topics at length.

    I still don’t get how people manage to use services like Twitter as a 2-way communication platform, it was never intended as such and it actively prevents any type of meaningful discussion. But everything has its ups and downs. Once people grow tired of the overload of fragmented nonsense the social web is giving us now, they’ll return to the older, more vocal and elaborate web. Until then, our little niche will still permit us to vent our opinions in paragraphs and full sentences.

    Cheers to that!

  14. What we will eventually see is customized comment delivery, once sufficiently powerful textual analysis is enabled. Snarky conversations will continue, but be viewed only by the snarky, who compete in that arena. This will fulfill the promise of the internet, which is to virtualize our universe of discourse into like-minded enclaves of reinforcement.

  15. I think traditional blogs are losing audience share to networked blogs because the former facilitate production whereas the latter facilitate consumption. As Tom noted, “the mental energy to just keep track of what you’ve made a comment on (and where?) is not insignificant.” I expect RSS aggregators, the silent partner in traditional blogging consumption, are also experiencing declining usage.

    The other 3 components of the traditional blog consumption experience – comments, blog responses (traditionally manifested as interlinking and pingbacks), and content forwarding – are better facilitated via networked blogs.
    - Simply creating comments on many traditional blog platforms is a hassle (any UI that includes CAPTCHA has is merely awaiting obsolescence). Persisting an ongoing comment conversation is even harder: I’m not aware of any standalone products that aggregate a consumer’s comments, let alone the responses to those comments.
    - People have tried to solve the problem of browsing interlinked traditional blogs but those solutions’ ease of use pales in comparison to networked blogs’ native popularity scores and recommendations.
    - Forwarding traditional blog content has never been standardized. Email? Delicious bookmarks? Like? But again, on networked blogs it’s generally 1 click to reblog, retweet, or otherwise push content out to additional readers.

    Traditional blogging favors writers (the creators) but network blogging favors readers (the consumers). It seems like a case of market disruption: ease of use is trumping quality. If the model holds, we can look forward to the great Tumblogs and tweet streams that will emerge in the coming years.

  16. Maybe comments have become what the word litterally means: a comment. Someone just tells you what they think of it, without them wanting to engage in a lengthy discussion.
    If you were to look at comments in that way, a tweet containing the link to the article and a few words telling you it’s interesting (or rubbish) or a Facebook like is an actual comment: someone just tells you what they think of it. They like it, or not.
    Maybe we expect a comment to be more than just that.

  17. I really wanted to type a long response, but I’m on my iPad and typing just isn’t the same.

    I wonder how your visitor’s OS has changed over the years? More iOS and Andriod. Could this be (at least) helping) the comment decline?

  18. I comment less because I read more, I believe. I don’t have time to respond to everything I have an opinion on, because it takes time to form a well-thought-out comment. I just get into the habit of clicking through article after entry after article and I have to force myself to stop and contribute anything of my self. It’s a lot easier to hit “reblog” than to actually have to think about why exactly something is relevant to me. Plus, like others said, it’s easy to read things on the go, but to literally not have the ability to make a comment (not just the metaphoric inability of laziness.) BUT I do also make it a point to bookmark things I want to respond to. And I know I’m not alone in that regard, thankfully.

  19. I read a few well-written blogs (including this one), but don’t comment as I just don’t have time, as well as for two other reasons: Often someone else has said something similar to what I was thinking and there’s no point repeating it, or because I don’t want to spend time becoming “comment 59 of 157″ which no one is likely to read anyway.

    But I think fewer comments has an upside–it means that more people short on time might be likely to read them. I might skim/read comments if there’s a dozen or so after an article. If there are a 100 I won’t even bother to start.

  20. I think decline in comments is lack of time but also sometimes shyness and a fear of biteback from other readers. Very little to do with quality or popularity. And using a pseudonym is not always a smokescreen to leave snarky anonymous comments. Sometimes it is for professional reasons or because people are in the public eye. No excuse for rudeness ever – comment-rage is horrible and stifles debate/interaction.

  21. Good read.

    As someone who has only entered the online world of web designer in the past year, and before then been relatively oblivious to the ins and outs, I have been reading a lot about the decline in community.

    Since reading these things, I have definitely made more of an effort to comment and share my thoughts or appreciation. I value what others are doing, and can learn a lot from hearing what they have to say.

    To see where blogging has come from, to see where it’s going, will be interesting

  22. I think you’re right about divided attention. I’m noticing it not just in the number of comments, but the “quality” (for lack of a better word) of comments. And a linked blog post is more likely to elicit a “thumbs up like” on FB than a real comment on my blog. It’s just “easier”. Sadly.

    I’ve avoided tumblr because of the lack of commenting—and I’m so invested on a blog I’ve written for 9 years! But I’m beginning to wonder… is it just a case of me being resistant? Or will real communication come back into fashion?

    My only answer is to change my behavior. To “tip the writer” and leave a comment. To take a few minutes out of my day to say “thanks” and “I see you” more often. Yes, I still “like” things on FB, but I’m attempting to live into my convictions and my nostalgia for the early days of blogging.

    (and after that long rambling bit, you’re probably wishing I’d just liked your post on Facebook. Hee)

    All this to say… WORD!

  23. As a relatively new blogger, I so appreciate this. My comments have gone down in number over the last few months, although I do get feedback through email, Twitter and FB. Glad to know it isn’t just me.

    I do think that devices – phones, iPads, etc. make it more cumbersome, too. I find it cuts down on nobody the quantity and quality of the comments I make elsewhere.

    Thanks very much for this…

  24. I touched on this subject recently (Link). Basically, after a few years of shunning commenting on my blog (partly because of the Fisher-Price nature of Tumblr, partly because of a horrible slew of comments that appeared after I posted something about Frances Bean Cobain), I turned them back on again and noticed a big change.

    All the discussion happens on Twitter now. In some ways this is good — there’s more conversation (not to mention incoming links!), but the big problem that hasn’t really been addressed is that these tweets get lost in time, unattached from the post in question.

    It’s about time that commenting (and RSS for that matter) had a bit of an overhaul. Syndication and discussion form the backbone of the web, but they’ve become messy and outdated.

  25. don’t really comment much because i don’t really have much to say. jus want you to know that i appreciate your blog much more than you probably know. really like the format and beg you not to change… if comments help, then i’ll comment “nice post bro!” on each and every entry

  26. I’m stuck on a point touched upon earlier–I’m not really understanding how Twitter and Facebook satisfy the need/desire to reach a specific audience better than an established blog devoted to one subject or one voice.

    I stop myself from writing certain things on these platforms because I’m thinking my relatively small circle of “friends” could probably care less about a design or other specific issue that I feel passionate about. So I think, “I’ve really got to do that blog!”, but now it seems it’s not the right time to start one…?

  27. I’ve had every one of those thoughts myself. On my own blog, the comments used to be such a nice place for people to expound on my ideas that sometimes while I was writing an entry, I would think, “Someone is going to say such-and-such about that point. Maybe I should preemptively address it. Nah, I’ll just leave it this way so people can point it out in the comments and become part of the conversation.” Now, I’m lucky if I get more than one comment on a post.

    Recently, when people came out of the woodwork to tell me how wrong I was about something I posted, I was at least glad to see some activity in the comments again!

  28. Your writing is excellent. When I have time I enjoy reading your posts.

    Social media has many options and will continue to evolve. It seems to me people will pick and choose which method they prefer based on their interest.

    As the blogger/moderator you have the power to maneuver the conversation. If people want to be nasty that is their disposition. They will leave and find something else to complain about. We don’t want them over here on subtraction.com anyways :)

  29. Reading this via Zite on an iPad I can’t comment without using web view. Only one extra step, but friction builds up over time, and soon enough it seems slow.

  30. I think much commentary has moved to Twitter. This is good in that it creates brevity in comment length, not so many 4 para rants. But both good and bad in that its usually a conversation between 2-3 people. The big Twitter limitation is that usernames are included in the character count. Hard to include more than 3 people and then have any room to say anything.

  31. I am new to the Subtraction blog, having stumbled on it only a few weeks ago, but I really enjoy it. My own thinking is that commenting is down because we consume so much online now; so many blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and on and on. Our time is limited unless we focus on only a few sites or online channels.

    But please don’t let this deter you and this blog! Even if commenting is decreasing it is still a great read!

  32. You’re certainly correct that blog commenting is in decline. The reasons vary but for myself these are the most common reasons I don’t comment.

    1. comment #126 of 364. (as someone else pointed out)
    2. other commenters. On many sites I use “shut-up” to completely block the comments div. I couldn’t read Engadget without being able to shut out the comments there. That’s just one example site.

    3. A number of blogs have given up on comments entirely. It’s become to great a burden to oversee them in many cases. This isn’t so much a matter of comment spam as things like Akismet handle that pretty well these days. More, as you’ve pointed out, it’s a trial having to deal with what I’ll call “comment hooligans”.

    All that said, as I’ve been reading Subtraction since those long ago days you can rest assured that even if I don’t comment I’m more than likely happy with what you wrote and in full to semi agreement.

  33. RSS readers remove the comment facility by presenting you with just the content. I switched to using an RSS reader about a year ago and I’ve probably not left a comment since, and not even noticed (until reading this post). It’s not a concious decision, more the options that the UI presents. Is there an RSS reader that integrates with blog commenting systems?

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