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.
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.