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Yes, Comments Can Get Noisy, But We Like Them Anyway

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Updated: Blogger Joe Wilcox stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest recently when he accused John Gruber of avoiding debate by not having comments on his Daring Fireball blog. Gruber responded by saying he doesn’t have comments because they make a blog “noisy,” and that he believes his site is conversational in other ways — by linking to posts on other people’s blogs, for example. Comments, he said, “aren’t conversations [but] cacophonous shouting matches,” whereas Daring Fireball is a “curated conversation.”

Comments on blogs have been a contentious topic almost since blogging was first invented. And Gruber isn’t the only prominent blogger who doesn’t have comments — marketer Seth Godin doesn’t have them either (although some have argued that since he promotes the idea of marketing as a conversation, he probably should), and Jason Calacanis gave them up and now runs an e-mail list instead. Pioneering blogger and RSS developer Dave Winer wrote in 2007 about why he didn’t think comments were necessary on a blog, an argument very similar to Gruber’s — and one that was echoed by software developer Joel Spolsky, among others — but he later added them anyway.

Gruber can do whatever he wants with his blog, of course. It’s his soapbox, as he points out, which he has built up over the years into one of the leading voices in the technosphere — and we are fans of his writing, comments or no comments. As he notes in his post, others can write their own blog posts if they disagree with him, just as Wilcox did. And it’s true that while comments were seen by many as a crucial part of blogging in the early days of social media, there are more ways for readers to respond now, thanks to Twitter and Facebook and other social tools and networks.

[related-posts align=”right” tag=”blogging”]That said, however, not everyone has a blog, and not everyone is on Twitter or Facebook. One of the benefits of having comments is that they are open to everyone — although that is obviously part of what can make them so noisy as well. The barriers to entry are low, and so there are plenty of “drive by” comments and trolling. Having people respond on their own blogs or on Twitter and Facebook can also fragment the conversation on a topic, making it difficult to follow and causing potentially valuable responses to be lost or not recognized properly.

The bottom line is this: We have comments at GigaOM because we believe that many of our readers know as much or more about the topics we’re covering as we do, as social media pioneers like Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis repeatedly point out. Yes, comments can be filled with vitriol and ad hominem attacks — which we remove whenever they appear — but they can also be a source of important and valuable information, including pointing out when we make a mistake (which does happen from time to time, unfortunately). And more than that, comments are a key part of how we forge a relationship with our readers that goes beyond just “read what we wrote and then be on your way.” Do they take work to moderate? Yes. Is it worth it? Definitely.

Joe Wilcox, meanwhile, now says that he’s going to try doing without them on his blog as well, and will apologize to Gruber if he turns out to be right. And Derek Powazek has also added his voice in support of the Daring Fireball blogger’s viewpoint on comments.

Update: Gruber has added some more thoughts on comments, in which he says that “it’s not that I haven’t included comments on DF because I dislike the concept of comments; it’s that comments would not fit with what I have in mind for DF as an experience. Same goes for frequent use of images. I certainly don’t think images are “bad”. They just don’t fit with what I have in mind for DF.”

What do you think? Are comments valuable or are they just noise? You can take our poll, or you can respond (as always) with a comment.

[polldaddy poll=3353983]

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Kjunstrom

36 Responses to “Yes, Comments Can Get Noisy, But We Like Them Anyway”

  1. Disabling the comments implies that the blogger wants to control for the possibility that a reader might contradict the post. At that point, the blogger should stop blogging and just get a podium.

  2. I guess it would be technically trivial and legally feasible to set up a website that re-prints Gruber’s comments with a comment thread—nope? Just to see if the experience he has in mind is that different? Him talking about the conversation is very far from considering that breaking the editorial line of your own blog to respond to him prevents him from the best insights.
    The community dynamics would be different with two addresses, but Hacker News is almost there (except they have other posts, too ;).

  3. I have comments enabled on my blog, and they are moderated and I prohibit anonymous comments. But I get so few comments that I might as well turn them off. It’s simply a matter of time management and priorities. If comments are increasing your revenue more than they are increasing your opportunity costs, fine, enable them. But if they aren’t, drop them like a hot rock!

  4. David Olamar

    What would you know about comments? I’ve looked at your posts and you average maybe 4 comments per post. Compare that to the number of comments per post on Techcrunch or Mashable. You are essentially screaming into the wind.

    Mathew Ingram positing about the benefits of comments is like a virgin discussing the wonders of sex. You’ve got to have some experience before you are a credible source.

    • Thanks for the comment, David. Before I came to GigaOM I was in charge of moderating reader comments at a major metropolitan newspaper, where we routinely got in excess of 10,000 a day. So I think I know a little about both the upside and downside of comments :-)

  5. Jack C

    Realistically, you don’t have a choice.

    Many of your articles present a, shall we say, controversial perspective. These types of articles rely, in large part, on the discussion and dialog they generate in the comments section for their very success. Without the ability for readers to presenter counterpoints, even to the point of suggestion that a particular perspective is full of crap, said articles become a force that deters readership rather than engages them.

  6. As Gruber himself notes its “curated reading”, he falls into the similar philosophy of Apple with its “curated computing” if people don’t read him, he doesn’t care, nothing wrong. But for people who hope to get insights, challenge Gruber’s views, be part of a discussion, that is not the place to go, its a one way street, so his opinions even when its right are unconvincing unless you are a fanboi. As Hank Williams put it here, I too just read him, but don’t trust him.

  7. I disagree. If valuable information comes from the blog comments, that same information can be shared with the authors via other ways like email. So keeping blog comments on for that reason, to me, seems unnecessary.

  8. You have the benefit of having a higher caliber of writers than TechCrunch, and consequently a higher level of readership and better comments. But take a look at the zoo that ensues when a troll plants flame-bait and the feeble-minded bite.

    It’s not like the comments circus isn’t contrived by the likes of TC blogger MG Siegler. Yellow journalism is his trade, and he was hired, it seems, with the intent of driving more eyeballs through intentional baiting.

    But the whole shtick was tedious enough that I removed TC from my feed. Please, don’t let that happen here.

  9. It must be a slow news day or something. What’s with the blatant navel-gazing?

    Gruber can do whatever he likes with his blog. No amount of pressure will change his mind about allowing comments. The amount of time it takes to monitor the comments quickly affects his ability to provide the high-quality insights he offers on a regular basis.

    Why spend so much time on the trolls and spammers? It’s just too much for a one-man show.

  10. thanks for asking :)

    I think the new use of Poll Daddy (or plug-ins like it are helpful). I would say that everyone should give comments a try.. see if you get a meaningful response, if you get garbage then turn the commenting function off but don’t simply state that the function of commenting on blogs is useless and merely noise, not true.

    The problem that I think most blogs with comments are in for though is that none of us really have the time anymore since we are fighting the firehose of the web. The socialweb has added the immediate now layer to what was already instant access to information.

    IMO keep em on.

    • Thanks, Mike — you are right that comments take time, though, and there are so many other competing demands for peoples’ time now, with Twitter and so many other social tools and networks. I still think they are valuable.

    • Thanks for the link, Ouriel. You are right about the comments on Fred Wilson’s blog as well — a great example of someone who really knows how to engage with their community, and consequently gets consistently great comments.

  11. Comments are part of building a community, even if that community revolves around a single post instead of the entire site. I’ve learned things I wouldn’t otherwise know by reading comments on my site, and on others.

    It’s actually pretty easy to dismiss the vitriol, but it’s hard to accept an author that has no interest in engaging with his readers. It makes them seem as if they have a disdain for the very folks who consume what the author produces. If that’s so, why even bother writing in the first place?

    • If Gruber’s readers felt he had “disdain” for them, they would stop reading him. I’m guessing based on his popularity that his readers don’t feel that way. And I don’t know about others, but I have had several email conversations with him about his posts-he seems quite accessible and engaging to me.

  12. Somebody tell Gruber that the shorturls in his tweets do not work when read with at least two popular twitter clients on Android. He hasn’t responded to me, and after multiple days, its still broken.

    • Glenn Fleishman

      That’s been true since he started using the Unicode star symbol. It’s supposed to be supported by anything that reads a URL: the Unicode value is converted into something called punycode which back-ports non-Roman characters into domain names. He likes the way it looks, even though it breaks in Firefox, too.

  13. Comments are only valuable when you build a community around a blog and establish some societal norms around it. I’m thinking mostly of Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic or Every Day Should Be Saturday, the premier college football blog on earth.

    By and large, though, comments are worthless. Look at any major newspaper site – the comment sections on most articles would be a disgrace to feces-throwing monkeys at the zoo. Similarly, the comments on any blogpost that deals with Apple or Android or Linux (or any other topic with a dedicated base of fans and/or haters) almost immediately trend toward 4chan levels of utter worthlessness.

    Ultimately, the only way to do large-scale comments and maintain a proper signal-to-noise ratio is to do what Slashdot does with modpoints, and then keep the threshold high.

    • I completely agree, Jon. Slashdot has a great system, and it really helps to keep the noise down — and you are right that comments only become valuable when a blog invests the time and energy to try and develop a community.

  14. Gruber doesn’t have comments because then people would call him out on some of the rubbish he prints and his value as a PR outlet would be diminished.

    He’s a good boy. He knows the rules.

    • Glenn Fleishman

      I always find it odd to hear John called a PR outlet (or more likely a “PR shill”) because of the massive and detailed criticism he has engaged in across years of writing Daring Fireball about Apple’s poor decisions. Anyone who has read his blog, and not just sentences excerpted and quoted on other blogs, would see that he’s reliably skeptical about claims made by Apple as well as Apple competitors.

      Anyone can have a blog. Or Tweet. Or whatever. I would love comments on Daring Fireball because there’s a community of readers with whom it would be fun to interact. But I often comment on DF stories at TidBITS (a new site), via my Twitter account, or on my own blog.

    • Thank you Mark, for being a shining example of how comments are just noise. Instead of discussing the topic, you make ad hominem attacks against John. You are exactly the reason why DF readers don’t want comments. If we wanted to read useless and completely baseless Apple hating drivel, we would read the comment sections on the gadget sites. DF is for intelligent, and informed people, who want to read insightful analysis. Your type of comments do not belong in that set.

      • @James

        Hey, it’s OK. You can live in your ideological paradise with no dissenting voices if you like. They’re obviously a bit much for your delicate nerves anyway.

        DF for informed people? Please. You already know the answers you want to hear. Gruber just gives them to you.