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Yes, blog comments are still worth the effort

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Every so often, a storm erupts in the blogosphere over comments, and whether they are worth having or not. The latest entrant in this ongoing debate is TechCrunch writer-turned-venture-capitalist MG Siegler, who doesn’t have comments on his blog and has written several posts defending his decision, saying they are 99-percent bile and a waste of his time. On the other side of the debate is fellow VC Fred Wilson, who says Siegler is missing a lot by not allowing comments. I think Wilson is right — 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.

Siegler’s blog posts were triggered by another blogger’s decision to turn off comments: developer and user-interface designer Matt Gemmell made the move a month ago, and recently posted an update about his decision, in which he recommended that all bloggers take the same step (Siegler hasn’t allowed comments for some time). Gemmell reiterated some of the arguments made against comments, including: They are only used by a tiny minority, they allow anonymity — which he said “encourages unhealthy behavior” — they don’t contribute much and they place a burden on the blogger.

Comments get in the way and are mostly noise

In his follow-up post, Gemmell says that since he dropped comments, he has gotten more considered responses to his posts (via e-mail mostly), has seen no reduction in traffic, his website loads faster and he doesn’t have to spend any time moderating. “If you have a blog, I’d advise you to consider switching off comments too,” he concludes. Siegler, meanwhile, says that he realizes many people like the ability to comment, but he has no intention of allowing comments because they are a waste of time:

Here’s the thing: while some try to paint comments as a form of democracy, that’s bullshit. 99.9% of comments are bile. I’ve heard the counter arguments about how you need to curate and manage your comments — okay, I’m doing that by not allowing any.

Obviously, Siegler (whom I consider a friend) is entitled to his opinion about whether comments are worthwhile or not, just as Gemmell is. And they have plenty of illustrious company when it comes to refusing comments: one of the most popular examples is John Gruber, author of the blog Daring Fireball, who has turned his one-man Apple commentary into a thriving business. Other notables include Instapaper creator Marco Arment and marketing guru Seth Godin — who wrote a post five years ago saying he found them distracting and was afraid they would change the way he writes.

Let’s be honest — there’s no shortage of reasons not to allow comments. They are annoying and distracting, they are often filled with sound and fury but signify little (in part because of anonymity or pseudonymity, many critics argue), they take a lot of time and energy to moderate, and there are flaws in almost all the major commenting systems — including third-party solutions like Disqus and external providers like Facebook, which is a special kind of Faustian bargain unto itself. All that said, however, I still agree with Fred Wilson that blogs — and bloggers — are better off having them.

A blog without comments is simply a soap-box

The most compelling reason to have comments is that you actually care what other people think. It’s true, as Siegler and others argue, that readers can find other ways to comment: they can post a remark on Twitter with a link, they can do the same on Facebook or Google+, they can send an e-mail, or they can write a response on their own blog. But doesn’t that make it even harder for a blogger to find and respond to all of the thoughtful comments, since they will have to check all of those other sources? I think in most cases, bloggers who shut down comments don’t do this — they simply don’t respond.

Is there another way? There is, and Fred Wilson’s blog is as good an example of it as anyone, as even MG admits. The Union Square Ventures co-founder has one of the highest signal-to-noise ratios in the tech blogosphere, and one of the main reasons for that is he makes a point of reading and responding to the comments he gets — and not just now and then, but regularly, and at length. As Anil Dash of Expert Labs (and formerly blog platform Moveable Type) noted in a post, the only one to blame for a blog whose comment section is a cesspool is the blogger whose name is on the top of the masthead.

I have my own history with comments, since a big part of my previous job as the social-media editor of a large daily newspaper was promoting comments, writing and enforcing a comment policy and dealing with moderation wars. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had about how useless comments are, how we shouldn’t bother, how most commenters are morons, etc. But I still defend comments as a crucial element of what blogging is, and more than that I defend anonymity as well.

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+. That may make for a nicer experience for you the blogger, and it may make your blog load faster, but it is still a loss — for you, and for your readers.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy King and Nany Mata

50 Responses to “Yes, blog comments are still worth the effort”

  1. Mattheww

    I often utilize the commenting feature on blogs, but Sometimes I wonder if doing so merely affords me the illusion I am engaged in a dialogue.

    In any case, a reason for not having them that makes some sense to me is the preservation of brand, tone and even user experience. No matter whom the author is how welcoming or lighthearted their writing style may be, their comment section, like all comment sections, is guaranteed to attract rancor and bile. Who wants to go to a dinner party which has a 100% chance of degenerating into an ugly fight?

    Ultimately the stakes are very low though, because most readers do away with comment sections for bloggers by simply ignoring them.

  2. I am just testing your statement: “(…) leaving open the opportunity to actually learn something from those who don’t have their own blogs, or aren’t on Twitter or Google+. (…)”
    Simply, do you require registering on your blog.

  3. readyBUZZ

    I agree with the thought that ‘issues w/ blog commenting is mostly about the blogger”. Although we “all” want our ideas to be heard, not everyone is open to “listening to everyone” or will choose to take the time to interact with everyone as Fred Wilson does. That is why we admire people like Fred Wilson. As problems are opportunities for some, “comment interruptions” are learning opportunities for some–while others just can’t handle them as ‘comfortably’.

  4. Quite a two-sided issue. I like the idea that any given blog article can allow comments or need to be reviewed before allowing the comment to show on the site. That way, some articles are read-only and others serve the purpose of interactive communication.

  5. Although I understand MG, Matt and other anti-commenters point-of-view (and even pain), I can’t imagine turning off comments on my sites, unless my goal is to truly just write something for me, with no care about who else sees it or reads it.

    Maybe it’s an ego thing — it’s nice to receive validation (even if the validation is in the form of flames and hate mail), maybe it’s because I scored my first professional job because I was a good commenter (in 2006 I frequently commented on the two blogs that then-USA Today music edititor Ken Barnes wrote for the paper — in 2007 I was asked to contribute to the American Idol blog and newspaper coverage because of those comments.), maybe it’s because I enjoy the back and forth.

    I do think moderating comments and spam is a real problem. Google+ and Facebook are terrible at spam identification and I have a very real problem having a discussion on Google+ because of the spam problem.

    As for the flames — while I’ve never had it as bad as MG (though at TUAW I had some terrible things said to me and a Mashable commenter inspired me to buy some domains making fun of one of his insults towards me), I’ve had my share of nasty remarks via email, snail mail and comments. No comments won’t make it go away.

    If a writer doesn’t want to engage through comments, I’m genuinely OK with that. What bothers me is encouraging others to do the same. Don’t force your opinion on me just to validate your own decision.

  6. I really feel that comments are one of the most important things in my blog. I actually become disappointed when a post doesn’t get a lot of attention via comments!

  7. William Mougayar

    Comments are implicit linkage about people. Behind every comment, there is a person and a potential relationship that can be developed with that person.

    I am writing more about the “Relationship Management” inside comments via my new blog and putting this in action with

    Just curious why doesn’t GigaOm use a Commenting system like Disqus which makes it a lot easier on us readers to comment without signing on each time, plus they have built-in spam detection, etc…

  8. Ron Kost

    Anyone not willing to entertain comments has to be a Luddite. Posting to other social networks is like a “Flat Earther” admitting the world is round but still maintaining that their ship will fall of the edge of the world. Audience participation and reader based content is the here and now. To take any other approach to content via the web is the old Print model at best.

    • Far from true.
      “Audience participation” as you call it is hardly something new. In today’s internet world, it is easier than ever to comment on whatever you disagree (or agree) with. There are so many options and an individual that makes the *effort* to be a little constructive (ie own blog, twitter, mailing list) is so much more interesting to read.
      Commenting is like buying dinner at a convenience store – it works for a while but it’s hardly great value in the long run.

      • William Mougayar

        Sorry. I disagree with that. Commenting is not like buying dinner at a convenience store. It’s like having dinner at a 3-star Michelin restaurant if your community is of that caliber.

        You can form some pretty important relationships over commenting in vibrant communities such as just as I have.

  9. Bobbie Johnson

    I don’t think blogs *require* comments at all — and as an old school blogger who remembers the days before the idea of commenting existed, I can appreciate the dream that we’d actually negate the need for comments if everybody had their own blogs with great trackbacks, links and so on.

    And you’re totally right that there’s a lot to lose by not having comments, and that by and large it’s all about how you engage with them and your community — but there are also times when that is far from true.

    Individuals can become a lightning rod for attacks in comments, they can be overwhelmed by spam, they can be constantly trolled by bigots and so on. I can think of times when people I care about have been subjected to very vicious and very personal attacks in their comments that leave them very upset. It’s a sad state of affairs, and I’d rather it wasn’t the case — but I think protecting yourself from that sort of abuse is a good example of why not having comments isn’t always about being narrow minded or failing to build your community properly.

    • Thanks, Bobbie — I agree that comments can be very hurtful and that some people may wish to not have them on their site for that reason. But I think they are losing something when they do that, although they may believe the tradeoff is worth it.

  10. Santanu Das

    Blogs without comments are like a dictator’s speech which does not entertain any discussion or views around it. I strongly believe that bloggers should allow comments and totally agree with Mathew Ingram’s point of view.

  11. I think you hit the nail on the head with “responding to comments encourages higher quality posts”.

    I remember MG Siegler used to always respond with snark to some of the comments. Also there may have been some negative comments, but only because of the way HE writes his posts. His posts are always very emotionally charged, and many times unfair, which believe it or not, tends to attract a lot of those comments he dislikes. Cause and effect.

    On the other hand you and Fred Wilson write posts in a much more rational away, which tends to also discourage stupid comments.

  12. Manjiri

    I agree that comments are very useful for
    1. Having a “conversation” and not a monolog
    2. Keeping the discussion consolidated for future reference.

    On the other side, the commentators should also follow the best practices of commenting.

  13. I gotta agree, that unless you’re looking for something, taking comments is nearly pointless. Particularly when someone is informed or expert at something; they don’t need someone else’s amateur or uniformed opinion.

    • John E. Bredehoft

      But how often is that true? I know that while I am informed on various topics, I cannot claim to be an “expert” on any of them, since I know that there are people whose expertise exceeds mine. The same holds true for Ingram, Siegler, Wilson, or whoever. Heck, even Steve Jobs entertained outside opinions (although he did it in his own special way). While there is a lot of dreck out there, worthwhile comments benefit all involved.

    • I disagree, especially on political posts. I’ve seen some attack posts even on WSJ and NYT lately, who are supposed to be “objective” and “real journalists”, and I think the comments added a lot of value to the discussion, by pointing out where the author is wrong. I think that’s very important to have.

      Web 2.0 movement brought us debates rather than simple broadcasting, like we have on TV, where the “experts” tell us what to do and how to think.

    • So your saying that no amateur opinion is ever as good or better than an expert opinion? What if the amateur is a former professional? What if there are 100,000 more amateurs than professionals; not even 1 is ever more informed? What if they are an anonymous insider? What if they are an academic? What if it is their life’s passion, but they haven’t figured out a way to make a living from it? Experts never learn anything from end-users? Experts are ever inspired to further greatness by anyone other than their professional peers? Really?

      The percentage of ‘professional caliber content’ generated by amateurs is an extremely low percent of the content that group produces, but in aggregate, it is still be a massive amount of content.

  14. I see commenting as a move to lure readers and enhance page views. The truth is that most comment don’t *add* much to a topic as it is the way of leadt resistance to juts drop a few lines in a comment box.

    In the old days, it was practically impossible to publish your own thoughts. Competing (or commenting on their views) with major news org’s was impossible.
    That is no longer the world we’re living in.
    If you have an opinion differing from blogs that you read, you have many, MANY possibilities to spread the words you want to spread.
    To consider oneself entitled to comment on a blogger’s site is naive.

    Commenting often provide a frictionless way of sharing your thoughts and while there may be interesting views at times, no friction also means the least amount of effort which in turn provides for a bunch of rubbish ideas coming out.

    Anynomity also seem to bring a bunch of “experts” out of the dark. People who just seem to want to ventilate what the disagree with.

    In the end it’s the bloggers choice. I prefer reading blog with well written content, perhaps not updated 10 times/day but with thought trough content that provides me with new ideas and interesting aspects. That I do not get from reading blog comments.

    • Ron Kost

      I respectfully disagree.
      It has been said prior (here in this blog and elsewhere), if the community is a knowledgeable group of practitioners, then the comments can actually be more informed than the blog itself. I do agree, that Anonymous User Generated Content (Anonymous UGC – aka “Anonymous Audience Participation”) is at best annoying, and as a journalist/blogger you can set your response mechanisms on your site to what you want and not allow for anonymity. If you allow for “Anonymous Coward” comments then it will drag down the quality of response. Most folks who comment on subject (like this one) do not hide behind avatars.

      Further, UGC is sometimes valued by vendors who have their own bloggers out there working in the community. For example, Turbo Todd Watson is a well followed blogger from IBM. He values his audience participation. After all, vendors are a part of the community and have a real interest in gaining insights from their clients, potential clients and competition’s clients. Beyond that, many vendors have knowledgeable folks working for them (some who get paid to sit on panel discussions at events because of their knowledge and authority on a topic). If a blogger’s audience is composed of a group of practitioners, then the blogger can set up some interesting and informative discussions by presenting information via their blog. But if you take away their ability to raise issues and disagree with observations, then it is like the sound of one hand clapping.

      Blogging at its core is another form of journalism, and as such, bloggers most often want to fairly depict all sides of the issues they have raised. How do you do that if you don’t allow for comments? Further, to suggest audiences go off and discuss content elsewhere is self defeating. Kind of like the old SNL skit where they tell everyone to go off and “discuss amongst themselves.” As a journalist, is it that your are verclempt? It makes me wonder… “What is the journalist/blogger trying to hide?” If they are so thinned skinned they can not handle critiques of their work then maybe they shouldn’t blog. If they are acting as some kind of shill, then the community (especially a group of knowledgeable practitioners) will see them for what they are and not follow the blog.

  15. When there are so many different ways of commenting on a blog post – through twitter, facebook, ones own blog, why would you turn off discussion on your own platform? Better to have a discussion in your own house than someone elses, IMO.

  16. If the commenters on MG Siegler blog are mostly garbage….maybe that reflects what he is writing about in the first place or the level of intellect of his particular readers ;)

    • John E. Bredehoft

      Maybe not. Regardless of the quality of the blogger, there are a good deal of comments that are garbage. You see this in other media also – Howard Stern and Jim Rome are both much more talented than most of their listeners.

      • It’s how pretty much everything done in a democratic way works. That’s why 90% of the apps in an App Store are also garbage, but 5-10% are also great, and they come from the competition with the other 90%.

        What I’m saying to say is that even if most is garbage, which is a natural law of democracy, the few diamonds are worth it. Sometimes the comments are more insightful than the posts themselves. It’s also good to call out the author where he’s mistaken, so other viewers don’t take his views for granted.

  17. MisterK

    I don’t understand why this is even a debate. These are THEIR websites. They can choose not to have comments. I guess they’ve taken a lot of crap for not having them, so they’re explaining why they don’t and letting us know that this isn’t changing. I can see their point. Check out Youtube and CNN comments if you don’t. If I was blogging, I’d probably turn off comments too.

  18. Dead on. Folks standing on soap boxes are a dime or a dozen. And isn’t making controversial posts and disabling comments a bit like having your cake and eating it too? Genuine dialogue, while frequently elusive, is something worth having.

  19. Before the web, we had newspapers, TV, and radio as mechanisms for social commentary, but they were all unidirectional – from the owner to the masses. Whoever controlled those pipes got to say what they wanted, and that’s all anybody heard, except for the letters to the editor that had only a tiny fraction of the volume. There was no feedback mechanism, so while the audience of those mediums may not have agreed with what was published or broadcast, the publishers often assumed most people did agree with them, just because they had a large audience. Because of limitations on the number of radio and TV licenses, and because a city could support only so many newspapers, the owners mistook continued sales for concurrence. They can no longer make that mistake for very long, as the web is bi-directional and has a feedback path.

    It doesn’t surprise me that Siegler doesn’t allow comments. While he is an entertaining writer (that was his job, to entertain, not to inform), he never seemed to value anybody’s opinion but his own. If his goal is just to get as many page views as he can to maximize ad revenue, then I guess it doesn’t matter, but he adds no value to debates on whatever he is commenting on, because he doesn’t allow debating. There’s no question most comments (especially on blogs like his) are bile, but that’s most, not all. If what he has to say is important, it’s also important that he defends it, and if 99.9% of the comments are bile, he only has to respond to the 0.1% that are meaningful. If faster page loading was his main concern, he could fix that by re-designing the web page so comments load last (after the obnoxious ads that generate his income).

    Your soap-box comment is dead on, except that someone standing on a street corner would have to deal with hecklers. Siegler is a professional heckler, and doesn’t want the competition.

    • I agree that blogs without comments feel very much like the bad old days of traditional media, Ken — very much like an old newspaper columnist (many of those writers hate comments as well). Thanks for the response.

    • John E. Bredehoft

      I don’t necessarily see letters to the editor as vastly different from 21st century comments. Most people who read a newspaper article aren’t moved to write a letter to the editor, and most people who read a blog post aren’t moved to respond (although in many cases, it’s much easier to respond to a blog post than a printed newspaper article). In both cases, the majority of letters/comments are not worth much. But in both cases, the letters/comments that ARE worthwhile make all the difference.

  20. mindctrl

    Aside from comments themselves, I’m tired of the arguments against anonymity. Anonymity is important, always has been, and has been around since the dawn of written communications, if not before. In fact, it’s helpful in many contexts. A couple of examples: The Federalist Papers were originally written with anonymity. Lots of the exposure of injustice in the Middle East and around the world have been possible because of anonymity.

    For those who argue against it, you’re either not thinking about it, or you’re purposely doing the bidding of the establishment.

    Of course, you’re free to not allow comments on your web properties, but don’t lame the blame at the feet of anonymity. Just have the balls to admit you’re soft, or lazy, or don’t have the time, or whatever. Anonymity ain’t the problem.