Allowing comments on blogs

by Eszter Hargittai on July 8, 2004

The recent discussion of blogs and their democratic characteristics (or lack thereof) prompted by Laura’s comments at Apt 11D in response to critiques of her blog study’s survey instrument has gotten me thinking about the comments option on blogs yet again. It is a question I have pondered numerous times already, probably ever since I started reading blogs and certainly since I decided to start my own.

For me, the question of whether a site that calls itself a blog has comments option turned on is actually quite directly related to what constitutes a blog in the first place. I realize this is a question that is probably impossible to answer in a way that would satisfy everybody, but it is one still worth asking especially if one is to do research on the topic (as I am doing now) where a definition would be helpful.

One of Laura’s concerns is that the blogosphere is not very democratic. That’s true (she mentions some reasons and others have discussed this point at length elsewhere as well). However, blogs can have a democratic component: Comments. Why is it that certain bloggers decide to go without comments? And what makes their Web site a blog in that case? (Clearly I am showing my bias here in that I believe comments are an essential part of a blog. That said, I do realize and accept blogs as blogs even when they do not have comments turned on.. but do so mostly because the community has decided to consider them blogs. You know which ones I mean.)

Laura herself does not have comments on her Web site. This makes her blog more undemocratic than many other blogs. The only way someone can comment on an entry posted on a non-commentable blog is by posting an entry on their own blog. This already excludes those numerous readers who do not have blogs of their own, but more importantly, it also leaves the original post untouched by critical response. And that makes blogs less interesting in my view. And certainly less democratic.

Of course, I understand some of the reasons why people may not allow for comments. It can be an extra burden on the blogger. If one doesn’t want certain types of material present on a site then one must constantly monitor comments. This can become tedious in the case of blogs that attract a lot of attention and response. But comments can add a very interesting and important component to blogs. Crooked Timber would be quite different without the insightful and witty (although in some cases very frustrating) contributions of our readers. I wouldn’t have it any other way (here I only speak for myself and not the entire CT crew, but I suspect many would agree). A reader can always decide to skip reading the comments (which, of course, underscores the fact that commentators do not have the same level of input as the posters), but those who are most engaged with and interested in a post likely do read the responses from other readers. (Perhaps that idea needs to be tested, but I think it’s a reasonable assumption.)

I certainly do not mean to glorify comments too much. There are excellent and very valuable blogs that do have comments turned on yet receive little response. That does not mean that they are not being read nor that people do not have reactions to what is said on the blog. It seems to take several thousand readers to produce a few dozen comments so only a few blogs will receive lots of comments. Nonetheless, the issue here is the option to comment.

So bloggers, why no comments? And readers, do you care? (I realize it’s a bit problematic to ask that question here, but this is just for discussion, it’s obviously not a scientific poll of any sort.)

{ 67 comments }

1

Chance The Gardener 07.08.04 at 3:47 pm

Herb Caen had no comments in his errr… proto-blog. Personally, I think of him as the progenitor of the internet blog- he just didn’t have the internet when he did his thing.

http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/caen/

For me, comments do not make the blog. Comments remind me more of a message board, or usenet- the only thing different on a blog is that the author of the blog more-or-less germinates the topic, rather than the topic popping up ex nihilo.

Which is not to say that a blog-with-comments is not to be considered a blog. It is merely a blog-with-comments.

Hmm, that compound word is rather clunky. Although if I was writing in German I bet it would come out fine.

Hmm. Blomments? Interactive Blog? Cogs?

2

kit 07.08.04 at 3:59 pm

When I started in blogging, comments hadn’t been invented yet for that software. I haven’t added it because I have a mailto link at the site; if anyone wants to contact me, they can do it.

The presence or absence of comments doesn’t make or break a blog. Good writing makes a blog worth reading.

3

nihil obstet 07.08.04 at 4:20 pm

Thoughtful and/or witty comments, follow-up questions, additional information all add a lot to a blog. However, once the volume of comments routinely runs better than 30 or 40 per post, the value added seems more than offset by the rise in incivility, thoughtlessness, and time-wasting trivia. I’d rather a good blogger spend her time posting instead of policing comments to keep them useful. I have been distressed by the loss of value in the comments on good sites as the sites became more popular and began generating 100+ comments per post. It’s legitimately the blogger’s call whether to keep the comments or to turn them off.

4

PZ Myers 07.08.04 at 4:26 pm

I’m sure some of us academic types have had the experience of giving a long lecture to a crowded room, and not getting a single question or response out of the mess. That, to me, is what a blog without comments would be like. Even if it’s nothing but negative criticisms, I want some evidence that I’m not just talking to myself.

Besides, if I write something and it just sits there, it’s as if I’m done with it. Reader comments are good ways to remind me that the work of thinking is never done.

As for the work of maintaining a comments section, it’s easy if you’re low in the hierarchy like I am, but what makes it even easier if you refuse on principle to take any responsibility for what other people say. I don’t worry about policing the comments section at all — I treat it as a commons for everyone. I do rip out spam, but that hasn’t been much of a concern yet. Otherwise…I may be militantly godless and unpityingly cruel to creationists, but some of my longest-running comments threads were fueled by true-believers and anti-evolutionists. And that’s perfectly OK with me.

5

Sebastian Holsclaw 07.08.04 at 4:50 pm

I love comments. You all would be welcome to intellectually hassle me on my own blog. But I fully understand why some people turn them off. Calpundit used to have some of the most interesting comments-section in the blogosphere. Now that he is vastly more popular at WashingtonMonthly, if the crazy-rant to interesting comment ratio is better than 10:1 he is lucky.

6

Ophelia Benson 07.08.04 at 4:52 pm

But are blogs supposed to be democratic, particularly? I’m not sure I understand why the fact that they’re not democratic is a concern. Books aren’t democratic either. Nor are plays, movies, tv shows, songs, symphonies, paintings, sculptures.

Blogs with comments are more of a conversation than blogs without, but it doesn’t seem to me that either one is somehow more a ‘real’ blog than the other.

7

random 07.08.04 at 4:58 pm

It always seems a little sad to stumble across a blog with page after page of posts with “Comments (0)” under each one. Even if they do have regular readers, it’s easy for writers to get demoralized and start thinking that the lack of reader-response means that they just don’t care.

Turning comments off allows the pleasant delusion that people would comment if only you allowed them the privilege. ;)

8

h. e. baber 07.08.04 at 4:59 pm

I don’t have comments on my blog because I don’t know how to activate the comments feature on Blogger–if indeed there is one. I’ve meant to poke around and try to see if I could fix it up for comments–and now I probably will.

Blogs that don’t have comments don’t appeal to me–however interesting the content, the format is more like a speech or sermon than a lecture where there’s at least the possibility of argument. It isn’t that I consider them undemocratic–I just like argument.

9

Lindsay Beyerstein 07.08.04 at 5:03 pm

I agree with pz, above. Maintaining comments on a small blog is easy. Comment spam is a particularly disgusting kind of vandalism. It makes me sad to see bloggers closing their comments threads because of it.

Comments are really important to me, as a blog reader and as a blogger. I started blogging partly because I had such great experiences with online communities like Salon TableTalk. TT was like an all-comments blog. There were trolls, but there was a hardcore of regular posters who knew each other. I made lifelong friends on TT.

I hope to recreate that interactive, social dynamic on my blog–with bloggers in my “neighborhood,” and with posters on the comments thread. So, when I have time, I try to maintain an active presence on my comments threads. Like a hostess at a party, I try to make people feel welcome.

10

eszter 07.08.04 at 5:04 pm

I didn’t mean to suggest that blogs need to be democratic. I was picking up on the conversation Laura had started on her own blog. She expressed a concern about blogs not being democratic (maybe it wasn’t a concern per se, just a thought, but she did seem to be concerned about their undemocratic nature) and I found this especially curious from someone whose comments are not turned on.

What are blogs anyway then? A frequently updated Web site with commentary of some sort? But that doesn’t distinguish them from certain sites we wouldn’t call a blog (e.g. NYTimes.com). I realize it’s a moving target and as I said in my post, it’s probably not possible to find a definition that works for everyone (or for every site called a blog), but that in and of itself is interesting.. and a bit frustrating when trying to explain it to someone who has never heard of it before.

11

Matt Weiner 07.08.04 at 5:05 pm

I agree with both nihil obstet and pz–if you only have a few comments per post it’s not much of a problem, but once you get above a certain number the comments are rarely worth reading–flamewars aside, the signal-to-noise ratio goes way down. There are exceptions–CT I find often has good threads that go on for a while, but long threads can turn into slanging matches (which is never in any way partly my fault), Dan Drezner’s threads look pretty good when I see them though he does have a couple of odd types hanging around, and Obsidian Wings is usually good; but for instance I almost never read Kevin Drum’s comments anymore.

But on my philosophy blog comments are indispensable. I wouldn’t bother having a blog if I couldn’t have comments on it–the whole point is to have conversation. Of course I don’t get enough comments to make it any trouble to read them, and talk about philosophy is usually less inflammatory than talk about politics.

(I did once delete a comment because it was going to turn into a nasty political thread–specifically, I was going to be nasty–and I didn’t want to have that come up on my site. The commenter did have his own blog, so I didn’t feel too much as though I was closing off debate everywhere.)

12

rvman 07.08.04 at 5:12 pm

Why would being more “democratic” be a desirable characteristic in a blog? “Democracy” is a desirable characteristic in a government, because important decisions are being made, which result in real impacts on people. A blog is a public diary – a vanity piece for the writer. If the blogger wants feedback, in the form of comments, then comments should be turned on. If not, then not – it is the blogger’s personal space.

The blogosphere itself is perfectly democratic. Anyone with access to an internet connection can set up a blog. Anyone can read whatever blogs they want. Those blogs which produce good and agreeable material attract readers – that is the democratic bit – it is also the capitalistic bit.

What Eszter is advocating with “democratic” comments isn’t democracy, it is philanthropy. Bloggers “should” give back by giving audience to whatever crackpot comes along. A truly “democratic” blog would have Eszter putting up to a vote of the readership what he writes about, what position he takes, and even what opposing positions he allows in comments. Democracy is not liberty – a democratic government can oppress minorities – especially minority opinions – just as easily as a tyrant can. Democracy imposed sodomy laws, the patriot act, blue laws, Jim Crow, even slavery. It is devotion to liberty, not democracy, which protects the freedom of speech blogs depend on. Liberty depends on rights.

Eszter here is claiming there is a “right” to comment on blogs – that readers have a right to give feedback, not just to the writer, but to all readers as well, and without this feature, – a weblog isn’t a blog. The bandwidth, storage, and the blog itself aren’t the writer’s to do with what he wishes, they are the readership’s. To the extent that a blog is “produced”, this is communal ownership of the means of production, ie socialism.

Personally, I spend more time on blogs with comments than without – but I value Volokh, Tacitus, and CT similarly, despite their…varied…approach to comments. CT is the only one I’m allowed to comment on – I’ve never managed to make Tacitus’ sign up work – but I consider all three to be blogs. Volokh is a blog, Tacitus is a blog with a members-only, topical forum, and CT is is a blog with a moderated, or even unmoderated, topical forum. I consider all three to be appropriate to the goals and needs of their owners, and their readers.

A blog without comments is like a car without a navigation system, not like a car without an engine. (Or for that matter, a fish without a bicycle.) It is still a car, just a little less luxurious.

13

djw 07.08.04 at 5:18 pm

I have a blog with a very modest readership (100 or so hits a day), so comments aren’t much of a burden, but I can’t imagine not having them. About 1/2 the comments are from people I know, so for me it’s a way to have good conversations with friends about politics and related matters. Which is obviously a good thing.

What others have said–comments don’t make/break it for me–they can make it better (CT, Yglesias) or be tedious (atrios, for example)

14

dr. b. 07.08.04 at 5:18 pm

I have to agree with you on this one. Comments are an integral part of a blog for me. What is a blog without comments? If blogs are to be democratic and are to build community don’t they have to give people the opportunity to respond to what it is the blogger writes? Aren’t blogs supposed to open up a broader community of thinkers/scholars/writers/bloggers?

15

Marty Heyman 07.08.04 at 5:19 pm

Intriguing line of thought. Is the Blog a personal voice or an aggregator of opinion? How does one attract a community interesting enough that the collective voice is more interesting than the original individual voice? If the comments are so important, why aren’t they syndicated or opinion aggregated in some other way? It’s early days still, but the debate suggests more important questions than it yet answers.

16

hallam@gmail.com 07.08.04 at 5:21 pm

Many people do not have comments turned on because they do not know how to. It took me a bit of time to get round to turning on haloscan on my blogger blog.

There are many problems with the blogosphere as currently established. My biggest complaint is the lack of good tools to find decent blogs. Blogrolls tend to be fire and forget, and most simply reference the same small set of blogs.

I think that much more could be made of Atom/RSS. With syndication it does not in principle matter whether the author turned on comments, another site could run comments on another blog as annotations.

I think that this would be a fun thing to do on the right wing blogosphere, almost none of which dare turn on comments these days. Things have come a long way in the past three and a half years, back in 2000 nobody could run a left wing forum without it being infested with libertarian trolls shouting down anyone who does not accept their religion. Now it is the right who are on the defensive.

The scaling problem remains. It is hard because an ‘objectionable’ comment may also be true and justified. It is fair comment to note on a pro-Milosevick blog that the guy is evidently a mass murderer. It is fair comment on a right wing blog attacking Edwards as ‘inexperienced’ to point out that its not experience that counts, its what you learn from experience that counts, Bush and Cheney evidently have learnt nothing. And yes it is fair comment on a pro-Israel post to point out that the situation will never change until Israel accepts its own role in creating its current circumstances.

Moderation can work, but only to a limited degree. There is a group of republicans who try to moderate down my slashdot posts and a group of lefties who moderate them up (often the score cycles repeatedly between +5 and -1).

Give me a forum and I will use it to promote my political views. The problem as I see it is not the entry of libertarian or other ideological views, it is the attempt to drown out contrary views.

Back in 1992 the denizens of talk.politics.guns got bored of their own group which pretty much everyone who was not an NRA fanatic knew to avoid. So they went on what was known in soc.culture.british as the ‘gun nut road show’, led by one Timothy McVeigh (yes, THAT one). The idea of this group was pretty much to shout down every contrary view.

17

Matt Weiner 07.08.04 at 5:25 pm

My agreement with nihil and pz shouldn’t be taken as disagreement with anyone else–those were the last two comments when I started typing.

I’d say that one characterstic of blogs as oppposed to frequently updated commentary sites is that they link to and are linked to by other blogs. Or maybe just that they use blogging software. That’s my stab at a definition.

18

Jason 07.08.04 at 5:26 pm

I was thinking “calpundit” along with Sebastian.

I used to read the comments there, and like here, they were typically on topic and interesting enough to at least skim.

Now though, it’s not worth the time (I think is had started before he got the Monthly spot, he has become more shrill in the past year, provoking more heated responses). Pages and pages of scree. Somehow, he still manages to look at them, but I’m sure I’m not alone in ignoring them now. The thought of having to maintain something like that is daunting.

19

Brey 07.08.04 at 5:32 pm

I also find the term democratic to be in error. Comments don’t allow people to vote. They do allow for criticism and discourse. So comments really make a blog more interactive and maybe more interesting.

I like the comments becuase they are often as interesting as the original post. It’s also fun to know others are interested in what I’m blogging about.

20

Lindsay Beyerstein 07.08.04 at 5:37 pm

I wish all bloggers would turn on the trackback feature, whether or not they have comments. Trackback is very useful for locating good new blogs.

21

Liz Lawley 07.08.04 at 6:08 pm

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that I don’t consider a blog without comments to be a real blog, but I would certainly say that I wouldn’t want a blog without comments.

Even on misbehaving.net, where we’ve had more than our share of trolls (as well as being a target for comment spam), we decided as a group that what we gain from comments far outweighs the problems.

For me, comments transform a blog into a conversation rather than a monologue. A salon of sorts, where I’m able to moderate the tone and content. What I gain from this is the often-serendipitous addition of ideas from people I wouldn’t have known to ask…people who’ve arrived via a series of links, or a Google search, and who provide new information.

While trackbacks are valuable, too, I don’t think having one’s own blog should be a requirement for commenting on what I’ve written. And there are times when I want to contribute a thought in response to someone’s post that doesn’t warrant a full post on my own (even if it’s just a “Nicely said!” sort of a comment).

22

Richard Bellamy 07.08.04 at 6:19 pm

On the other hand, the existence of comments on a blog doesn’t necessarily make it a blog either.

Some of the broadcasts on “Air America” radio have their own “blogs”, where listeners can discuss the shows. They are called ‘blogs’, but end up being Discuss the show threads followed by 400 comments from listeners.

Is a weblog that is 90% “Open Threads” really a blog? What about a blog that has no membership requirements, like the Political State Report where anyone and his aunt can sign up and be the local blogger from Ohio? It certainly looks like a blog, but without excluding any potential bloggers, is it really any different from a Bulletin Board?

23

frankly0 07.08.04 at 6:37 pm

I think that there is indeed a point at which the number of comments makes it hard to read the comment threads, but I account for it in a different way.

I’m not sure the actual quality of the comments goes down, though it may. I suspect that, in aggregate, however, there may be MORE useful content, not less in the longer comment threads.

But I will tell you why I often won’t read these really long comment threads: just because they are really long. I simply don’t have the heart to read them in their entirety, and don’t feel I’ve done the issue any justice if I don’t — certainly I don’t feel entirely comfortable commenting myself if I haven’t read the thread, even if often I do precisely that.

I suspect that many of the commenters on this very thread who also don’t want to read long threads likewise feel a desire to comment, and are frustrated with the work entailed by reading the thread first. I’m not sure lurkers feel the same, since they may be far more content to read just as many comments that happen to be interesting to them.

24

praktike 07.08.04 at 7:09 pm

For a blog like CT, comments work well: a niche audience of smart people. For WaMo, Instapundit, Atrios, Kos to some extent: Dear Lord. It’s all about setting rules, up to a point beyond which it’s just impossible to enforce them. Technology helps.

25

ladygoat 07.08.04 at 7:15 pm

Personally, I love comments, but I don’t see them as essential to blogginess, and I can understand why some people don’t want them – they might keep a blog simply to put their thoughts out there, not to hear what other people think about it. They might not want debate, just a space where they can express thoughts uninterrupted. Not like the sorts of debates and discussions popular on TV and talk shows, maybe some people want the blog so they can speak at their own pace.

26

Jessica Wilson 07.08.04 at 7:31 pm

I have a pragmatic reason for not having comments on my blog: namely, that I think that (supposing people did in fact comment) I would spend more time that I can currently afford to spend, pre-tenure, monitoring/reading/responding to comments. I agree that it’s generally better in various respects to have comments, but I gotta not do what I gotta not do.

27

Kriston Capps 07.08.04 at 8:09 pm

I think bloggers like Matt Yglesias have the right idea about comments: Do not reserve the right to delete comments (or do not employ the right, rather) and you are indemnified from the odious task of deciding when a commenter has taken things too far. Spam, of course, you delete, but if you leave it to commenters to police those areas you are saved the time and the responsibility. No rules, just right.

28

djw 07.08.04 at 8:29 pm

Oh, and to respond to Ophelia Benson way upthread….

I suppose blogs don’t have to be democratic, but to the extent that they form an emerging political public sphere, well, many (but not all) theories of democracy would suggest that it would be better for such a sphere to have democratic rather than undemocratic qualities, all else being equal.

29

nick 07.08.04 at 10:02 pm

So bloggers, why no comments?

Because in the early days of blogging, the comments were posted on another blog. It enforced the cross-site links and prevented particular sites from becoming bearpits. Cross-blog discussions are invariably more like polite conversations than blog+comment discussions.

I actually agree with Mark Bernstein that comments can often work to the detriment of a blog:

The full-day delay of traditional weblogs is a good thing; the mistake the Trott’s made was not in raising their prices but in popularizing comments.

Weblog comments incite duels. Duels are bad for society. We should all forego comments and return to carefully blogging responses — including responses we disagree with, but excluding responses we cannot tolerate.

Trolls, generally, don’t have blogs. And trackback without comments (or plain ol’ links drawn from referer logs) can show how a discussion progresses between sites.

Perhaps it worked better when there were fewer blogs around. But I did like it. (He said, somewhat hypocritically commenting.)

30

Laertes 07.08.04 at 10:06 pm

I like blogs with comments. I want to talk about the issues that get raised with other interested people. I read a few blogs that lack comments just because the writers are So Damned Good (Kleiman, Marshall, Billmon) but even with those, I often find myself racing off to Atrios, Yglesias, or Drum to wade into the comments thread–one of them is sure to link to anything interesting that the no-comment blogs put up.

31

Laertes 07.08.04 at 10:10 pm

To clarify: In comments I don’t usually aim to engage the blogger, nor am I equipped to start my own blog and engage DeLong in a cross-blog debate on Economics, or Marshall on politics. I can’t hit the stuff these guys are throwing. I just want to hang out in the cheap seats and argue with the other bleacher bums. I’m grateful to the bloggers who provide a space for that.

32

nick 07.08.04 at 10:23 pm

Comments have different purposes, and that’s partly thanks to the technologies involved and the nature of the posters.

The comments at Atrios/Eschaton — driven by pop-up Haloscan, entirely separate from posts — are truly more like a chatroom, pulling up snippets for subsequent posts. They’re not accessible as a long-term archive, nor should they be. It’s all about flow. The noise is the signal.

CT’s comments are more focused, have more signal, work better. There are still a few ‘moments’ — and I have to nod to my friend dsquared when Mark Bernstein mentions how comments mean ‘you can’t ignore an insult in your own home’ — but they’re relatively infrequent. Brad DeLong’s site hovers on the cusp between focus and sprawl, Billmon’s went over the edge.

There are blogs without comments in which the lack of comments is a bloody red rag. I’m thinking, of course, of a certain law professor, who has cultivated an echo-chamber. But that’s because Reynolds is primarily a linker and three-word insinuator, rather than a writer of… well, paragraphs. It’s easier to justify not having comments if you write substantial pieces. (Billmon won’t have trouble. Josh Marshall doesn’t.)

Finally, there are those whose squirmy attitude towards receiving feedback is itself amusing. I can think of one person who set up a UBB and then complained, in essence, that the discussions were not sufficiently obsequious because they offered corrections and clarifications to his already-verbiose output. Result: no UBB any more.

And for those who mention, rightly, that Kevin Drum’s comments section has gone to the dogs since his discussion of the Bush military records — please, Kevin, turn them off, please! — I remember when it was possible not just to read entire threads on Slashdot, but also be able to post to them before 600 other people.

Now, while Slashdot posts still have the meat in the comments threads — you just have to dig really, really hard to find them — the comments for Kevin’s site, especially in its new home, are like a pair of lead boots. I don’t visit the site as much now, and it’s a pity.

33

agm 07.08.04 at 10:37 pm

A lack of comments can in no way be said to make a site not a blog. Nor can democracy be a necessary (or sufficient) criterion from a site to be a blog. In fact, any criterion that eliminates caoine.org as a blog must clearly be incorrect, as it also rules out hordes of blogs maintained all over the Net.

I’ll hazard showing my “Internet age”, even if it resembles my real age not at all. Does anyone remember what blog is short for? That’s right, web log, two full words implying clearly their purpose. rvman said it even better:

A blog is a public diary – a vanity piece for the writer. If the blogger wants feedback, in the form of comments, then comments should be turned on. If not, then not – it is the blogger’s personal space. (emphasis mine)

So what exactly do comments add to the mix? Blogs with comments are like blogs joined with those wonderful conversations you have with friends about religion, politics, gossip, whatever strikes your fancy.

“Hey, did you see this?”
“No, what’s it say?”
“Well,…” followed by half an hour talking with a friend or associate.

34

Ophelia Benson 07.08.04 at 10:55 pm

“I suppose blogs don’t have to be democratic, but to the extent that they form an emerging political public sphere, well, many (but not all) theories of democracy would suggest that it would be better for such a sphere to have democratic rather than undemocratic qualities, all else being equal.”

Hmm. But to what extent do blogs “form an emerging political public sphere”? A very circumscribed respect, I would think. By no means all blogs are political, or even tangentially political. I think of them as a kind of writing, and I’m extremely cautious, not to say suspicious, about the idea that kinds of writing should be democratic.

35

Cb 07.08.04 at 11:39 pm

I think blogs are democratic!
You get to post your viewpoints
are without fear of censoship.
If it wasn’t for blogs
this country would be in heaps more
trouble than it is right now.
Comment features are even more
democratic, though. They promote
discussion, something the U.S. was
lacking in it’s politics. Well, we
got watch the talking heads on TV
debate each other. Woo-hoo!

36

q 07.08.04 at 11:40 pm

CT’s comments generally add to the site due to the (apparant!) high intelligence and education of some of the commentators, and preparedness to engage in debate rather than name-calling.

I am concerned that “paid-trolls” could ruin the blogosphere in the next 5 months due to the US elections.

37

vivian 07.09.04 at 12:43 am

Personally, I love the comment portion of (some) blogs, though CT is probably the most popular of those that I read. I understand why some people don’t include them. It’s a big world out with room for variation, in format, time-commitment, etc.

I usually stop reading threads that have turned into flamewars – even when there are still new, thoughtful ideas being posted too. It’s not the time it takes to read so many posts, it’s the lack of listening. So I avoid some of the popular political blogs others have mentioned, or at least their comments sections. CT remains worth visiting because of the breadth of topics, many of which won’t provoke flamewars anyway, and the civility of most members and visitors (even in the flamewars I avoid, there is much effort to be civil). Nice variety of subjects too.

My other favorite blogs, or sites if Ezster prefers, are all over the map – some have mostly open threads, some no comments. Comments even on open threads feel different from usenet or mailing lists though. It might be the difference (noted above) between democratic town meetings and social gatherings with good hosts – the latter are more relaxing, less like work, more suitable for a pleasant evening (in the spirit of GB Shaw).

38

Andrew Case 07.09.04 at 12:43 am

I’m a fan of comments, but that’s not why I’m commenting. I’m commenting because I’m getting a little tired of the use of the word democracy to refer to things which have diddly-squat to do with governing. Ditto the use of the word to imply fairness, justice, egalitarianism, and so on. Here’s a handy heuristic to decide if “democracy” is a good word for the thing you are trying to describe: If the thing in question does not permit philosophers to be forced to drink hemlock, it’s not a democracy :-)

Kidding aside, it would be nice to see the word retain some measure of meaning rather than continuing to slide into meaning anything inclusive and participatory – after all, we still need a word to describe systems of government which permit the people to vote to oppress minorities.

39

Ophelia Benson 07.09.04 at 12:51 am

“I’m commenting because I’m getting a little tired of the use of the word democracy to refer to things which have diddly-squat to do with governing.”

Well this is my point. Or part of my point. Expecting blogs to be democratic just seems like a category mistake, for one thing. In at least one sense blogs are no more inherently democratic than books are – blogs are take it or leave it in the way books are. We don’t get to take a vote and compel Chris or Kieran to re-write their posts, after all. And what a distasteful mess it would be if we did.

40

Nick Kiddle 07.09.04 at 1:06 am

I liked comments, not because I think they make the blog more democratic but because they add extra content. At Making Light, there’s a note to the effect that if you’re not reading the comments you’re missing half the fun. You get to participate in all kinds of enjoyable debates that may be sparked by the original entry but soon drift into other regions.

On my blog, I’ve got comments enabled but don’t have enough of a readership to get much more than “Nice post”.

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self 07.09.04 at 4:58 am

Right on laertes!
Comments add context for those who aren’t in the loop blogwise. This extends the discussions to others who may have missed the message in a more academic presentation.
Comments certainly allow unwanted noise to enter the discussion unfiltered, i.e. trolls. However, these intrusions are usually overcome by the maturity of the commenting community.
It has undoubtedly taught many of us how the distraction game is played. Staying focused on the intended topic is a skill that needed to be developed by the bloggers’ audience. I think we (bloggers and commenters)can handle it.

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Bruce Baugh 07.09.04 at 5:07 am

Ophelia makes the point I was going to: that the weblog as a form isn’t necessarily political engaged, or scholarly, or anything else that would benefit from comments.

My current weblog is intended primarily for my personal reference, a written record of my experiences and thoughts during a transitional period of my life so that I can look back on it and see what I wrote then as opposed to what I remember writing (or thinking about writing). It’s already come in handy in tracking down some medical matters, too, including tracing the arc of a bout of depression and tying it together with factors I hadn’t considered before. I don’t mind hearing from readers about – there’s a mailto link on each post – but their experience and thoughts aren’t mine, and not my primary interest for this purpose.

Terry Teachout’s wonderful About Last Night comes to mind as another weblog that doesn’t strike me as diminished in its lack of comments. That’s true for a bunch of other cultural weblogs, too, where what I want to read is the personal account of someone who really knows what they’re talking about. It would not improve the experience to add a bunch of entirely predictable rants about the leftist evils of postmodernism, the rightist evils of monumental design, and so forth and so on. I like it when cultural bloggers do a response-to-mails post, but even there, they remain the ones in control and that’s just the way I like it.

Nor, for that matter, do I think that Juan Cole would have a better blog if he had comments. All the usual conservative ranters and other twits would swarm on on every post, thinking of themselves as “fact-checking his ass”, “resisting left-wing extremism”, and so on.

So I think that comments are an intrinsically neutral option, whose value depends on not only the size of the readership but the nature of the project, the social position of the blogger, and a bunch of other factors. And I strongly agree that insofar as democracy is a desirable characteristic in blogging, it exists in the blogosphere as a whole rather than being a required or even desirable element in every blog.

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Jim 07.09.04 at 7:15 am

The original weblog (?) Jorn Barger’s Robot Wisdom, didn’t have comments, but then it wasn’t Jorn’s words either. It was just a log of interesting stuff found on the web. Unfortunately it’s now defunct, but Danny Yee’s Pathologically Polymathic (maybe others) takes up the format and IMHO does well. These guys don’t tell you what to think but give you things that will hopefully make you think. Apparently Jorn’s subject matter enraged some.

Another interesting but commentless blog that I dip into every now and then is Belle de Jour, Diary of a London call girl. Interesting subject matter, IMHO, and likeable prose, ditto. It’s not obvious what comments would do for this as it’s more a diary than a regular blog. Maybe some people would like to tell her she’s a disgusting slut, or make a booking, or both, but who knows? You can email her should the desire posseses you, so to speak, and she may even blog your email.

But for the majority of blogs, comments are great. If the content is topical/controversal it seems only common decency to allow comments. It’s just makes everyone accountable and I hope may in a small way advance the causes of honesty, truth and decency. I particularly like seeing the reality striking in comments threads. The public debunking of bunk appeals to me.

But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t always work like that. How often do you see an “I was wrong” in a comments thread. Not often enough. I guess the debunked may sometimes think a little more next time.

IMHO normblog could use a comments zone. For various reasons.

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Lance Boyle 07.09.04 at 7:28 am

We live, in the US, in a democracy whose leaders travel secretly to and from their destinations in bullet-proof vehicles, surrounded by armed and trained men and women whose sole purpose is to throw their bodies between their charge and the line of fire.
Comments mean a lot to me, obviously, but they also mean a rounding-off, a hesitance on the controversial, and the avoidance of the inflammatory however true, or sincerely held to be so. I’m sure at least some of the CT demi-urges can confirm that.
I’ve gotten threatening mail from comments I’ve left. It’s not unthinkable that there would have been more, and worse, if it had been directed at a blog of my own.
Does anybody think it would be a good thing for riverbend to have comments? Good for her?
-
Ophelia is as usual accurate as can be. But then books evolved for quite some time before they became those volumes we hold so dear. Blogs evolve, are evolving. Maybe reptilian with a stumpy tail right now…
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PZMyers-
“Low in the hierarchy” maybe on hit counts but that hierarchy’s only slightly less inverted than the Time/Newsweek pablum-clot. Anybody who gets linked to by Carl Zimmer is doing OK. And kudos for the commons.
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kit-
Exactly. And the timidity behind fixing in place what a “blog” is, when it’s only been a thing to fix for less than decade, seems premature to me too.
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chance -
Lots of yes. Caen and McCabe and Delaplane, and Art Hoppe for sure. And Royko. Breslin and Jon Carroll now. Lots of great regional journalist/columnists. The template.

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q 07.09.04 at 7:42 am

_I’ve gotten threatening mail from comments I’ve left._

Can you give an example or some more details about context? I would guess this would relate to some of your more “green-anarchist” posts.

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mc 07.09.04 at 8:01 am

I’m with Ophelia too, and like Andrew, I don’t like the word “democratic” used so improperly. Even if weblogs can be a million different things, the basic definition is rather simple, it is indeed any frequently updated personal page with links and commentary from the author(s), but no, it’s not like NYT because that’s a newspaper. Of course there is a big distinction. The difference is not just that a newspaper is printed, it’s that it is a traditional publication with a full editorial board, and a corporation, and all that it entails. It’s not personal. If anything, it’s newspapers that are expected to be more “inclusive”, they thrive on the amount of readers they reach for advertising purposes so it’s in their interests (financial too) to give the readers they kind of content they want. But they’re not expected to allow anyone to write on them either.

Weblogs are a personal endeavour, whether it’s one or ten authors, whether they write about politics or pop music or software or books or their own life in school, they’re doing it as a hobby. I’m not aware of anyone charging to read them. I don’t see why comments should be an integral part of them, it seems a limited view of what weblogs are about. It is entirely up to the authors and the kind of content they produce. Comments do make more sense for political web sites like this, but not necessarily for other kinds of topics. Still, you can always open your own site, comment and interact with another, linking and adding your opinions. That’s the openness of the whole thing, right there. Comments are an extra, they do not define the content, especially if it’s of a more personal than political nature.

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chris 07.09.04 at 9:30 am

jim, if normblog had comments Norm would get hundreds of entries for his competitions and then he’d have nothing to moan about.

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Lance Boyle 07.09.04 at 9:31 am

q-
The scariest one was non-denominational, but my sense was it was triggered by my views on Israel’s role in the Iraqi debacle. I’ve had nice emails too, but the idea of having a blog with comments and wading through verbal anthrax to get to them is daunting. I’d rather get bounced from someone else’s blog than read death threats every day.
-
Another thing about blogs in general and relating to mc’s distinction between them and the NYTimes is the parallel with the broadsheets that were the precursors for newspapers.
The gazettes and pamphlets, and all the other forms printed news and opinion took in the early days of public literacy.
There was a time when our information wasn’t centrally dispensed. Batches of a hundred on a hand-cranked press, and some unemployed actor crying the day’s headlines up and down Chutney Green.
Or the soap-box heroes of Hyde Park.
In a way blogs are a return to that. With an alchemy of unimaginable connectivity added on. And a constituency raised with a frustrated desire to be able to talk back at the television.

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Ian 07.09.04 at 9:31 am

There is no point to a comments forum where all that happens is mutual back patting. Sometimes of course that happens because everyone else gives up. Sometimes however it seems to be deliberate policy to delete comments which are in the smallest way critical. That is the worst of all worlds because it is dishonest.

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Shai 07.09.04 at 9:48 am

bruce writes:

“whose value depends on not only the size of the readership but the nature of the project, the social position of the blogger, and a bunch of other factors”

exactly. but as the number of commenters increases, it seems harder to establish favourable conditions, especially when discussing politics, an area where we tend to have strong opinions over and above knowledge or expertise about the topic at hand.

there is some similarity between class discussion and comments boards. in some classes, fewer questions and comments will encourage bad comments (relative the objectives of the course) because there is no previous standard set of comparison. this may seem like less of a problem for blogs because it’s easier to manage, but a couple of persistent idiots such as me when I’m less self conscious will discourage a more intelligent community composed of people who would otherwise bother.

sometimes it’s little things, like not bothering to proofread a comment which to others appears to be illiterate. i can’t explain it but it seems to be a good way to kill a thread unless a torrent of posts offsets negative psychological phenomena like that one.

from the perpective of a group of specialists, any blog community will be underinformed because average group composition in an open environment doesn’t select for expertise, even without comments, despite myriad interesting and intelligent thoughts, comments, ideas. every expert won’t be one elsewhere, and elsewhere seems to be a favorite direction on weblogs, so I don’t see this as much of a problem. I’m often amazed at the ideas of 30-80 of my fellow students which collectively are more useful than a professor who doesn’t encourage discussion, even if any one person isn’t even close in comparison.

volokh tends to post about his general area of expertise which also happens to be intimately connected with politics, so it’s easy to see how comments on his site would be a disaster (at least when internalizing his own interests), combined with the number of readers he gets (or even worse, “spilloff” from some of his co-conspirators thus skewing the average reader likely to comment in a really unpleasant direction)

and nevermind the trolls, some of us “prolific” commenters are just as bad, not only by contributing to a descending average, but encouraging similar comments to multiply, which is where I shut up :-)

51

q 07.09.04 at 11:31 am

Elimination of double-posting: automatically check a post against all previous posts to prevent double and treble posts.

Elimination of obscurity: add a filter to replace the word egregious with really bad which ordinary mortals can understand. No more egregious use of egregious.

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bad Jim 07.09.04 at 11:46 am

Rowdy, open-ended comment sections, like Political Animal, will occasionally draw raw stuff like this, which makes the daily scrum worth wading through.

Perhaps we don’t know how this works yet.

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Liz Lawley 07.09.04 at 1:53 pm

I’d have to disagree with ian’s statement that “there is no point to a comments forum where all that happens is mutual back patting.”

On a political weblog, that may be true. But on more personal weblogs, there can be a lot of value to mutual backpatting. Context is everything.

Also, Wired News has an article today on “Blogger Burnout” that focuses on comments.

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bob mcmanus 07.09.04 at 1:55 pm

The righties complaining about Drum’s comment sections are just attempting to translate the “playing the ref” tactics they use in big media to the blogosphere. Drum’s comment sections are just fine.

It is intimidating or frustrating to be 1 comment in a hundred; though as bad jim notes,you can get noticed.

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bob mcmanus 07.09.04 at 2:01 pm

Oh, in this case, the righties by giving Drum’s comment sections a bad reputation, are trying to keep good people from going there to comment; therefore accelerating the decline and eventually destroying Kevin’s blog, which is one of the biggest “moderate” boards.

Does this have any familiarity as a tactic? “CNN showed bias last night; all there are are slanted news sources; there are no moderates; there no facts, only opinions”…..if it looks familiar, that is because it is a plan.

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Phill 07.09.04 at 2:47 pm

I think you guys are getting it dead wrong when you try to define blogs.

There is no ‘proper’ blog format, there is no central control, that was the whole point to the Web. The first blog commentary systems appeared in 1993. Ever heard of Web Interactive Talk? Ari Luotenen wrote it to try out the CGI spec he just wrote with Rob. The term weblog did not appear until much, much later.

The only real distinguishing feature of Web-Logs is that they have a log structure, the information is organized in a linear fashion according to creation date. Early on in the Web design everyone was creating sites that sprouted out in every direction you could imagine. The point of a Web Log is that you can quickly work out whether the site is current or not.

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digamma 07.09.04 at 3:38 pm

Back in 1992 the denizens of talk.politics.guns got bored of their own group which pretty much everyone who was not an NRA fanatic knew to avoid. So they went on what was known in soc.culture.british as the ‘gun nut road show’, led by one Timothy McVeigh (yes, THAT one). The idea of this group was pretty much to shout down every contrary view.

Can you point to any archived posts? Google Groups doesn’t seem to have any of that on file.

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Stentor 07.09.04 at 3:50 pm

I rarely read comments, unless it’s a post I find especially interesting, the thread is short (less than 20 posts), and it’s one of the few sites that has decent comment sections. So I can’t understand the idea that comments are a necessary feature of a blog.

I also hate the “right-wingers don’t have comments because they can’t handle the criticism!” idea. Given his prodigious reading, I highly doubt that Reynolds doesn’t encounter many posts on other blogs that criticize him every day, and I imagine an Instacomments section would be an even worse cesspool of degraded discourse than Drum or Atrios’s.

I leave comments more often than I read them (for example, I stopped reading this thread about a third of the way down). I find them useful for making short comments to the author — things that aren’t worth the trouble of logging into my email. For anything of more substance, I much prefer to put it on my own blog, so that I can have a record of my correspondence.

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Ian 07.09.04 at 4:02 pm

“But on more personal weblogs, there can be a lot of value to mutual backpatting.”

I had political sites in mind when I made the comment – one especially. I don’t know what you mean by ‘personal’ but I don’t think I read any.

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Ikram 07.09.04 at 4:55 pm

Comments reflect the tone and quality of the site. Cretinous blogs have cretinous comments. Intelligent, civil bloggers get intelligent, civil commentors. In that way, comments serve as a good check on a bloggers ego — if your commentors are obnoxious, you must be as well.

(There are a few exceptions. The Reason blog has posters that are much smarter than many of the commentors.)

Also, bloggers are responsible for their comments section. Putting up comments is like being a publisher — if you publish racist comments, even though you disagree with them, you’re responsible. You’re the one giving the bigots a forum in your personal web-space.

This poses practical difficulties for big bloggers, like Calpundit, who would have devote a crazy amount of time to moderate their enormous comments section. Boo hoo. If you want to run a big time blog, expect to devote a lot of time, or hire people to moderate the comments for you. Alternatively, shut down comments (and watch your site get less popular).

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Sebastian Holsclaw 07.09.04 at 5:03 pm

Bob, I can’t speak for all ‘righties’ but I can say that I have commented on Calpundit/Poltical Animal for somewhere near three years, and the general quality of the comments has defintely declined.

I am not saying that because suddenly people stopped agreeing with me–they rarely did even at the beginning. I am saying that because the disagreement has gone from: “you are wrong for the following 5 rational reasons…” to something more along the lines of “!@#%$ You, you stupid !@#$ing bastard.”

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Laertes 07.09.04 at 5:47 pm

“Also, bloggers are responsible for their comments section. Putting up comments is like being a publisher — if you publish racist comments, even though you disagree with them, you’re responsible.”

One might counter with a similarly bare assertion:

“Bloggers are not responsible for their comments section. Putting up comments is like operating a telephone company — you’re not legally responsible for the contents of every message that passes through your system.”

A “common carrier” such as a telephone company enjoys that status in part because they exercise no editorial control over the users of their system. The tradition in the blogosphere at present is similar.

The more selective you are about what you delete, the less you implicitly state about what gets left behind.

If, like Charles Johnson, you delete posts that you find to be “offensive,” then you’re marking everything that remains as inoffensive.

If instead you delete only death threats, you’re merely marking everything that remains as “not a death threat.”

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Ikram 07.09.04 at 6:52 pm

Laertes wrote
A “common carrier” such as a telephone company enjoys that status in part because they exercise no editorial control over the users of their system. The tradition in the blogosphere at present is similar.

The telephone company analogy works better with general purveyors of bulletin-board technology, like Quicktopic. I wouldn’t expect Quicktopic (or Blogger) to be responsible for every asinine post that uses their software, just like Bell or BT aren’t responsible for every idiot phone call.

But individual bloggers aren’t just making a content-neutral comment technology available. Bloggers post some content-filled post and commentors respond to that post. (I wouldn’t expect a blogger to be responsible for a comment that was not a response to the post — like comment-spam for Cialis or Levitra).

I also find that very very few bloggers are entirely uninvolved in their comments section. Almost all bloggers selectively condemn or approve of certain comments on occasion. Even Yglesias, mentioned above, wades in sometimes.

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bob mcmanus 07.09.04 at 7:12 pm

“and the general quality of the comments has defintely declined.”

I stopped going into the Calpundit comments for about three months, partly because they got too big and were intimidating; partly because of the “piling on” the house trolls (Al, Charlie) who are now viewed more affectionately as mischievous pets; partly because Kevin’s posts on AWOL(for example) didn’t leave room for much diverse comment (hint to bloggers here);partly because I was traveling elsewhere.

I have gone back to look at it, I will look for your complaints. I still see names at Kevin I see at Tacitus and ObsWi, so it can’t be all bad.

Will Baude will not read any comments, for it appears a single piece of vitriol or nonsense ruins his entire experience. Poor Will.

65

George Michael 07.09.04 at 9:09 pm

Comments are OK as long as they’re full of positive energy.

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fling93 07.10.04 at 2:02 am

I think there’s little excuse to have a blog without either comments or trackback pings. I can understand turning off comments, as most of the popular blog software has pretty primitive technology compared to what has been available for a while in message boards. But that’s not an excuse for turning off trackback pings (speaking of which, how the hell do you trackback ping a post at this site? I see followup posts, but no trackback URL to ping).

But the main value-add of the Internet and blogs compared to other forms of media is that readers can immediately see contrasting views. I don’t really see this as a democracy issue as much as furthering knowledge. Most other forms of mass media have captive audiences (books, TV, academic journals) who have to jump through hoops to find alternate viewpoints to the one they are presented with. The Internet and blogosphere has the potential to transcend personal agendas and help accelerate the pursuit of knowledge and exploration of ideas. But I bet the biggest reason a big blog has neither is exactly the effect Matthew Yglesias pointed out:

The trouble is that when you write something really good, in the sense of being sober, on-point, factual, and tightly argued, your targets would do well to simply ignore you. And so they do.

The Internet and the blogosphere has the potential to raise the level of intellectual discussions such that ideas are valued not by who says them, but by their merit alone. This means the practicing of ignoring inconvenient arguments must be dissuaded as much as possible so that people can’t just glide by on reputation and relative unknowns with something worthwhile to contribute aren’t shut out and ignored.

So I think comments and/or trackback pings (especially inline ones instead of ones where you have to click to open a popup window) are essential to the Internet and blogosphere’s main value-add.

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Ray Davis 07.11.04 at 5:44 pm

“For me, the question of whether a site that calls itself a blog has comments option turned on is actually quite directly related to what constitutes a blog in the first place.”

Wouldn’t a less misleading way of saying this be “I prefer blogs which have automated commenting systems”?

For me, the impulse to substitute canonical pronouncements for expressions of personal taste is actually quite directly related to what constitutes academic publishing in the worst place. Fruitless attempts to “define” genres on theoretical grounds have wasted time and pages for too many decades.

Historical and current empirical evidence shows that the weblog form is clearly friendly towards commenting systems and is just as clearly independent of them.

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