The number of comments a post gets is not, in any way, analogous to the importance attached to the post by commenters. As example, a post I wrote yesterday on the DMV —in which I unwisely made a glib joke about Kafka—amassed 50 comments. A post I wrote summarizing an interview with the Swedish Finance Minister who ran his country’s nationalization effort got exactly zero comments. Comments are not a reflection of how much your audience cares about a topic. They are a reflection of how much they have to say on it. As a blogger, I think that actually exerts a subtly pernicious influence on my writing. The posts I write that get the least comments are those with actual reporting in them: Congress did this, or an administration official explained that. The second worst are wonky posts. It’s easy enough to understand why those pieces end with single digit comment sections: There’s less to say about a fact than about an argument. But since I, like many bloggers, use the vibrancy of my comment sections as a way to not feel like a crazy person ranting in cyberspace, too many low comment posts in a row and I itch to write some pieces that generate a bit of discussion and prove that my cyberfriends are still out there. I’m not sure that’s always the best impulse.
I think that the basic argument here that comments sections reflect self-perceived competence to comment rather than interest as such is probably right (although the two are also probably correlated to some degree). Not that this necessarily changes our posting policy too much at CT – several of us have an ‘eat your greens’ philosophy when it comes to inflicting our personal areas of interest/obsession on readers, which I think, by and large, is a good thing. But fwiw, my rough impression of the key causal variables explaining the level of comments at CT are as follows:
(1) Consonance with left/right divide in US politics. Posts which make claims that map easily onto arguments between leftwingers and rightwingers in the US tend to get more comments.
(2) Low culture vs. high culture. Posts on low culture (nb I am using the word in a non-pejorative sense here) which lots of people have accessed or understand get substantially more comments, perhaps unsurprisingly, than posts on high culture.
(3) The Emerson effect. Posts that push John Emerson’s buttons (e.g. on analytic philosophy or economic theory) tend to get more comments than other posts, both because of the volume of comments coming from J.E. himself, and from others responding to him. I’m sure that there are similar effects with other prolific commenters, but this is the most obvious one to me.
(4) Is Israel teh SuXoR. Posts on Israel/Middle East politics get unusually high numbers of comments (although not as nasty as they used to be, thanks to the departure, voluntary and otherwise, of some of the people with strong opinions on this topic from our comments sections, as well as a couple of good commenters I know of who got fed up with being described in unpleasant terms by those who disagreed with them).
(5) Philosophy and otherwise. Even apart from the Emerson effect, there is a sweet spot for posts on philosophy and political theory that can be responded to by those with non-specialist knowledge. The willingness of CT to put up these posts has occasionally been denounced by philosophers with a somewhat more cloistered vision of what philosophical discussion should involve than ours – but like it or not, these posts frequently accumulate hundreds of engaged comments.
(6) The level of snark. Snarky posts, when well done, attract more comments than non-snarky ones.
These seem to me to be the main factors explaining variation in comments numbers at CT; any others?