What do y’all comment on and why?

by Henry on March 25, 2009

Ezra Klein:

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?



politicalfootball 03.25.09 at 2:11 pm

Posts that end with a question probably get more comments.


El Cid 03.25.09 at 2:12 pm

There may be a blog post with incredibly valuable information or perspective on it, but unless there’s some simple “Recommend” button or the like, I’m not going to take the time to comment “Important information!” or “Good analysis!” More than likely not, at least. Maybe occasionally.


harry b 03.25.09 at 2:16 pm

This isn’t an answer to the question, but a reflection on the effect – the prospect of lots of comments no doubt entices some people to post, but it gives me pause. Although I guess I like it when a post gets lots of comments, the bar for a post that I anticipate getting few comments is much lower than for one that will get many. Unfortunately, two of my central areas interest constantly provoke distracting comments, and I have self-consciously refrained from posting some things in order to avoid feeling that I have, yet again, to choose between rehashing things that I’ve lost interest in or seeming to be rude by ignoring someone.


harry b 03.25.09 at 2:17 pm

El Cid is my ideal reader.


Matt 03.25.09 at 2:26 pm

I suppose that I’m agreeing w/ El Cid and PolFoot above, but posts that are more strictly “informative” in the “here’s some interesting information” sense don’t get many comments because “yes, that was interesting. Thanks.” is a boring comment. Some of the authors here have more posts like that than others. But, when there’s a problem of some sort in the post (not a mistake, but something to be worked on), then commenting seems like it’s useful and constructive and not just showing off or back-slapping. (I can’t say I never do those latter, two, though.)


Anderson 03.25.09 at 2:27 pm

I suspect that one could add “(7) Meta-posts about commenting” to your list; we shall see.


MarkUp 03.25.09 at 2:34 pm

Social status of being effective in carrying out #’s 3 and/or 6. Isn’t it everyone’s desire to achieve a Kos or HotAir-ian topic that hits the +1000 comments?


Martin 03.25.09 at 2:35 pm

It’s worth asking why Henry’s list fails completely to account for Ezra’s DMV post. (I don’t consider the DMV to be “low culture.”) So we might add to the list: accessability, specifically, subjects that many people have familiarity with. Supermarkets, cars, lawnmowers, paying the rent — these topics will get more comments than the life cycle of the fruit fly.


Alex R 03.25.09 at 2:35 pm

To expand on point (5): This is a blog written primarily by academics, which is read and commented on primarily by non-academics. Those non-academics who read an academic blog are going to be particularly attracted to subjects on which they can hold some kind of opinion or make what seem to be useful points without being a full-fledged member of academia. Thus, not only philosophy and political theory, but also economics, sociology, and public policy posts written from an academic perspective, but in a way which implicitly or explicitly invites participation from those on the “outside”, will tend to attract a lot of comments…


JP Stormcrow 03.25.09 at 2:41 pm

I’m with Anderson @6, so in furtherance of that prediction I’d just like to say, “Me too!”


engels 03.25.09 at 2:44 pm

An interesting question to ask (I’d like to see a poll done) would be how many people read the post through before commenting, just skim it or just skim the comments without reading the post at all.


Rich Puchalsky 03.25.09 at 2:55 pm

The question is written from the point of view of someone who blogs, rather than someone (like me) who more typically comments. From my point of view, blog posts are there to entertain, not passively, but by giving people a chance to argue, chat, joke, or otherwise write something about the topic.

There are some bloggers who express a desire that their posts go commentless. The desire to inform is a fine one, I suppose, but unless I had to read those people because of some work-related or journalistic reason, I wouldn’t. And I suspect that Emerson, who has been rather unfairly singled out in this, would say something about the desire for specialist aridity — I’ll just let him say it.


harry b 03.25.09 at 2:58 pm

You expect honest answers to that one?


Tom Fuller 03.25.09 at 3:32 pm

I tend to comment most frequently on a) blogs that I like, in the sense that I want them to succeed and b) on issues that are ‘in play’ in the sense that there is room for honest difference in opinion and c) have posts on issues that I am currently involved in looking at professionally. For now, this means I get to infuriate most of you regarding global climate change, as I am looking at green technology. The cut and paste nature of the feedback I get tends to convince me that not a lot of new thinking is going on on this subject, which encourages me to proceed.


Ahistoricality 03.25.09 at 3:41 pm

Once a certain quantity of comments is reached, hardly anyone new to the conversation will read all the comments before commenting. If the purpose of commenting is to have one’s comment read, then it doesn’t make sense to contribute to already-long discussions.

I tend to avoid commenting on heavily-commented posts, because those usually feature well-worn positions without much chance of substantive contributions making much difference, and are usually dominated by a fairly small clique of frequent commenters (this isn’t directed at CT specifically, but it does happen here; I’m a member of the ingroup at some blogs myself, so I see it happening from both sides) who are focused on their ingroup interactions and don’t pay that much attention to comments from outsiders (unless they are flamingly provocative).


Jake 03.25.09 at 3:46 pm

Posts that reference comments in a meta way. Those seem to attract large numbers of comments on many blogs.

In addition, posts dealing with computers/technology, especially those asking for advice, seem to receive many comments on blogs, particularly when a Mac vs Windows vs Linux issue comes up. You might’ve already covered this in “maps easily on left/right divide.”


John Protevi 03.25.09 at 3:48 pm

I will admit to a weakness for snarking at trolls. I know one is not supposed to feed them; I know that I will never convince them of the wrongness of their positions; I know all this and all other internet traditions and yet it’s very hard to resist when the opportunity for a “shorter” presents itself.

Perhaps a 12 step program could be recommended for this particular affliction of mine?


Magnus R 03.25.09 at 3:50 pm

@Alex R, #8: Are you sure about your profile of the CT readership? The commenting to the ‘University Teaching Loads’ thread shows that there are a lot of academics reading the site. But your analysis of the kinds of postings in comments seems right, and maybe you’ve got data to back it up, so perhaps it’s so.

For myself, I comment when I have something clever to say (because I am in fact an academic, and That’s What Academics Do), or I feel passionate about something, or I’m bored with my work and want a distraction. But I’m not a frequent poster here. Perhaps because it’s an academic-led site, or maybe because the comment threads are less flamey than those on (say) the Guardian or BBC, I feel safer posting here and as a result feel less of a need to spend a very long time crafting and flame-proofing a comment. Which is nice.


MH 03.25.09 at 3:54 pm

I comment because I’m too old to write on the walls in restrooms.


LizardBreath 03.25.09 at 3:59 pm

As one of the proprietors of a blog that (a) while it’s mostly nonsense, attempts the occasional substantive post, and (b) is 99.44% comments by weight, IME Klein’s right, serious informative posts get many fewer comments. I think the mechanism is that a silly post invites people to rattle on about whatever it happens to remind them of, while a post containing actual information commands more respect, and commenters keep quiet unless they think they can actually add something useful to what’s in the post, or they have a serious question about it.

Klein’s also right about the incentives — it’s hard not to feel as if people aren’t interested in the serious stuff if they’re not commenting on it. But I don’t think there’s a good solution other than recognizing what’s going on and consciously discounting it.


JoB 03.25.09 at 4:07 pm

What El Cid said: posts that are contentious get comments (which includes much of the worst), I guess you can subsume the “Emerson effect” (LOL, by the way) under that.

But to answer the question: I comment because I think there will be a discussion – & that I stand to gain from it (if only by knowing how quickly the choice of words degenerates, how important it is how you write i.s.o what you write and how much of a ‘clique’ has already been formed with people only reacting to the usual suspects (or anybody else with a claim to ‘local’ notoriety))

Between the () is some ;-)


Alex R 03.25.09 at 4:18 pm

Magnus R @18: No, I’m not sure. But while I’m sure that the percentage of readers who are in academia is higher for Crooked Timber than for say, Daily Kos or for tmz.com, I’ll still bet that non-academics are a majority, just because they are so much more numerous than academics overall. Using the quasi-Copernican principle that the typical reader is much like me, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the majority of readers have a graduate degree and/or know a number of people in the academy, but it’s also true that only a modest fraction (I wish I could get a reasonably exact number) of even those with Ph.D.’s have academic jobs.


Henry 03.25.09 at 4:24 pm

“The Emerson Effect” wasn’t meant to single John out unfairly, just to point out an empirical phenomenon which I have indeed noticed (or at the least, believe to be real). FWIW, my purely personal opinion is that I would prefer (a) that John post less comments that re-iterate opinions or arguments that he has already stated at length and that try to pull debates about specific issues in economics/philosophy etc towards general discussions of the broad merits of economics/philosophy etc, but (b) that he continue to be an active member of the CT commenting community. But that’s not the burden of the post, which was a purely empirical observation (and, I believe, a correct one).


Doug 03.25.09 at 4:29 pm

We had a discussion a while back on our in-house mailing list about what would be the ultimate comment-generating post at Fistful of Euros. Necessary elements included Bush, Armenians (preferably with a genocide reference), Iraq, Macedonia (name thereof), and the future of the euro. I’m sure there were a couple more themes that attracted the flaming masses, but in the end we decided we had better things to do than to troll our own blog.


Singnairo 03.25.09 at 4:35 pm

I remember the day John Derbyshire coined the word “bleg” and now it’s taken off. I’m honored to witness the creation of a new blog inspired phrase: Emerson Effect. Thank you.


Hugh 03.25.09 at 4:40 pm

Certainly I would agree with Ezra’s assessment; I think this is my first comment here after many years of reading, and it’s largely because anything that I would contribute has already phrased better by a community memeber. On the topic of not posting comments, however, I think I have all the competency that I could want. I mean, I didn’t even comment on the Iron Council posts, and I have that book largely memorized.


John Emerson 03.25.09 at 4:43 pm

I think that The Emerson Effect, as a technical term, should be capitalized, and should be described in less neutral terms, using phraseology like “blessed by a visit by the master commenter John Emerson”.

Controversy and snark make threads go, regardless of their source. If a thread says everything that needs to be said, it might get no comments at all.

CT may be interested in knowing that my attempts to troll Yglesias fall flat. The kids there seem to be Ivy PoliSci Democratic Party wannabe operatives with no sense of humor, plus trolls more horrible than me.

The Valve, mixed results. Edge of the American West, no fun. Lawyers Guns and Money, mediocre results. Only Unfogged loves me, and they’re not really sure any more either.

On genteel academic sites I’m never sure whether I’m welcomed because I keep things hopping, despised because I fuck with the public order, or a little of both. It’s fortunate for me that I don’t terribly care. In general I think that academics are handicapped in the blogosphere by their need to remain respectable and by their awareness of their disciplinary protocols and chains of command.


djw 03.25.09 at 4:51 pm

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

You’ve got to be kidding. The best of these comment threads create a dialogue between a number of good sharp political theorists and interested and intelligent non-academics. They’re not perfect and they’re certainly some nonsense here and there, but they stack up pretty well to the quality of discussion at a typical conference panel.


John Emerson 03.25.09 at 4:52 pm

Just as I am the master of Type B Commenters (often called trolls by the insensitive and bigoted), the founder of Lizardbreath’s present blog (Ogged, pbuh) was the master of blog proprietors. He wrote wonderfully openended posts, and whenever necessary (which was often) trolled his own blog.


LizardBreath 03.25.09 at 4:52 pm

Only Unfogged loves me, and they’re not really sure any more either.

Aw, don’t say that, Emerson.

We’ve always been profoundly ambivalent about you.


Keith M Ellis 03.25.09 at 4:55 pm

From my point of view, blog posts are there to entertain, not passively, but by giving people a chance to argue, chat, joke, or otherwise write something about the topic.

Wow, I have exactly the opposite opinion. Comments are value-added, not the primary content. I value the posts which are information-rich and authoritative—that’s why I’m reading this blog and not dozens of others. The more academic and specialized, the better, because that’s how I learn from them. It’s the increase of the typical political blog fodder of hot-button topics that drove me away from reading CT every day several years ago. And it was the increase in the typical snarky chowderhead comments that especially drove me from reading CT every day several years ago. I can read that kind of crap all over the web. Thoughtful, respectful, and informed comments, however, are rare.

Anything that sets the bar higher for commenting…that discourages commenting because it’s not the typical circle-jerks of bitch fests and self-congratulations for being smarter than the other guys—that’s a good thing.

The ten-to-one or more reader-to-lurker ratio is just as true for blogs as it was true for USENET, or wherever. Your commenters are not your audience. Your commenters can provide interesting additional content for your audience; but you have to create the right space and lead them to better commenting—you should certainly not pander to their worst habits. If you had a very strong ethos here among your commenters that included a sense of responsibility for quality commenting, then trends in the number of comments in various threads would be worth examining. As it is, number of comments is at best meaningless, and at worst indicative of bad posts, not good posts.

Klein’s also right about the incentives—it’s hard not to feel as if people aren’t interested in the serious stuff if they’re not commenting on it. But I don’t think there’s a good solution other than recognizing what’s going on and consciously discounting it.

Getting no feedback at all is always going to be a little disappointing. But I think that posters should look to the quality of the comments, not the quantity, for confirmation that their posts were worth the effort.


Aulus Gellius 03.25.09 at 5:01 pm

I, for one, am particularly driven to comment when it can make me feel like something of a troublemaker. So, whenever a comment section is full of people agreeing on a basic premise, and arguing its particular applications, I feel a strong urge to attack the premise, even if it is in fact obviously solid. And in general, I like to make much stronger statements than I’m actually confident of.

I also, similarly, like to pick on some offhand remark by a poster (or even a commenter), and devote several paragraphs to refuting or examining it (I think I must not be alone in this, as Ezra Klein notes in mentioning his reference to Kafka and the responses).


Kieran Healy 03.25.09 at 5:06 pm

Aulus is banned.


Colin Danby 03.25.09 at 5:10 pm

I share John Protevi’s weakness and desire for recovery.

I’m a fan of the Emerson Effect, which makes the intertubes cozily familiar — no matter where I go, he’s already there.

On the main question, I would suggest (1) compact arguments provide fewer places of attachment for comments than longer, more elaborate arguments and (2) the biggest determinant of comment numbers is whether individual commenters get drawn into vigorous exchanges with each other. There may be a certain element of chance there.

There’s probably enough data now to do all kinds of studies. What is the impact of the original poster returning to comment? Michael B for example trolls his own postings, which kind of vaccinates them.


LizardBreath 03.25.09 at 5:14 pm

What is the impact of the original poster returning to comment?

I would say this is very important for developing an interesting comment section; that seems to me to be a consistent difference between comment sections that contain responsive conversations, and ones that are merely a series of one-line reactions to the original post.


JM 03.25.09 at 5:15 pm

I post in order to provoke the contributors into responding, because the seafoam green of their comment boxes feeds my hungry soul.


politicalfootball 03.25.09 at 5:43 pm

that seems to me to be a consistent difference between comment sections that contain responsive conversations, and ones that are merely a series of one-line reactions to the original post.

That’s an observation that never occurred to me, but seems correct. I’ve always wondered why so many smart, provocative bloggers have such crappy comments.


Matt L 03.25.09 at 5:47 pm

When I post a comment or write for my own blog I am acting on the revelation I had when I reached the end of writing my dissertation: It is easier to write about something from a position of relative ignorance and mild curiosity than it is from a place of relative expertise.

I rarely bother commenting on anything I know something about, because it takes too long. It is much more entertaining to write something flippant about something I find mildly irritating or a topic I know nothing to very little about, but would like to know more.


John Emerson 03.25.09 at 5:50 pm

The proprietor needs to do both: respond to good comments in order to keep things hopping, and police the blog for destructive trolls. Yglesias does neither, DeLong does both, “Political Animal” seems to have changed policies since Drum (who was hands-off) left. An enormous difference.


Matt L 03.25.09 at 5:52 pm

Oh yeah and ditto to what MM said in #19… not only am I too old, but I should know better…


LizardBreath 03.25.09 at 5:59 pm

I think part of the reason comments from the original poster change the atmosphere is that they’re flattering to the commenters being responded to — blog-commenting is one of the few venues where you can seek out someone’s writing because you think it’s clever and interesting rather than because of any pre-existing personal connection, and easily get the writer to notice and respond to your own thoughts. While this can turn unpleasant — there are some fairly big-name bloggers whose comments largely consist of people telling them what morons they are — it more often than not seems to be an incentive for the commenters to come up with more clever, interesting comments in the hopes of attracting more flattering attention from the blogger.


Martin James 03.25.09 at 6:04 pm

I miss abb1.

Reading a blog for the actual posts is like going to a party for the dip, the action is in the comments, but then again I find concern trolling to be one-to-one with the categorical imperative.


John Emerson 03.25.09 at 6:16 pm

ABB1 comes to my blog.


Stuart 03.25.09 at 6:20 pm

Competition with other CT posts probably has a measurable effect: if a post goes up and then within a couple of hours two or three more (as happens sometimes), then that post is probably buried enough to reduce the amount of comments on it compared to if it sat on top of the main page for a couple of days.


lemuel pitkin 03.25.09 at 6:26 pm

I miss abb1.

Me too.


lemuel pitkin 03.25.09 at 6:31 pm

Competition with other CT posts probably has a measurable effect

Yes. Case in point: the book events, which absolutely ruin the comments section. Putting up half a dozen or more posts on the same topic more or less simultaneously means they all compete with each other for the same pool of interested commenters, while earlier posts that were still attracting comments get pushed off the front page. I’ve always thought these things would work much better if they were paced at a couple of posts a day, instead of all at once.


Megan 03.25.09 at 6:35 pm

Posts that state a preference between two barely different choices that both have something to recommend them will get comments for days, especially if it something people encounter in their daily life. Didn’t cardinal vs relative directions come up recently? You can do that with paper book vs Kindle, over vs under toilet paper roll alignment, or any number of slight distinctions.

I find those discussions long and pointless, because the answer is “these are barely different options that both have something to recommend them”, but people have to weigh in. Fortunately, no one is making me read them.

Also, I adore Emerson’s comments.


Harry 03.25.09 at 7:19 pm

In general I think that academics are handicapped in the blogosphere by their need to remain respectable and by their awareness of their disciplinary protocols and chains of command.

Absolutely right. What better evidence could there be than contrasting two of the original members of this blog, Daniel (not an academic) and…well, me.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.25.09 at 7:39 pm

One other factor came to my mind — issues to do with feminism/gender equality and labour force participation by mothers/parenting etc. also do attract a lot of comments. I guess it’s because we tend to have strong and conflicting views on this, and it has direct relevance for our own lives.


Righteous Bubba 03.25.09 at 7:55 pm

These seem to me to be the main factors explaining variation in comments numbers at CT; any others?

Technology chatter.


Cryptic ned 03.25.09 at 8:05 pm

I tend to notice that posts about computer problems attract lots of comments. 95% of those comments are from people ignoring the problem and telling the blogger to buy a Mac, but they still count.


John Emerson 03.25.09 at 8:09 pm

Oddly, I have a Mac and a PC, and the Mac is giving me more trouble. And there’s a warrenty, but getting it fixed will be a pain in the ass.


JoB 03.25.09 at 8:14 pm

What amazes me is how much the ‘intertubes’ are populated by the same people that do know each other, including each other’s trolling habits and specific hide-outs, so much.

A couple of years back and long ago (mirc, remember those days) I had more time, and it gave me enorm pleasure to come ‘home’ on my ‘places’. I was the insider then. That’s probably as good a reason as any for high number of comments: the feeling of being an insider, being at home (I don’t know abb1 but her/his being missed is truely endearing, it literally moves me, no kidding).

But now for some fun to get this over 100 quickly: Mr John Emerson, how do you do it to be so all-present? Is it the God-reflex? How much hours does it take you? Is there a bit of money to be had? Seriously, John, I really want to know – if necessary I will troll over to your place once in a while!


Righteous Bubba 03.25.09 at 8:15 pm

If technology had been included in the post above we could have gotten to Mac vs. PC 50 comments sooner.


John Emerson 03.25.09 at 8:17 pm

I’m retired, and the internet is my TV.


JoB 03.25.09 at 8:18 pm

Oops, sorry RB – I messed up your joke.

ALL, when reading 54 ignore 53.


JoB 03.25.09 at 8:22 pm

John, I’m baffled: either I have to take my hat of or you have retired very young.


Michael Bérubé 03.25.09 at 8:26 pm

Using the quasi-Copernican principle that the typical reader is much like me

But isn’t that precisely the principle called into question by Sean Carroll’s new book on multiple-universe blog comment sections?

Michael B for example trolls his own postings, which kind of vaccinates them.

That used to work, Colin, until I started overusing the serum, whereupon I wound up creating “supertrolls” who were impervious to it. See Olson, Kirby.

More seriously, over the past few years I’ve become fascinated by how fragile a thing a comment section is. When it runs well, it’s like a great salon, where everyone takes it as his/her task to be illuminating and/or witty and/or provocative-in-a-good-way. (See my wife’s forthcoming book on salons and sociability, whenever she finishes it.) When it falls apart, it falls apart completely — and that has everything to do with the degree to which the blogger in question tends or fails to tend to the comment ecosphere, which is why Yglesias’ comments (e.g.) are such a mess. In other words, what LizardBreath said @ 35 and also what Teh Emerson Effect said @ 39.


ben 03.25.09 at 8:27 pm

philosophers with a somewhat more cloistered vision of what philosophical discussion should involve

How politic.


bob mcmanus 03.25.09 at 8:59 pm

I am going to troll this thread by refusing to comment, unless this joke is pwnd, in which case I am trolling by repeating the obvious.

I think comment threads should be anarchic, and discussions of basketball stats should arise from Rawls posts. There is not enough verbal graffiti in the blogosphere. Not enough profanity, disruption, surrealism. The post is under the blogger’s control, but the thread is a commons. The very goal of keeping commenters “disciplined, on topic, productive” outrages me.

I am not a number, I am a free man! Property is theft!


MH 03.25.09 at 9:11 pm

“Property is theft!”

These days, every discussion eventually goes to AIG.


John Quiggin 03.25.09 at 9:16 pm

As far as I’m concerned, a blog without comments is like a club with one member. I enjoy getting comments and responding to them. So, I’m in the class of bloggers who needs to remember the 9/10 of the readership iceberg that doesn’t appear in the comments thread and resist the temptation to post comment-attracting flamebait.


Zach 03.25.09 at 9:36 pm

You might want to add self reflexive posts to the list. It seems kind of self-evident, but posts about how CT works are necissarily within the scope of CT readers. This seems to apply across the interwebs as well, since the easiest way to get a million people to join your facebook group is to call it “‘Facebook Sucks!”


politicalfootball 03.25.09 at 9:44 pm

The post is under the blogger’s control, but the thread is a commons. The very goal of keeping commenters “disciplined, on topic, productive” outrages me.

The anarchic, if not contradictory, nature these two sentences illustrates why bob is an honored troll. Others invoke the word “commons” to describe places where management and cooperation are vital; to bob, a commons is where discipline must be eschewed.


Rich Puchalsky 03.25.09 at 10:03 pm

I don’t understand why anyone on these academic-y blogs really cares about non-commenting readers. You don’t advertise. You presumably don’t hover over your hit counter, fantasizing about how many people you have informed. (Well, maybe you do. But if so, don’t tell us. TMI.) So who cares? They don’t really affect you in any way. They’re like the blog equivalent of people who don’t vote, in politics. Why not just imagine that you have ten times as many? Or a hundred times?

The exception, I suppose, is when something that you’ve put up affects the real world. That happens sometimes — for instance, I once made a Web page about a particular global warming denialist’s work (would have been on a blog, I guess, but blogs weren’t quite there yet) and when he was going to give Congressional testimony, a Congressional staffer googled him, found the page, called me, and I connected him to a climate scientist who I knew through Usenet who gave him expert questions to pass on to the Congressperson to ask that shot down the guy’s testimony. How often does that actually happen with the kind of blog posts that get no comments, though?

At any rate, long-term commenters are relatively rare. Actually, I’d guess that there are fewer of them than bloggers — perhaps an order of magnitude fewer. I still run into other commenters who were commenting on Usenet more than a decade ago.


Lee A. Arnold 03.25.09 at 10:20 pm

I tend to swoop in after posts or comments rouse a secret kooky theory of mine that fully one-half of the Enlightenment is lost at sea for not having a good way to symbolize contexts and institutions. And one-half of the Enlightenment makes a good deal of blabber.


bob mcmanus 03.25.09 at 10:30 pm


The very goal of bloggers or posters keeping commenters “disciplined, on topic, productive” outrages me.

Better? My mistake. I have no principled objections to commenters policing threads, using a different level of tools than the ones mainpage posters have. Commenters can’t delete, ban, disemvowel, etc.


Jacob Christensen 03.25.09 at 10:43 pm

Ambition: To make serious comments on the pressing subjects of the day based on my academic experience.

Reality: Unfogged-style one-liners.

I’m sure there is a lesson to be learned here. Unfortunately (?). I’m also pretty sure which.

Now, please excuse me as I descend into the development of Danish unemployment insurance.


roy belmont 03.25.09 at 10:49 pm

67 comments and 2 identifiable as women.
Maybe one or two others with gender-unidentifiable pseudonyms are women as well, probably not though.
Maybe testosterone figures in that?
Male display. Competition. Compensation.
With rational cause tacked on afterward, sound as it might be.


LizardBreath 03.25.09 at 10:56 pm

Three women. LizardBreath=Elizabeth. (I’m always surprised to find that’s not transparent.) And if your denominator is the number of comments rather than the number of unique commenters, so should your numerator be.

But there are more identifiable men than women in the thread, certainly.


lemuel pitkin 03.25.09 at 10:59 pm

One other feature of good comments sections: people who understand how to format their comments to make them readable, e.g. by including a space between paragraphs.

Roy Belmont, is there a particular reason you don’t want anyone to read your comments?


bob mcmanus 03.25.09 at 11:06 pm

See, I don’t think there is any decent empirical analysis of blog commenting.

With similar posts, why does Rittholz get 10-30 comments and Calculated Risk get 300-500? Is the chaos of the CA threads similar or different than what Kevin Drum use to have? Do we skim a massive thread at Drum’s or CA and come off with an impression that the one hundred “Hey mom” comments are offensive trolling?

Why would Drum or Yglesias or De Long have to moderate when Thoma doesn’t? Is a troll that sticks around long enough to consider herself part of a blog community still a troll? If a “knock-knock” joke inside of a Rawls thread so offends your aesthetic sensibility might the problem be with your aethetics?

If blogs have ten lurkers for every commenter, they’re doing it wrong. If lurkers think they have nothing new or special to contribute, they can try knock-knock jokes and “Hey mom!” Having nothing to contribute has never inhibited me a bit.

What are we doing here, science or democracy?


John Emerson 03.25.09 at 11:11 pm

LizardBreath=Elizabeth. (I’m always surprised to find that’s not transparent.)

Some people grow up in warm, fuzzy, malice-deprived families, Liz. They’re always all Rodney King about everything, and invariably come to a bad end.


LizardBreath 03.25.09 at 11:43 pm

I don’t believe it. A family without endless purportedly-friendly-and-loving sniping is no true family.


MH 03.26.09 at 12:06 am

LizardBreath=Elizabeth was (is?) also in the funny papers (For Better, For Worse).


Bruce Baugh 03.26.09 at 12:12 am

We are of course doing neither science nor democracy in the overwhelming majority of comment threads, but a mix of socializing, community building (by a variety of aims and means), and info swapping.


roy belmont 03.26.09 at 12:20 am

Lizard Breath, my roots in the patriarchal culture are clearly far too deep, my apologies. So three women. Out of I’m not counting how many individual posters.
Lemuel: No, none. Though apparently some people do, some of the time.
The code in this comment box is singularly dedicated to thwarting my normal online writing style, such as it is.
Having at least three early attempts at things like em dashes and blockquotes come up embarrassingly and awkwardly stricken-through and even more unintelligibly rendered than usual has thrown me back on arbitrary paragraphs and covertly rendered blank verse.
Not that I’m lodging an actual complaint. Per se/i>.
I just can’t afford to care anymore, you know?


roy belmont 03.26.09 at 12:21 am

Break italic here. Hope against hope. No preview in IE. Not that I’m complaing.


roy belmont 03.26.09 at 12:22 am

Complaining. Not. me. About anything. Even this.


engels 03.26.09 at 12:27 am

I blame the parrots.


Martin Bento 03.26.09 at 12:46 am

There are different metrics by which a comment thread can be “long” To wit: a) number of comments, the one apparently used here, b) how long the discussion continues measured by real time, and c) sheer mass of verbiage. I think b actually tells you more than a or c. A discussion that remains active more than two days typically has some kind of real discussion, or, usually, argument going. So it is probably really interesting or else a flamefest, but not so much something in between. And on this particular blog, pure flamefest is the lest likely possibility.

Let me add my voice to those who miss abb1. I think his comments here were *more* valuable than most, because much of what he said no one else was going to say, even approximately: he was not redundant with others.


Lee A. Arnold 03.26.09 at 12:48 am

#72 Bob McManus, I have spent a lot of time policing trolls at Mark Thoma’s, especially when he first started out. This is because he’s just too good-natured to do it himself, but he runs a terrific blog that should be widely read, and I think the trolls cheapen it. Also: I love a good fight, I like to find out why people think the way they do, and I never, ever give up. It turns out they always give up after about 50 or 60 comments. Now there are a raft of good commenters at Thoma’s who swat them down hard.

In fact, I sense that it’s all changing, again. There are a lot more good, smart writers showing up everywhere.


John Emerson 03.26.09 at 12:52 am

Unfogged management deletes and bans very, very few people, but annoying persons can get a collective hostile response from people who are good at hostile responses.

I sorta miss Isle of Toads, though.

Admirers of Abba1 can find him in the comments at my blog, at my URL.


John Emerson 03.26.09 at 12:53 am

ABB1. We regret the error.


Lee A. Arnold 03.26.09 at 12:58 am

I also forgot to add that I will write a comment when I can tease atheists who present their belief as a considered intellectual opinion. It is not. Rather it is as intellectually indefensible as theism. The only valid intellectual position is agnosticism, because rational thought could never decide the question. I thought most people realized this by the age of 12 or 15. Nevertheless, atheism has become one of the intellectual prejudices of our time, and in its worst moments it is torpid and unseemly.


Lee A. Arnold 03.26.09 at 12:59 am

And I’m also a big fan of John Emerson. He taught me something, and that is solid gold in my book.


John Emerson 03.26.09 at 1:07 am

On existence questions, the default conclusion is non-existence. That’s my opinion.


roy belmont 03.26.09 at 1:50 am

Those who smugly dismiss, Engels, my assertions concerning avian telepathy, and telepathy generally, as real though still evidentiarily unpopularized (em dash here) intentionally, meaning its usefulness to the adept is maintained by the scoffing dismissal of the unelect who don’t have access or who refuse the evidence of their own experience, so that Sheldrake in his efforts to bring the evidence forward into the intellectual commons has had to battle the overt derogation of a smug legion of the fatuous in addition to the viciously protective covert resistance of the as yet still invisible occult, not that you asked (em dash here) have yet to encounter the far more controversial non-consensus views on infinity I hold, privately as of now.
Views which would, if they became publicly known, replace the mindful parrot as my personal scorn signifier, for those inclined to use one.
Velikovsky was right!
About planetary collision and earth in upheaval, that is.
His views on telepathy or infinity are unknown to me.


ben 03.26.09 at 2:19 am

I say unfogged loves John Emerson, and I think unfogged’s actions stand behind that.


kid bitzer 03.26.09 at 2:22 am

i comment for laughs.


salient 03.26.09 at 2:42 am

The code in this comment box is singularly dedicated to thwarting my normal online writing style, such as it is.

Which reminds me — Roy, do you intentionally bear any resemblance in this style to D.H. Lawrence? I just finished reading Studies in Classic American Literature, and throughout I couldn’t help thinking of how similar it seemed to how you organize your statements and thoughts (in comments here at CT, at least). I figured, perhaps he was an inspiration of sorts?


kid bitzer 03.26.09 at 3:06 am

damn shame about yglesias’ comment section. it’s pretty much a lost cause now.

couple years ago, matt would still get into the comments and respond a bit. guess he’s too busy now. if he’s not going to hire a moderator a la boing-boing hiring tnh, i think he might as well shut them down. they add no value.


Walt 03.26.09 at 3:09 am

I comment so that others may suffer as I do.


kid bitzer 03.26.09 at 3:28 am

it is an ancient commenter
and he stoppeth one of three.
“by thy long beard and glittering eye,
now wherefore stoppst thou me?”
he holds him with his skinny hand
“there was a post,” quoth he.
“hold off! unhand me, graybeard loon!”
eftsoons his hand dropped he.

that more or less sums it up for me.


MattF 03.26.09 at 4:53 am

I’ll comment if I think I can add something to a discussion. Or, if I can’t, and can’t get back to sleep, I’ll just tell a joke.

I used to think that “Don’t criticize anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” was just a dumb cliche, but then I realized it means that that when you do criticize someone, you’re a mile away from them and you have their shoes.


Delicious Pundit 03.26.09 at 6:17 am

To paraphrase Ian Faith in Spinal Tap, you should see the comments I decided not to send.


roy belmont 03.26.09 at 6:55 am

The only connection I have with Lawrence is a lower class upbringing, no higher education, a profound sense of dread and futility as regards human progress, wealthy dominant lovers, and no real income.
None of it’s intentional, but thanks.
I don’t write like this anywhere else. It’s an exercise, in character.
I like em dashes, used to use them a lot, but this particular comment box code has Pavlovianistically modified my spontaneous use of them. To my resentful irritation. Not that I’m complaining, officially, exactly.


ejh 03.26.09 at 8:59 am

my purely personal opinion is that I would prefer (a) that John post less comments that re-iterate opinions or arguments that he has already stated at length



Z 03.26.09 at 10:16 am

I wrote a comment explaining why I did not comment that often, and why I missed Abb1, but I did not post it.


hrm 03.26.09 at 11:16 am

Good point, ejh – posts or early comments with a simple spelling or grammar error tend to ignite gotcha! corrections, which spawn further comments complaining about or commending the correction. The more I read about the evolution of English, the more I’m inclined to think the defending of the One True Spelling/Usage is a lost cause (except for pronouncing “nuclear” right, to which I will cling no matter what perversion is in general use).

I also almost never comment anywhere, because who reads down to the end of a 100-comment thread? Who’s even going to notice what you say if you don’t say it early enough?


Eszter 03.26.09 at 1:17 pm

A good initial list by Henry plus some good additional suggestions.

An edit to the original #4 is anything having to do with anything Jewish. Some people don’t get that Jews and things Jewish are not necessarily synonymous with Israel.

This was already hinted at above, but I’ll add my vote: things having to do with teaching or other types of professionalization (e.g., grad school experiences) often have lots of comments and often really good ones that definitely augment the value of the original post.

At times, what the first one or two comments take on from the post can also influence where the thread goes (or doesn’t go). This is not necessarily unrelated to the original post, but I think can have a somewhat independent effect.

Also, I suspect we have way more male readers than female readers so I’ve sometimes wondered what kind of thread would result from certain types of posts…


lemuel pitkin 03.26.09 at 1:41 pm


No, less. Pedant.


Donald Johnson 03.26.09 at 1:59 pm

Since we’re sorta voting, I miss abb1 too. I like John Emerson and should visit his blog to see him and abb1, though I also see abb1 pop up at other blogs I visit, like A Tiny Revolution and Unqualified Offerings.

Roy’s style is fascinating, but I don’t always have the patience to read through it.


Ahistoricality 03.26.09 at 1:59 pm

I also almost never comment anywhere, because who reads down to the end of a 100-comment thread? Who’s even going to notice what you say if you don’t say it early enough?

I rest my case.


politicalfootball 03.26.09 at 2:07 pm

The link in 102 is unpersuasive:

The key, as far as I’m concerned, is to realize that it’s quite valid to think of ‘5 items or less’ to imply an ellipsis: “5 items or less… [than that amount of shopping]”

“5 items” is not an “amount of shopping;” it’s a number of items.


Bloix 03.26.09 at 2:50 pm

Since Eszter is here, I’d like to say that although I’m always happy to read her posts, I rarely comment on them – it doesn’t seem worthwhile to say, “that’s interesting!” or “I didn’t know that!” Unless a post gets under my skin, I try in my comments to contribute information – and since Eszter is always the voice of sweet reason, and usually writes about things that are outside my areas of knowledge, I don’t generally comment on her posts. But I do read, and I appreciate what she writes.


lemuel pitkin 03.26.09 at 3:04 pm

Politicalfootball, you didn’t read all the way through. The key passage is:

“The OED shows that less has been used of countables since the time of King Alfred the Great — he used it that way in one of his own translations from Latin — more than a thousand years ago (in about 888). So essentially less has been used of countables in English for just about as long as there has been a written English language.”


salient 03.26.09 at 3:10 pm

The only valid intellectual position is agnosticism, because rational thought could never decide the question.

Hmm. Comment threads that offer someone the opportunity to hold forth a provocative and insulting preposition will probably generate a greater number of comments, if sufficiently many people (a) notice the comment and (b) decide it’s worth their while to pile on in one direction or the other. I suspect this requires a few people to respond to the comment around the same time, so for newcomers it appears to be the dominant strain of conversation.

In general, I’d like to know the degree to which people see blog-commenting as the same act as participating in a casual offline conversation, e.g. coworkers leisurely discussing Topic X as they work.


Eszter 03.26.09 at 3:41 pm

Bloix, that’s very sweet of you, thanks. I would’ve commented on this thread earlier, but I was on a 15 hr flight when Henry posted it. (Back from Qatar, an experience worthy or blogging, but it’ll take me a while to figure out what angle to blog.)

Over time I’ve come to realize – often thanks to feedback I get in in-person encounters – that no or little commenting doesn’t necessarily mean no or little interest on behalf of readers. Plus given some of the types of comments, sometimes it’s just as well not to get too many.;-) That said, feedback can be helpful so I do encourage it if the inspiration strikes you.:)


belle le triste 03.26.09 at 4:09 pm

King Alfred’s Baking Tips:
“Keep the cakes over the fire for 15 minutes or less”


politicalfootball 03.26.09 at 4:17 pm

in about 888

It was a barbaric time. Considerable progress has been made among the English-speaking peoples.


mossy 03.26.09 at 4:50 pm

I stumbled across this blog several months and now read it every couple of days. I read all of the postings and comments, but then I always clean my plate, too (I was raised that way). I comment when I think I have particular expertise, and especially when I think the posters are people (sort of, more or less) like me (i.e., people who might vote more or less like me, or have many of the same books on their shelves, or would get my jokes) but are, in my opinion, wrong about something. Then I want to correct them. It’s obnoxious, but there it is.

Oh — I’m a woman and I’m always dismayed to be in the sexual minority — like 30-1 minority — on most of the blogs that I frequent. I agree with post 69 (HA!) about the testosterone factor in blogging.


salient 03.26.09 at 5:09 pm

A (hopefully on-topic) solicitation: Any thoughts from bloggers (whether you blog on CT or elsewhere, of course) as to why you post a given entry?

I’d hypothesize answers to the above are reducible to two specific desires generating the necessary motivation: an urge to disseminate information or news, and an urge to initiate a discussion. Any blog post could introduce itself with either, “I believe some of you will want to know this. X, Y, Z.” Or, “Are you familiar with [this event or topic]? Here’s my take on it: X, Y, Z.” Since one’s opinion could be X, Y, Z under either of these categories — subjective information sought after by an audience, or a provocation to invite discussion — the motivation distinction is important.

I intuitively treat posts of the former (with comment sections) as a “talk amongst yourselves as necessary” and posts of the latter (with comment sections) as a “feel free to weigh in” scenario. Furthermore, in the former scenario I assume the post is a drop-and-go, for which it makes little sense to address the author directly; in the latter scenario one assumes the author of the post is reading over the comments at some later time. I think I only address the post’s writer directly if it’s clear they intended to generate discussion, as their principle motive. In the former, requests for further information (and comments sharing further information in response to those requests) seem to be the implied boundaries of reasonable on-topic response.

As a final note, I wonder if response patterns change when:
* Newest comments are posted first, or top-of-the-page.
* A limited number of comments are available for viewing without clicking or maneuvering further to see the additional comments.


Peter 03.26.09 at 5:17 pm

Heh. You want a lot of comments, make a posting about Alpha males vs. nerds, i.e. how Alpha males are snagging all the women and nerds can’t get laid to save their lives. You’ll have 200+ comments within 24 hours.


mossy 03.26.09 at 5:54 pm

See, there IS a testosterone issue.


roy belmont 03.26.09 at 6:59 pm


MarkUp 03.26.09 at 8:58 pm

And on a few levels, Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley.


e julius drivingstorm 03.27.09 at 2:29 am

Wasn’t the Emerson Effect exactly what NASA was looking for when it got Colbert instead?


dsquared 03.27.09 at 3:44 am

As a onetime associate of adequacy.org, I can confirm that the single comment-attractingest topic is the inferiority of AMD computer chips to Intel ones, and the general association of AMD chips with computer crime. It attracted over 9000 comments before we closed down the site. Even mentioning it this low down on a comments thread is a risk.


bad Jim 03.27.09 at 7:36 am

Comment tally views?
Comment tallez vous?


garymar 03.27.09 at 8:25 am

Here’s another comment for y’all.


Eszter 03.27.09 at 12:56 pm

Wasn’t the Emerson Effect exactly what NASA was looking for when it got Colbert instead?

The NASA/Colbert thing was the second (3rd, 4th?) time he did something of this sort. The most memorable for me was the Hungarian bridge naming incident.


Timothy Burke 03.27.09 at 2:08 pm

I’d add a few patterns.

1) Shorter posts get more comments than longer posts.
2) Posts about the everyday life experiences of the poster get more comments but the comments tend to be very different depending on whether (a) the experience is a snarky, humorous one or (b) is a very serious, emotionally fraught one. (a) tend to create longer threads that bounce from story to story; (b) create long threads that contain short expressions of sympathy. Corollary: Eventually people stop expressing sympathy if the same poster has frequent experiences of a serious, bad or depressing nature, unless it is Scott Eric Kaufman being attacked once again by random strangers, automobile drivers, people fucking in his office or unsympathetic bureaucrats. But maybe SEK’s experiences are really 2a.
3) Posts which are seriously wrong get more comments. This is something I’ve discovered in teaching, too: a reading that has serious problems or errors (but is nevertheless interesting) is way more compelling to discuss for undergraduates than an impeccable work of scholarship. A post which is wacky, exaggerated, unreasonable, unpleasant or outright psychotic is way more likely to spark comments (as well as get links).


Ahistoricality 03.27.09 at 2:51 pm

Best way to get comments and links?

Declare the “END OF” something. Books, teaching, good television, bad doctors, an era, and epoch, a school of thought, a social pattern, a word, a meme, etc.


Rich Puchalsky 03.27.09 at 3:50 pm

Threads that go meta and start to refer to the number of comments in the thread, especially with a goal (as in “let’s see if we can get to 150”) get a lot of comments. But only if there are already a lot of comments in the thread.


salient 03.27.09 at 9:26 pm

As suggested by “world is flat” receiving twice the number of comments in evidence here, perhaps the way to rack up large numbers of comments over time is to post something that is likely to provoke a long multi-day residual discussion between a few interested parties, which everyone else is likely to ignore after a while.

# of commenters < # of comments, in most nontrivial cases, and the discrepancy between these numbers can tell you a lot about the thread, probably in turn correlating strongly with the type of post.


Righteous Bubba 03.27.09 at 9:30 pm

Acquiring one tenacious individual who is Wrong On The Internet helps.


salient 03.27.09 at 10:01 pm

Acquiring one tenacious individual who is Wrong On The Internet helps.

Actually, this (when allowing for “more than one” as well) is probably the sole ticket to a post with substantial activity past 48 hours & more than a couple hundred comments.

It would be interesting to find a metric that allows us to compare “number of comments” to “quality of on-topic discussion, in terms of information exchanged and satisfaction of involved parties.” I imagine there’s a maximum that’s less than 100.


novakant 03.28.09 at 12:11 am

PC vs MAC is a sure winner.


John Emerson 03.28.09 at 12:20 am

“Is Obama the AntiChrist?” was going strong after 6-7 years an 6,000 comments and only expired because Apostopher shut it down.


Righteous Bubba 03.28.09 at 12:38 am

“Is Obama the AntiChrist?”

Was this solved?


Colin Danby 03.28.09 at 1:25 am

This bit of troll-bait is almost at 1700.


sharon 03.28.09 at 10:27 am

Threatening to go on strike can be remarkably effective too. Although a bit drastic.

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