Blogs and comments

by John Quiggin on October 7, 2004

The discussion on this post was still going on as it slipped off the page, so I’ve picked up some thoughts from the comments thread, and from earlier CT posts on this topic. I’ll begin with Eszter’s observation that comments are the democratic component of blogging . For me, comments are an essential part of blogs, and I rarely read blogs that don’t allow them.

It’s true, of course, that there were blogs before there were comments. But the eagerness with which bloggers latched on to the first rather half-baked add-ons that permitted commenting is evidence that this was a need waiting to be met.

My second observation is that, beyond a certain size (roughly 100 comments) comments threads become unmanageable, degenerating into flame wars, pointscoring cascades and all the other pathologies of Usenet. That in turn means that, once the number of readers at a site becomes very large, either the comments become unmanageable or people who would like to comment must be discouraged in some way (a point raised in Eszter’s post, is that, even though the option is there, the great majority of blogreaders never comment).

Putting these points together, there are some implications for the size distribution of blogs, running against the “rich get richer” observation cited by Henry and Dan Drezner. Once a blog gets big enough, comments become problematic. The first movers who mostly occupy the top spots in the blogging hierarchy started up in the days before comments were standard and have, in most cases, not added them. I think some bloggers have removed comments due to overload as they became more popular, but I can’t immediately verify this; a lot of removals were due to problems like comment spam that can be overcome with improved filtering.

Still, I think that there is a real countervailing effect to concentration here. If blogs are valued as forums for discussion, more focused than Usenet but still open to all, then the number of blogs has to grow broadly in line with the number of participants in the discussion.

{ 21 comments }

1

ogged 10.07.04 at 1:08 am

One more thing: once a blogger knows that, at a certain level of traffic, comments will become unmanageable, there’s a motivation to keep traffic down. I used to link-whore shamelessly, but then I saw what happened to Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum, and realized that I wouldn’t enjoy that kind of traffic (not that there was much danger, but still).

Ok, one more thing: as blogs proliferate, I find myself reading fewer comments at other sites. There’s too much to read as it is, and wading through comments just isn’t worth the time.

And it seems every commenter becomes a blogger eventually…

2

Chad Orzel 10.07.04 at 1:50 am

My second observation is that, beyond a certain size (roughly 100 comments) comments threads become unmanageable, degenerating into flame wars, pointscoring cascades and all the other pathologies of Usenet.

That’s not entirely true. Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light routinely has comment threads in the triple digits (one recent thread was 500 comments), and it’s one of the most civil places in blogdom. Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s Electrolite doesn’t have quite the same volume, but when discussions get going there, they rarely resemble the worst of Usenet.

The key is that those comment threads are ruthlessly moderated by TNH, and at the first sign of incivility, she applies lossy compression to the offending poster’s comments (typically removing all the vowels). This serves as a useful corrective, both shutting down idiot trolls, and warning off other trolls who show up later.

This is a fairly time-consuming operation, of course, but those comment threads are frequently the best part of her blog. And the close monitoring of the content of those threads is a necessary part of the process.

3

Jeremy Osner 10.07.04 at 2:09 am

Agreed on most points (though I still like some commentless blogs) — the comment threads at nielsenhayden.com are indeed one of the better parts of the blogosphere. It is a rare comment thread over at the site that I refer obstinately to as Calpundit, that gets fewer than 100 comments — and some of the noisiest and least useful around too. So I treat that site as if it did not have commenting enabled, and enjoy it for the insight into Mr. Drum’s thinking rather than that of his readers.

I stand by my comment on the previous post, that comments are more a necessary attribute of group blogs, than of blogs in general.

4

Kevin Drum 10.07.04 at 2:24 am

I agree with all this, and the decline of my comment section probably bothers me more than anyone. But given my posting volume, I’m just not willing to take the time it would take to ruthlessly moderate them. It would probably require several hours per day.

However, one additional observation: as the number of comments in a thread grows, the desire to comment declines. This means that there’s probably a practical limit to the size of a comment section regardless of the size of the blog itself. Unfortunately, my guess is that that limit is about 200-300 (with occasional exceptions), which is well above the 100-post threshold that John mentions.

5

PZ Myers 10.07.04 at 2:52 am

One alternative you haven’t mentioned: trackbacks. I’m also discouraged about diving into comments that are 100+ and growing, so instead I’ll often follow the trackbacks. It’s always a more manageable list, and the comments there tend to be a little more thoughtful.

The only downside is that it is a bit elitist, as you only see comments from other bloggers with the right kind of software.

6

Jeremy Osner 10.07.04 at 2:57 am

Indeed — if anyone could clue me in about how to make my blog software (or rather, “clunky little script”) support trackbacks I would be most appreciative — that is to say, I’d like to be able to get on the list of trackbacks when I link to somebody else’s post.

7

Ayjay 10.07.04 at 3:43 am

I wonder if it might be possible in some circumstances for bloggers — especially bloggers who write very well — to improve their reputations by allowing no comments. That is, someone who can make a point eloquently and who never allows anyone to refute or correct them on the same page could achieve a potentially unwarranted air of authority. Far be it from me to mention any names — just consider this a Talking Points Memo. . . .

8

BigMacAttack 10.07.04 at 4:05 am

I don’t really completely believe what I am about to kinda say.

It really doesn’t fit with being a conservative.

But what about a tree view? Why isn’t this done more or at all?

Wouldn’t it solve many problems with large comments?

Msybe it just leads to a more fractured discussion and a loss of community?

But I am curious and wonder why it isn’t implemented more.

9

Jamie McCarthy 10.07.04 at 4:20 am

Tree view is pretty much a requirement past about 40 comments. Somewhere beyond 100, I think discussions without some kind of moderation become impossible. With decent moderation, which means either paid staff or community moderation, the manageable upper limit seems to be as high as 2500 comments (there are a very few counterexamples at http://slashdot.org/hof.shtml ).

I gave a talk on protecting a discussion forum from attacks that range from “comment flooding” to “people saying stupid things” — I still don’t have my notes online but a good summary is linked from my site, here: http://mccarthy.vg/article.pl?sid=04/08/02/0348253

I agree that blogs with comments have a very different feel; further, those that display comments inline with the main entries have a different feel from those that require a separate click. Maybe n years from now when everyone has a blog, comments will be more like what we call TrackBacks now, where everyone hosts their own content and aggregates it with others’…

10

Thersites 10.07.04 at 5:06 am

OK, but the blogosphere is wide enough to encompass all of these models and more. Atrios has a very popular and almost completely unmoderated or in even in any way regulated comments section, with some of the worst commenting software on earth, and this has not hurt him any.

Incidentally, as an Atrios regular myself, I’d bet that at least half of his regulars have postgraduate degrees. Probably a third of his regulars have doctorates. And we like cursing a lot.

11

David Tiley 10.07.04 at 6:29 am

Looking at it from the point of view of a small blogger with limited comments – I feel completely strange if I have to turn them off for any reason.

Suddenly I am ranting into the void, with no feedback except strange statistics. I suspect people who run blogs without comments tend to be public intellectuals getting other kinds of feedback.

I notice The Poor Man used to have nested comments (tree view?) and dropped the idea. I reckon the number of comments dropped off as a result, so they are now manageable in a straight line.

12

Andrew Brown 10.07.04 at 8:00 am

The point about the Nielsen Hayden empire is surely that a high proportion of posters know each other outside the blogs, or would like to. This, on its own, and without disemvowelling, wouldn’t be enough. But I don’t think disemvowelling alone would work, either.

13

Kenny Easwaran 10.07.04 at 9:16 am

There definitely are some that have disabled comments. Matthew Yglesias did so briefly. I don’t remember if Brian Leiter ever had comments, but he certainly acts as if he doesn’t need them now. I wonder if cutting off comments increases the pressure on a blogger’s inbox, as more readers feel the need to e-mail her comments rather than just putting them on the comments section, where she can feel free to ignore them.

14

ArC 10.07.04 at 10:59 am

Aren’t there some blogs that use PHPBB or something similar for comments? I think those, designed as actual discussion forums, are much more suited to what you’re suggesting than the usual unthreaded comment system.

15

Chad Orzel 10.07.04 at 12:37 pm

The point about the Nielsen Hayden empire is surely that a high proportion of posters know each other outside the blogs, or would like to. This, on its own, and without disemvowelling, wouldn’t be enough. But I don’t think disemvowelling alone would work, either.

For Internet values of “know,” anyway. A lot of those people know each other largely through their participation in the nielsenhayden.com comments, and other online discussions (Usenet, etc.).

I think that does help a bit, but it’s nowhere near enough. I’ve seen fairly close-knit Usenet groups, where everybody knew one another, dissolve into the same sort of chaos you see in the Calpundit Monthly comments. The moderation and disemvowelling are key– if you can keep things civil long enough, even strangers will get to know each other, and you can have some community policing as well.

I talked to Teresa about this a bit at Worldcon, and she had some interesting things to say. The two points that I particularly remember were: 1) you can allow anonymous posting, or you can have unmoderated comments, but you can’t have both (this was in reference to problems at BoingBoing), and 2) you can allow one idiot troll to be active for a little while, but once you get a second, you have to stomp on both of them immediately. (Sort of like the theory that you need to shoot the first looter, or things will quickly get out of hand to the point where you can’t shoot them all…)

16

John Isbell 10.07.04 at 2:26 pm

Kos has nested comments. IIRC Kos and Atrios are two of the biggest blogs going, if not among the oldest, and they have comments. The obvious commentless big blogs – Instapundit, Sullivan – are on the right.
I never read Kevin’s comments any more, even when I comment there (as today, on Going Upriver).
I have to agree about Josh’s air of authority. Imagine that site with comments.

17

Peter Murphy 10.07.04 at 5:20 pm

My second observation is that, beyond a certain size (roughly 100 comments) comments threads become unmanageable, degenerating into flame wars, pointscoring cascades and all the other pathologies of Usenet.

Another counterexample is Back Pages, where half the threads in the last couple of weeks have hit the 200 mark. The high hit rate has been connected with the upcoming Australian election.

Back Pages has had almost consistently good commentatory – miles from the Preznit give me turkee fare known on some other blogs.

18

John Quiggin 10.07.04 at 10:37 pm

I agree BP in the election runup is a counterexample, but I think it’s a special case. The focus is on polls and Labor’s chances, with only a handful of anti-Labor commenters.

19

sara 10.08.04 at 6:03 am

Another factor is that the blogger should not leave up open threads. If he or she is going to be away from the blog for any length of time, he or she should arrange guest bloggers.

Billmon’s effective demise may have been due to this problem; he went to an econ conference in Jordan and left up open threads for most of a week. The Whiskey Bar became a snowballing party, the teen party when the parents are away: friends of friends of friends show up. The comment threads ran to 500 or more each.

The comments were always unmoderated, of course, and attracted a more and more extreme class of leftist (though I myself am probably somewhat to the left of Crooked Timber regulars).

When Billmon returned from Jordan, he acted as if they’d trashed the Bar. He had, to be sure, invited negative comments with his Fahrenheit 9/11 post.

If some of the readers here don’t agree with Billmon’s politics or economics, nevertheless he did a thorough job (at a relatively early stage) of debunking the war and the Bush administration, producing unusually long and analytic posts; he is missed.

20

Jeremy Osner 10.08.04 at 4:39 pm

Agreed about Billmon — I keep a hope warm in my heart that he will start posting again…

Does anyone know why Atrios’ front page always has wildly inaccurate counts in its links to comments? I formed a speculative theory a while back that when he edits a troll comment that breaks the counter.

21

HP 10.08.04 at 10:39 pm

Jeremy, on Atrios’s site at least, Haloscan counts only the last (IIRC) 500 comments. So, if thread C has 250 comments, and thread B has 250 comments, and someone posts “Frist!” on new thread A, then the count on thread C becomes 249. With thousands of posts on Eschaton in the course of a day, you can quickly have FPPs showing a post count of 2 or 6 or 0 when there are in fact several hundred.

I don’t believe that Atrios edits troll comments at all. If he did, he wouldn’t have time to do anything else.

I don’t know of anyone else getting Atrios’s traffic who still uses Haloscan, or we’d see this phenomenon more often.

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