The debate over comments on blogs is as old as blogging — the meme recently resurfaced when Zoli Erdos declared that The Official Google Blog is not a blog because it doesn’t allow comments. Mike Arrington amplified the debate by running a poll about whether comments are required for a blog to be a blog. At last check, the results were:
Is a blog really a blog if there are no reader comments?
Not a requirement, but comments enhance content dramatically
1223 – 40% of all votes
Comments are not a requirement for blogs
1009 – 33% of all votes
Without comments, it isn’t a blog
791 – 26% of all votes
Total Votes: 3023
The post itself received over 150 comments. I wasn’t going to wade into this perennial debate again until I came across this Joel Stein column from the L.A. Times, which is a tour de force rant against reader feedback:
Here’s what my Internet-fearing editors have failed to understand: I don’t want to talk to you; I want to talk at you. A column is not my attempt to engage in a conversation with you. I have more than enough people to converse with. And I don’t listen to them either. That sound on the phone, Mom, is me typing.
Some newspapers even list the phone numbers of their reporters at the end of their articles. That’s a smart use of their employees’ time. Why not just save a step and have them set up a folding table at a senior citizen center with a sign asking for complaints?
Where does this end? Does Philip Roth have to put his e-mail at the end of his book? Does Tom Hanks have to hold up a sign with his e-mail at the end of his movie? Should your hotel housekeeper leave her e-mail on your sheets? Are you starting to see how creepy this is?
It goes on and on like that. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing, and I must say that it was quite refreshing. I say that being generally a strong proponent of comments — some of my best blogging experiences have been engaging in intense debates in comments. The other day I posted a rant against fake corporate conversations, and I invoked The Cluetrain Manifesto — and to my surprise, two of the four Cluetrain authors, David Weinberger and Rick Levine showed up in my comments with extremely thought responses. And they weren’t alone — the post elicited a range of thoughtful responses, which together were MUCH more interesting than the original post. I have often had the experience that the comments section of a post is for more valuable than the original post.
But what about the old one-way publishing format? Is it a relic of “old media” or does it still have a place? Seth Godin’s blog is the touchstone example of a successful blog without comments — as Seth explains:
I think comments are terrific, and they are the key attraction for some blogs and some bloggers. Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them. And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters.
At the time, I took issue with Seth’s stance, but I do think that Joel Stein makes an interesting assertion:
Not everything should be interactive. A piece of work that stands on its own, without explanation or defense, takes on its own power.
I suppose it all depends on your objectives. When I blog, I’m typically throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. I often take provocative positions on purpose because I learn a lot from the disagreement in the comments — I have of course been accused of trolling, but attention for attention’s sake is never my objective. Blogging can be a great sounding board — “thinking out loud,” as John Battelle calls it. Most of what I blog is not a fully formed, finely crafted work of thought, but a raw piece of clay that I’ve taken a few whacks at. For me, blogging is a learning process, and comments are the key to that process.
But that’s by no means the only valid objective of publishing. Some people just want to publish their ideas to world, and that’s the end of it. It’s true that comments are a great responsibility. I always feel remiss when I don’t have time to respond to comments as thoroughly as I would like.
The other problem with comments is that they are an asynchronous conversation — anyone who uses IM knows this is not a very efficient way to carry on a conversation. Too often, commenters are just sounding off rather than talking to each other — or worse, just shouting at or past each other. But when it works, the debate can be extremely rich.
Now, you know what comes next. I have to ask what YOU think? Is there still value in one-way blogging and publishing? Any thoughts on how to make better use of comments?
Scott Karp blogs and responds to comments at Publishing 2.0.