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The Great Comment Debate — Who Really Cares What You Think?

The Great Comment Debate — Who Really Cares What You Think?

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.

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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.

View Comments (27)
  • “A piece of work that stands on its own, without explanation or defense, takes on its own power.”

    Show me a piece of work that has never elicited explanation or defense and I’ll show you a piece of work that doesn’t matter to anyone. Commenting is human and has been around a lot longer than blogging, the internet or computers. To think that you can shut it off is ridiculous… you may not be able to see or hear them, but if it’s being read your work will ALWAYS generate comments.

  • To not want to open up comments, or to think what you’re saying is above commenting is simply ludicrous and close minded about the very nature of the Internet.

    A more practical notion is this — people are having conversations about you ANYWAY; if you host them, you’ll have a modicum of ‘control’ as to how you moderate that conversation.

    Arrington’s point is also valid, in that there is substance to any conversation that follows a written piece; sometimes, its even more important than the piece itself.

    It all depends on what you want blogging to mean. If blogging is to be a simple method of presenting articles and news — like the old notion of what ‘news’ was — then that’s fine. All a blog is then, is a CMS.

    If blogging means conversations, then by that definition, you MUST open up your comments.

    My personal opinion is that to blog means to have a conversation; not a one-on-one affair — that’s instant messaging or email. Blogging is a one-to-many conversation, and for that reason all large corporations / institutions / blogs that open up their comments are really to be commended. ValleyWag, Yahoo, TechCrunch, for example.

    Others that don’t — Seth Godin, Digg (that is, Digg’s blog), and others — no matter what they explain away, don’t want to relinquish a typically ‘command-and-control’ type mentality that traditional news sites have grown up with.

    And to me, that’s simply not what a blog is about.


  • I just started a blog, and realized I had comments turned off. Being a noob, I figured ( correctly) that the more I hear from folks, the more I learn, the more folks want to view my blog and the more I spread myself around.

    Having said that, I can see the value of having a no-comments blog – if you actually have a following already and actually have a continuous supply of startlingly apposite things to say.

    Comments? :P

  • People can read bogs without commenting .. but, you can’t read comments without the blogs – or you would be talking to yourself.

    To me – blogging isn’t about comments – it’s about the software – and being able to post things instantly to the internet without the aid of a webmaster or geek or tech guru. You can use blogging software (like wordpress) for non-blogs too you know. You can even have comments on the site, like a guestbook. Does that make that site a blog?

    Personally, I’m surprised that ONLY 73% were in the top two categories of that poll, considering that poll itself was on a post that has over 125 comments. I thought it would be higher.

    Speaking of comments, I think I get more frustrated commenting at a site and it being lost in moderation or pickup by spam plugins – than another site that just turns off the comments.

  • It’s not only command and control types that argue against comments, but others who would like the conversation to be more equal, not less. They would suggest that the commentors get their own blogs.

    That way, they would argue, it is a true equal conversation, not one of publisher/reader.

    Funny thing is, I never consciously know why I post a comment (like this) or link to and post from my blog, which I have also done with Scott’s articles.


  • “I want to talk atyou.” How arrogant is that? Talk away guy. Don’t think I want to listen, I don’t like being talked at.

    I’ve had the same experience as you, Scott, even with my most polished piece, that folks bring insights to the comment box that add new light to what I wrote and what I thought. They expand and enhance the thinking. Sometime they point out what I’m missing. It’s excellent for progess. Not so good if you want your words enshrined.

  • @ Hart

    Just fixed that Akismet spam flag on your comment.

    See, how can readers communicate amongst themselves in the blog without these comments?

  • This is a semantic game. It’s more than silly to draw portentous philosophical and ethical conclusions from it. Godin is a “command and control” type (obviously not intended as praise) because he doesn’t want to deal with comments? Come on.

    Like it is for any other writer, a blogger’s first responsibility is to his or her readers, not to the people who want to post a comment.

    Since comment spam is such a problem, it might be better to ask if there’s a better way to do them.

  • can of worms, but –

    web1.0 – read only (no comments, not a blog)

    web2.0 – read/write (comments, yes a blog)

    we are in the web2.0 world by the way peoples

  • Dave Winer only recently began accepting comments, and that on a “shadow site”. Does that mean for all those years was a column, not a blog? Bet that would surprise Winer.

    But, again, this is a silly question. One might as well ask if the sausage-like thing in a bun is a wiener or a hot dog.

  • How about a blog that does nothing else but compile comments left on other blogs. Is that a blog? I would read a “blog” of random comments taken out of context.

  • I comment when I feel engaged in a piece of writing; I love getting comments on my blog or website, because it helps me improve my game. I like the thinking out loud aspects; the chance to express my POV, but also hear the twists others bring into the conversation. It’s learning and growing when it’s interactive- without the interactivity, isn’t it just writing a journal and leaving it on a park bench for anyone to read? As I try to grow as a writer, I want opinion and critique- not to try to please everyone, but to see if I am really communicating my ideas clearly to others.

  • I’m guilty as hell over this one. I know that blogs should have comments, but only a handful of mine do. I have treated them as CMS and have been wanting to build up SE-friendly dynamic content on topics that are “informational” and not really suitable for commenting on, beyond disputing this or that “fact”. Plus I have treated these blogs as part of a larger online business model and would personally hardly ever even read the posts, let alone the comments. The writers I employ are paid per word, as the blogs don’t make any money that would justify revenue sharing. So paying them for comments would get really complicated for me.

    But I’ve come to realize that I have been doing it wrong- and I would say that a “blog”, in its pure form, is only a “blog” if it has comments turned on. So until I open up all those sites for comments, I really shouldn’t call them “blogs” at all.

    In conclusion, here’s a vote from the 33% jumping fence to the 26%.

  • I agree with BillG (who?). People get far too reverential about blogs and blogging. The idea that no comment can be removed no matter how offensive or irrelevant it is, is pure self-indulgence. Good comments are useful to the readers and the author of the piece. Bad comments are a waste of everyone’s time.

    In blogging, let’s learn a few editing skills and just scrap the rubbish. Sacrilege, I know, but it would lessen the overall bad reputation of blogs.

    And Seth Godin’s site is there to sell his books and his consultancy, not as a sounding board for every nutcase and time waster.

  • I must be dense or something — I assumed that what Joel Stein was writing was satire. It sure read that way to me. Obviously it has a kernel of truth to it, but I thought he was primarily making fun of that self-absorbed tendency on the part of traditional media.

    In any case, I think it works far better as satire than it does as actual reasoned argument against comments. Someone has already said it — a blog without comments is called a column, and we have plenty of those already.

  • I guess it differs from blogger to blogger. Most bloggers deactivate comments because of the spam problem, not over-activity. For me, a blog without comments seems claustrophobic as well as reeking of old pedagogic mentality. If you want to talk to me, it better be a two way thing, and if you just want to blow your own horn, then leave it on me when I want to listen to it, and all the best.

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