My friend Jessica, who has been blogging since at least 2006, warned me the other day that as my blog gets more popular, the comments will get progressively more annoying, truculent and even abusive. Though she is young and lovely, she said this with the tone of a knobby old seer. I chuckled nervously and tried to dismiss her prediction—I love my blog commenters—but I wasn't sure how to respond.
So my ears pricked up, or my eyes, or something, when shortly after this, Danny Sullivan tweeted that Engadget is turning off comments for a bit. In the announcement post, Joshua Topolsky wrote:
Hey guys, we know you like to have your fun, voice your opinions, and argue over your favorite gear, but over the past few days the tone in comments has really gotten out of hand. What is normally a charged – but fun – environment for our users and editors has become mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations ... and that's just not acceptable. Some of you out there in the world of anonymous grandstanding have gotten the impression that you run the place, but that's simply not the case.
I immediately scrolled down to see how people were responding in the comments. D'oh! Nothing but white space.
Danny sphunn the post and added this comment (on Sphinn):
While I like them standing up in this way, i don't think a time out alone will "shake out" trolls and spammers. I think Engadget, like many publications, really will need to learn to police its comments. To me, it's like the "broken windows" theory of policing. That if an area has a lot of broken windows, people assume it's all's fair in crime and war. Mean, hateful or spammy comments are just bacteria that breed more of them. If your commenting activity sets a high bar, a good example, then I think that leads to better quality. Of course, that might mean less activity – and less page views that some publications seem to want more. And more work – you can't just sit back and let the Web 2.0 magic happen, because sometimes it ain't that magical.
Michael Gray disagreed:
While there are some places where comments do create a richer experience, in the vast majority of places they are nothing more than a time suck for the site owner. As spam bots grow more and more sophisticated they will start to look more and more human like, and gain the ability to bypass captcha and registration walls. To be honest it's just a whole lot of time and money thrown at a problem that almost never gives you any ROI.
Maybe I'm off base but I think the few people who want to enable comments are people who want to produce content without having to maintain or put up a blog or micro blog or any other spot to publish. It's like passive aggressive thing, they want to be part time publisher without making the long term commitment to being a publisher, and want you to do it for them.
I fully appreciate the sublime irony that this itself is comment about how most comments don't have value ...
Truly, the beauty of this comment is all in the irony. I find value in this comment and I find value in comments all the time. Sometimes they're better than the post. Certainly many comment streams are full of spam and crap, and monitoring comments can be a real pain in the ass. But even if it's true that the "vast majority" of blog comments are worthless, it isn't at all true for the majority of blogs that I choose to read.
Almost always, my favorite blogs have active, lively comment streams that add definite value to the experience. As a reader, I much prefer these blogs; it's what makes them different than static articles that don't talk back. It's what makes a blog a community and not just a platform. It's what often makes them addictive – you just have to check back to see who responded to your last comment. In a tweet, Graywolf suggested that people who want to comment either comment on Twitter or their own blogs, with a link back to the post. This is great for his link building efforts, but not ideal for user experience, since it fragments the conversation. Enabling comments on a post centralizes the discussion.
The question, of course, is whether blog comments have any business value. Do commenters ever convert? Or do they just show up for the show? Is it worth the time bloggers spend moderating and responding to comments?
My hunch is that it depends on your business model. If you blog for exposure and lead gen, but ultimately depend on sales, comments may in fact be a waste of your time. If your business model is based on ad revenue, allowing comments (even heated or downright "mean and ugly" comments) will likely increase traffic, and more eyeballs on the site is exactly what you want.
Graywolf predicts that comments are on their way out ("turning off comments is the new black") – a saddening thought. It's hard to imagine blogs like MetaFilter and Gizmodo, or SEOMoz and Outspoken Media, or HTML Giant and Marginal Revolution, without the comment streams.