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July 20, 2007

Spolsky on Blog Comments: Scale matters

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Joel Spolsky approvingly quotes Dave Winer on the subject of blog-comments:

The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you’re looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones…. That’s what’s important about blogs, not that people can comment on your ideas. As long as they can start their own blog, there will be no shortage of places to comment.

Joel then adds his own observations:

When a blog allows comments right below the writer’s post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody … nobody … would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.

This can be true, all true, as any casual read of blog comments can attest. BoingBoing turned off their comments years ago, because they’d long since passed the scale where polite conversation was possible. The Tragedy of the Conversational Commons becomes too persistently tempting when an audience gorws large. At BoingBoing scale, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory cannot be repealed.

But the uselessness of comments it is not the universal truth that Dave or (fixed, per Dave’s comment below) Joel makes it out to be, for two reasons. First, posting and conversation are different kinds of things — same keyboard, same text box, same web page, different modes of expression. Second, the sites that suffer most from anonymous postings and drivel are the ones operating at large scale.

If you are operating below that scale, comments can be quite good, in a way not replicable in any “everyone post to their own blog”. To take but three recent examples, take a look at the comments on my post on Michael Gorman, on danah’s post at Apophenia on fame, narcissism and MySpace and on Kieran Healy’s biological thought experiment on Crooked Timber.

Those three threads contain a hundred or so comments, including some distinctly low-signal bouquets and brickbats. But there is also spirited disputation and emendation, alternate points of view, linky goodness, and a conversational sharpening of the argument on all sides, in a way that doesn’t happen blog to blog. This, I think, is the missing element in Dave and Joel’s points — two blog posts do not make a conversation. The conversation that can be attached to a post is different in style and content, and in intent and effect, than the post itself.

I have long thought that the ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ argument is dumb where blogs are concerned — it is the blogger’s space, and he or she should feel free to delete, disemvowel, or otherwise dispose of material, for any reason, or no reason. But we’ve long since passed the point where what happens on a blog is mainly influenced by what the software does — the question to ask about comments is not whether they are available, but how a community uses them. The value in in blogs as communities of practice is considerable, and its a mistake to write off comment threads on those kinds of blogs just because, in other environments, comments are lame.

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


COMMENTS

1. Lock on July 20, 2007 1:56 PM writes...

I'd post this on Joel's blog... if he allowed comments. HA.

But you make a good point, Clay. On Curbed, like any high-traffic blogs, there are trolls. But there are also numerous readers who know more about NYC real estate than any of Curbed's editors, and the insight they bring to Curbed's comments on a daily basis make the site a much stronger read.

Like anyone in the problogging world, we're thinking about ways to improve the conversation while limiting the noise. Gawker's invite-only comments policy. Gothamist's graying out of anonymous commenters. ApartmentTherapy's idea to literally make the font size smaller for untrusted commenters. Tough question with a lot of possible answers.

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2. Reed on July 20, 2007 2:00 PM writes...

But does it matter if nobody's reading your unpopular views; or only people who already agree with you are? (I'm thinking in particular about political blogs here.)

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3. Helen DeWitt on July 20, 2007 4:51 PM writes...

I was a bit surprised by the way Joel and Dave saw this. I am not under the impression that I am omniscient. Commenters on my blog often know MUCH more than I do about things I would never have thought were relevant to what I thought was the topic. If they were to start up their own blogs I would have to check out blogs I have no reason to think relevant. It's generous of them to share their knowledge in comments on my blog. (Maybe Joel and Dave would not be thrilled to have a discussion of the decline of hip-hop since the mid-90s. There are people who take a dim view of the supposedly OT.)

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4. Jed Harris on July 20, 2007 6:44 PM writes...

Certainly scale matters. Certainly the nature of discourse in the comments is different from the mode of discourse when blogs comment on blogs.

Big questions remain. The discourse in the comments of any given blog is affected by moderation, by the kind of commenters the blog attracts, etc. Some bloggers (e.g. Teresa Nielsen Hayden) have perceptive things to say about how to maintain good discourse. I'd like to see some comprehensive analytic treatment of what shapes modes of discourse.

Regarding scale, the very big question is "Can scale cure the problems that scale causes?" Beyond some size, owner moderation becomes infeasible. Slashdot and other forums have experimented with mechanisms to apply scale to moderation, with mixed success.

The issue of scaling discourse on blogs displays in microcosm many of the hard social questions raised by the web. Can we find ways to evaluate content and apparent expertise that scale? Can we create open social systems that remain effective as they scale? Etc. As such, possible mechanisms for scaling open forums, such as blog comments, are worth deep analysis.

Collective moderation does seem to work up to a point. However one intrinsic problem with all existing mechanisms is that each moderator has to act from the perspective of the community, not their personal preference. Furthermore their moderation must be done out of altruism, because they can't rely on making any perceptible difference in what they see.

These problems echo the typical problems with non-market mechanisms for social self-regulation, and tend to fail in similar ways as they attempt to scale.

A potential solution is to allow individuals to "moderate" based on their own preferences, and apply the "moderation" to their own view of the discourse, so they have incentive to express their preferences honestly and completely.

If we can make individual moderation work, then the problem becomes one of "fairly" aggregating individual preferences into large scale moderation.

If both of these problems can be solved, potentially discourse can scale indefinitely, because the scale can cure the problems it causes.

We're developing software to address these problems. We've got a prototype that does a pretty good job of handling filtering based on individual moderation, and we're beginning to work on aggregation of individual preferences into larger "landscapes". You can read more at Peerworks.

Aside from our specific approach, I'm interested in whether this analysis and proposed solutions address the core issues. I'd also be very interested in hearing about any similar efforts.

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5. Vera on July 20, 2007 8:27 PM writes...

I agree that good commentary is of value, and that it has a much wider scope than can be achieved through related/linked blog posts.

There are blogs where I always read the comments and others where I never do. After discovering a new blog with content that interests me, I review comments on my favorite posts. It doesn't take long to determine whether I'll read comments in future. I don't agree with Joel's statement, which infers that pretty much all comments are drivel. My own observation is that the quality of the comments is usually closely related to the quality of the posts ...as long as the audience is of a modest size.

I'm not quite certain that I agree with a direct relationship between the quality of comments and the size of the readership as the sole determinant factor. I've noticed, for example, a relationship between the popularity of the writer(s) and comment quality (ie. high traffic and popularity rankings can sometimes summon jealous and malicious voices).

Slashdot, for all their size and as confusing as it can be, still has some really good commentary amidst the noise, whereas Digg is a site that I wouldn't visit at all any more. I haven't seen the scale issue addressed effectively yet. This is still a young place. Millions of people can inhabit a city and conduct more varied and interesting and civilized interactions than any single segment of them could in a small town. On the web, however, millions of users is usually still just way too many people in the same place all at once.

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6. Dave Winer on July 20, 2007 10:59 PM writes...

Hi Clay, just FYI -- not to spoil your fun or anything -- but I do provide space for people to comment on my blog. You might want to revise your post accordingly.

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7. Michael Chui on July 21, 2007 4:10 AM writes...

Heh, I'd post this on Joel's blog, too, but bleh.

But I find it terribly amusing that Dave and Joel are suggesting to the universe that they build their own emergent social network out of the Internet.

One tactic I've seen is StevePavlina.com. Steve has set it up so that blog comments go into a specific folder on his forums, which is in turn moderated by a group of volunteers. The discussion is generally of extremely high signal, and as a member since its inception, I've never felt inclined to leave, let alone leave because there was too much noise.

I think that most popular bloggers can and should do this. Especially because it allows for conversation to begin even without an instantiating blog post; I've started several threads myself on unrelated topics, simply because I thought my fellow forum members would be interested.

Personally, I think comments are a terrible mechanic. They're a terrible way to build conversation; that's not, really, what blogs are. The main problem lies in two facts: (1) trackbacks aren't universal nor perfect (I never even read them), and (2) not everyone is going to have a blog. Ever. So if every blog killed comments, there are some people who would never have a voice. (They would, of course, find a way around this; or they would wander off. Whichever.)

So really, I don't care for the comments debate at all. I think it's irrelevant. It's entirely too much of a hack, and something better needs to be built.

And yes, I've been working on a solution, and no, there's no way in hell my solution is good enough at the moment. =/

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8. Danny on July 21, 2007 5:56 AM writes...

The comments I get on my blog are almost always interesting, often really useful. But then I'm not a A-lister, and I generally write piecemeal on a specific technical topic. As a reader of blogs, I also find comments on many very useful, for example Tim Bray or Sam Ruby's (or this one, for that matter).

I suspect my own comments would be a lot different if I treated the blog more like an old-media magazine column in Paul Graham or Dave Winer's style (Dave does have a lot of little bits, but these are like chips & side salad to the main dish of Dave's Big Ideas).

Both these bloggers also happen to be masters of the "hold a view strongly" style, even when it seems very likely it's more to do with provoking discussion (and hence linklove and fame) than true conviction. Basically a blogger who's Never Wrong is bound to get a lot more antagonistic comments.

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9. Charles on July 21, 2007 10:54 AM writes...

Yes, it's important "how a community uses" comments. Teachers need to consider how their students use them. Will they tend to offer useful contributions? Or will they mostly agree without adding anything of substance? From my own experience, it's better to have students subscribe to each other's blogs but respond on their own blogs, at least if learning is the goal.

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10. Joe Clark on July 21, 2007 5:36 PM writes...

Some of us have no interest in blogs as “conversations.� It’s a buzzword that represents an insidious peer pressure. Like other proponents of comments on blogs, you don’t merely underplay the harm caused by intentionally abusive comments, you ignore it completely.

Let me put it to you this way: Anybody who’s been picked on a lot is going to hesitate before turning on comments. You are hurting such a person by subtly insisting that their blog isn’t real or is second-rate without comments. Some of us put self-preservation higher up on the priority list than other people’s idea of “conversation.�

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11. Clay Shirky on July 21, 2007 6:42 PM writes...

Joe, your coming here to converse on my blog about how uninterested you are in blogs as conversations is having a rhetorical effect that is (how to put this most politely?) sub-optimal.

In response to your substantive point, I don't ignore the harm, I explicitly note that it exists, and even discuss an environment, BoingBoing, where the negatives of comments outweighed the positives.

I also say (did you even read my post?) that anyone with a blog should feel free to have whatever comment policy they like.

My point is simply that, in certain circumstances (blogs that functions as gathering places for communities of practice, beneath a certain scale) comments create a kind of value that cannot be created by trackbacks et al. This doesn't mean everyone should have comments -- it means that Joel's dismissal of comments as a general case, is wrong, because they can be valuable in some circumstances.

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12. Richard on July 22, 2007 5:09 AM writes...

Clay, most of your post is spot-on, but I was puzzled by this bit:

"I have long thought that the ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ argument is dumb where blogs are concerned — it is the blogger’s space, and he or she should feel free to delete, disemvowel, or otherwise dispose of material, for any reason, or no reason."

The ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ view is dumb for reasons that are not specific to blogs. Surely the value of free speech lies in its contribution to reasoned debate, and in particular the ability to question "received wisdom" and make rational progress through the presentation of new or previously unrecognized reasons. But "no filtering" won't necessarily advance this end. If someone in a town meeting is yelling so loud that no-one else can be heard, then they are violating the spirit and purpose of free speech, by obstructing reasoned debate. It may be necessary to shut up the loudmouth precisely for the sake of (everyone else's) free speech. The same goes for blog comments: nonconstructive or abusive comments should be deleted precisely for the sake of ensuring that the site can remain a venue for the free exchange of ideas. (Abuse is not an idea. And it merely serves to scare off those who might actually make a positive contribution.)

I'm also puzzled by your suggestion that there are no ethical limits to what a blogger might do in "their space". What about a blogger who deletes civil but critical comments, merely because they expose his factual claims as fraudulent and his arguments as illogical, and the blogger doesn't want to own up to his mistakes? Surely such intellectual dishonesty is unethical in any situation. It's possible to act badly even in your own home, after all!

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13. Phil on July 23, 2007 7:38 AM writes...

Philosophically, it's a bit like the heap problem. A blog with a thriving group of commenters is a completely different thing from a board where people go to yell, but they can both be set up on exactly the same basis - and, most worryingly, one can turn into the other, for reasons which can't always be anticipated. (Or, as I said here with reference to the awful Comment is Free, you can set up the second when you think you're setting up the first - although in that case, at least, avoidable mistakes were made.)

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14. Kevembuangga on July 23, 2007 1:36 PM writes...

Richard : What about a blogger who deletes civil but critical comments, merely because they expose his factual claims as fraudulent and his arguments as illogical, and the blogger doesn't want to own up to his mistakes?

Right on!
Try to argue Singularitarians for instance...
As an abrasive commenter I noticed that it is not the rudeness or erratic rants which gets you censored or banned but when a critic hits a nerve.
An also frequent defensive tactic is to "bury" an offending comment down the thread by flooding it with bland and voluminous blather.
See also this compendium of Flame Warriors (fun).


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15. Jens Alfke on July 23, 2007 5:17 PM writes...

Personally, I hate the tactic of using one's blog to reply to someone else's blog post.

It's disconcerting to the readers who get dropped into the middle of a conversation (or usually, argument) -- I've stopped reading several blogs due to annoying snarky posts that are meaningless unless I read someone else's blog too.

It makes actually following the conversation into an Internet-wide scavenger hunt as you follow branching chains of links.

And dammit, it just feels antisocial to me. It's bad people skills: instead of replying directly to someone who says something you disagree with, you go up onto your soapbox and tell everyone at large why so-and-so is wrong. It's a prime example of danah(?)s thesis that computerized social networks model autistic behaviors.

Comments have problems too, of course. Aside from the obvious issues of moderation in large-scale communities, their other problem is the way most blogs implement them: they're second-class citizens. I can subscribe to a blog, but I usually can't subscribe to comments on posts I make, so I'll never notice replies to my comments unless I remember to go back and look. This strongly encourages drive-by commenting, where you say something inflammatory and leave. Contrast this with LiveJournal, where you get email notifications of replies to comments you make, a system that I've found to work very well.

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16. Jens Alfke on July 23, 2007 5:18 PM writes...

Personally, I hate the tactic of using one's blog to reply to someone else's blog post.

It's disconcerting to the readers who get dropped into the middle of a conversation (or usually, argument) -- I've stopped reading several blogs due to annoying snarky posts that are meaningless unless I read someone else's blog too.

It makes actually following the conversation into an Internet-wide scavenger hunt as you follow branching chains of links.

And dammit, it just feels antisocial to me. It's bad people skills: instead of replying directly to someone who says something you disagree with, you go up onto your soapbox and tell everyone at large why so-and-so is wrong. It's a prime example of danah(?)s thesis that computerized social networks model autistic behaviors.

Comments have problems too, of course. Aside from the obvious issues of moderation in large-scale communities, their other problem is the way most blogs implement them: they're second-class citizens. I can subscribe to a blog, but I usually can't subscribe to comments on posts I make, so I'll never notice replies to my comments unless I remember to go back and look. This strongly encourages drive-by commenting, where you say something inflammatory and leave. Contrast this with LiveJournal, where you get email notifications of replies to comments you make, a system that I've found to work very well.

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17. Ted on July 23, 2007 5:39 PM writes...

The comments in the "Free Exchange" blog of The Economist are often illuminating, sometimes brilliant, e.g.,

http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2007/07/how_efficient.cfm

Is this merely because scale of the community is manageable, or is there some other dominant factor?

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18. Mark on July 23, 2007 9:08 PM writes...

Web sites that are businesses that derive a major portion of their income from advertisements on their sites probably find (as we have) that most of their traffic to blog pages ends up coming via Google to pages because of text and keywords in the comments, not the original posts.

If we were to ban anonymous comments, we would be leaving an enormous amount of money on the table. We delete comments that violate our terms of service, and in fact we copyedit comments to help out subliterate users (which users agree to by accepting our TOS). But we're not about to ban comments.

Another thing: Our site has gotten a lot of publicity from our comments. Journalists are using quotes from comments more and more these days. Our publicist now keeps track of active comment threads and puts out press releases if the content of a relates to a current story and includes unique perspectives. We get a freebie mention for our role as the venue the comment appeared in (or for helping put journalists in touch with commenters).

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19. Adi on July 28, 2007 5:46 PM writes...

I agree with you that comments are not evil, and that may be good if your blog is not as popular as Joel's:
http://dotmad.blogspot.com/2007/07/joel-spolsky-thinks-blog-comments-are.html

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20. Leena20 on August 11, 2007 3:42 PM writes...

The discussion is generally of extremely high signal, without an instantiating blog post; I've started several threads myself on unrelated topics, I treated the blog more like an old-media magazine column in Paul Graham or Dave Winer's style , Will they tend to offer useful contributions? Or will they mostly agree without adding anything of substance, You are hurting such a person by subtly insisting that their blog. blogs that functions as gathering places for communities of practice, beneath a certain scale

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