Addicted to novelty since 2001

Why Comments Matter

I recently read Seth Godin’s e-book Who’s There (PDF), which is subtitled as his “incomplete guide to blogs and the new web”. It’s not exactly rife with original ideas, but it’s a decent read and a good place for business people to start if they’re blogging noobs. I did, however, disagree with his view on comments:

My blog doesn’t have comments, though. There are two reasons for this. The first, which is childish, is that I hate reading angry rants about my ideas, and having comments on my blog made it harder and harder for me to post because I lived in fear of trolls (the angry little men living under the bridge). The other reason, more practical, is that we now live in a world where many people have blogs. So if you’ve got something you want to say about one of my ideas, go ahead and trackback it and put it on your blog. Your non-anonymous blog. Your blog where your comment is now in context with all your other comments.

There are angry little women who are trolls too, but that’s beside the point. I can appreciate where Seth is coming from, as he’s got a wildly popular site and he’d probably never be able to keep up with the spam, let along respond to comments. It’s a nice problem to have, but very few people have it. [more]

More importantly, very few people have blogs. Technorati tracks 17 million blogs, but how many of those are active? Let’s be optimistic and say two-thirds. Let’s also knock off another 10% for spam blogs. That leaves 10 million blogs. Even if we omit India, China and all of Africa (to eliminate the world’s poorest, and therefore least bloggy, people), that leaves us roughly 3.3 billion people. What does that mean? 3 people in 1000 have a blog. If you want to include the entire planet, that’s 1.5 in a 1000.

Let’s guess and say the US has 5 million active blogs. That means 1.5 people in a 100 have a blog.

So, it’s misleading for Seth to remark that “many people have blogs”. Most people don’t, and probably never will. It’s also important to recognize that few people outside bloggers understand how to track conversations across sites, either using trackbacks or tools such as Technorati or Feedster.

In short, the vast majority of humans have no voice, and have no ability to understand cross-site conversations. Therefore, the best place to have an accessable discussion about an issue is directly under that issue, in a comments thread. If, as an individual or a company, you don’t have the bandwidth or wherewithal to monitor the conversation in the comments, just say that up front.

It’s also inaccurate to say that my blog is where all of my comments belong, because that’s the context for them. This is deeply wrong. The comments belong first and foremost where the discussion takes place. Which is the more useful context–the subject matter or the commenter? Clearly it’s the former. To put it another way, what’s said is more important than who’s saying it.

11 Responses to “Why Comments Matter”

  1. Todd

    I’ve been back and forth on the value of comments as they’re implemented on most blogs. I rarely check back to see what someone said, if anything, to what I’ve posted and so the idea of comments as discussion is rarely realized. That said, some people have taken steps to make comments more like conversations – Jeremy Wright’s blog does this pretty well and I was happy to be emailed about comments in a thread I had added to.

    In the end a lack of comments, good or bad, was a major reason for me abandoning blogging. Without a better way of tracking readership, I came to believe that I wasn’t reaching many people, or at least anyone who wanted to talk about what I was writing.

  2. betsy

    i have finally come to terms with the fact that i will always get more emails than comments. and that horrible spamming drug companies will spam me.

    the interest part about blogging is that to me it’s part sociology experiment and part love letter to the world. because you’re writing little posts about the way *you* view the world, which is most likely unique to anyone else’s and you’re also casting it out to the world and random wierd google searches that random people find you through.

    and while i get comments and emails from friends, it’s always lovely to hear from someone who found you haphazardly who just says something along the lines of ‘wow.’ that’s definitely worth all the scary spam about poker and refinancing.

  3. Andrea

    Well, I can understand Seth’s point. I don’t have comments on my blog because I don’t have time to remove all the porn, casino and v14gr4 spam. Even if I checked every 3 hours, there’s still a chance some undesirable and offensive posts would sneak in. And that’s enough time to offend my often very conservative clients.

    Some business people are extremely conservative. I worked with one guy who threw out applications from any contractor who’d worked for a non-profit or arts organization. He trashed a perfectly good applicant simply because she’d done some PR for Theatre Under the Stars.

  4. Darren

    Andrea: Indeed, though spam is a problem that’s being solved as I write this. We haven’t discarded email because of the spam, after all.

    As for the guy who won’t hire contractors who worked for non-profits, what an asshat. As I’ve always said, if they’re not the sort of people who would hire me (spam and all), then I certainly wouldn’t want to work for them.

  5. Anonymous

    Darren:
    I suppose that’s okay if you don’t have a sub-specialty in the financial services sector. Financial services firms — even their vendors — are made up of the most conservative people I’ve ever met.

  6. gillian

    If comments were dried leaves I would make tea with them. Or possibly roll them up in paper tube, light one end and suck at the other.

    Mind you, I have yet to have received any trolls (the worst was Andrea calling me a psychopath, but I know she didn’t really mean it), and the spambots mostly ignore me for some happy, unknown reason.

    I don’t think I’d still be blogging if not for the comments high. But then again, nothing I write ever rocks the boat, except maybe to people who hate cats.

  7. jd

    i like comments on blogs because they allow for the conversation to move in different directions.

    in that spirit, i could add something here about how i never really understood the idea that comment trolls were related to those guys/gals under bridges. i always understood the word to come from a type of fishing, where you move the bait through the water seeing what’ll strike. “troll” comments are the same: you throw something crazy out there and see who takes the bait, as it were.

    if someone answers with hard proof of where the word troll comes from, cool. if not, the conversation can move in another direction. that’s the beauty of comments. otherwise, blogs are restricted to the ideas of the blogger. communication is best when it’s a multi-way street.

  8. udge

    I think this thread proves that Seth is wrong: comments belong together in context and in order. It’s called “conversation”.

    Spam in comments can be eliminated (for now) by use of those strange picture-word verification things (if your provider supports them, else bite them in the arse until they do).

  9. Jack

    Darren,

    You are right. Not everyone has a blog, and even if they did, there is a leap in “importance” between a comment made on a blog post and a blog post made about a blog post.

    I think it is all part of Seth’s plan to inflate his own link count by turning off comments thereby forcing anyone who wishes to respond publically to post a link.

    The day I turn off comments is the day I turn off the blog.

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