The Power Of Comments

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It’s not easy to create a platform that truly engenders comments.

That’s true whether we’re talking about a Blog, Podcast, Twitter feed or Facebook page. Getting people interested in what you’re about is one thing. Getting those people to share your content is slightly more complex (in terms of work). Getting those same people to actually create any form of content for you (like a comment) is even tougher. You can blame it on time, too much content being published, too many elements pulling people in too many different directions or you can even blame it on the fact that the content (in and of itself) just might not be exciting enough to elicit a response. Whatever the case may be, when someone does take the time to comment, it really does speak to the power of the content because human beings have been trained for decades to consume content… not to be an active participant in its development.

Not all comments are created equal.

There’s a trend happening online. For some reason, the majority of comments found on newspaper websites and on YouTube are brutal. For the most part they are unintelligent and downright nasty. They tend to be heavy handed in terms of taking one side over another, and they’re much less about a conversation than they are about a shouting match. In my work with the publishing industry, I am frequently asked why journalists should even bother being active in the comment section if they’re simply being attacked and insulted? It’s not an unfair question. The comment threads on many of the major mass media websites tend to filled with open-mouth breathers from Darwin’s waiting room.

It’s fascinating, isn’t it?

If you compare the standard comment fare from a major newspaper website to the stuff you’ll find in the comment section on this Blog, there’s a staggering difference. Would it be reasonable to assume that the quality of the content dictates the quality of the comments? That’s a hard "no" from me. There’s no doubt that some of the in-depth reporting found in your daily newspaper will trump the quality of my random brain droppings, so it must be something else.

Sometimes we feel that we can hide.

For some reason, people like to hide behind usernames in places like newspaper websites and YouTube, and yet it’s as if they know that anonymity like that dismantles all credibility when used in places like a personal Blog, Twitter and the like. So, here’s a thought: we can’t take anything that is said from an anonymous comment as credible until they prove themselves (which takes time and consistency). We also know that nonsensical comments can devalue the content that it surrounds. Meaning, if the bulk of comments below were juvenile or lacked credibility, it would affect your desire to come back and stay engaged with the content.

In the end, we do judge the content based on comments as well, don’t we? Think about what that means in the changing world of content.


  1. I think what separates personal blog comments from the gibberish on more “public” sites like YouTube and newspapers is how the content is presented. More blogs (generally) are written more conversationally, therefore inciting more civil responses.
    However, I believe the credibility of the whoever posts content lies with how they deal with gibberish-like content. Part of being a good content creator, IMHO, is also being able to be a good community moderator.

  2. Hmmm. I tend to get nice comments although few. Most of the people who comment are people I know already and have established a relationship with over the years though, which probably means something.
    Perhaps it’s a “social proof” type thing with the big media sites. People see lots of others around with bad behavior and feel it’s acceptable to do the same.
    Personally, I wonder how many people there are that act civilized under their own name on sites like this, but act like monkeys under handles on those other sites.
    As far as the comments devaluing the content goes, for me it depends on the content. If the content is thoughtful and well-written, I just pass over the lame ranty ones, whether it be big media sites or blogs.

  3. It could be anonymity, but more likely it is determined by the quality of the crowd that visits your blog as opposed to that of a typical newspaper site or YouTube. It is an interesting possibility that if the coments on your blog were somehow mostly juvenile
    starting tomorrow, I might abandon you.
    Have to think that one through for a while…

  4. Canadians are idiots.
    Just kidding Mitch. I totally agree with you. Our local newspaper is horrible and the comments are just more poop on the pile of fertilizer. I had never made the connection though of how the comments influence my perception of the content. Equally no comments also say something about the content don’t they?

  5. a niche site is likely to get mostly target users, resulting in better comments. a more general site like Youtube or newspaper attracts users from all fields, ages and knowledge. Definitely that will decide on the quality (or even quantity as a matter of fact) of the comments. So no surprises there i would say.
    Also I find that the interactivity of owner & users (plus social sites activity) is influential on the quantity/quality of the comments. So often a good communication skill on controversial content & comments results into more user commenting.

  6. The problems starts with the name – “Comment.” For YouTube, those are comments. Here, it’s “Conversation.” These are different. On sites like yours, Mitch, people comment because they have something to contribute to the discussion, not a stated opinion of you or your post.
    Also, I agree with Roshan about the niche. If you had millions of followers, you would have some of that as well.
    And moderating is the key here. I get very few comments on my own blog, but I still moderate them to ensure that if anyone comes by (or comes back) that the engagement is sincere and productive.

  7. Bill and Roshan are right that it is the type of group that visits the site that affects the tone of the comments, but in terms of news, do we really want only a select group to read the content? News creates an educated public, necessary for democracies. Whether this is an idea, goal, or reality is for another day, but having only niche news publications would be a step away from this ideal/goal rather than towards it. Also, if the content is judged by its comments, that just makes it harder to get people to read news content. Is this an argument for no comments on news websites?

  8. Nice thoughts Mitch, I wonder if blogs (tend to) attract more measured comments due to the fact that many are written by people that take the time to share their thoughts and build relationships with their audience, whilst journalists on the newspaper sites may appear as more distant, this making people think it’s ok to leave either brutal one sided comments or even attacks on the author. Does the familiarity of a blogger break down barriers and create a nicer and balanced conversation?

  9. Hey Mitch
    Great post. To your query, “Would it be reasonable to assume that the quality of the content dictates the quality of the comments?”, I’d also answer no. While you’re not afraid to tackle a bit of controversy, it’s not like you’re writing pro- and anti-Palin articles or posts.
    Your audience is probably reasonably targeted to reasonably bright folks (I hope, in my case). While we can disagree, the source of that disagreement is probably relatively minor. No one is claiming that blogging or social media is “evil” or unpatriotic. The space between you and me is probably relatively minor on any given issue, all things considered.
    The same can’t be said for the role of government, the death penalty, etc.

  10. That’s something I notice every time I visit websites like TechCrunch, their comments section is most of the times a chance for people to bash between each other and to bash the editors themselves for apparently no reason.
    I never see something like this in “normal” blogs, it’s definitely not about content, maybe it’s just about the perception of the kind of medium people are commenting on. TechCrunch, especially since AOL acquisition, is perceived as a mega-corporation of evil, while normal blogs are the cool kids in town where everyone feels compelled to act in a civil way. Could that be it?

  11. Mitch, you nailed it. I was on the CBC Sports site 2 weeks ago, and people were bashing every single commentator on there. Names like CJ2, JonasT, BackAtYa. Who are these people? That’s the issue. They are there to stir up shi*. They are commenting on stories that have little to do with what the thread ends up being. I try to stay away from any site where people do not use “real” names or are not honest about who they are. You can disagree and be civil about it. Daily newspapers (the physical kind) offer varying points of view in the letter’s section using people’s real names. For me to take comments seriously, transparency is key.
    I love reading the comments section of your blog posts because of the audience you have built. All members try to add value, even if some disagree with your opinion. We are all here to learn, share, and grow. On these news sites, people are purely commenting – anonymously – to cause controversy and hatred.

  12. Your observation about comments on newspaper articles is spot-on. There have been many times I wanted to write an intelligent response but knew any reasonable comment I left would get lost in the piles of garbage comments or flamed. I don’t… understand why the sites don’t more actively monitor comments themselves (most seem to leave it to the public to police by using ‘flag this’ button to report comments). I actively work with some of the largest newspapers in my tri-state area and the technology they use to drive publication to websites is horrid. The people tasked to implement and run online publication seem to have been spared the ax are from the advertising department and don’t understand how to deal with the commenting community. In old days papers could just toss out letters send and readers would just assume they were not printed Diego space limitation. Since those constraints are gone, how they deal with this ‘always in circulation – always printed’ platform needs to change.

  13. As someone still relatively new to the blog world, I have sought interesting blogs during the past six months: blogs that inform or offer a point of view in a few different domains. One criteria I use is the quality of discussion on a site. I did not appreciate this aspect initially, however, as I was purging my list of blogs recently – after all, there are only so many hours in a day – I realized that I was deleting several because (a) I never read any of the comments or (b) there were way too many comments.
    It seems that some followers only want to get their name ‘out there’ with nonsense comments like ‘great post’ or comments that merely reiterate what the blogger has already said.
    When William Thorsell was the publisher of The Globe and Mail (yes, I’m a Canadian), he said that newspapers compete for our time. For some reason, that has stayed with me over the years and I think it applies to the blogging world as well. Bloggers compete for our time and unless they have something interesting to offer, including the dialogue they create with followers, our little eyeballs will go elsewhere to spend their time.
    Just a thought!

  14. Oh, and one more thing. I suspect that some blog followers want to be the first to comment rather than spending time creating an interesting comment that extends the discussion. Guess that proves that I should have spent more time before posting my first comment! Apologies to the group.

  15. I think I’ll agree on this one.
    There are sites that you know you could almost post anything. But people won’t comment something indecent if the post has a proper content otherwise the criticism will be put on to whoever doing an unreasonable comments.
    I personally don’t want to be criticize by putting a comment that will make me a target of other commentators blaming, even if using an anonymous name it still feels bad.

  16. We write content to attract an audience, but the type of content we produce will largely determine the type of people we attract. Major media sites attract major media readers, who are usually the type that are heavily involved in politics, business their communities and society in general. People who are heavily involved often have heavy opinions, and aren’t hesitant to comment where it will be heard. Perhaps another reason why these people feel that they can be so harsh in their comments is because they pay subscriber fees. People feel that major media sites owe them a duty to listen to whatever opinion they have because they pay for the hard copy of their magazine or newspaper. Blogs that support businesses also attract very opinionated people who are heavily involved in their marketplaces. However, I find that people who comment on blogs participate with the idea that comments are meant to further the conversation so that we can all learn something. It’s not the same divide between journalist and reader, rather, it is business people helping business people within the same marketplace. That’s not to say that we don’t get bad apples, just that they are fewer and further between. As comments are meant to further conversation, the quality of the comments certainly adds to the quality of the content. For this reason, we must all make an effort to think about our comments before we post in order to ensure that they are fair, honest and contribute to the conversation and not deteriorate it.

  17. Slate does something interesting for comments: they leverage social site APIs to authenticate the user, allow the user to post a comment (that actually posts to their personal feed), then pull that comment back into the article page through the social site API.
    So, the bar of responsibility is raised — you’re forced to use one of your public identities, which means that if you leave an asinine comment, all of your friends will see it too. See
    Of course, you can always set up a ghost account on Fb to do this — a bit of a pain except for the most ardent of idiots. Or your friends may already know that you’re an idiot — can’t help that…
    I saw someone from the Washington Post discuss this, and he reported that the Slate results were so positive that it turned the tide of opinion within the newsroom to one of support for user comments.

  18. Anytime a group of people gather either online or offline they establish a culture that defines the group. I believe it’s an extension of the groups culture that we’re seeing in the comments. Some sites like YouTube have a different set of rules and norms for comments than sites like this.

  19. As writers, publishers and media makers, we want validation. The risks are high to drop your brain online right in front of everyone. It’s an entirely new metric to get reaction to that activity. That alone can get addictive and you want more and you want your audience to help stretch you and give you guidance. And it is magical when you can create a discussion around an idea you share. And that goes far beyond counting the number of comments on a blog.
    Mitch, you don’t blog, you don’t write, you don’t watch numbers, you share ideas and concepts and theories and war stories and actual events you have actually experienced and then you invite open unedited feedback.
    That is credibility and that creates a community.

  20. Great post. It is a wonder that so little design attention is paid towards comment generation. Comments are the life-blood of Social Media media, they are the evidence and example of interest itself, human investment. Where a conversation is happening, SOMETHING is happening, and where people know each other, there is community. People talk a lot of about content, when in fact comment may be were it is at.

  21. In general I tend to think that a big part of what separates comments on a blog from comments on a news site is the moderation. For instance, if someone comes to my site and sprouts all kinds of tripe and vitriol I’ll just kill it and move on because I’m paying for it. For those newspaper sites the people working there aren’t paying for it and thus they really don’t care unless someone else decides to file a complaint. And for most of those sites, you have to register to file a complaint; what’s the point in that?
    As for whether comments talk to the credibility of what’s being written, well, I don’t know that I’d go that far. I may hate the comments on my local news site, but after awhile one learns to just step reading comments to news stories because no matter what the subject it just seems to bring out the worst in some people. I’m sure the anonymity helps them be that base, but I personally have decided it’s just not worth getting riled up for anymore.

  22. I can’t really say that low quality, nonsensical and hate comments bring down the value of a blog post or article. They do, however, reduce my drive to leave a comment and join in the discussion. There are a lot of good, thought-provoking articles on the Web with more than a few wonderful, well thought out comments but it is such a chore to slug through all the spam posts.

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