The Tragedy Of Comments

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Is the discourse dying?

Nick Denton – the founder of Gawker – generated a heap-load of comments the other day when he announced at the South by Southwest conference that the way blog comments are published has failed to boost the quality of public discourse or to enhance the opportunity for collaboration between readers and writers. In the AdWeek news item, Nick Denton on the ‘Tragedy of the Comments’, he says: "For every two comments that are interesting, there will be eight that will be off-topic or toxic." The news item goes on to state: "that some have been so toxic that he’s seen comments bring some writers to tears."

What’s a Blog to do?

In Gawker’s case, they will be launching a new commenting platform that will empower selected commentators to become moderators. People will still be able to post anonymously, but Denton is looking to create layers as a filtering, monitoring and curation middle-play to see if the quality and focus of the comments can improve. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in a world where fewer and fewer people comment on Blogs and even less will take the time to sign-up and leave a comment (which is a massive barrier to building audience). We have to remember, that Gawker is a major media portal and – for years – online newspapers have grappled and struggled with their own comment systems due to a combination of anonymity and people’s pre-disposition to rant in those spaces.

Not all Blogs are created equal. 

My personal take is this: a Blog receives the kind of comments it deserves. Beyond this being a highly generalized statement, the Blogs that I tend to follow always have thoughtful, long and salient comments attached to them. Is there an oddball comment that gets through? All of the time, but those comments are usually ignored or shun to the side by both the Blogger and the people adding to the discourse. I struggle with Blog comments here, on this Blog. Sometimes, I’m very active (responding to each and every comment), other times I jump in if there’s something to add, and there are instances when it simply slips (like the past few days). That being said, I believe that the quality of the (majority) of the comments on Six Pixels of Separation are a reflection of the content. If people take the time to deep-dive into the content, they’re also taking the time to add, question or comment on it in a very helpful way. This didn’t happen over night (it has been nearly a decade of Blogging) and it’s not something that would happen if the content of this Blog became more superfluous (like: "7 Ways To Rock Twitter" or "The 10 Things Every Marketer Must Know About Facebook").

Comments are a reflection of the content. 

Newspapers and other massive media organizations hate to hear that line, but it’s true. If the Blogging is done by a holier-than-thou writer who is simply copying and pasting their articles online and want nothing more than to move on to their next writing assignment, the people reading and consuming that content will feel subservient. They will (naturally) rage against the machine. Go read the Blogs of people like Mark W. Schaefer, Gini Dietrich, Valeria Maltoni, Jay Baer, Avinash Kaushik, Nilofer Merchant and a host of others. What do you see when you read the Blog posts and then the comments? There is no tragedy in those Blog comments. It is a rich trove of information, debate and additions. It makes the post come to life in a three-dimensional way. The content and the comments flow because of the mutual admiration between the Blogger and the people commenting. The quality of the comments is in direct relation to the quality of the content.

Do you think that Blog comments should be a democratic process or is moderation the key to success?


  1. You hit on what I see is the main issue – logging on/registering to the comment system. It’s a pain on desktop and a nightmare on iPhone/mobile – and guess where we are accessing most of our content from now? You got it.
    The system is broken and there needs to be slicker ways to fix it.
    This is why I think G+ rules; it’s a great combo between micro-blogging and trad-blogging; all with zero friction comments.
    Commenting might be dying (due to tech) but discourse isn’t

  2. Maybe a little off topic but wanted to offer my experience with comments on a pretty active Facebook page. I’m managing the page for the VT Right to Know campaign here in Vermont. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I haven’t experienced any inappropriate comments. I agree with Mitch that if the quality of the content is stellar (as, of course mine IS… πŸ˜‰ then that drives the expectations in the comment section.
    Old school marketers freaked out when I told them what I was doing. “Your page will get hijacked by jerks!”, etc. My reality is the opposite.
    The transparency that the web brings exposes those that really aren’t contributing.

  3. The following was written in haste and will not be edited. Sorry. I’m really pressed for time. However, everything I’m about to say has been addressed either implicitly or directly in my blogs. There’s no point visiting my blogs or even reading my Tweets if you (and I say this with utmost humility) don’t practice open-mindedness.
    I’m not sure how much time I have so I’ll begin with the most controversial points I want to make:
    1) Comments mean nothing (except for business considerations behind content generation)
    2) There’s value in silence. That’s a concept well understood in the East. People process content differently. Most fans of my blogs try to sit with me to “eat”, or other more intimate social discourse, etc. 98% don’t comment. And being “cool” with that takes, I’d argue: “inner peace”.
    Frankly as an artist and a poor man online with a billion family and personal problems to attend to, comments mean nothing to me. I repeat: Nothing. Life’s too short. Ask Steve Jobs (God rest his soul) how he felt about consumers not knowing what they want and focusing on his vision, as an artist/technologist. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
    Why seek validation in an ungrateful world when your world view calls for something deeper and much less narcissistic?
    Susan Jacoby already warned: “Without a strong body of knowledge the more time we spend looking at things on [computer] screens, the less smarter we become”. So if ignorance is a choice and some people spend all week looking at pigs dancing on their screen and blogging/tweeting about “I can’t sleep” or brown-nosing on Twitter, how do you expect them to bring objectivity to a debate?
    Can you argue with someone with a bad memory, no self-insight, poorly educated, insecure, and win?
    There’s a quote often attributed to Terry Guo (founder of Foxconn) that goes something like this: People who are hungry have a surprisingly clear head. I live in China. Not far from the factories that make the iPads, iPhones, etc. And I get it. If you grew up hungry in Indian, Brazilian, African slums or the hoods and projects in the toughest parts of America in particular, you’d get it too.
    There’re too many rich, privileged people armed with keyboards or Macs with a sense of entitlement. I should know what I’m talking about because I almost got shot on i-95 (US) once for *safely* overtaking someone riding a Ducati who turned my business of being late to pickup my mom for a medical appointment, into *his* business. That’s both reality and the internet for you. And if you live your life catering to such people and what they have to say (or even blog about, and yes “Not all blogs are created equal”) you’ll get absolutely nothing done.
    Do you remember what you said in SPOS #250 (I believe) about staying on point and not allowing others to distract you from the “narrative…” you’re trying to put out; people asking questions about your family or those drawing outrageous conclusions and assumptions about how you (Mitch Joel) wouldn’t make certain comments if you had a family, etc.?
    Same thing.
    1) “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” -Lin Yutang
    2) Apart from the problem of confusing the message and the medium which Peter Coughter beautifully addressed with his “right-brainers crossing over” point…a copy & paste from one of my own blogs: Everybody wants to type or upload something and instantly gratify unchecked narcissism and insecurities within by seeing their own words, images, and “stuff”. Everybody wants, wants, and just wants…now! But nobody wants to be honest. Nobody wants to listen. They already know it all. Nobody wants to stop and listen more attentively. Nobody wants to slow down and learn to be more aware. More mindful. To understand the consequences of their actions, omissions, perceptions, judgments and prejudgments. Even if it’s a Double Standard nobody has enough self-insight to spot.
    Noam Chomsky’s answer: “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.” After all, once you otherize people, you can’t understand them or get close to their core because you’ve dehumanized them. Which leads me to both an Indian proverb and something Dr. Stephen Covey (I believe you follow him on Twitter) has said:
    1) There is no point in cutting off a person’s nose and then giving them a rose to smell.
    2) To know and not to do, is really not to know.
    3) And finally as Muggeridge said: “We have educated ourselves into imbecility and amused ourselves into impotence”.
    One of the most subtle lessons I learned in Law School are twofold
    a) Brevity is overrated. Revolutions promise drama but change comes in the detail. So there’re lawyers who’re concise and others who write long sentences.
    b) All literary works are derivative. That’s why people who code copy & paste all the time.
    Sadly, the fallacy that sophism and ignorance on the internet is, fails to take account of that.
    It takes sustained self-insight if not good social psychologists to notice one has created an elite in-crowd/clique whose member blogs are somehow considered marquee while someone else’s considered “know-it-all”, “self-indulgent”, “writing clichés”, “copy pasta”, etc. I see that all the time. And that’s the problem I have with your “Mark W. Schaefer, Gini Dietrich, Valeria Maltoni, Jay Baer, Avinash Kaushik, Nilofer Merchant” blog example.
    I know you’ll agree but there’re great blogs out there. Artists whose works are way ahead of their time. But the problem with sophism on the internet is people copy and paste all the time. Use clichés themselves to make perfectly valid points all the time. And yet, lacking self-insight, they see that only in people they’re intolerant towards.
    Further, there’re too many people in positions of (at least, relative) power online who say and do things that make you go: “If only they knew or could handle the truth”. And on Social Network sites, they’ll delete your comment or a blog you spent all night (as you said) writing , labeling it however they want while one of the subordinates in their inner circle “labels” you unfair while looking the other way as you’re attacked. That too, together with the defamation, slander and libel is rife.
    And it’s human nature.
    I personally, can count over 50 reasons why I blog at the top of which using the Ning platform as an ‘HTML Briefcase’ that can be used to educate/edutain unborn generations (within my family and ‘outwith’). It’s a labor of love. And that, combined with not so much personal branding but insisting on a comment thread on my blog that is civil, close to mature and as authentic as possible, explain why I believe in moderated blogs. I’ve had *notorious trolls* ask me questions then turn around and create their own ‘blog troll’ or parody to misconstrue my answers for maximum popularity points. So you learn to separate the signal from the noise, and stay focused. Again: life’s short. If your mother or loved one is dying say,
    concerning yourself with a comment board is, like arguing with fools who trivialize evil, is the last thing you concern yourself with…if wise enough. God Bless.
    Gotta run! πŸ™‚

  4. I think a little moderation is required for blog comments…I had a few comments on my blog that got questionable responses. At points, things became heated. I guess my rule of thumb is that I don’t mind someone criticizes something I wrote (or a feature on someone else). However, if a comment gets personal or ugly, I’ll remove.
    Your post also reminds me of the days when I contributed to a message board from a few musicians I used to listen to…this was back in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. There were times I could not believe how nasty and hateful could become just because of differing opinions. In these instances of being overly critical of a differing opinion, I would have no problem removing a comment. I don’t think, in this instance, it is not democratic.
    In general, though, I love blog comments. I love that interaction, discussion and debate.

  5. In the interest of consistency and fairness, kindly delete my original response to this thread, if the hyperlinked “TT” url is going to be removed from time to time.
    It doesn’t appear to have been removed when I commented on SPOS #296. And if it’s a technical glitch or user error on my part, I apologize in advance.
    Thanks, and have a great day!

  6. I would have liked to see that presentation at SXSW very interesting topic!
    I have not encountered negative comments on mine generally…but if I did I guess I view it as you have to expect it if you open yourself and all of your opinions and thoughts to whoever cares to read it.
    I guess try not to take it personally!

  7. “Normal Person+Anonymity+Audience=Total F***wad” – John Gabriel
    I agree with your position about blog content but I would wager that target audience and traffic volume have a lot to do with it as well.
    Weighted commenting systems used by sites such as Slashdot and Reddit cut down on the noise and build a community. Slashdot is the best example, where anonymous comments can be voted up just like a registered users comments.
    I see this a failure of Gawker to build a community. Give the users a weighted or achievement based commenting system and their problems would go away over night.
    The discourse isn’t dying, it never existed to begin with. This isn’t a new problem and has been solved before.
    Welcome to 1999.

  8. There’s one little twist to this subject that I don’t see being discussed here. It’s true that people are commenting for both intelligent conversation as well as more egotistical/selfish/destructive reasons. However, there’s a large amount of spam which consists of attempts at Search Engine Optimization that masquerade as comments. The moderation door is already open for those of us who don’t want that crap on our blogs.
    I will say, however, that I rarely comment on the one Gawker blog that I read regularly ( because of their login system – it causes friction. It’s their right to use it, of course.
    I’ll be interested to see how the “first in, moderates” approach will work, though. If it’s not handled properly, it gives someone the power to choke off discussion as they see fit. The blog owner/administrator can do this today, of course, but it also gives people to ability to strangle or shape discussion, so trust will become important.

  9. Comments have been ruined by spammers. There must be a way of blocking out the REAL spammers. Most comment moderation tools seem to block even the real commenters.

  10. I agree, thoughtful blogs yield thoughtful comments.
    Yet we’re operating in the age of hyper-opinion. If the topic of the blog is controversial, it should be moderated. The blogger should know what to expect. Fights between commenters are a turnoff to the folks who care about the content.
    But toughen up a little and welcome lively discourse.

  11. You don’t see shitty comments on great blogs because of respect for the author and the content.
    I wonder if a new platform shouldn’t weigh the comments as a way to get insights into your audience, and a feedback score on posts. Too far out to make it real I’m sure…

  12. You don’t see shitty comments on great blogs because of respect for the author and the content.
    I wonder if a new platform shouldn’t weigh the comments as a way to get insights into your audience, and a feedback score on posts. Too far out to make it real I’m sure…

Comments are closed.