February 2012
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Day 02/28/2012

Are Comments Over?

It would be exceptionally lame to say, “No, comments are great!” after that bait-y headline.

So, folks, my position – and it’s a position that I intend to be provocative – is that comments are over.

We’ve been thinking a bunch lately at UC about whether or not to have comments on our site. People that we know and respect have asked us to open comments up, and at this point, we’re just not sure. There’s a healthy cabal of folks that are in the pro-comment camp, and for a variety of reasons, I’m not one of them.

Before I get into my reasons, I have a couple of examples of comment sections that do what comment sections say they’ll do on the tin: host incredibly vibrant, productive conversations that, aside from a few trolls, improve the quality of the site and its connectedness to its readers.

First: Aviation Herald

This is a daily visit for me as an aviation geek, and it is one of the most comprehensive single-purpose sites I’ve ever encountered. From what I understand, one guy – Simon Hradecky, located in Austria – reports on and manages the site, which contains and displays over 10,000 commercial aviation “events.” They’re reported in near real time and the audience seems to play an important supporting role: they do some original research (either fact-checking or digging up/submitting images) and speculate about/discuss causes for some of the more notable events.

Case in point: Air France 447′s event page, which contains 1,790 comments at the time of writing. The comments were kicked-off when the plane went off-radar, and continue through to January 2012. I suspect they’ll never stop. It’s really fascinating to read from the bottom up.

Second: Dr. Jeff Masters’ Wunderblog

The comment section in the Wunderblog is the ne plus ultra of a productive blend of insane obsession and effective contribution.

To wit, in August 2011, it hosted 98,375 comments. 98,375. Over 44 posts. On the day Irene became a real thing, there were 7,311 comments on one post. The amazing thing about the threads was that all the users were bringing new data to the party, new animated GIFs of sea surface temperatures, new analyses of La Niña and its impact on Irene’s progression. Being a weather nerd, it was a thrill to continually refresh and get rapidly changing diagnoses of Irene’s future path. The stream of content was just plain unavailable elsewhere; no other forum approached the depth of Wunderblog, and somehow it felt more like a chat-room of geeks than a parade of self-promoting assholes. All this in spite of the scale of the discussion.

The effective combination for both Wunderblog and Aviation Herald seems to be nerds + available (but slightly inaccessible based on design and/or popularity) source material, in a setting where the future is uncertain.

I believe that comments are most helpful when participants have a shared mission that revolves around solving a problem.

When they’re outside of this range, you get ESPN.com.

5,000+ comments, all of it drivel. As an aside, this is a great example of scale not being “it” when it comes to engagement.

So what’s the point?

This blog has comments, mostly because it has since I started it. I’m not sure I would have them today (on my blog or on any other) for the following reasons:

  1. On most business blogs/sites, the authors and readers aren’t really solving anything. And it’s not clear that they have a shared mission. In most cases, the individual money-making mission trumps the shared make-the-world-better-with-the-internet mission.
  2. In the marketing/business space, especially on more popular blogs, comments sections turn into the Q+A session after a talk: “Two part question: Firstly, have you read my book/blog/essay? Secondly, you, popular/respected speaker/author, have made many bad assumptions. I’ll tell you about them now.” Put more succinctly by John Gruber, “Comments, at least on popular websites, aren’t conversations. They’re cacophonous shouting matches.”
  3. We’re now at a point where more mature discussion experiences exist at a scale that makes them useful. Comment threads, even when awesome-ified by Disqus, don’t hold a candle to Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus. The discussion has moved to those places and I don’t think it’s coming back.

So that’s my take. Comments welcome, here, for now.

Further reading on the same topic: Marco Arment, Shawn Blanc, and Bijan Sabet.