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.

Comments

19 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. I think the types of commenters you get depend on the type of content you put up. Put up link-baiting, generic work and you’ll attract a breed of commenters that don’t add much and don’t care about self-policing or advancing a discussion.

    But if you put together smart content (which UC undoubtedly does), then you’ll attract the good commenters. And those good commenters will police the site.

    Fred Wilson’s blog (www.avc.com) has by far the best community of commenters I’ve seen.

    In the end, I think you’re cutting yourself off from a lot of potentially great ideas if you don’t allow comments. Plus, a comment section is a centralized hub for the thoughts your posts incite – while Twitter, FB, etc. do house a lot of convos, they’re dispersed, making them harder to get a grip of.

    • Matt,

      I’d also add Snarkmarket and Marginal Revolution as two websites with incredible commenting communities. Often, the authors will reference commenters’ comments for future posts.

      The only issue that I have with your point, Varun, is that zero agency/consulting blogs have comments with any level of vibrancy (excluding companies with amazing brands, like 37Signals). Perhaps it’s because most articles are written by authors who don’t give a shit about commenters/comments.

      • Matt – Agree with you on the point that no agency blogs have vibrant communities behind them. I think your guess is right also. But the UC blog is smart, so people should be able to interact with it!

  2. I’ve had comments on my blog since I started, and here’s what I got out of it:

    1. smart and highly valuable feedback; this wasn’t that frequent but on the few blog posts that earned it, it was incredibly useful, pushing my thinking and ideas further than they would have gone otherwise
    2. a small but loyal group of internet friends and colleagues who have come to be invested in my blog success (like Clay Parker Jones for instance)
    3. Extra traffic driven by people who feel more inclined to link to my posts because their comment is there, too

    These all make a lot more sense for me personally, however, than they seem to for a company or organization.

    For the most part I agree with Clay’s points.

  3. One personal addendum: commenting leads people to end posts with inane questions, which makes me want to scream.

  4. I write mainly for pleasure and as a means of ordering and road-testing thoughts that might become useful in my day job. My blog attracts moderate to low traffic. Comments still have “event” status for me. Always flattering. Nearly always useful. A comment on my blog means much more than an RT or a +1.

    Comments work for me, but I can see why they might not work for you. Surely that’s the point then. There can be no sweeping generalised answer to your headline question.

    I advise clients on marketing strategy. I start from scratch in each case. What is right for one client might be horribly wrong for another. Ditto for comments on blogs.

    • Phil –

      Appreciate you coming by. I use this space for similar purposes as you use your blog, though it’s become less helpful over time. I used to write things that I wasn’t allowed to write into actual deliverables, things that would get me in hot water with colleagues in other departments (namely, media), and things that would have drawn funny looks from clients. I don’t have any of those problems anymore – perhaps I’m getting old – so I have fewer things to write about here.

      And I feel the same way about comments on personal level; it’s a thrill to get a new commenter that actually has something to say (you, for example!). If you look back through my archives, you’ll see comment frequency has been on a steady decline, despite my traffic moving in the opposite direction. That’s a bummer.

      I hope you didn’t read this post as a recommendation to eliminate comments across all digital platforms (what defines a comment, anyway?). Aviation Herald, Wunderground, AVC, and a litany of others show that comment functionality works well in certain situations. My hypothesis is that it works best in the pointier ends of the internet, and is less effective for broader audiences. Care to be truly appalled? Head to The Big Picture, find some photos of a disaster, and read the comments.

      I’ll not address here the start-from-scratch bit of your comment.

      • Thanks for the detailed reply. I read your post the way you intended. You have a theory as to where comments work and why. And your company blog sits outside that model. It’s not sufficiently “pointy”.

        As an aside, I joined this thread having read a tweet by Mike to the effect that there was a debate about comments going on. He wouldn’t have tweeted if he hadn’t commented. I wouldn’t have visited and commented if he hadn’t tweeted. On this occasion serendipity brought a random D-list blogger to your site. But I could have been a potential client.

  5. Amber Finlay,

    Hey!

    This is so interesting, because before I became a parent, i would have said that for the most part, comments on mainstream sites are mostly inane and filled with spam.

    But on parenting blogs(or blogs of people who just happen to be parents and write about it), and bigger parenting sites like babycenter, comments have been so incredibly helpful to me. Usually they are pretty specific, trying to help someone solve a problem (like you mention above). The volume of comments about something helps me deem whether something is “normal” or is something I should worry about. So I guess that’s more in the special interest camp, but I’d argue that what you blog about here is a much more niche interest than mommying. (I tried not to say “mommy” at all, but it’s tough – I believe in equal opportunity parenting :)

  6. Eric,

    A++++++. Would read again.

    Highlight, re ESPN: “5,000+ comments, all of it drivel.”

    Comments – I believe – can provide a crazy SEO snowball. To Amber’s point, a lot of niche sites, or at least niche posts, can turn into a micro-community, cached for the ages. How many times have you Googled tech support questions and walked away with a half-dozen possible solutions submitted by various commenters? Answer: loads.

  7. Doug,

    One thing that I like about the internet that distinguishes it from other media, say magazines, is the weather. Comments are a part of the internet weather. Granted, it’s a metaphorical weather, but it seems to have as many bits and pieces and changeable things as actual weather. The wind may blow one way and then another, but it’s interesting to see it blow in any case. On some sites or blogs, comments seem like an afterthought, and on others, they are almost more important than the thing/article/post being commented on. I like that they can change over time, establish new ideas and directions for people seeking information. Sometimes, they are plain, pedestrian, maybe even boring, but when comments bloom, they can reach interesting niches and places that most of us, on our won, might not think to look in or go to. I’ve gotten as much information, advice, and ideas from reading comments as I have from reading articles. I look forward to comments sections in the future, when the actual phenomenon has been around for several more decades. What we’ve seen so far is interesting enough, and there are elements of culture that have grown around the concepts of commenting on someone’s original post, but the good stuff probably comes in when the culture spawns subcultures, when there are competing methods or aesthetics to commenting, when you find yourself comparing different comment milieus and picking and choosing which elements help more, resonate more strongly, and affect you with more depth. I think the tendency of websites and blogs so far has been to change things rapidly, to tweak endlessly. I understand that, but so far even social media have failed to think long term, not just in terms of profit but in use. When there are websites/blogs that have established reputations based on longevity and use like an old hotel or a restaurant that’s been around for a century or more, then we’ll see things we can’t even imagine now. What comments are is one thing; what they will become holds great promise.

  8. I have to disagree with the assertion that conversations are moving to FB, Twitter, and the like, or rather, I disagree with the amount of causality you imply. While more discussion might happen in those channels, I don’t think it’s a natural movement. People choose to respond there instead of a comments section because they want to publicize it to their audience, not because it’s more convenient. In fact, reading a blog and, in UC’s case, being forced to another channel because there is no commenting is not a great user experience. Perhaps the middle ground solution to this is to allow comments, completely unmoderated, so users can commend and push it to a social channel immediately.

    Blocking comments all together because they are universally uninteresting seems to do a diservice to the audience. I mean, who is UC writing for? Clients? Not really. Social media douche bags? Probably not. It seems to me that the blog is geared toward individuals invested in exploring these topics in more detail than your standard “10 Social Media is Awesome” reader. Given their level of investment and the responses you allude to, I would assume that this audience wants to actively participate in what is written. Especially with the post that went up today on collaboration and systems, it seems like UC would want to promote this type of collaboration. If you get lame spam comments, delete them; but don’t punish people who want to participate.

    To present another interpretation (I don’t necessarily believe it, but it’s worth bringing up) is that blocking comments is just a means of driving traffic back to personal employee blogs or driving to social channels for more public commenting. I have no reason to believe UC is interested in doing that, but you can see how it might be interpreted that way.

    I have some I have some criticisms of the UC blog, but this isn’t the place for that. Overall I really enjoy it; it reads in a style that most digital shops can’t hit. You have an opportunity to position it as a way to really showcase talent and collaboration. If not, aren’t you just pushing a POV?

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