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July 07, 2004

The Art of Comments

I've been thinking quite a bit about Daniel Drezner's recent post regarding comments, which was inspired, I think, by the recent removal of the commenting ability on several "big name" blogs. There seems to be an anecdotal observation going around at the moment that as a blog's popularity goes up, the overall quality of the comments goes down, and eventually the signal-to-noise ratio in the comment threads becomes so low that it's not worth reading the comments at all.

There's more to Drezner's observations than this, and eventually he believes that comments may still be salvageable, so I encourage you to read the post yourself. That said, I do have some observations that I would like to add. Bear in mind, per usual, that I'm just going off here -- I don't have any hard data to back up the stuff that's dribbling out my fingers at the moment.

First, in a vague and general sense, I think it's correct that a more popular a blog/journal/whatever becomes, the more noise you're going to get in the comment threads. This is certainly not news to any of the long-time "old school" journalers, who've been managing comments in one form or another before Daniel and other "bloggers" went online. This isn't an "old school versus new school" put-down; that would be stupid. Rather, it's an observation that the patterns of online communication replicate themselves through new generations, a sort of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" argument for writing online.

But I do think that "blogs" in a general sense are rather more susceptible to comment thread pollution than old school journals or some other personal sites for a simple reason: Blogs tend to be focused on a single subject, and often a single subject that people get their underwear all bunched up about. Politics is the shining example here, but any primarily single-subject blog is going to collect readers who are, shall we say, reading and responding to the subject from an extreme outlying position (both on the subject matter and in regards to their personalities -- i.e., they're "X Dorks" where "X" is the primary subject matter).

Moreover, these readers are more interested in the subject than they are necessarily in the owner of the blog, which I think probably allows them to be ruder both to the blog writer and to the other commentors in a thread. In other words, single-subject blogs don't tend to foster a high level of community; the readers are transients, moving from blog to blog based on the subject matter.

Contrast this with an old school-style online journal or personal site. These sorts of sites are more personality focused, which is to say that readers who come to these tend to be interested in the individual who is doing the writing and less about any one topic that individual may write about. Single-subject readers might show up to these personality-driven sites on occasion, particularly if it's linked to by some other blog because a particular entry concerns whatever subject they're interested in. But I don't suspect they stay long, because the range of topics is too scattershot. The people who make these personality-driven sites a daily (or frequent) stop tend to have some sort of "investment" in the writer and in the community of other readers -- and therefore the comment threads tend to be more civilized in general.

This little theory of mine is certainly consonant to my own experiences regarding comment threads. On a day-to-day basis, the traffic to Scalzi.com is between 5,000 and 10,000 unique users, which puts me (as far as I can tell) in the upper reaches of traffic for the blogoverse (there are also the readers to By The Way, which garners similar numbers and which I suspect has rather little overlap in general readership). But generally speaking, my comment threads are refreshingly free of obnoxious twits.

On the occasions when I am extensively linked (when I'm writing about gay marriage, or how my daughter is Hispanic, for example), the "noise" in the comment threads goes up considerably, as "single-subject" posters do some hit-and-run commenting. But they don't tend to stick around for very long, since the next three or four entries may have absolutely nothing to do with the entry they came in on. They leave, but new readers who root around and decide they like the style of the site and the texture of the community stay. The result: Relatively stable, polite comment threads.

I think of it as a "slow-growth, high-value" readership community, since in my experience the readership numbers of the site have grown rather more slowly than the readerships of more prominent blogs/journals/whatever, but as a result the readers tend to be interested in the content, regardless of what the content might be. This obviously optimal for me, since I have both a short attention span, and an interest in writing about a whole bunch of things. But it's also "high-value" in the sense that most of the people who read the site have no interest in screwing up the experience for other readers, or for me.

Interestingly, this isn't to say that I think all of my readers particularly like me, or agree with what I say/do/whatever. Off the top of my head, I think think of at least a couple of regulars who I know don't particularly like me (or alternately, respect me). But even they are generally polite in their hostility, and I both appreciate and accept that. Civility does not require unanimity in viewpoint, merely a general agreement that it's nice to play nicely.

By and large, and based on my experiences with Whatever readers in the comment threads, I do have to say I feel fortunate that my readers (that's y'all) do seem to value the site and do make the effort to keep the level of discourse here very civilized. Leaving aside comment spam and double postings, the number of comment deletions I've made in 15 months can be counted on my fingers, and none of those from "the regulars." And that's during a time when the readership here went up by about two and a half times, which I think suggests that new "regulars" value what they see here in the entries and in the comment threads. So give yourselves a pat on the back, guys. You've done good.

And of course, this same trick of "high-value" readers and commentors is replicated elsewhere. The most obvious examples I can think of are the commentor at Making Light and Electrolite, run by Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, respectively. As far as I can tell, their subject matter and readership are both wildly heterogeneous (there is some correlation along the "science fiction" axis, as PNH and TNH are Tor editors, but even that is not universal) but again by and large their communities are generally civil even when they're strenuously arguing amongst themselves. Pamie.com is yet another example.

I'm pretty confident that if someone were to actually do a study of the comment threads on "single subject" blogs and "personality driven" journals, what they'd find would probably correspond to what I've observed. Budding sociologists, you have your thesis. Have fun with it. In the meantime, I'll stick to my policy of writing about whatever I feel like writing about. It seems to keep the idjits to a minimum, and you can't beat that.

Posted by john at July 7, 2004 04:53 PM

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